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Ancestral shudders

Stepping out of the Hyatt in Istanbul yesterday morning to the sound of the muezzins calling to prayer, an ancestral shudder came over me. The chant was alien but not insignificant. I grew up with tales of Turkish invaders ravishing my country’s land and no doubt many a fair maiden (no wonder that my eyes have a hint of almond shape). It was the buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the West and had endured the waves of invasions by Avars, Tartars and Turks throughout its history. There are many castles in Slovakia, each with its own story of siege and resistance to tell, which have become part of the fabric of the nation and its folklore.

I did not expect Istanbul to remind me of all this. I came here from an entirely different direction – to find whatever traces of Constantinople still remain. Hagia Sofia was to be the highlight of my visit. As a child I remember leafing through my mother’s books on history of art and two pictures made a profound impression on me – Sainte-Chapelle and Hagia Sofia. I promised myself that one day I would see them, no matter what. This was no mean feat for a 10-year old living in deep communism, with not much hope of ever getting as far as the other side of the Danube to Austria. But one lives and dreams.

So when I was invited to speak at a conference in Istanbul, I accepted. Time to see Hagia Sofia, I thought. I was very much looking forward to it, expecting the Byzantine shine through the ages of the Islamic. The entrance was grandiose and reminded me of old cathedrals, with rough walls and majestic ceilings. Once I stepped inside the main nave, there was no magic for me. It was dark and gloomy but I usually do not mind that. It struck me as dilapidated and forgotten, the calligraphic roundels with Arabic script the victor’s graffiti stuck on to mark his prize winnings. There are still marks on the wall where the original crosses were ripped out.



I wondered around for a while trying to unwrap the beauty of the place. I did find the magic in the end. The mosaics are exquisite and one has to gasp at the image of the entire church decorated with them. The great dome used to be covered in golden mosaic and the tinkling sound of pieces dropping to the ground was familiar to visitors until 19th century.


Above the mihrab, the niche indicating the direction of Mecca, is a striking mosaic of the Virgin with the infant and on its right, of Archangel Gabriel.




Mosaics of six-winged seraphim adorn four corners of the dome. They contrast strangely with minbar (imam’s pulpit) and other features added by Ottoman sultans after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, when the church was converted into a mosque.


For various reasons I am reminded of a line from Kingdom of Heaven, although not the greatest film ever made, sums up the difference between Islam and Christianity – Mohammed says submit, Jesus says choose. And whether you are a believer or an atheist, there is no denying that this difference has affected the way the two cultures have gone.

19 comments to Ancestral shudders

  • The Hyatt? What do you do for a living Perry, rob banks?! And I thought you were but a humble blogger.

  • Tim Newman, may I respectfully (actually not so respectfully) point out that the post is written by me, not Perry… I am in Istanbul on business which I also mention in the article.

    Perry decided to join me for a spot of sightseeing. Where on earth did you get the idea that he is staying at the Hyatt?

    And in any case, why do you think that Perry is but a humble blogger? The Chelsea abode should be a give-away…

  • Hey, I’m just kidding around. Didn’t read much of the post, just looked at the pictures and saw metioned that he was coming out of the Hyatt (which I know from my GF who worked for them that it is seriously expensive).

    Just kidding about the humble blogger too, it’s a bad thing that he’s not. Ignore me, and enjoy Istanbul.

  • robhalper

    Beautiful, evocative post. Very nice. Makes me want to go to Istanbul and be ravished by Turks! Seriously, I really enjoyed it.


  • Johnathan Pearce

    Adriana, I always thought your delightful eyes were the product of an interesting inheritance.

    I really do want to visit Turkey one day. One of the “must-see places before I die” list.

  • Colin

    So you’re saying in order to convert a cathedral into a mosque one must install a minibar? 😉

  • Chris Harper


    I have little if any desire to visit Istanbul, but it is the dream of my life to visit Constantinople, the Queen of Cities.

    Tell us more, maybe I can visit vicariously.

