Saturday, January 06, 2007

29 May 1956

Dear Folks

Here I am, bright, early, & stone sober—rather than spend my money, Lloyd insisted on coming back to the ship; since I didn’t care to stay over alone, I came back too.

You’ve probably already seen the enclosed picture—we got six this size & one eight by ten for 20 Lire (not quite $2.00). Not too bad, all things considered (namely, me). How could two so handsome people have one so ugly son. I only recently made a discovery—my left eyelid droops—just a bit, granted, but noticeable. Have you ever noticed it before? And I do have a lopsided smile. Oh, well….

Had lunch at the Hilton, where I took a majority of my film. We had a drink on the roof terrace, & looked out over the city. Rates there range from $2.75 to $10.00 a day, & that is downright cheap.

The tour was very interesting, in spurts. When Rome fell to the barbarians, the emperor Constantine searched the East for a place to serve as a capital city. He picked a town founded by the Greeks several hundred years before the birth of Christ, & renamed it Constantinople, for obvious reasons. He evidently wished the new capital of the Empire to be as proud & ornate as the fallen Rome had been, so he sent word to all the provinces—Egypt, Greece, & all the others, to send works of art. Greece sent the Serpentine Column; rather, it was taken from Greece—I doubt she gave it of her own free will. This column has an interesting history—the Greeks had defeated the Persian attacking forces at the Battle of Salamis; from the vanquished Persians the Greeks took all weapons (bronze in those days), melted them down, & made the Serpentine Column. Constantine also built a wooden church in front of the Hippodrome—the Constantinople version of the Roman Circus Maximus, where chariot races were held. Egypt sent, as its contribution, the obelisk I mentioned in the last letter. However, in between the time it was ordered & the time it arrived in Constantinople, Constantine died. When the obelisk finally got there, it laid on the dock for twenty years until Theodosius, the then-current emperor, had it dragged up the hill & placed in the Hippodrome, atop a pedestal showing scenes from Theodosius’ own life. It is amusing to note that, while the obelisk itself looks brand new, the pedestal is badly worn.

Comes now the time of Justinian, who was not too popular with his subjects. During a rebellion, Justinian wanted to flee, but his wife, Theodora, gave him courage to stay. The rebellion was put down &, in gratitude to God, Justinian ordered the erection of St. Sophia (the original & one successor having been burned at various times). This took five years, a surprisingly short time, considering the size of the building & what they had to work with. Justinian himself prayed in the newly finished church, saying "Solomon, I have exceeded even thee."

Constantinople, being located where it was, had always had trouble with roving bands of savages, both European & Asian. Over the years, successive walls had been built around the city until the outer walls were seventeen & a half miles long. Seventeen times barbarians attempted to destroy the city—even Attila the Hun was turned away (he probably would have kept after it until it fell, but the city fathers gave him a large sum of money to go & destroy somebody else). The city’s one major problem was water—every time an invader would come along, the first thing they did was cut off the water supply by knocking down an aqueduct. This was solved by Constantine & succeeding emperors by building huge underground cisterns—one of them called "the Sunken Palace" because it has 360 columns supporting the roof.

Europe was groveling around in the Middle Ages when the Moslem hordes, under Mohammed the Magnificent rode down on Constantinople. The walls he did not worry about—he brought along cannon. The only trouble was that the cannon could only be fired once every six hours—the rest of the time it was being doused in olive oil & wet rags to cool it off; and during those six hours, the defenders had time to patch up the holes made by the cannon. This went on for three months, but as was inevitable, the Moslems broke through.

The people of the city, seeing the end was at hand, crowded into the churches—10,000 of them in St. Sophia. Mohammed the Magnificent crashed through the south door & galloped into the church on horseback. Legend has it that, upon seeing the people massed within, he struck a marble column with his sword (the nick can still be seen), pressed his hand print into the wall twenty-five feet above the floor (it must have been a tall horse) & proclaimed that all people would be free to go & worship as they please.

St. Sophia was then converted to a mosque—which doesn’t say much for the legend, & remained so until 1934, when it became a museum.

Some time later the Christians on the Fourth Crusade gained entrance to the city & ransacked it completely with no regard for the fact that half of what they destroyed had been Christian to begin with. Among other things, they broke off half of the Serpentine Column & took it to Italy.
And there you have a short, if inadvertently garbled, history of the city of Constantinople /Istanbul.

The mosques are particularly interesting, mainly because of their difference from Christian churches. First of all, as I’ve mentioned before, all mosques are of the same general outline—one huge dome, convoluted like a pumpkin, with numerous semi-domes beneath it, & from two to five minarets. The Mosque of Sultan Ahmed is the only one in Istanbul with five—he wanted to build a mosque with six minarets, but the only other one in the world with six was the great mosque at Mecca, & people resented his copying. He solved that one by building a seventh minaret at the one in Mecca, & then felt free to put six on his own. One was beginning to lean toward the big dome, so it was torn down; they plan to restore it.

Before entering a mosque, Moslems wash their hands, feet, faces, & arms so as to be clean outside as well as inside. They then remove their shoes prior to entering. Inside, the mosque is one big room with no furnishings except carpets on the floor. Chandeliers hang low over the floor, & once burned olive oil in glass cups—now they use electricity. The altar is a little sentry-box with a long, narrow stairway leading to it. It is located on the south wall, or the side facing Mecca. There are beautiful stained glass windows, but on this one side only. A balcony runs around the outer edge of the room, & to the left of the altar or sermon-box is the Sultan’s box (Sultans do not pray with the common people).

Unique in mosques: the fact that they have neither statues nor paintings nor image of any living thing in them. Around the center of the dome are the names of Allah & Mohammed, in Arabic—other decorations are quotations from the Koran, all in that fantastic scrawl called Arabic.

One good thing is that when they converted St. Sophia, they did not destroy the frescoes & mosaics inside—they merely covered them up with a sort of plaster, which has preserved everything beautifully. On entering St. Sophia, there is an excellent mosaic showing Mary holding Jesus—to her right, Constantine is shown presenting Jesus the city—to his left, Justinian giving Him St. Sophia.

Well, I’ll have to finish this tomorrow. Got to get to bed now.



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