Finland Diary

by Jim Forest

May 8, 1998 / New Valamo Monastery

There’s thunder in the distance and a waterfall-like roar all around the building. I’ve opened the window — three layers of glass — just to better hear and feel it. It’s cool outside but not freezing, though there is snow here and there on the ground and the adjacent lake is still under ice. I’m a lot farther north than I was when I put on my spring jacket and flew out of Holland this morning. This is the Finnish part of Karelia. The nearest city with an airport is Finland’s easternmost city, Joensuu, 375 km northeast of Helsinki and 65 km west of the Russian border. Ten years ago I was on the other side of the border not far from here.

It was an easy flight, clear skies the whole way. After admiring the patchwork patterns made by polder fields near the IJselmeer, I had a fine view of the Waddenzee and its sandbar-like islands, then across the North Sea to Denmark, over Sweden, then to Finland. There were three hours on the ground in the Helsinki airport before boarding a crowded plane to Joensuu, where I was met by Juha Riikonen, staff member of the Lay Academy at New Valamo Monastery.

We drove to the monastery, passing through a shower so heavy that it made me think of Noah’s flood. It was hard to see anything. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing the wilderness of rural Finland — dense forest and lakes. Finland has a population of five million people and nearly 200,000 lakes: one lake for every 15 people. We had a fine view of a vermillion setting sun sandwiched between grey clouds over lake and black forest.

There was a bag supper waiting when we arrived — by then it was past nine, when the kitchen closes. Before eating it in my little room, I had a walk around just to get a sense of the place. The main structure is a handsome, white-walled, copper-domed church in the old Russian style. The mosaic icon over the entrance indicates the church is dedicated to the Transfiguration.

Saturday night / May 9, 1998

Kristus nousi kuolleista! Totisesti nousi! (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!) The Paschal greeting is hard enough to write, still harder to pronounce correctly.

It’s 10:00 PM and I’m in an office of the New Valamo Lay Academy adjacent to the icon painting room where a dozen skillful amateurs are busily at work despite the hour. Icon painting is one of the most popular courses here. The quality of the work is impressive, though all the students at this session are Lutherans except their Orthodox the teacher, Alexander Wikström. Lutherans come in great numbers to New Valamo — about 150,000 visitors a year, probably 90 percent of them Lutheran. One of the monastery’s vocations is to be place where non-Orthodox people can learn about Orthodox Christianity. It must be one of the reasons that about 600 adults each a year join the Orthodox Church in Finland — this in a country in which the Orthodox population altogether is roughly 60,000.

The day began with Liturgy in the Church. Before the service, I was able to venerate Finland’s most treasured icon, the Konevits Mother of God, painted six centuries ago on Mount Athos and given to the Valamo Monastery from its foundation. It has miraculously survived many fires and wars.

This afternoon I gave a lecture on prayer with icons to the icon students plus about thirty participants in other classes. By and large Finnish Lutherans, however attracted to icons and other aspects of Orthodox Christianity, seemed surprised at the idea that it might be a good thing to a have an icon corner in one’s home and to use it as a place of daily prayer. I read them Gorky’s vivid description of his grandmother’s time of morning prayer (from the introduction to Praying With Icons), then spent the next hour talking about what we could learn about the fundamentals of prayer from this hard-pressed, uneducated Russian woman who died before the 1917 Revolution.

The Lay Academy has about 3,000 students per year. The average course is three to five days and can be on a wide range of topics that have some bearing on Orthodoxy: liturgy, prayer, icons (not only painting them but learning to see and understand icons), church architecture, church history, monastic life, literature by Orthodox authors, the social dimension of Orthodoxy, and so on. All students take part in some of the services in the church and get a glimpse of monastic life.

In the late afternoon there was a service at a tiny lakeside chapel built of logs and dedicated to St. Nicholas. If it had been yesterday, we would have been chased inside by the rain but today there was only one brief downpour, sudden and fierce, during the Liturgy this morning.

I visited with the abbot, Igumen Sergei. His apartment is entirely furnished by things that had been in the abbot’s residence when the community was on the other side of the border. Apart from electric lights, there was no trace of the modern world. We could have been in 19th century Russia, though New Valamo’s present monastic community is entirely Finnish. Fr. Sergei is not even Russian-speaking. When needed he can sing the Slavonic service, though nearly everything is done in Finnish.

Part of our conversation was about the history of Valamo Monastery, which began on an island on vast Lake Ladoga north of St. Petersburg. For centuries it was one of the centers of Russian monastic life and missionary activity. It was Valamo that sent the missionary saint, Herman, to Alaska in 1794, the first Orthodox priest in the western hemisphere. Despite periodic destruction caused by wars between Sweden and Russia, the Valamo Monastery survived until the “Winter War” between Soviet Russia and Finland in 1940. With bombs raining down day after day, the monks had to flee. The community loaded up every sled they had with church and domestic furniture, books and icons. (Most of the icons they carried are typical examples of nineteenth century iconography — a vaguely Orthodox tribute to the worst Roman Catholic art.) Their trek ended here, in a part of Karelia that, luckily for them, remained part of Finland after Karelia was cut in half following Soviet Russia’s victory.

We talked about problems the Finnish Church experiences these days in its relations with the Church in Russia. “Eight years ago the old Valamo was returned to the Church and monastic life re-started,” Fr. Sergei explained. “The buildings are gradually being rebuilt, in some cases with our help. Unfortunately many monks of the restored Valamo do not regard us as Orthodox at all — for them, you can only be Orthodox if you are on the old calendar.” It is a scandal for them that the Finnish Orthodox Church keeps the main feasts of the same calendar as the Lutheran Church — an arrangement imposed by the state when it recognized the Finnish Orthodox Church as being a second state church. The issue still causes occasional tension among Orthodox believers. For years the Valamo monastic community was deeply divided within itself, part of the community on the old calendar, part on the new. It must have been easy for the monks to imagine Hell.