  • RAB

    I’d plan on going at least twice Johnathan, It’s a bloody big country!
    Saklakent (probably not how it’s spelt) is definately worth a visit. If it existed in England, the Health and Safety Executive wouldnt let joe public anywhere near it. Think the avon or Cheddar Gorges, but reduced to the width of two sword lengths.A crack in the mountains 500ft high with a raging torrent running through it. At the right time of year you can wade up it for a couple of miles, with spectacular waterfalls etc.
    Like I said it wouldn’t be allowed over here unless you were Chris Bonnington or someone cos it is really quite dangerous.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    RAB, sounds like at least 10 visits are required!

    I have a few old friends who live in the southern part of the country and they absolutely love the place. Obviously some parts of the nation are still in great difficulty because of the earthquakes in recent years.

  • RAB

    Dang me! It is spelt like that. I am rubbish at foreign languages, that’s why I second guessed myself.
    Johnathan get yourself invited to your friends down south, cos that’s where Saklakent is. Plus a whole lot more. Great Lycian city’s as fine as Greece and Rome.
    I like the Turks, you can have a drink and a smoke with them. The food is not all kebabs, as those who havent been there will insist. If your a veggie, the mezes will see you through a fortnight no problem at all. In fact I’d put their cuisine around no 3 on world rankings.
    When I’m there I can’t help feel like I want to help them in some way. Quite apart from the earthquakes, they are despirately poor in the main. I bought a carpet from a cooperative and it is the business. Would have cost 10 times as much over here.
    But still at the back of my mind I worry about letting them into the EU because however much I love them and however relaxed they SEEM to be about Islam. I still think back to the Shahs Iran and the overnight turnaround that happened there. We humans are very malliable and open to suggestion. See Adolf, Leon, Stalin, Khomeni etc. It only takes one at the wrong time to put the world back a century or two.

  • permanent expat

    Turkey is incredibly beautiful and has as many places of classical interest as the rest of the Mediterranean area put together. To stand where, reputedly, Troy once stood is a mind-boggling experience akin to finding out that the Bhagavad Gita is factual.
    Turks, lovely people, are not Europeans. They & we should take pains to acknowledge that.

  • I grew up in the Orthodox church and headed to Hagia Sophia the first day I was in Istanbul. Like you I was disappointed, although the remaining mosaics are splendid.

    Did you get to Chora? Small, spare and very Byzantine. A good place for a quiet moment.

  • RAB

    You’ve got my conspiracy juices going now Permanent expat.
    Is the Bhagavad Gita factual?
    I dont think so.
    But perhaps you can enlighten us.
    Or am I missing something?

  • I think the evidence that the site of Troy as located by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870 is the same city that Homer wrote about is pretty strong, actually. The location is right, and the geography of the place fits the descriptions given in the Iliad quite well.

    I once went on a tour of Troy. I was shown around the site (which is not as spectacular as some other ruins in Turkey, but is fascinating in that so many cities were built on top of so many other cities there – in different places you can see everything from fairly early Greek to late Roman). I did my best to contemplate that this was the place that Homer wrote the Illiad, and the place at least is not mythical. It would have been magical, except that the person behind me on the tour spent the entire time going on and on and on about real estate prices on the northern beaches of Sydney. (Going on and on about real estate prices is what people from Sydney do, but I do wish he could have done it somewhere else).

    This reflects the oddity which is that probably the majority of people who go to Troy are Australians. This is because Troy is quite close to Gallipoli, and Gallipoli is too far from Istanbul to make seeing it in a day trip feasible. The nearest place where there are plenty of hotels and restaurants and the like is Çannukale in Asia (Gallipoli is in Europe), so virtually everybody who goes to Gallipoli stays there. And once you are there Troy is very close, so almost everybody who goes to Gallipoli also goes to Troy.

    These two sites to visit actually go quite well together, because the Trojan War and the Gallipoli campaign were both about exactly the same thing, which was control of the one shipping lane between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In more than 2000 years not much had changed.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    RAB wrote:

    I’d plan on going at least twice Johnathan, It’s a bloody big country!

    [rolling on the floor with evil American laughter]

    Sorry, RAB. 🙂

  • permanent expat

    Nothing mysterious. The Bhavagad Gita is, I think, non-factual as you say. I made the comparison with Troy because, until Schliemann, it too was considered myth.
    As a poster said, the place is right, the weather is right & we all wish that it is truly so but, as I understand it, the absolute proof is still lacking. This may be as good as it gets.

