Monday, January 18, 2016

Turkey through a traveler’s eyes: Frances Elliot, an ‘idle woman in Constantinople’

Turkey through a traveler’s eyes: Frances Elliot, an ‘idle woman in Constantinople’

Turkey through a traveler’s eyes: Frances Elliot, an ‘idle woman in Constantinople’
Hippodrome, Sultanahmet

“The real beauty of Constantinople is in its water.
Water everywhere, clear, blue, and shimmering; away to the far south the placid sea of Marmora … To the north the long, low stretch of the Bosphorus teaming with steamers…and at hand the watery bosom of the Golden Horn cuts into the densest portion of the city, and disputes possession with the land.”
In these words at least I'll agree with their author, Frances Elliot. The self-styled “Idle Woman in Constantinople” visited the great city known today as İstanbul back in the May of 1892, and was more than justified in her assertion that the city's visual appeal derives, then as now, in large part from its situation astride these three great waterways.

Bleak and bigoted first impressions

But overall, Elliot is so negative about one of the world's great cities that it's hard to fathom why she bothered visiting at all, let alone writing a book about it; and that's allowing for the bigoted and imperious attitudes of the average Westerner of the period and the fact that the city was then, like the Ottoman Empire of which it was capital, in precipitous decline.
Arriving from Europe by train, her first impressions were scathing. The handsome Ottoman-era wooden houses, the surviving examples of which today sell for exorbitant sums to be transformed into boutique hotels and the like, Elliot decries as “common little buildings, not two alike in the whole city, piled one on the other. … The diminutive windows half-closed with wooden shutters to conceal the life of the harem.”
Of a city packed with splendid Ottoman-era mosques, fountains, bath houses and other buildings, she writes: “Ruin more complete, more ruthless, never was beheld. Absolute, sordid ruin, without dignity or pathos. Dust, dirt, neglect and noise everywhere.” About the vibrant hustle and bustle of a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia she is equally dismissive: “No quiet, no repose! A train rushes by, a passing cart raises clouds of dust out of the dry soil, a troop of Turkish children try to finger you. … a dragoman at your heels, whom you must have for protection […] mumbles incessantly in a sort of pigeon English; the cries of the vendors of cakes and water. The grunts of Persian and Armenian porters with their heavy loads, the click of the laden horses and donkeys […] make up a discord enough to crush the spirit of the most enthusiastic stranger.”

Across the Golden Horn to Pera

Travelling only with her maid, Elliot was relieved to be met at İstanbul Sirkeci Terminal by a splendidly dressed Greek kavass (consular guard) sent by the British Embassy. He soon has all her luggage piled into a horse and carriage, which proceeds along “the most execrable road I ever was shaken on in my life,” reaching the Galata Bridge in the “full evening splendour of the setting sun.” Here at last she begins to appreciate the beauty of the old city on its peninsula, noting approvingly “the Moslem side crowned with a noble line of mosques with gilded minarets” and “the long dark point of the Seraglio [Topkapı Palace], running far out into the water, crowned with its dark mysterious groves, so weird and beautiful.”
She appreciates too the cosmopolitan hubbub of the Galata Bridge itself, with its “English with white umbrellas and low hats … Armenians, with coloured sash glaring out of rags … Greeks in white petticoats and gold embroidered vests … blind beggars in threadbare turbans… Albanian sellers of sesame, honey and sweets; Greek and Bulgarian fruit sellers (and oh! what tempting strawberries), dervishes in white turbans and long dark kaftans.”
These and a whole host of other colorful characters briefly lighten Elliot's spirits, but as her carriage proceeds up the narrow streets of Galata she is soon back to criticizing the city she has come to write about, with its “miserable-looking open shops, about the size of cupboards,” street dogs whose plight “became a great grief to me” and the “cynical desolation” of a Moslem cemetery they ride by. Even the British Embassy, just off the Grande Rue de Pera (today's İstiklal Caddesi), designed by the noted architect Charles Barry and completed in 1855, she castigates as “most incongruous in architecture. Tuscan Gothic, copied from the Palazzo Pitti at Florence! Now this for an Oriental capital strikes one as absurd.”