Still another irritant for the community at the revived Valamo in Russia is that the monks who fled the bombing in 1940 carried away nearly everything smaller than bell towers. While nothing at New Valamo is stolen property, the monks at the original location want it all back. I suggested to the abbot that, though they have no duty to return anything, still it would be a healing gesture if the Finnish Valamo gave the Russian Valamo some of the icons that used to be there — an icon can sometimes melt frozen hearts. Fr. Sergei agreed but said this was not something he could do unilaterally. Such things had to be decided by the Council of the Finnish Church. There are attachments on both sides.

Another source of tension between the Finnish and Russian Churches is the complex problem of Estonia, where the local Orthodox Church was broken in two, some parishes under Moscow, others under Constantinople. Estonian and Finnish are sister languages and the cultures are similar; the Finnish Church therefore has a close tie with the Estonian parishes now linked to Constantinople.

After my visit with Fr. Sergei, I joined Pekka Tuovinen, teacher of the theology of icons at the Lay Academy, in a visit to the nearby woman’s Holy Trinity Monastery of Lintula for the Saturday evening Vigil. Though with a larger community, the convent is a quieter place than New Valamo. While retreatants are welcome throughout the year, the nuns only open their doors to tourists in the summer months. This community too had a Russian base — a group of nuns who fled from the precincts of St. Petersburg in 1939, escaping with only one icon.

After supper, with the sun setting, Juha and I visited the monastic cemetery across the lake from New Valamo, walking among the many wooden crosses. Perhaps half the monks who came here in 1940 were dead by 1945. Many were old men when they arrived. One monk, Igumen Simforian, died in 1981 after 75 years in monastic life. Another had been a monk more than 80 years when he died 1984, aged 110.

Sunday, May 10, 1998

I just left Joensuu by train a little while ago and have been watching trees, trees and more trees out the window with the occasional small wooden house — sometimes a log house — here and there and lakes of various sizes. Juha and Pekka, plus Pekka’s dog Jona, brought me to the city by car, stopping at the social hall of one of Joensuu’s Orthodox parishes for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mother’s Day cake. Mother’s Day has the national flag, a blue cross on white field, flying from many flag poles.

The weather is taking a summery turn. Pekka said the thin ice that was the nearby pond yesterday was completely gone this morning. We saw only a few pockets of snow in deeply shaded places.

It was a very beautiful Liturgy at the monastery this morning — a full choir today rather than two monks taking turns singing the choir parts as happened yesterday. It seems the practice in Finland that iconostasis curtains are rarely if ever used and the royal kept open once the service has begun. As the melodies are in the Russian tradition, I had no trouble following the Liturgy, in fact felt carried into it as by an irresistible undertow. The whole congregation sang all the antiphons as well as Creed and Our Father.

Before the service I had a chance encounter with Igumen Sergei, who once again invited me to return, but next time “with your dear wife Nancy.”

More trees, more lakes, more cloudless blue sky. A perfect day.

Krista Berglund, a Russian scholar, met me at the train station who brought me to the Helsinki Parish guest room, a five-minute walk. The Helsinki “Parish” turns out to be a sub-diocese of 24 local churches with about 18,000 members altogether.

Leaving my suitcase, we walked down toward the harbor, stopping for a light meal at a café called Kappeli (the word means chapel), a mostly glass structure built in the days when Finland was a province of Russia. The heart of the city looks like St. Petersburg but with fewer scars. From our table we had a view of a fountain, the harbor and two great churches, the Lutheran cathedral to the left, the Uspenski Cathedral to the right, the largest Orthodox place of worship in Europe.

Thanks to Krista, I begin to understand why Helsinki has such a Russian flavor. Russians and Swedes were contesting Finland for most of the past thousand years. From the 12th century until the beginning of the 19th, Swedes had the upper hand. Then in 1808 Russia invaded — it was the time of Czar Alexander I — and the following year Stockholm ceded power to St. Petersburg, though Finland under Russia was granted a degree of autonomy. In 1812, the fishing village of Helsinki became the Finish capitol. The city center’s many fine Russian buildings in the classical style reflect this event. It’s one of the reasons Helsinki has played the role of St. Petersburg in such films as “Reds.”

The 19th century, the century of nationalism, saw Finns develop a deeper sense of national identity. In 1863, Czar Alexander II, whose statue still dominates Helsinki’s main square, began a process which made the Finnish language — in Swedish days illegal — equal to Swedish. There are still two “state languages.” In 1917, a few weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland declared its independence, which Lenin quickly accepted, anticipating that Finland would become Communist. Overnight the Karelian region, which included Valamo Monastery, with its population of Russian monks, found itself inside the borders of independent Finland. This turned out to be a good thing, given what was soon to happen to monks and other believers in Russia. Eighty years ago there was a brief but vicious civil war in Finland between “reds” and “whites,” with the latter winning.

In 1939, the USSR attacked Finland and seized the northern Arctic territories and much of Finnish Karelia — the “Winter War.” Finland, though attempting to remain neutral, allowed Nazi Germany to move troops across its territory against the USSR in WWII, but in 1944 managed to get out the war, ceding land and agreeing to pay reparations to Moscow. In 1948 the Finland reluctantly (“an offer you cannot refuse”) signed a “friendship treaty” with the USSR that obliged Finland to help resist any attack on the Soviet Union that involved Finnish territory and bound Finland to an uncritical role in regard to the USSR. The treaty, though allowing trade and good relations with the west, created a situation in which the USSR could influence Finnish foreign policy.

In 1989 Gorbachev recognized Finland’s neutrality. Three years later Finland and Russia signed a treaty that recognized equality, sovereignty, and positive economic relations. Also in 1992, Finland choose closer links with Europe by applying for membership in the European Union. In 1994 the EU accepted the application, endorsed by a national referendum. It seems to have been a good move — the Finnish economy is currently healthy after a long and deep recession.

