Byzantine Imperial Mosaics in Istanbul

The entrance to the Mosaic Museum in Istanbul is through the Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet. Descending to a couple of levels below that of the bazaar, you find yourself faced with some remarkable mosaics from the Byzantine Imperial Palace that occupied most of what is the modern Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.

The mosaics, first discovered in the 1930s, are believed to have been part of the colonnade between the Imperial apartments and the Imperial enclosure on the Hippodrome. An enormous restoration project lifted the mosaics and put them on to new backing material in order to preserve them. The museum’s roof allows filtered light though so that you can view the mosaics in natural light.

There are some charming domestic scenes, such as this one of boys playing some sort of chariot racing game:

Two boys riding on a camel led by a slave:

Two boys driving geese:

I am curious as to why the boys in these mosaic scenes look more like small, stocky men rather than children, though their faces are quite distinct from the faces of the adult men depicted. I wonder if it is connected with a view of children as mini adult: the cult of childhood being a much later (probably seventeenth or eighteenth century) invention.

The depiction of animals and the human form is generally very well done, as in these scenes of animal husbandry:

A striking feature of the mosaics is the absence of images of women (apart from the one below and another one showing a woman with an infant on her lap).

The surviving mosaics give the strong impression of a male world, often involving cruelty to animals, at least to a modern sensibility.  Here for example are hunters fighting wild animals:

Animals fight each other in a struggle for survival, frequently depicted in gory detail:

Even an apparently straightforward depiction of a boy with a puppy seems to have an undertone of cruelty: the puppy appears to be springing out of the boy’s arms in fear – and is that an evil look on the boy’s face? Is it just the limitations of mosaic art? Or are we projecting our own interpretation on a more innocent scene?

There are certainly some fine animals depicted, from the exotic:

to the mythical / fantastical:

And finally two remarkable faces in the border decoration which look remarkably medieval to me and also remind me of the green man motif.

The overall impression I get from these mosaics is that are very Roman and pagan in their subject matter, style and execution. It came as a bit of a shock to me that they formed part of an Imperial Palace, perhaps because in my experience Byzantine imagery is mainly religious and stylistically very different. But these are early mosaics (5th century) in terms of Byzantine history and culture, so perhaps it is not so surprising that they are as strongly Roman as they seem.  

At the sign of “The Blue Light”: shopping and the exotic in Russia

Two sayings often spring to mind when I think of the time I have spent in Russia. The first is “Anything can happen in Russia”, often said with a mixture of exasperation and secret admiration. The other is question a friend once asked me “Kak vam nravitsa nasha ekzotika?” (“How do you like our exotic way of life?). It struck me at the time as a bit of an exaggeration. Most countries like to think they’re a bit special, a bit out of the ordinary and the Russians are no exception. But the more I see of them, the more true these sayings seem to be.

It’s my last evening in Tula. My host Yekaterina is an excellent cook and excels herself with dinner: chicken esalopes, golubtsy (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice) in a tomato sauce, smoked salmon rice, tomatoes with garlic and mayonnaise. Wine and fruit juice to drink. Vanilla and chocolate jelly for pudding.

I finish packing (we leave for Moscow tomorrow) and have a short lie down after this feast. The family say they would like to show me where Yekaterina works as an accountant. Now, I know that she works for a supermarket called The Blue Light, as I have seen it on the business card she gave me. So I grab my camera, thinking that I could get some shots of the family and perhaps that I ought to take some shots of the shop, and off all five of us go: Yekaterina, her husband, Iosif and their two twenty something daughters.

It’s a very well stocked, average size supermarket, full of western European brands. Curiously there aren’t many shoppers around. Try as I might I can’t find anything to photograph: one supermarket looks pretty much like any other. We have a good look around and then they suggest that we go upstairs.

At the bottom of the winding stairs stands some sort of security guard who eyes me and my camera with suspicion. It’s only as we climb the stairs that I realise why as we pass a succession of posters advertising a casino, billiard hall, bar restaurant, cafe and Erotic Shows. God, what have they brought me to?

Just a few people are playing billiards (it’s about 9.30pm) and on the way through the family ask if I’d like to see the striptease. I politely decline. So we carry on through to the restaurant. It’s very comfortable: plush sofas and chairs, nice carpets, beautifully laid tables. We go and sit in the corner at the back, passing a small stage where a man and woman are singing Russian pop at a volume that’s beyond bearable.

