submitted by Association Of Kytherian University Professors on 07.10.2005
Written by Professor Vasilis Leftheris
We take a tour mainly to break with the routine of every day living, for sightseeing, but also for learning. Another dimension of a tour is to make visual connections with history. If we are of Anglo-Saxon descent we visit England, because of Shakespeare and Dickens and the whole history of the English people. We visit Italy because of the Renaissance period and the religious attraction of the Vatican, Greece because of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Homer and the whole history of ancient Greece that makes up the roots of the western civilization. In all these cases there is an emotional connection with the places we visit, beyond the sightseeing experience. When we come back and settle down we answer questions not only of what we saw, but also of what we felt, and our answers are the result of a multidimensional experience of the inner self, a gestalt of our reactions. All the places I referred to above have heritage structures, the Acropolis in Athens, the palaces without kings in Italy and palaces with kings in England. They evoke nonverbal messages of continuity from the distanced past, a glance at our own destiny. A month after my return from my tour to Istanbul and Cappadocia I experienced various feelings and reviewing the pictures I took, over 400, my mind wanders over the past. It ruminates in the chambers of its archives, correlates with events of my lifetime and eventually reaches the conclusion that the human race has always been menaced by threats of its life and struggles for its survival. I realize, of course, that without some kind of a struggle as a motivation, preferably of our own choosing, life is not worth living. Another conclusion is the affirmation that ‘we should always judge people together with the circumstances they face’.
The Greek Visitor
As a Greek, born, brought up and educated in Greece in my formative years, I was molded with the history of the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Ionians, where so many ideas originated. To this day I read about Constantinoupolis and the New Rome, or Byzantium, where ancient Greek ways and thoughts were kneaded with Christianity, often in violent confrontations and Cappadocia where our Christian fathers lived and taught during the early years of Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The emotional upheaval brought by the Asian Minor Greek catastrophe and the exchange of populations in 1924 generated a sense of self-pity that touched all of us in subsequent generations.
In our minds Agia Sophia became a mythical place where kings made of marble come to life to fight yet another war of liberation. There was a shallow awareness in our subconscious when we started out on our tour that varied with each individual. Soon after the first day, however, there was a sense that our trip was more of a pilgrimage, homage to the buildings, like Agia Sophia that were left behind as guardians of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire. The civilization that built them was not longer there to take care of them and the armies of the empire were not longer there to defend them. But their splendor and mystical significance shed a magic shadow on the their conquerors that protected them from destruction.
Greek Orthodoxy as a new Civilization
We must realize that Greek Orthodox Christianity was not only religion, but also a way of life, a civilization that started after the first synod of 325AD and dynamically dominated over civilizations of that period. The Russians adopted Greek Orthodoxy when their representatives visited Agia Sophia and decided that only God’s inspiration could have made this splendid edifice possible. Indeed, it was four times as large a building as any other that existed at the time. When emperor Justinian entered the church for the inauguration in 538, he proclaimed his victory over the Solomon Temple. That Agia Sophia is also Greek is manifested in two ways: first its name, given by the learned emperor Justinian, was not after a saint but the ‘sacred wisdom’, as was the name of Agia Irini, ‘sacred peace’, a church built nearby. Justinian was a roman emperor with Greek education (the case with practically all the Roman emperors) and knew the meaning of wisdom and peace, despite the falling off of the Greek Church with ancient Greece. It is also significant that both names are of the female gender, something silently unacceptable in the church after the Nikaia Synod of 325AD. Agia Sophia was built in 532-537AD. The second Greek manifestation of Agia Sophia is the columns, taken from the ancient Greek temple of Aphrodite in Asia Minor. It is of interest to note that while the Ottomans respected the Christian churches as culturally significant structures, the Greek Christians of that period destroyed the ancient Greek temples, because they considered them idolatrous: religious fanaticism blinded their human values. And yet it was an oxymoron to explain Christianity using the only universal medium of the times, the Greek language and ancient Greek philosophy, while eradicating the heritage of the civilization that created them. Of course, the ancient Greek civilization was much too powerful a human force to be eradicated. It is poetic justice the way the Greek language and thought served Christianity in its struggle for survival in those early centuries, and Christianity returned the favor, despite of itself, when it became the carrier of Greek civilization in later centuries. During the greater part of the Byzantine Empire the name of the Greek people was ‘Romioi’, instead of ‘Hellenes’, known in ancient Greek history, for the same reasons. Following the construction of Agia Sophia, there were many churches built in the name of Panagia in Constantinoupolis that survive to this day.