One sign of the affluence is the omnipresence of cellular phones. They seem to be used by everyone in Finland but newborn infants. There are 2,500,000 such phones in use in this county with its population of 5,000,000.

May 12, 1998 / Helsinki

Fr. Heikki Huttunen took me to one of the city’s most remarkable establishments for lunch — the Orthodox Kitchen — two floors below the guest room in which I am holed up. This project of the Helsinki Parish is open once a week to anyone who appreciates home cooking and has little or no money. Fr. Heikki explained that, though the social support system in Finland is strong, there is a growing number of people who “fall through the net.” There were fresh-cut flowers on all the tables. The main decoration were signs in a vast array of languages, all with the Pascal greeting: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” My main surprise was to find Metropolitan Leo at one of the tables in animated conversation with several men whose faces show as much wear as their battered clothing.

Fr. Heikki regretted that projects like this are so new to the Finnish Orthodox Church — the Orthodox Kitchen is only two or three years old. He blamed the delay in launching social activities on the Finnish Orthodox “refugee mentality.” He explained that 75 percent of the Orthodox community in Finland had to move west to be within Finland’s redrawn borders at the end of World War II. It was like the flight of many Orthodox to the Greek part of Cyprus after the island’s division. The Finnish Karelians were successfully resettled by the Finnish government but had all the usual traumas of uprooted people. Also many Finns regarded Orthodox people in general as Russians. For years many Finnish Orthodox felt like refugees in their own country. “We were for long caught up in our own difficulties.”

In fact Orthodoxy has been in Finland for centuries. The movement to translate the Liturgy into Finnish began around 1780. In 1815 the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided that in the Grand Duchy of Finland the biblical texts could be read in the language of the people. There are Finnish parishes in which the whole Liturgy has been celebrated in Finnish since abut 1850. Much of this was thanks to the constructive role played at the time by Metropolitan Anthony Vadkovsky of St. Petersburg.

Once again Russians are coming to Finland, he mentioned. Something like 40,000 people from the former USSR have becomes resident in the last few years. Last night at Krista Berglund’s flat I met one of them: Sasha Skopets, originally from Murmansk. She told us how tapes by Fr. Georgi Kotchetkov (the Moscow priest who is in hot water for using a modern Russian translation of the Liturgy) played a crucial role in her conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

My lecture — “Nationalism, Orthodoxy and Peacemaking” — was in the same hall of the Helsinki Parish building that is used at mid-day for the Orthodox Kitchen. Though Krista had prepared a translation, it turned out that everyone in the room spoke English fluently. As in Holland, films and many other programs are shown on Finnish TV in their original language, which in mainly English. For many Finns, English has become a second language.

May 13, 1998

I attended the Liturgy this morning at the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Holy Trinity, a short walk from the Helsinki Parish Office in the direction of the harbor. It was like being in an old St. Petersburg parish: good examples of Russian iconography, silver work and architecture of the early 19th century. A choir of four sang.

For an hour in the late morning I met with Metropolitan Leo, head of the Helsinki Diocese, in his top-floor apartment in a building next to the Parish Office. He is a widower living with his father and 23-year-old daughter. We talked about his recent visit in Istanbul with the Ecumenical Patriarch, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and also my book on icons. At the end of our visit, he took me out on the apartment balcony, pointing out many Helsinki landmarks. We had a fine view of spring’s impact on Helsinki. You can almost hear the leaves bursting from the trees.

This was followed by a visit with Jyrki Härkönen, editor, of Orthodoksi Viesti magazine, Finland’s largest Orthodox journal, and later talked with their staff photographer, Pasi Peiponen, about the Russian pianist and outspoken Orthodox Christian of the Stalin era, Maria Yudina — a true Daniel-in-the-lions-den.

The next stop was at Krista Berglund’s for lunch: lentil soup and dark bread. Krista is editing a book on contemporary views by Russians writers as to what Russian-ness is all about, an issue much under discussion since the collapse of the USSR. We also talked about St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear he befriended. Krista has a great devotion to bears. There is a sort of iconostasis over her computer made of photos of people dear to her but mixed in with the human beings are bears. There are more bear photos on the refrigerator door as well as several teddy bears in a corner of her small living room.

The day’s main event was a talk after Vespers at Fr. Heikki’s parish, dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska. The congregation currently uses rented rooms in a sterile business building in a suburb of Helsinki, but the handsome church they’re building should be finished in July and is to consecrated on October 4. Many of the icons that will be used in the new church are now in the rented chapel — all exceptionally good work. Fr. Heikki estimates that there are about 200 Finnish iconographers doing work of a quality suitable for church use.

Deacon Juha Lampinen, who does youth work for the Helsinki Parish, gave me a lift back into the city. It was after nine and, as I hadn’t had supper, I walked from the Parish Office toward the train station, ending up having a Macdonalds Fish- Filet sandwich for supper: 15 Finnish Marks, about $3.50. This is not your bargain basement country. Soon after returning to the guest room, Father Juha came knocking on the door and brought me back to his apartment for coffee and cognac with him and his wife, Maria. Their 11-year-old daughter, Marina, introduced me to her pet turtle. It was a blessing to be in a place where one has to step over toys.

May 14, 1998

There was Liturgy at Fr. Heikki’s parish at eight this morning for a group of 20 or so high school students plus a few adults, then a quick breakfast before we boarded a bus and set off for a two-day Orthodox youth trip, the theme of which is war, peace and Orthodoxy.

Going east, our first stop was the town of Loviisa, which hosts a four-day peace festival that starts each year on August 6, Hiroshima Day. Next we stopped at a rural center where those doing alternative service participate in a month-long program of preparation for whatever they will do in the following 12 months. Quite a few Orthodox young men have done alternative service at New Valamo, which was the first Orthodox institution to open its doors as a place of employment for conscientious objectors. Finland still has military conscription for men and maintains a surprisingly large army, but about five percent of those drafted opt for civilian alternative service though it entails a longer interruption of life.

