A Stillness in Halki


The Sea of Marmara is a cold gray in early winter. Its brackish waters chop against the hull of the white-and-yellow ferry as it slips toward the Princes Islands. Istanbul recedes in the distance, looking for all the world like a Muslim Venice with its spires, its domes, and its ancient mien. The parallel struck me, and I thought of the first Orhan Pamuk book I ever read – The White Castle, with its tale of Renaissance-era Italian and Turkish dopplegangers, the former the slave of the latter, who eventually swap places and worlds. Istanbul is like that, its character mirroring its geography and its aspirations as a metaphorical crossroads. It seems one thing, and then the other, even as it rests upon the bones of something dead and grand.
In an interview we had with Australian radio this morning, Robert Moynihan mentioned that all of European history is a nostalgia for Rome. He meant the Roman Empire – I don't know if the insight is his – and it occurred to me that the remains of Constantinople reflect this rather well. The barbarians who ended antiquity emerged from the same formless steppe as the Turks, and like the Turks, they sought to be worthy, in their way, of the heritage of their conquests. If we conceive of the Turks as the last eruption of the barbarians who ended the old Empires – in their case, the last vestige of Imperial Rome – then their modern predicament becomes more comprehensible. In watching the Turks seek to become European (even as Europeans strip the word of any meaning), one recalls Germanic and Gothic rulers seeking to be worthy of their concept of Roman culture.
As we cut through the chill waters yesterday evening, I spoke with a lovely woman who embodied the old Ottoman Muslim oikumene: Bahar is half-Albanian and half-Turkish, and she spoke lovingly of her adored Istanbul. Then she added, somewhat apologetically, “We are trying, you know, to make the city good. As good as a European city.” But Istanbul is already as good as a European city, as far as I can see. It has better plumbing than Athens, better traffic than Rome, and better street-cleaning than Paris. There is a sadness here, whether Bahar perceives it or not, because the effort is futile: European-ness is not to be found in a well-run city. The subject is awkward, making French enarques shuffle uncomfortably, and Brussels conciliators seek secular rhetoric: the critical factor is faith. Faith is not merely a thing-in-itself, though it is that – it is also a thing to be engaged, and it is the public engagement that makes all the difference for the Turkish Republic. That republic has failed, and nowhere is its failure more evident than in the shuttered, empty halls at the Orthodox Christian theological school at Halki.
We disembarked at the island of Heybeli – Halki to the Greeks – and took a horse-and-buggy to the top of the island’s mountain. At the verdant gates, we were met by a monk in training, a young man named Elia. He was asked his ethnicity. “I am Greek,” he said, and then corrected himself: “I am Roman.” And then, after a beat: “A Greek Roman.” Some of his listeners looked puzzled. I knew what he meant. He is Rhomaioi, of the race that founded the Queen City across the Marmara waters. He is still around. In spite of earth and hell, he and his survive. And he means to fight to stay.
For those who are interested, the Pope and Patriarch Flickr pool, containing photos of our activities, is now available.

Turkish barbarians

I am enjoying your thoughtful despatches from Turkey. However I do wonder about the idea of viewing the Turks as the last in the line of barbarians rolling back the Roman empire. Certainly, prior to the conquest of Constantinople, neither Ottoman nor Selcuk Turks were squeamish, but the complexes of mosques, medreses and haans they built are testament to a refined civilization - e.g.The Great Karatay Medrese in Konya

Incidentally, in your photo gallery, IMG_4121.jpg is not of the Blue Mosque but the Suleymaniye - N.B 4 not 6 minarets.