The Ottoman conquerors respected the Agia Sophia structure as their own architectural form. An English historian refers to the monetary and construction help the Ottomans offered the Byzantine emperors to repair the Church a few years before they conquered the city in 1453, because the empire was small and without resources.
When the Ottomans conquered the city they covered the mosaics and kept the buildings. The adoption was such that forbade any church to have the architecture of Agia Sophia except the mosques. But through the centuries it was the only construction design used for large buildings, as we observed everywhere we went. The Topkapi Sarayi (museum), the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet Camii (blue mosque), and all the large Mosques in Turkey have the same construction of a dome with four arches and four spherical triangles that support them with four pillars. On the other hand, none of the Greek churches in Turkey has a dome, except those that have become museums.
The architecture of Agia Sophia is the surviving greek-christian heritage in Turkey today.
The first Impressions
Turkey is a large and powerful country. Fifteen million people reside around Istanbul alone. A modern airport, highways, modern buildings, automobile traffic, gives the impression of a well-established society. A night stroll along the avenue of Pera (leoforos tou Pera) with hundreds of mostly young people going back and forth, stores with everything, restaurants and old neoclassic buildings with Greek names on them makes you think. A large Greek population (80000) was expelled in 1956 leaving everything behind them - there are only about 1500 Greeks left today, all living in Agios Stefanos near the airport. They are the remains of a once thriving community of fanariotes that considered themselves better Greeks and serve the Ottomans for centuries.
A tour around the City
We first visited the Theodosian castle walls that protected the city for a thousand years. Most of it is falling down, although a good part of it stands in good condition. Near the walls I observed many women with head-kerchiefs and long garments, a few mothers with sullen faces were walking along holding their babies in their arms. It was a run down neighborhood. From the construction point of view the wall was a tremendous accomplishment of roman engineering. We visited churches, the Blue Mosque, the Patriarxeio, the water reservoirs, the grand Bazaar and of course Agia Sophia and Topkapi where we saw the richness of the Sultans. Their department of culture has done an excellent job in exhibiting everything in their treasury. Another day we went to the magnificent Dolmabacxe palace, built by an Armenian architect. We visited the Pringiponisia and the Halki theological school that is getting ready to open. Of course a visit to Istanbul was not complete without a trip along the Bosphorus.
Now, I could describe my reactions of my visit to the great city in more detail: however, that is a three-dimensional effort, aesthetic, psychological and geometric and all these reactions interact in a very personal way depending on many factors, as I explained above. So I would let you form your own reactions when you go. Certainly Agia Sophia is in the center of my thoughts, accompanied by a feeling of fulfillment that I was able to see the magnificent structure and admire the size of the accomplishment with my own eyes. It was not only that Anthemios and Isidoros, the architects-mathematicians, managed to do something that even today would have been a difficult task with all the technical knowledge available, but also the handling of such a colossal task. Justinian selected 100 master masons and gave each 100 assistants for a total of 10,000 men: half worked on one side and the other half on the other. They finished in five years. The detail decorations at the capital of each column and the arches that connect them are absolutely exquisite. There is an unanswered question, however, as to whether the decorations of the church were altered during the Iconoclastic (the breaking of icons) period of 728-842, during which human figures were not permitted in churches. Still, there is uniqueness in everything in the structure of that church. An inclined path without steps from the narthex led to the upper part of the church, set apart for women only. The area was a large corridor in the rear, the sides and toward the front of the church. Women were not allowed in the main hall of the church. The view down below was breath taking. Many great women of the emperor’s royal court could only watch the ceremonies from here. From what we know today this was a Hebrew custom, adopted as we mentioned during the Nikaia synod.
The only final thought I have about the city is that it has a life of its own, whether Greeks served it in the past or Turks at present. It is today as great a multidimensional city destined to live amongst the monuments of it’s past as it is the nodal geographical point where Europe meets Asia, destined to be the point where civilizations meet. Where the Teodosian Castle walls still rise, reddish in the afternoon sun, the gray, slender bridge begins to span over the Bosphorus to Asia. The past meets the present.