The last stop of the day was at Lappeenranta, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, once a Russian garrison town. It has changed so little that I could imagine Czar Alexander arriving on horseback any minute. There’s a dirt street down the middle, a string of one-storey wooden buildings painted in pale greens and creams, creamy browns and mustards, several old brick barracks, and in the middle of it all the oldest Orthodox church still standing in Finland, built in 1785 and dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.

This region is now as peaceful as Lake Woebegone, but 80 years ago, during Finland’s civil war, it was a place of bitter fighting and at times amazing cruelty. Not far from here an Orthodox priest was tied to the railway tracks by local Communists and killed by a passing train. For the atheist “red” side, priests were by definition enemies of the revolution, but occasionally the “white” side also attacked priests and pillaged Orthodox churches, as Orthodox Christians were regarded as Russian.

After a light supper, we sang a short Vespers service in the church, after which I led a discussion on confronting evil and overcoming the fear of death. Probably the most important thing I did was to explain the St. George icon, telling the story of this young martyr and explaining why he is shown in armor, riding a horse, lancing a dragon even though he wasn’t a soldier, had no armor or weapons, and never saw a dragon. What he faced was the dragon of fear wearing the armor of faith and riding the horse of the courage God gave him. His lance is not a weapon but the Cross. Whether or not we become soldiers, we are required by baptism to be warriors.

May 15, 1998

The day’s main event was visiting a training center for army officers and meeting with an Orthodox chaplain who gives a witness to the priority of faith by always dressing as a priest though he is an army officer. Lutheran chaplains prefer the uniform to clerical attire. At least in Finland military chaplains have a choice.

Back in Helsinki, I spent the evening at the apartment of Fr. Heikki and Leena Huttunen in the Tapiola suburb in the city’s west side: lots of trees, a breeze coming in from the balcony door, the sound of children playing outside. A week ago it was almost winter here — today it feels like high summer. I’ve given the last of the Dutch cheeses I brought along as house gifts and am sipping a dark Czech beer.

May 16, 1998 / en route to Amsterdam

Breakfasting this morning with Fr. Timo Lehmuskoski, we talked about was the tension within the Finnish Church between those born in Orthodox families and converts. Among the many converts is the current head of the Church, Archbishop John. The converts sometimes regard those born to Orthodoxy as bit players in the Church, less alert to Church teaching and practice than themselves, while the cradle Orthodox often regard those who came to the Church in adolescence or adulthood as Lutherans pretending to be Orthodox.

I’ve been gazing out the window at the scenery below, the parade of Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, and just moments ago the last of Denmark. Off the Danish coast I had my first look at a whirlpool — huge arcs of creamy white converging in the sea on a dense foamy core.

Ah! The first glimpse of the Waddenzee islands and the Dutch coastline.

Jim Forest

text as revised June 4, 1998

Istanbul Journal – Bright Friday and Saturday

2 May, Bright Friday

We woke early and taxied to the ferry in time to catch the 9:15 ferry for passage to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The weather was sunny and cool, but it promised to be perfect weather for a day outdoors. We passed the three smaller islands and after about an hour and fifteen minutes got off at the largest — Buyukada — once a place of semi-imprisonment in Byzantine times for princes and princesses who had fallen out of the emperor’s good will. More recently Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, lived for five years in one of the island’s finest mansions — from Bolshevik terrorism to luxurious exile! There are at least two monasteries on the island.

We bought a map of the island at a shop on the quay as well as a cloth hat for Jim and stopped for cappuccino (not nearly Pera Palas quality). We decided to go to St. George’s Monastery in the south end of the island, going part of the way by horse-drawn carriage and walking the rest of the way. There are no cars permitted on the island, except for service vehicles like ambulances and police cars and a few small delivery trucks. The main road is filled with these horse-drawn carriages, quite colorful and fun. As we drove along we were passed by a carriage carrying four young people, the elderly driver tearing down the road and urging his horses on at a gallop. The kids in the carriage seemed delighted, but it was way too fast for such a road and such a vehicle. (A few hundred meters further we came upon an accident — the galloping carriage had lost a wheel, both horses were lying on their sides, the four kids were walking around dazed, and the driver had a gash on his cheek and looked very disoriented. Our driver stopped and helped get the horses up and pull the wrecked carriage out of the road. An ambulance soon arrived to take the driver away.)

We passed many beautiful old wooden houses, some nicely restored, some showing signs of great wealth, some urgently in need of restoration. The island is covered with beautiful trees and seems almost Caribbean.

We finally arrived at the beginning of the road up to the monastery. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this is a long uphill climb on a cobblestone path. We started up and noticed that all along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches of bushes lining the pathway, and lots of thread running along the path. It reminded Jim of the prayer flags in Tibet. We saw this all the way up the mountain. We also came across a chain of marching caterpillars trying to cross the path, one after the other front to back, as if they were physically connected. Quite amazing.

The view was wonderful, and there were several places along the way where you could sit and rest. Finally we reached the top, but unfortunately the church was locked. We discovered a back corner of the monastery where many people had lit candles. When we arrived, some older Turkish women were there clearly at prayer, hands together, palms up — one of those instances where Muslims worship at Christian shrines. On one side of the monastery a large family gathering was underway around a long table. Behind the monastery we found a small café where we shared a bottle of beer and sat in the shade, admiring the scenery and resting. Then we walked to the place where the candles were — many were lit — and lit two ourselves, praying. Then we walked back down the hill and took another carriage back to the village.

A member of the staff at the Artemis Hotel had told us to look for the Milano restaurant for lunch, and we found it — one of the several restaurants all lined up along the water’s edge running south from the boat dock. Sitting right on the waterside, we had an exceptional lunch of grilled bluefish. Then we walked around the village a bit, making our way to the boat landing, found an ice cream stand whose homemade product was astonishingly good, bought return tickets and took the 3:35 boat back to the city. It was 5:20 by the time we got back, and we walked to the hotel to rest.

