Saturday, November 2, 2013

Chora Church, The best example of the Late Byzantine Architecture and Palaiologos Renaissance

When Chora Church was opened to public after the grand renovation carried out in the beginning of the 14th Century, people of Constantinople must have been astonished when they saw for the first time three-dimensional mosaics and wall paintings which are realistic and most importantly created with a deep sense of perspective instead of abundantly godlike icons they got used to for centuries.  Otto Demus, art historian, describes Chora Church as the place where all customary art rules of the Byzantine and Medieval Era were broken. Italian painter Giotto in Scrovegni Chapel, Italy and unknown byzantine artists in Chora Church, Constantinople started to paint scenes and faces of the Old and New Testament in a different way independent of each other and almost at the same time in contrary to flat and toneless illustrations of centuries. If they ever knew what they did was initiating the Renaissance of painting, they would have been surprised as much as people who saw their extraordinary mosaics and wall paintings.

Chora Church is located nearby Theodosius Walls in Edirnekapi in Historical Peninsula. It was given the name Chora which means “rural area, outside the city” in Ancient Greek as it was out of Constantinople Walls, previous borders of the city.  Once upon a time, Chora was a large monastery with various structures, however today only the Church remained.  The date it was built is questionable, but it is believed to be the 3rd Century; the building built outside the city of the time gained importance as a religious centre when the burial chamber of the Saint Babylas who was killed by Romans in Nicaea during the Early Christianity period was moved here in the 4th Century.

Giotto / A wall painting in Scrovegni  Chapel
Experiencing the first structural expansion during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, the monastery was rebuilt, repaired and added new structures many times. The monastery gained increasing importance as many patriarchs and renowned saints were buried in its cemetery. Official religious ceremonies shifted from Hagia Sophia to Church of Chora since Blakhernai Palace next to the monastery was started to be used instead of the Grand Palace in Sarayburnu which fell out of favour in the 11th century.
Monastery complex and the Church lied in ruin as a result of Latin pillage during Latin invasion in 1204-1261 and earthquake  of 1296.

Methochites, the man with the biggest hat in history,
presents the Church to Jesus Christ.
Chora lying in ruins was rebuilt by Theodore Methochites - a great personality of the period. Methochites, who was born  in 1260 as son of George Metochites - one of the important figures of the palace of Emperor Michael VII. Palaiologos - received a good education in Constantinople and he ended up as an advisor in the palace of Emperor Andronikos II which later paved the way of prime ministry (Mega Logothetes) in time. As his father George Metochites, he was a bold defender of the idea that Orthodox and Catholic Churches should be united.  As an author, philosopher and even scientist in addition to his status as a statesman, Metochites left poems, assays on philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and astronomy books when he died. As wealthiest and the most powerful person after the emperor of his time, Methochites was a very interesting man in every respect; having managerial skills and determination allowing him to become a prime minister, Methochites was a man with unique characteristics who wrote assays on philosophy and developed calculation tables for astronomy; according to what is told about him, he worked as a statesman during the day and as a scientist at night. As it was a common practice during that period, rich aristocrats of Byzantium were also using a part of their wealth for supporting arts and science just like Italian Medicis and most of the time they had a church built with wall paintings painted by famous painters of the time. This was a sort of shriving and compensation of the power and wealth to the public. Regardless of whether the sponsor is Mediccis or the Prime Minister Methochites, whether a mosque or a church is built, it is clear that a huge wealth is never free of sin… Anyway, let`s get back to our subject, in 1328 the wind changed direction for Methochites, the new emperor seized all possessions of Methochites and exiled him since he saw him as a threat, but later he allowed him to return as a monk to Chora -the monastery he had renovated in the past. Methochites spent last years of his life in grief and melancholy and died in 1332 as a monk in the monastery that he had built with his power and wealth and had its walls decorated with mosaics progressive enough to put an end to an era and start a new one in the art of painting and beautiful enough to strike viewers by surprise. His grave is in the Church, in Paracclesion part- funeral chapel.

Although there are more than twenty mosaics illustrating important scenes from the Old and New Testament, I will try to describe three of them which I like the most and I find important with respect to arts:

Registration for population census for tax  before Cyrenius, the Governor of Syria.

This mosaic is on the left hand side of the Church`s narthex. It is one of the most beautiful mosaics of the building. The sense of depth and perspective created by the artist with buildings and trees in the background and vivid expression on faces are surprisingly good. Roman Emperor Augustos ordered population census in all Roman cities with the purpose of tax calculations, John and Mary left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem since everybody has to be present in the city they were born during population census. Mosaic illustrated Mary and John right behind her while registering for tax before Cyrenius, the Governor of Syria at that time. On the left side of the mosaic, Cyrenius sits on a golden throne and there is a Roman soldier behind him, two birth registry and tax officers taking registries in the middle and  Mary and John answer questions on the right side.
Wall painting in funeral chapel-Paracclesion illustrating Anastesis (judgement day)