Exploring Sultanahmet

Elliot based herself in the long-gone Hotel Royal, situated near the British Embassy, and set off daily to explore the city. Like so many visitors both before and after her, Elliot makes the cathedral built at the behest of the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), her first port of call. You won't be surprised to earn that this iconic building fails to impress the peevish Elliot. Berating its “agglomeration of shapeless roofs” and the “four clumsy minarets” added piecemeal after its conversion to a mosque following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of 1453, she was “quite bewildered with disappointment” before she'd even entered the holy building.
On entering her mood was not improved by the “slippers, dirty and old” she is compelled to wear over her shoes on entering the church-turned-mosque, which are too large and “keep dropping off, which enrages the door-keeper.” The cavernous interior, glittering with gold mosaic, its soaring dome floating of ethereally 55 meters above the floor the nave, she dismisses summarily: “The squareness of the church detracts from its size. […] the openness of the church offends by its plainness […] it did not impress me, and I am bound to tell the truth.”
Of course, the art and architecture of the Byzantine period had yet to undergo a rehabilitation that did not begin until the 20th century, and the Victorian world, of which Elliot was a typical product, remained in complete thrall to Classical Greece and Rome. But to find nary a good word to say about one of the world's most important buildings feels harsh even when judged by the standards of her time.
Her next stop, the nearby Hippodrome (At Meydan) fares no better, despite having its origins in the late-Roman, rather than Byzantine, period. To Elliot it is “an oblong area of a most vulgar and unpleasant aspect” where “horses ready saddled stand in the dust for hire, held by Turkish youths, and a crowd of fiacres with tourists, arabas, and ox-carts are drawn up in the shade; sellers of Turkish delight, water carriers and beggars” make the ancient chariot racing arena “a most unclean spot, and bitterly disappointing.”
The adjacent Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed I in 1609 and today one of the most visited sights in İstanbul, she describes as an “ugly mosque, with its six heavy minarets and four great domes.” Of the city's renowned mosques in general, Elliot writes, “If you have seen one mosque you have seen all, the variations are so trifling, the absence of art complete and the monotony so excessive.” So much for the great works of Sinan and other notable Ottoman architects!

Trips up the Golden Horn and Bosporus

At least Elliot was moderately adventurous, heading up the Golden Horn by caique, then following the line of the fifth century land walls of Theodosius. At last she finds something to praise, noting, “The walls of Rome, of which we hear so much, are not to be compared in height, strength or picturesqueness with those of Constantinople.” She also clearly enjoyed the pomp of a spectacle denied to today's visitors to the city, that of the sultan (Abdülhamit) and his entourage making his way from his palace in Yıldız to Friday prayers, and also reserved rare praise for the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, “of which the Turks are justly proud. It is by far the most artistic among the mosques which crown the hills.”
Enervated by the city's June heat, Elliot abandons the Hotel Royal and heads up the Bosporus to Therapia (today's Tarabya) by steamer, noting en-route, “Taken as a whole, the Bosphorus, though the slopes never rise to commanding heights, is excessively picturesque.” Arriving at Tarabya she heads for the “comfortable establishment of Petali's Hotel, with a charming view from every window” and settles herself in “a suite of airy rooms.” Here she has a very pleasant time of it, picnicking in the Belgrade Forest and hobnobbing with the Persian and British ambassadors. Elliot's last trip was to attend a social gathering across the Bosporus at the Sweet Waters of Asia, close to the fortification of Anadoluhisarı. Next day she “bade adieu to Constantinople from the deck of the ambassador's launch, and steamed by Vienna home into the Western world.”
Turkish readers will likely be very offended by Elliot's bigotry about their race and religion, but her visit does provide some useful and colorful information about İstanbul in the late 19th century.