At 8:00 Ali called us to let us know that he and Gabi were taking us to “Istanbul’s best restaurant.” We took a taxi to a kebab shop in Sultanahmet just a little way down the street from one of the city’s oldest mosques, where we were met by Ali’s partner, Metin Sidirtmac. To enter, you had to walk down a couple of steps. It was a single small room with a grill built into the wall. There was a counter and a table where the cooks — father and son — were preparing kebabs. Two round knee-high tables for provided for customers. We sat on little reed-seated stools. There were photos on the wall from the town where Ali grew up — Gaziantep — which was where the owner also came from. Jim told Ali if we had to find this place, looking only for Istanbul’s best restaurant, he would have walked past it several times without imagining this was it.

The cook was making kebabs on a charcoal oven in the wall. Ali told us he trims all the fat off the meat so it’s very lean, and took us outside to show us where the fatty scraps had been left for the street cats. The cook makes kebabs from lamb chunks and a kind of sausage meat, nicely spiced. In a few minutes he brought our meal to the table — a huge tray with long oval sheets of bread on the bottom, covered by the two kinds of kebabs plus grilled eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers. You tear off a piece of bread, arrange all these things inside, roll it up and eat it. Because you’re sitting so low, it’s easy to sort of hunker over your meal without too much mess. We drank ayran (the standard Turkish drink of yogurt, water and salt), which was perfect with the spicy food. There was also water at the table. The forks were plastic — there’s no place to wash dishes. The owner and his son were busy making more vegetables and kebab and a wonderful salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions with sumak sprinkled over them. He made this on a big thick chopping block that had been used so much it had a well in the center. His knife was a big cleaver. The atmosphere in the place was great.

Ali asked them to play a particular CD of a famous Turkish poet and singer — also from Gaziantep — who had recently died. One of the songs he was singing was a song demanding that America leave Turkey alone. The guys at the next table smiled at us, and we just smiled back, fully agreeing that the world has had more than enough empires.

After a huge meal we walked back to the hotel, passing Constantine’s Column on the way, 35 meters high, standing next to a tram stop. In the fourth century it was the pedestal — at the time even higher — of a large bronze statue of Constantine but this is long gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby and drank some wine, then Ali suggested we go up on the roof terrace. His partner brought a bottle of Hungarian wine — Black Bull — he had hidden away for a special event and we sat around a table under the stars, watching dozens of birds circle around the lights of the Blue Mosque, drinking wine and telling stories, until about 11:30. Our last night in Istanbul. Perfect.

3 May, Bright Saturday

After packing there was time to visit the Blue Mosque — we had walked past it time and again but never entered — followed by a final cup of tea at the Marmara Café. Then off in Ali’s car to the airport…

Istanbul Journal – Bright Wednesday and Thursday

30 April, Bright Wednesday

We found a fruit and vegetable street market had been set up along the White Moustache Street. On each stand the display of vegetables was a work of art. Then we went to the Museum of Archeology, an amazing collection of ancient pieces beautifully lit and exhibited. The sarcophagi from Sidon were especially amazing, so perfectly preserved, and the large Byzantine collection was also extremely good.

We had tea in the museum’s tea garden, then walked to the crafts center near Hagia Sophia where our kick-boxer waiter, Josh, served us and gave us a piece of marbled paper he had made himself.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Ministry of Culture shop and bought a silver spoon as a baptismal present for Alexander Bakker, Jim’s latest god-son. His baptism will be this Sunday. From there we headed for the Museum of Mosaics just behind the Blue Mosque where the Great Palace had stood in the Byzantine era. Along the way we stopped to admire a large pilaf platter, beautifully painted. The shop owner came out and offered to sell it for 37 euros, too good a price to refuse. We took it, and the man wrapped it up in bubble wrap for us.

Then we walked to the Museum of Mosaics and admired the beautifully preserved mosaics that had graced the imperial palace. It was thanks to Harry and Lyn Isbell that we had put this on the “must see” list. Harry had written: “It’s amazing what can happen when good taste meets up with unlimited money. Though the mosaics are huge, as would befit an Imperator Deluxe, the museum and its capacity are quite small because one views them from a narrow catwalk built over and around the edges.”

We next walked to the nearby Time Out restaurant for talk with Ozgur over tea — he wanted to discuss his struggle with depression — and then walked back through the street market, where Jim bought prayer beads made of green stone (just over one euro). We went back to the hotel, then spent some time at the Marmara Café where we had apple tea, tried a water pipe (very cool and mild, with an apple flavor), and wrote postcards.

The day ended with dinner at Ali and Gabi’s home. The main dish was some delicious and spicy Hungarian goulash that Gabi had cooked herself. Ali’s business partner was there as well, and a young woman who is a friend of theirs and also works in the hotel business.

1 May, Bright Thursday

Jim’s day started with a long taxi drive to a post office building that handles packages — he had to pick up copies of his Albania book that had been sent by the World Council of Churches. Fortunately one of the hotel staff came with him to help or Jim would still be waiting at one of the many windows to obtain yet another stamp on yet another form. If this is a typical experience of Turkish bureaucracy, one feels immense compassion for the Turkish people. Apart from the time in the taxi, it took about an hour to receive the box of books. There was a 10-million lira payment to be made (about six euros), and the taxi fare coming and going was 20-million. All for eight copies of a book that we had hoped to have waiting for us at the hotel on arrival in Istanbul so that Shannon could take them back to Albania. Now the books will fly back with us to Holland. Mailing anything more substantial than a letter from Istanbul is out of the question.