  • Andi Lucas

    The last of Constantinopoli and its people were purged by Turkish thugs as recently as 1955, with plenty of the ‘ravishing’ you are romanticising here, vandalisation of cemeteries and looting of churches. Steady ethnic cleansing under successive Kemalist governments since the Entente’s failure to enforce the Treaty of Sevres after WW1 (which would and should have returned the city, plus Smyrni and other territories in Micrasia, to Greek rule) has deliberately effaced the city’s ancient character in order to secure the barbarian’s last territorial foothold in Europe.

    If you want to see the true character of the Turkish nationalist regime, go and see how their last subject people, the Kurds, are treated. Or, for that matter, attempt to discuss the state-orchestrated mass murder of Christian Greeks and Armenians in the first half of this century. Or indeed the brutal napalm-soaked invasion of Cyprus and continued occupation of the north of the island.

    There is no more lasting and implacable enemy of Europe and everything Europe stands for.

  • RAB

    Well I’ve been to N Cyprus many times too Andi and what do you know! they tell the story a little different to you.
    There were some seriously barking EOKA B greek cypriots about in 1974, doing some very nasty things to the turks for no good reason at all.
    Add to that Makarios’s cleptomania and pediophilia well…
    Pity that Britain could not have interviened instead of the Turks but we were a bit strapped for cash at the time and it would have screamed Neo Imperialism at a time when we were trying to get away from just plain ‘ol Imperialism.
    The thing about the Kurds is weird though. You can have had the hospitality of a Turk and his family all night and then they will all suddenly jump up, give you a big wink and say “We will see you home. We go out to kill Kurds now!” And you really dont know if they’re joking or not.

  • Mel

    Hi, as a Turkish girl I must say I am very dissapointed by your comments on the Turkish entry to the EU and supposed Turkish mass murders! Did you know 3 million Turks were wiped out in the Balkans? Shall we then speak about Algerian genocides by the French or other atrocities commited by other nations of EU? Maybe we should kick out the Germans because of the holocaust? I am not in anyway justifying murders but I wonder why this is put on the table of Turkey and not on other EU countries. And these “murders” happened during civil war with Armenians and more than 1 million Turks were murdered too. Instead we should stop using sad events of the past to haunt the next generations to hatred, but focus on unifying in the name of tolerance and peace, what do you think? Turkey is not the place your streotyped eyes with a dark curtain wants to see like.

    Additionally I am sorry but I think we rather have the right to say whether we are European or not. European borders are not natural ones but were drawn artificially on the map. Why is Cyprus in the EU when it is the South Eastern neighbour of Turkey? Did not Europe consist of bloody wars end endless conflicts until not much before? We share a common history with you, and common ethnicity if that’s important at all (no, unlike the common uneducated view, Turkish people are an ethnic mixture of West Asian Turks, as much as Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Farsi, Kurds, Georgians, Slavs and many local populations of Anatolia ). We share common beliefs in democracy and human rights. Turkey is the only secular republic whose majority of citizens are muslim. Turkish women gained the right to vote much before than some of their European counterparts. We have an underdeveloped eastern part primarily so because of the Kurdish issue. Compared to the life standards of Slovakia before the EU, and Romania and Bulgaria today, Turkey is in a much fitter position and has lots to offer. And anyway I think it is EU that needs Turkey not vice versa, if you look at its aging population and converging economy.

    With such short term vision of the close-minded EU citizens it is ironic that Turkey should be the motivator of the European ideal. Sorry about the harsh speech but it really annoyed me to get these views from people I guess are relatively educated and made me pessimistic about the rest of the public.

    Also, to John, Constantinopole is not a rival to Istanbul, they complete each other beautifully. Sorry, but you will have to see Istanbul to understand about peace and harmony and that should be a first step before even trying to get a glimpse of old Constantinopole. We are proud of our heritage, we embrace and own it and this includes the Byzantine heritage. When you can understand what Istanbul is, than it will blink you with its eyes herited from sweet and old Constantinopoli.

    All the best