My host has mysteriously disappeared to the older daughter’s flat which also happens to be in this part of Tula to do some repairs. The area is called Proletarsky and consists of loads of blocks of flats built to house the 280,000 workers at the Arms Factory (Tula used to be a closed town before Perestroika).

By now we four have sat down at a table. Despite my protestations that I am still full from dinner (eaten less than an hour and a half ago), Yekaterina insists that I have some sturgeon in a creamy sauce with some red caviare, lettuce and a glass of white wine. The girls order some ice cream and Yekaterina, I note, eats nothing.

At the other end of the restaurant there’s along table with a company outing, according to Yekaterina. I ask her what sort of people come here and she says “The rich.’

I think of my friends in Belarus and even some of the people I’ve met here in Tula and the contrast between their subsistence existence and this luxury. This is one face of the new Russia: what a gulf there is between ordinary people and the wealthy.

Next ice cream is pressed upon me and it’s just as I start to eat it that the lights go down. Suddenly a completely naked girl appears on the stage and starts to gyrate around a chrome pole. I look at Yekaterina and her daughters: they are completely unfazed and actually look quite interested in the proceedings. I’m the one who’s embarrassed. Over the next half an hour a succession of girls appear and do their stuff. At one point, Yekaterina signals to one of the girls and she shimmies over to our table to give us our own personal performance. My female companions are smiling and enjoying it. This uptight Englishman  is blushing to the roots of his thinning hair by this stage.

After our meal and the floor show we go and play billiards, at which we are all as useless as each other and then home to bed.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where the business model for this enterprise was first broached:

– “So we’re agreed then. We’re going with the supermarket.”

– “Yes, but we need to differentiate ourselves, Find a USP.”

– “OK, but we are going to stock it with goods from western Europe that you can’t buy in other shops. Isn’t that enough?”

– “No, we need something bolder, more radical….Got it! Why don’t we put a billiard hall and pole dancing club on the first floor. You know how that’s just the sort of place you want to go after you’ve been shopping!”  

– “Are you mad or on drugs?”

– ” No, but I am the boss, so that’s what we are doing!”

Thus great business ideas are born as, no doubt, Steve Jobs would confirm, were he still with us.

Where all the old books go

Wondering around Tula I come across something completely unexpected, a secondhand bookshop (bukinist in Russian, from the word bouquiniste which the French use particularly for those bookstalls along the Seine in Paris).

I don’t know why but I had imagined that this sort of shop disappeared at the revolution.

Inside there are all sorts of delights. There are the complete works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov in old Soviet editions at ridiculously cheap prices. For example a complete Leskov for £3.20. Here too are the complete works of Marx and Lenin, Stalin’s complete speeches in over 100 hundred volumes, a full Soviet Encyclopedia. Who on earth would be buying these now?

I’m looking for anything pre-Revolution. A first edition of any of my favourite Russian writers would be nice. Perhaps a signed copy of Chekhov short stories…a book from Tolstoy’s own library, perhaps…a batered and much annotated copy of Pushkin that Nabokov had owned when he lived at Vyra, his family’s estate near St Petersburg. I look in vain. There may be gems here but today I miss them. Most of the stock is Soviet era, mass-produced and on poor quality paper.

In the modern bookshops though I am heartened to see a lot of Nabokov is now available, both his Russian novels and translations of the novels he wrote in English. I don’t come across many people who read him in Russia, though many have heard of him. I am reminded of the comment of the Russian reader on Nabokov’s translation of Lolita into Russian ‘On zabyl‘ (‘He has forgotten’). In other words he had forgotten how to write in his own native tongue in his effort to become one of the finest writers in English.

My host family in Tula

The souls of generosity, my host family in Tula are not from this area. One day at breakfast, Yekaterina tells me that they came to Russia from the Ukraine at the invitation of some relations for her to work in a private shop belonging to the ex-Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. She is an accountant and used to work in that role in the Ministry of the Interior which controls the police and the traffic inspectorate.

Her husband, Iosif, is now the deputy director of a building company which employs 125 people. But in the Ukraine he was the director of a State Farm and mayor of the local town. He shows me a picture of himself with the Orthodox Patriarch Irenaeus at the laying of the foundations of a new church in the Ukraine for which he helped to raise the funds. He often gets calls on his mobile at home involving tense and sometimes shouty conversations. I imagine that all is not going smoothly on some of his projects.