We walked to the Spice Market where we purchased of Iranian saffron, sweet paprika, cardamon, sumak, dried apple (for making apple tea), and a pound of Turkish delight, then walked across the Galata Bridge, this time on the lower level, where which is filled with shops and fish restaurants. Rather than climb the hill on the other side we took the Tünel (one of Europe’s earliest subways), then took the tram to Taksim Square (full of police because of May Day demonstrations in the area). From there we walked back more or less the same route but with numerous detours, among them a nice visit to the Armenian Church — Holy Trinity — where we were given a warm welcome by a church official complete with tea. We had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Cicik Pasaji; stopped in at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop where we bought a Turkish-language Amsterdam guide book for Ali and Gabi (to make more real our invitation to them to come stay with us sometime in the future) and a copy of Hamlet for Ozgur. We had a first-rate cappuccino at the Pera Palas Hotel (built in 1892 to receive passengers of the Orient Express) but had no encounter with Agatha Chrystie or Graham Greene. It was at the Pera Palas in 1926 that Chrystie started writing Murder on the Orient Express.

We then went down hill on foot from the Galata Tower, walking back across the bridge but this time on the lower southern side, pausing occasionally to watch the many ferries and smaller boats and also admire the many fish restaurants.

Having been at the Pera Palas, we stopped briefly at the train station which is the departure point for the Orient Express, lately revived, Ali tells us. Then another walk through the Topkapi grounds followed by a brief pause at the Time Out Restaurant to give Ozgur his Hamlet. We had a cup of tea with Ali and Gabi on the Artemis roof, giving them both the Amsterdam guide book and Jim’s Albania book, then went out to supper with Ali and Gabi at the Asitane restaurant next to the Chora Church — at last they were our guests…

Istanbul Journal – Bright Monday and Tuesday

28 April, Bright Monday

We agreed with Shannon to do separate things today as this was her last day and she had to find gifts for various people, both relatives and colleagues. We had breakfast, then walked to the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The Archeology Museum was closed but a sarcophagus (early Byzantine?) near the entrance caught our eye with its simple, very sober bas relief of a married couple and their two children. Back in the Topkapi park, we walked over to the executioner’s fountain where swords and hands were washed after beheadings — our joke is that the occasional rude tourist is still dispatched here from time to time. Then we paused to shop in a government-run craft store to buy a few small gifts: a black alabaster cat for Anne, a small copper coffee pot for Cait, a meerschaum pipe for Jim, a leather bag for Nancy. We then went to the café that caught our eye two days earlier, the Cafer Aga Courtyard, in the 16th century a Moslem school, now a school of traditional crafts with an inexpensive restaurant in the center. Our waiter is learning to make marbled paper; he is also a kick-boxer who aspires to Hollywood.

In the afternoon, accepting an invitation from Ali, we drove with him to Eyup, a section of the city on the Golden Horn just beyond the Theodosian walls. After lunch at a beautiful traditional restaurant in which we seem to be the only non-Turks — an inspiring meal — we walked the short distance to the Eyup Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world as one of the principal collaborators of Mohammad is buried there: Eyup Ensari, who took part in the first Moslem siege of Constantinople in the 7th century. When the city finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror eight centuries later, one of Mehmet’s first actions was find the place where Eyup Ensari was buried and build a mosque and tomb. Most of the people we saw were either locals or pilgrims. There was an intense sense of devotion in the vicinity of the mosque. Both inside and out we were hit by a powerful sense of sacred space. The Dutch and French tour groups that arrived while we were there tended to underscore the inappropriateness of purely secular interest in such an environment. While people nearby were at prayer, the guides were pointing out details in the mosque’s decoration. But soon the two groups were back in their buses and the disruption was over.

We left, deeply moved, and made our way home.

We met Shannon for our last dinner together in Istanbul. We had promised Ozgur that we would have a meal in his restaurant (“If you eat here, you will not be sorry”), and so went to Time Out for a simple meal. Ozgur spent a lot of time with us, talking. He is both shy and eager to talk, an unusual combination. As we left, he asked Jim if we would come back before we left as he wanted to talk to us about something important.

29 April, Bright Tuesday

We had breakfast with Shannon at the Artemis Hotel, then helped get her on the tram to the airport. After seeing her on her way, we stopped at a bookshop and bought Strolling in Istanbul, a thick guide with few pictures but an immense amount of detail, and a well-illustrated Turkish cookbook, as Nancy has taken to Turkish cooking and wants to bring something of Istanbul back to our table in Alkmaar.

Back at the hotel, Ali introduced us to Gabi, his wife, whom he met in Hungary when he had a business there. All four of us drove up the Bosphorus on its European side, stopping at a massive castle built in 1452 by Mahmet II — Rumeli Hisan, also known as the Fortress of Europe — in preparation for the attack on and conquest of Constantinople the following year. Those final months before the city fell its citizens must all have felt like condemned prisoners around whose necks a rope was being slowly tightened. The weakened city fell on the 29th of May after a 54-day siege. Ottoman cannons had carved a huge hole in Theodosius’ walls.

After scaling some of the fortress walls, we drove up to the Bosphorus Bridge and crossed over to the Asian side, driving south with the goal of a late lunch at the Maiden Tower restaurant, a former Istanbul lighthouse which can only be reached by ferry. We then took a much larger ferry that accommodated cars across the Bosphorus to the south shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

That evening we had a light supper at the café near the southwestern edge of the Hippodrome after a young man belonging to the owner’s family came out and gave us his pitch. We went in and had kebabs. Afterward our host sat with us, ordering coffee and baklava as his treat, and told us about what a special restaurant this is. He pointed to a monument by the restaurant entrance that was erected in remembrance of victims of terrorism. His brother was among those who were killed. His father is a political journalist. Everyone working at the restaurant is a member of the family. Our host had studied architecture but now wants to be more politically involved. His family borrowed money from all over to buy the restaurant.

Istanbul Journal – Pascha

27 April – Pascha

We went out for breakfast with Shannon to break the Lenten fast. Shannon, having eaten almost nothing since yesterday afternoon, longed for something resembling an American breakfast, but also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We searched and searched, asking several people where we could find an American breakfast. One man responded, “But this is Turkey!” Finally we had omelettes at an open-air café called the Dervish near the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we set off for the Suleymaniye Mosque, widely regarded as Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque. It’s a vast structure that crowns a hill adjacent to Istanbul University just to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar. Along with an associated hospital, school and hospice for travelers, the mosque was built in the 1550s by the famous architect Sinan.