The city is like the beautiful hanumissa who is given to the strongest man each time, but no one can claim ownership of her. One observation is of importance: the main reason the city felt to the Ottomans in 1453 was the use of artillery, a new European technological discovery at the time. The bridge is a manifestation that human minds can do things beyond the imagination of ancient times. Can they also bridge over the chasm between civilizations? The progress in that effort I am afraid is slow.
Yet thousands of Greeks visit the city every year.
Visit To Cappadocia
We flew to Ankara, visited the museum of Anatolia and then a long trip by bus south to Ikonion along cultivated flat lands. The Mercedes German Company has a factory in Ikonion. We visited a museum-mosque and settled in a nice hotel. Alcohol was not permitted, but the food was excellent. At seven thirty I heard the Imam’s call for prayers. The next day we started out for Cappadocia. First we visited a beautiful gorge, a lot deeper that Samaria gorge in Crete. Christian churches were carved on its steep sides. Then we arrived at a small town where the basilica style church of Gregorios Nanziazinos was built in 385AD. No wall paintings can be seen, but probably are covered. Today is a museum. It was here that we came in sight of local people. Two girls were riding on a donkey for play and a woman came to sell head-kerchiefs: they looked poor. In our way to Prokopi, where we stayed for two nights we past near the well-known city of Nikaia with its two storied houses abandoned. Cappadocia is an unusual but pretty sight. Only a picture can tell the story. One evening we visited the small town of Sinasos. Many two and three storied houses with broken glass windows and decorated fronts lied on both sides of a broad street. In one of those there was a badly written sign, ‘OLD GREEK HOUSE’. It was converted to a hotel. All the Greek people left in 1924 during the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. A physician who lived there before 1924 wrote that Sinasos was the Athens of the East. Near Sinasos there was a church of Agios Vasilios, carved in the sand rock. It had many wall paintings that have been defiled. Today this is also a museum. The church of agiou Constantinou kai Elenis is still standing in Sinasos as a Christian church, but it had not furniture and no dome.
We left Prokopi and went to Kaisaria in our way back to Ankara. The next day we started out at two in morning for our way back to Athens.
The history of the Greek people is full of human drama, war and pain. A singer that sang the popular songs that were like odes to the calamities the Greek people went through in the twentieth century, Gregoris Pithikotsis, died a week ago. In an interview he gave the year before, he expressed his disappointment: he could not see any Aristophanis, Theodorakis or Hadjidakis coming up in modern Greece. He continued: We must again have some kind of a national ‘davantouri’ (Turkish ‘tavatur’) with noise and chaotic circumstances, a war that will import a new human pain in our society, in order to change the flow of our lives (Met. B. Leftheris). I don’t agree with that thought, but our tour to Turkey was an emotional ‘davantouri’: beautiful landscapes, especially in Cappadocia with surrealistic statues carved by natural elements, the hills along the Bosphorus, the blue sea, the snowed mountains the vast flat lands. The abandoned villages, the defiled churches, the underground cities, where people lived in order to survive the hordes of wandering nomads, the rich mosaics of Agia Sophia and the amateurish wall paintings of carved out churches in Cappadocia. There were no songs in our trip. Most of us sat in the bus for hours occupied by our own thoughts. On the morning of the 25th of March when we boarded the bus, an elderly woman with a nice voice sang the apolytikio of Panagia. There was a woman teacher that after we emerged from the underground city - as deep as 60 meters – said thoughtfully talking to her husband: ‘I am glad I was born in Athens’. I would like to add to anyone who sighs about the good old days, think again.
My thought after our visit to Sinasos was how important it is for Greeks to visit these villages without sightseeing interest for the initiated visitor. These villages are seeking out our remembrance and those who go pay a tribute to those who contributed through a long chain to our lives. They are weather beaten structures, but their structural nakedness transmits a folkloric message of the people that lived in them with their joys and sorrows. It is as if the stones have recorded the living experiences from the roots of our past. It is said that the deeper emotional experiences cannot be expressed with words.
The abandoned Greek homes and churches attract busloads of Greek people and as a result the local Turkish communities maintain them as a source of income. Our tribute becomes a way of life for what is left.
An excellent documentary provided by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate can be found on the Internet.
Information about Vasili Leftheris, High Achiever
More information, Association of Kytherian University Professors
Vasili's father, Panayotis Leftheris, and uncle Vasilios Leftheris
Leftheris family photograph, 1965
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