Frances Minto Elliot

Born in 1820 in Berkshire, England, Frances Vickriss Dickinson married John Geils of Scotland when she was only 18. The marriage was a disaster, and after seven years she moved to London and filed for divorce. During the acrimonious and long-winded divorce proceedings she began writing for several noted London magazines, and soon got to know some of Victorian London's leading writers, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Although the injured party in the divorce, she was ostracized from polite London society and moved to Italy, eventually remarrying an elderly widower, Gilbert Elliot, though this marriage too foundered. She wrote four books in the “Idle Woman in” genre, several other travelogues and three novels. Little known today, she was very popular in her time. Elliot died in Italy aged 78.
“Diary of an Idle Woman in Constantinople” is republished by Ulan Press through

Haghia Sophia

Sirkeci train station (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)


Keywords: Turkey , traveler

Monday, January 4, 2016

Cappadocia’s other churches

Cappadocia’s other churches

Cappadocia’s other churches
Saklı Church, Göreme (Photo: Pat Yale)

When it comes to Cappadocia, visitors are spoilt for choice of things to see and do. They can take to the skies in a hot-air balloon for a bird's-eye view of the spectacular scenery. They can explore the myriad valleys with their extraordinary rock formations on foot or on horseback. They can make their way to Avanos and try their hand at throwing a pot. Or they can delve beneath the surface quite literally in one of the many underground cities that riddle the area.
 But most of all, they can take time out to inspect some of the wonderful medieval churches hollowed out of the rocks during the centuries when Cappadocia was a remote province of the Byzantine Empire. These churches are astonishing, partly because of the extraordinary way in which they mimic the shape of conventional masonry churches right down to columns and domes that serve no structural function in a cave context. But most of all they are astonishing because of the colorful frescoes that cover the walls and ceilings -- utterly mind-blowing when you see them for the first time.

Some of the finest of the frescoed churches are to be found in the Göreme Open Air Museum where several are grouped together to form what must once have been a very lively monastic settlement. But what if you arrive at the museum and find the car park jam-packed with coaches as can easily happen especially over a bayram (public holiday)? Luckily, there are plenty of other stand-alone churches to explore. And there's a fair chance that you'll have some of them to yourself.

The following list offers a mere taster. There are many other rock-cut churches to discover especially in the Ihlara and Soğanlı valleys.

El Nazar Church, Göreme

If the car park at the Open Air Museum is indeed full, one of the easiest alternatives to find is the El Nazar Church, which is signposted to the left off the road leading back to Göreme. After a walk of perhaps 300 meters, you'll come to a conical formation that looks rather like an outsize molar. Inside, it is a small but impressively frescoed 10th-century church, its neat, small dome decorated with a painting of the Pantocrator (God the Almighty).

Aynalı Church, Göreme

Alternatively, you could head for the 11th-century Aynalı (Symmetrical) Church, which is uphill behind the museum and clearly signposted off the road to the right. In place of the frescoes of the El Nazar Church, it's decorated with lively red and white geometrical patterns. Like the Yusuf Koç Church in Göreme, the Aynalı Church appears to have been part of a monastery with a huge hall running back from the church and tunnels leading to other rooms at least some of which could be sealed off with rolling stones as in the underground cities.

Yusuf Koç Church, Göreme

If you're staying in Göreme, there are several impressively frescoed churches right on your doorstep. The closest is the 11th-century Yusuf Koç Church, named after a man on whose land it used to stand. The church is part of a rock-cut monastic complex that includes an open-sided cave with a rock-cut refectory table running along one side. But it's the church itself, accessed via a metal ladder, that is most impressive.

Inside, what looks just like any one of the fairy-chimney cones standing around it, you'll find a brilliantly colorful church with twin domes and the tops of lost columns hanging from the ceiling where they were probably axed at the same time as a pigeon house was sliced into the walls. Here you'll find a painting of St George spearing his dragon, a popular image in an area that revered him as its patron saint. Here, too, you'll see life-size portraits of Saints Helena and Constantine holding the True Cross, which she is believed to have discovered while visiting Jerusalem.