While walking there Jim asked directions of an older man who volunteered to show us the way. We learned he is a Kurdish rug merchant whose home is near the Iraqi border, We stopped for tea at a small street café adjacent to the mosque, inviting the man, Salih Cefin, to sit with us. He accepted, only insisted on paying for the tea, telling us that when he comes to our country we can pay for his tea. After saying goodbye, we entered the mosque, a place as quiet as it is huge. Hundreds of lights are suspended not far above head level giving the impression of a border of light between our ordinary world and the divine presence — something not unlike the iconostasis, except the border here is overhead and horizontal. Like so many mosques in Istanbul, this one clearly drew its architectural inspiration from Hagia Sophia.

Finally we walked around the grounds, then sat in the sun for a while — our first warm day in Istanbul — eating bananas and strawberries that Shannon had just bought from a nearby shop.

Then we headed downhill toward the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. On the way Shannon stopped to buy some kebab skewers and paused to see a smaller mosque next to the Spice (or Egyptian) Market while we waited for her in the courtyard of the New Mosque facing the Galata Bridge. The square before the mosque was packed with locals and flocks of birds. Not a tourist group in sight! In fact this part of town is a continuous street market, a micro economy in high gear. Shannon came back and we walked across the bridge, watching the people fishing as we made our way towards the Galata Tower, a massive medieval structure put up in 1348 when the Genoese had this patch of the city — their reward for helping end the Latin occupation. The most direct way to the tower requires climbing a long, steep set of stairs.

This is the city’s Beyoglu district whose main street is the Istiklal Caddesi, where there are many fine bookshops. In one of them Jim found a particular guide book — the Istanbul volume in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide series — he’d been looking for all over the city. We then hailed a taxi and took it to a large modern shopping mall, Akmerkez, near Margo and David’s apartment, a landmark easier for taxi drivers to find than the actual address we were going to. (Ali notes that one need have nothing more than a driving license to drive a taxi in Turkey; no special knowledge of the streets is required. Neither do any drivers we have come upon possess a street atlas.)

The only obvious difference between this shopping mall and similar malls in America is that everyone entering this cavernous building has to be checked as if he were at an airport. The mall has security guards and metal detectors at every entrance. Once admitted we found ourselves in a cathedral of consumer products that’s much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen in the Netherlands. We headed for a supermarket on the third level, as Shannon hoped to find a few things that were unavailable in Tirana, and then called David on Jim’s mobile, who talked us from the mall to their nearby apartment complex.

We found it no easy task getting past the apartment complex’s security guard, a young uniformed woman. Finally Jim called David, who came down to rescue us. Margo and David’s apartment was beautifully decorated for Easter, with an egg tree, carefully laid table and a handsome book of Chora photos that had been opened to the Anastasis icon. There was an older American-Greek couple there, as well as Paul Gikas from the Patriarchate (also American) and his Turkish girlfriend, a beautiful young woman on her way to becoming Orthodox. Diedrich was very happy with all the company and attention.

The meal was exceptional — lamb, spare ribs, chicken, salad, delicious cake. The Turkish wine was excellent. The entire meal was wonderful and the company around the table even better. It was hard to leave, but finally we took a taxi back home and crashed into bed, since our previous night’s sleep had been brief.

Istanbul Journal – Holy Saturday

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

Istanbul Journal – Good Friday

25 April, Good Friday

We had breakfast with Shannon, then walked back to the Hippodrome where we were hounded by postcard sellers and various venders, the first of many similar experiences. We walked through the Blue Mosque courtyard again and went on to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the world’s largest building for many centuries and still astonishing both inside and out. It is always a stunning experience to see for the first time something that you have only heard about, and perhaps seen pictures of. We had expected to see a great city edifice engulfed by even bigger modern structures, an anachronism and a mosque to boot, with little bits of the Christian past tucked away in corners. But what we saw was an almost pastoral setting, beautiful gardens and the surrounding waters, no other great buildings except the Blue Mosque, which does not conflict with it or overshadow it, and Hagia Sophia rising brick red and solid out of the earth. Only a little of the church’s mosaic iconography has survived but what remains is profoundly impressive. It is not tucked away in corners; you see it immediately as soon as you walk in. Nancy stood in the doorway and wept.

On the gallery on the west side we found the Pantocrator icon that is so often seen in books and postcards but which, even though so familiar, was surprising in its intensity and freshness. Christ’s eyes have the same authority as his spoken word.

After several hours in Hagia Sophia, we went for coffee to a nearby café with many colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, then took a taxi to the Church of the Savior in Chora (Chora meaning “in the fields”). The church originally stood outside the walls that Constantine erected but is just inside Theodosius’ walls. During the time of Crusader rule, it was the only church in Constantinople where Orthodox Christians were not under Roman domination, though in that period the church was in a badly decayed condition. After the Latin defeat Theodore Metochites, then Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire, used his wealth to subsidize the church’s restoration during what is known as the Byzantine Renaissance. This included not only repairing the building but commissioning mosaics and frescoes, many of which have survived even though the church had been made into a mosque after the Islamic Conquest. Today it is museum.

Chora’s amazing images remain among the most beautiful treasures of iconography to survive the fall of Byzantium. Perhaps the most stunning is the Anastasis icon filling the apse of a funeral chapel on the west side of the church: Christ effortlessly lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. In another section of the church there is a complex series of mosaics of events leading up to the birth of Mary and finally Christ’s Nativity. Chora alone is reason enough to come to Istanbul.

We had a good vegetarian lunch at a hotel restaurant — the Asitane — next to the church: our first glimpse of a Turkish cuisine of a level we never imagined existed going by our occasional visits to Turkish restaurants in Alkmaar. A place to return to after Pascha.

