Solomon, I Have Surpassed You

Islam, Christianity, Shiny-shiny  - it's all there in the Hagia Sophia

Every day of our week in Istanbul I ate honeycomb with salty cheese for breakfast, wandered backstreets and side streets and main streets, saw amazing Byzantine and Ottoman history, ate more great food, took long baths, drew and painted, read a fantastic book about Istanbul* and then went to bed early to do it again the next day.  It was incredible. 

On our second day Max and I found a nook in the Hagia Sophia Byzantine Church (then Aya Sophia Mosque) and spent some time drawing, talking, reading, writing, thinking.  The current incarnation of this massive church was built in 537 by the emperor Justinian and upon its completion he stood inside, looking up (as the story goes) and said aloud

“Solomon, I Have Surpassed You”

Max let me reenact the moment inconspicuously in the corner as I’d been imaging for weeks, but was still a little embarrassed.  I read about this a few months ago and I haven’t been able to shake the image of  Justinian, dressed in finery and jewels, reveling in his excess.  The hubris, the insertion of himself into the grand biblical narrative, his historical envy and obsession with legacy!  I’m not saying I think it’s awesome, but that it’s fascinating.  I have wondered a lot about what motivated these people to create such incredible structures when the scope of those who would enjoy them was relatively small – they certainly wouldn’t have been able to show it off to their friends on facebook the next day.  But perhaps their intended scope was much, much broader than I first imagined - back to Solomon and forward into eternity.        
This is an even better juxtaposition of Islam and Christianity
I thought about excess a lot as we toured the Topkapi palace that afternoon.  The palace was completed in 1465 for the Sultan and the juiciest part of the tour is the Sultan’s Harem.  But, as I read, this wasn’t a Dionysian free for all, a bacchanal of epic proportions.  The rules of the Harem were set and strictly enforced by the Queen Mother.  People wrote this as if to make things less strange, but as I wrote in my journal that day it's not LESS weird if the harem is controlled by the 'Queen Mother'....it's definitely more...
Ceiling in Topkapi Palace

Another Ceiling in Topkapi Palace
One afternoon I toured the Chora Church (later the Kariye Mosque and currently a museum) which is perhaps the finest example of Byzantine mosaic work in the world.  It was spectacular.  I tackled it with an archeological guide book and spent the better part of an hour in one corner trying to understand how light worked on miniature golden tiles and what each scene represented.  It was beautiful, intricate and excessive – even by today’s standards - and my brain melted a little bit trying to understand the time, energy and craftsmanship it must have taken in the early 5th century when it was built. 

One of several AMAZING mosaic ceilings in the Chora Church
We felt like Kings on this trip.  Not that we indulged, in fact, we didn’t.  Not in the traditional sense anyway.  We mostly ate elevated street food, bought discounted museum passes and walked everywhere.  But to explore these amazing buildings, be so close to history, eat (many) simple but filling meals, be free from morning to night to wander and draw and read and make new friends – that is real decadence.
Blue Mosque Courtyard
Yeni "New" Mosque

*"My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk.  I'm still not finished but it's really great


Olives, Yogurt, White Cheese and Tea

Yeni Mosque, Eminonou Istanbul
 “Yogurt. It’s TURKISH yogurt, not Greek yogurt.  It’s different…and it’s better” Ali says to me over a communal tub of thick sour yogurt. 

This is his response to the very open ended question What do I need to know about Turkey? And it should tell you the position that yogurt has in Turkish culture (pun only partially intended).

“And breakfast: If it doesn’t have olives, yogurt, white cheese and tea forget about it.  Just go back to bed.” 

Food, I learned in Turkey last week, matters a great deal.  But more on that later.   

I showed up to the five story studio and sometimes home of Ali and Betul at 10:30 for a lesson in Turkish marbling  (5 stories of about 10 square feet each floor, think wide ladder instead of palace).  Paper marbling is a process by which multiple colors of paint are dropped onto the surface of treated water, mixed around to create a pattern (though not mixed together) and then transferred onto thin paper.  You see paper marbling at the beginning and ending of old books and it looks like, well, multi-colored marble.   My bookbinding teacher in Jerusalem was a paper marbler and I’ve been fascinated by it for years though too intimidated to try it myself.  Turkey has a long history of paper marbling with a unique brand of embellishment including flowers and leaves.

"It's sometimes called painting with water”  Betul says to me from her top floor studio where I am torn between jaw dropping views of Istanbul and what’s happening in the seaweed thickened water on the table in front of me.  Betul makes it look easy and while there is a kind of natural flow to raking and fanning the colors, my lines are no where near as uniform as hers and my peacock pattern is laughable – squished flat like a heavy sandwich instead of full like a balloon.  But I thoroughly enjoy the afternoon selecting colors, dropping them onto the sludgy water to see them expand and moving them with metal awls and rakes of various sizes.  I’m only kind of embarrassed when she selects a generic artsy English language playlist on spotify that starts with Simon and Garfunkel and includes many songs I already know.  Is my “type” so knowable? I think, being sure not to drip ox gall infused paint onto my black jeans.   But then I don’t care and I discover what ultramarine looks like with powder blue and crimson red.  (Yes, that's me gasping in the video...) 
After our session Ali invites me to stay for lunch that Betul’s mother has made.  It is a simple meal of fresh green beans with ground beef and the ubiquitous “Shepard’s Salad” known by a million names throughout the Middle East and North Africa: tomato, onions, cucumber, parsley, lemon, olive oil.   Betul’s mother teaches me the Turkish word for thank you and delicious and I watch first when a pail of creamy yogurt is placed on the table and then dip my spoon in after each bite along with everyone else. 

“Why did you choose paper marbling?” Ali asks me, given the other options of calligraphy, felting, tile painting and sedef – traditional Turkish wood block carving and printing.

Happiest I've ever been...perhaps
“I like the colors and the patterns....and the possibilities”

“Do they talk to you?  The colors, do they talk to you?”

Unsure of how to answer I cock an eyebrow towards Ali.

“They will.  He says.  Send your husband away. They won’t talk if he’s there.  But send him away and they’ll talk to you.”

Well, you heard the man Max. 

It's not personal. 

Can't take credit for this one, Betul was really incredible