Durmuş Kadir Church, Göreme

Close enough to be visited together with the Yusuf Koç Church, the Durmuş Kadir Church probably dates back to the sixth or seventh century, making it one of the oldest in the area. It may lack the glorious frescoes that are such a pull but offers instead one of the best examples of the sheer ambition brought to bear on creating the cave churches since it's at least as large as many masonry ones. The church is also worth seeing for the free-standing ambo (pulpit) that dominates the naos (nave), the partially surviving stone screen, and the synthronon, a tiered bench ringing the apse that is a feature of the most impressive Byzantine churches.

Haçlı Church

If you're walking in the Güllüdere (Rose Valley), you should make a point of looking for the wonderful Haçlı (Cross) Church, accessible via a steep metal ladder at the back of a small café. Here you'll find some of the most wonderfully colorful frescoes, including a magnificent 10th-century Pantocrator painted onto the apse and virtually undamaged despite its great age. Visitable on the same walk, especially if you have a guide to show you the way, are the Üçhaçlı (Three Crosses) Church, with more damaged frescoes, and the Kolonlu (Columned) Church, which, like the Durmuş Kadir, is more impressive for its virtuoso architecture, including the soaring pillars from which it takes its name.

Church of John the Baptist, Çavusin

On the way to or from Avanos, you can easily hop off the bus at Çavuşin where, right by the road, you'll see a 10th-century church whose façade has sheered away leaving some of its paintings exposed to the elements. Once again, access is via a metal ladder that lets you inspect at close quarters the huge painted archangels thus exposed before stepping inside the church to swoon over a barrel-vaulted ceiling entirely painted with pictures showing Bible stories in continuous strips. More unexpectedly, here, too, are images of the Emperor Nicephorus Focas and his wife, who visited the area in the 960s.

 Church of St John, Gülsehir

If you have a car, it's an easy drive south of Nevşehir to Gülşehir where the Church of St John (AKA Karşı Kilise) lurks on the northern outskirts unpromisingly hidden behind a cluster of modern houses. From the outside, the cone that houses the church looks equally unpromising. Inside, however, the frescoes have been wonderfully restored. What's more, they're easy to view from a platform reached by a spiral ladder that brings you up close enough to admire the details, especially of the dramatic Last Judgment scene painted on the west wall, an image that is rarely shown in Cappadocia.

Some local tours take in this church, which can also be visited by bus from Nevsehir to Gülşehir.

Church of St Theodore, Yesilöz (Tagor)

Virtually impossible to reach without private transport, the Tagor Church is, not surprisingly, one of the least well-known marvels of Cappadocia, despite the fact that it has a unique upper gallery, perhaps intended for women worshippers, that overlooks the central naos. Windows let into the raised dome allow light to flood into the church, which probably dates from the late 1lth or early 12th century.

Sakli Church, Göreme

The Saklı (Hidden) Church is a small gem of a building tucked away beneath a plateau within walking distance of the El Nazar. Unfortunately it's obvious from the fractured state of some of the ceiling paintings that it is not entirely safe in its current state, so the church is kept locked unless the El Nazar custodian feels like showing it to visitors. Should you be lucky enough to get inside, you will discover more glorious frescoes painted with a more restrained palate than those of the El Nazar.

Church of Forty Martyrs, Sahinefendi

One of the finest of all Cappadocia's less-visited treasures is the superb Church of Forty Martyrs hidden inside one of the dramatic fairy chimneys dotting the roadside at Şahinefendi, a village too often whipped through by minibuses on their way to Soğanlı. Access is problematic despite the fact that the frescoes on the walls and ceiling are newly restored and that the church has been readied for visitors. For the time being, the keyholder also has to guard the Roman ruins at nearby Sobesos so may be reluctant to divert to unlock the gate. If he does, you will discover a dramatic rendering of the strange story of the 40 martyrs, a group of early Christians from Sivas who refused to give up their faith and were driven out onto a frozen lake to freeze to death. There's even an image of the one man who recanted being replaced by a local official who converted to Christianity and who is shown casting off his elaborate robe to join the men on the lake. Unusually, an inscription permits the paintings to be dated accurately to 1216.

Keywords: Cappadocia , church

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