We took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent book market. The Grand Bazaar is similar to certain districts of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the experience of many offers to stop and have a cup of tea or coffee. Shannon bought a lacquer box for a friend in Tirana.

From the Bazaar we walked on to a city park close to the Hippodrome where a persistent and rather cunning shoeshine boy tried to get money out of us.

We sat for a while in the sun for awhile, then caught a taxi for the Good Friday service at the Orthodox Patriarchate at the Fener. The taxi driver had a great deal of difficulty finding the place, but — after stopping several times for local help — was at last successful. Entrance to the walled compound requires passing through a police guard and metal detector. Tiny though the Greek community is in modern Istanbul, there are still those who seek the expulsion of all Greeks. Bombs have been exploded here in recent years, while a patriarch was once executed by hanging at the compound gate. The church — St. George’s Cathedral — is surprisingly small, considering that it is the home church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The building dates from 1710: practically new by local standards.

When we arrived, shortly before the Good Friday service started, not many people were yet present but gradually the church filled up until finally there was an overflow in the courtyard. Most of the crowd seemed to be people who had come by bus from Greece. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided, assisted by six bishops. The icon of the body of Christ was a cloth over which was a canopy covered with white flowers. There was no real procession as we know it (such processions not being permitted in Turkey), but the patriarch and bishops carried the cloth down the aisle and into the courtyard, then back in again, and anyone standing near it tried to reach out and touch it.

We stayed at the church for about two hours, then went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner made up of vegetarian appetizers. By midnight, having taken a taxi to the square in front of Hagia Sophia, we were back at the hotel after walking Shannon to her hostel.

Istanbul Journal – Holy Thursday

by Jim & Nancy Forest

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

[Istanbul photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/166648/ ]

Are we in Istanbul? Or Constantinople? Winston Churchill had no doubt it was the latter. As he wrote in a memo to the Foreign Office on the 23rd of April 1945: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered in England to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has no particular significance, the local custom should be followed. However, Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…”

We will however tilt toward the whims of the foreigners living in those parts and opt for Istanbul.

We arrived at Ataturk Airport at about 3:00 and had to pay 10 euros for an entrance visa (while those with US passports are required to pay a whopping $100). Ali Gulkaynak, manager of the Artemis Hotel where we will be staying, was there to meet us. Ali is a friend of Beth Forest, Jim’s niece, who put us in touch with him and spoke of him in glowing terms. Ali drove us back to the hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Along the way we passed by many kilometers of ancient city wall erected in the age of Emperor Theodosius II (405-450). They withstood many sieges before a breach was made by Crusaders in 1202. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, though the city — stripped of every treasure — never recovered from its occupation by the Latins. Then in May 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror smashed though the walls and Byzantium, by then only a shadow of what it had been, gave up the ghost.

The Artemis Hotel proved to be a very attractive place, a modest size, slightly off the streets frequented by tourists. From the terrace on the top of the hotel we had an amazing view — the Blue Mosque with its six minarets above us, the blue Sea of Marmara below. Under the watchful eye of several mothers, children were playing in the street below. We unpacked and freshened up, then went for a walk with Ali.

Our route took us through the Hippodrome, on the north side of the Blue Mosque, where Ali explained the various monuments around which charioteers once raced. First (on the west end) was the column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, still called the Brazen Column, though the Crusaders stripped its bronze covering eight centuries ago. Next there was the Serpentine Column, made in 479 BC and originally placed in Delphi — one of many ancient monuments Constantine ordered brought to the new capital of the Roman Empire. Then, in the center of the Hippodrome, the most impressive monument of all, an Egyptian obelisk now 3500 years old, selected by Constantine to symbolize where the center of the world was now located. The base set up to hold the obelisk was carved on all sides with images of Constantine presiding at games in the Hippodrome. The stadium itself, said to have held up to 100,000 people, is long gone, though the roadway around the Hippodrome follows the route of the chariots. But many of the treasures that once were here have vanished. These include the famous four bronze horses now at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

It was here that the Nika Riot exploded in 532. Before it was over many of city’s buildings were destroyed, including a smaller Hagia Sophia, at the east end of the Hippodrome, and large parts of the Great Palace, where the Blue Mosque now stands. It was here that, when Justinian’s troops struck back at the rioters, 35,000 were killed.

We next walked into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, an enclosed square of calm and beauty with a fountain in its center. We noticed an old man with a white beard and kindly face, sitting on the steps to one side, knitting. He gave Jim permission to take his photos (Ali acting as translator). Smiling warmly he showed us some of what he had been knitting: a whole cloth bag full of hats and children’s booties. Ali bought a cap.

Then we walked out of the courtyard and there in front of us we saw Hagia Sophia for the first time, a red building made even redder by the setting sun. Breathtaking!

Ali, having to return to the hotel, pointed the way to a money changer on the main avenue — Divanyolou Caddesi — where we exchange euros for Turkish lira. One euro equaled more than 1,700,000 lira. At long last we are millionaires! Afterward we stopped at the small shop of a local art dealer and bought an Islamic miniature of Noah’s Ark ($30). Instead of a halo, a design of red flames surrounds Noah’s head. The background, icon-like, is of gold leaf.

We walked back to the hotel and went across the street to the Marmara Café, which Ali had briefly shown us before we had walked up to the Hippodrome. Exotic, ornately decorated water pipes lined the front window. There was the faint smell of sweet tobacco. It seemed at first to be an all-male hangout, but then we noticed women and children among the clientele. The back part of the café is a broad open porch with a sweeping view of the Sea of Marmara. We had tea while watching a procession of ships, some about to enter the Bosphorus, others exiting.

At about 7:00 our friend Shannon Robinson, just arrived from Albania, was brought over by Ali. She comes from Chicago but for the past five months has been principal of a newly opened primary school in Tirana founded by the Orthodox Church of Albania. She had tea with us, then we all went back to the hotel for a vegetarian supper. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the hotel the next day, then walked the short distance to her hostel, the Sinbad (its slogan: “world peace is inevitable”).