Iosif is always trying to make me feel at home. One day he takes for a drive round the city and for some reason we end up at a church. It’s very modern, clearly not Orthodox, more like a Lutheran or Baptist church. Inside we get into a rather bizarre conversation with an old lady and a young girl about God. They seem to be very fundamentalist and when Iosif says that he is Orthodox, they are quite critical of his religion. His big mistake is to mention monks – a bit of a red rag to evangelicals in my experience. It’s hard to tell whether he’s deliberately  winding them up. When the ladies calm down a bit they try and invite me to a service, but I plead lack of time: we make our excuses and leave. In  retrospect, I think Iosif was trying hard to make me feel more at home by showing me what he imagined to be the sort of church I am used to in England.

On another occasion, near the market I suddenly spot something which up to that point I had only seen illustrated in Russian language textbooks – a kvas wagon.

Kvas is a specifically Russian non-alcoholic slightly fizzy drink, made from water sugar and dried rye bread. The rye bread helps to make it start fermenting a bit, hence the fizz and sourness. On a hot day it’s really refreshing. Iosif tells me a story about a container falling off its base and splitting open in the street to reveal loads of worms. I gingerly sip my plastic cup full of kvas, which he notices, because he hastily tells me that this one is fine.

My hosts have very strong views about the state of Russian society. Putin, they think, is weak. Good at the talk and making promises, short on delivery. Everything’s going from bad to worse. Agriculture has completely broken down. The fields are not being sown, nor the land looked after, and a lot of food is being imported (eg potatoes from Argentina). Since the alleged Chechen attempt to blow up blocks of flats in Ryazan [exposed by Politkovskaya as an FSB plot to blame the Chechens], people have had metal doors put on the outside of their flats: “We live in cages!’, they tell me. Crime has gone up and in fact a man was robbed and killed in the entrance to their block.

“We need a strong leader like Stalin who can make things happen and get rid of people when they don’t deliver.” My blood runs cold. How can they possible want that tyrant and murderer back? I try to make the case for the importance of an opposition in a democratic society, but they sweep that aside: “What good would that do? Only a strong man can sort this out.”

It suddenly makes me aware of the gulf between us in terms of our history and political outlook.

Howling at the moon on the way to school

I love words and the origin of words which often tell us something of the cultures from which they come. A couple of examples from my recent Greek lessons.

My tutor, Maria, knows that often I like to know the origin of Greek words and so she tells me the Ancient Greek roots because she knows it will help me to remember them. And it’s true, it does help them to stick in my memory – or some of them at least. To be honest, I need all the help I can get to remember words. There’s an awful lot of words that I can’t fix in my head with any sort of hook, so I grab any passing straw whenever I can.

A few lesson ago, I had forgotten the word for avenue or boulevard (leoforos) and was confusing it with the word for bus or coach (leoforeio). She kindly put me right and I asked why the words were similar and what the origin of them was, expecting that it was an old word for ‘road’.

“Well’, she said, “it’s made up of two words ‘leo’ (lion) and ‘foro’ (from the verb to bring). So it refers to the road down which they used to bring exotic animals, like lions, for people to see.”

“Did they have gladiators then in Greece?”, I asked.

“No, it was just for people to see them. And leoforeio was what they brought the animals in.”

It’s made me look at buses in a whole new light now.

In our last lesson before Maria went back to Greece for her summer holidays, we encounter the Greek word for wolf (likos). So playing word association, another useful technique for trying to remember vocabulary, I say “As in the English word ‘lycanthropy’?”

“Yes”, she says, “that’s right. The werewolf stories originate from the Balkan peninsula. In Ancient Greece there was a cult of Apollo where people met at night at a temple, drank the blood of a sacrifice, probably animal, but sometimes human and then went out into the forest. This was at a place called Likeio. Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens was on the site of one of these temples to Apollo, that’s how it got its name.”

In Modern Greek likeio is a secondary school and is the origin of the word lycee in French. Having taught in a French lycee for a time, I can’t swear that lycanthropy wasn’t practised, but it can’t be ruled out. Though come to think of it, the howling at the moon bit and the human sacrifices probably more accurately describes how the professeurs felt.