It is the half dome on one end of the Paracclesion and it illustrates a scene when Jesus Christ wearing white breaks the gates of hell on judgement day and resurrects Adam and Eve out of their graves. The most interesting detail is  Abel standing in front of the crowd on the left side of the painting. Cain, son of Adam and Eve, was the first human born and  his brother Abel he killed because of jealousy was the first human to die.  Abel is illustrated holding a shepherd sceptre and saints standing right behind him, he looks to the back side,  young and sad expression on the face of Able who was killed by his own brother is very touchy.  When this wall painting was created in the 14th century, there were centuries to come until Caravaggio and Rembrandt enchanted us by holding a light on objects of the painting in front of a dark background, however Jesus Christ in white placed on a background of night and stars emphasizes his presence at first glance.
Mother and father of Mary, Hannah and Joachim are happy with the good news that Mary will be born.

This mosaic is in narthex part since it illustrates the story of Mary. Angels give good news to Hannah and Joachim that Mary will be born. What amazes me in this mosaic is the natural and beautiful embrace of Hannah and Joachim; this is the wall painting called the conception of theotokos which was frequently illustrated in both Orthodox and Catholic churches and such realistic, close faces as if they were about to kiss cannot be seen in previous examples in the Medieval Era.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Egypt, bread basket of the Mediterranean

I have recently mentioned that Roman people gave up their political freedom just for the sake of free “bread and entertainment” (“panem et circenses”) and told about the entertainment side of the issue; i.e. gladiator combats and chariot races offered by the state. This time, I’ll write about the “bread” … In Rome and Constantinople, distributing free bread to the public was the main condition for the rulers to remain in power, free of problems and riots. In the Ottoman period, although bread was not distributed to all citizens of the capital  but only to the poor by “imarets” (Ottoman soup kitchen), one of the most important roles of the Grand Vizier was to check the weight and price of bread and the amount of grains at depots by wandering around main markets and bazaars every week.
For two thousand years, the considerable amount of the grains of the capital city from Roman to Byzantine and from Byzantine to Ottoman periods came from Egypt, i.e., “bread basket of the Mediterranean”. The historian Peter Garnsey from Oxford University stated that around a hundred thousand tonnes of grains were sent from Egypt to Rome in the first century during the reign of Emperor Augustus. In the fourth century, around two hundred fifty thousand tonnes of grains were sent from Egypt to Constantinople to feed the half a million population of the city those times. The grains coming from Egypt by sailboats were stored in Tenedos (today’s Bozcaada), forwarded to Constantinople in parts as needed and the bread made of these grains were distributed to the people of the capital city every morning for free. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, around eighty thousands loaves of bread were distributed daily in Constantinople. Distribution of free bread was over when the Arabs took Egypt from the Byzantine Empire and for the first time people of the capital city had to pay for their bread which mas mainly made of grains from Balkans. People of the capital city of the empire which lost its “bread basket” must have felt very bad when they paid money for the bread they had been eating for free for thousands of years. Speaking of emotions, maybe we shall also talk about the emotions of the Egyptians who had sent their grains for centuries to the capital city of their colonist as a tax. When the Ottomans took Egypt from Mamluk Empire in the sixteenth century, ships loaded with grains set off from Alexandria to Istanbul again but bread was not free anymore.

Egyptian mural painting / Wheat harvest
Alexandria, Egypt’s port town, became the second most important city of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods both when the capital was Rome and Constantinople. As the crowded population of all three empires fed on the grains coming from Egypt, it had always been different from other provinces and ruled semi-autonomously. But its government never became local; Egypt had something so precious that it could not be left to the Egyptians itself. There were no other province around the Mediterranean Sea where the assigned administrators rebelled and declared independence so many times. When the governor of Egypt ceased sending grain ships to the capital city, usually a chain reaction occurred; the distribution of free bread, in other words, the magic wand of the government, ended within a few months, then it became difficult to find bread even for a fee and the public rebelled against the empire or sultan in the end if necessary measures are not taken immediately. Consequently, in all three empires, the governor of Egypt was the most powerful ruler after the emperor and the most risky one against the emperor, as well.

Pompeii mural painting / Bake house
In Roman period, when all other provinces were ruled by governors assigned by the senate, Alexandria’s ruler called as “praefecttus” was assigned by the emperor and had more rights than the other governors. The first riot in Egypt rose up in the period of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius; in 175, governer Avidius Cassius declared independence but the riot was suppressed. In 193, this time governor Pescennius Niger declared himself emperor and Septimius Severus, the Roman Emperor, defeated the armies of Niger (his name meant “black” due to his rather dark skin) and took Egypt back (It is an irony of fate that, as soon as Septimius Severus supressed this riot, he went to the North-western part of the empire to suppress the riot of the Britain and Spain’s governor, Claudius Albino, whose name meant “white” due to his rather white hair and skin. Another interesting story we learnt from the Roman senator and historian Casius Dio, born in Nikae (today’s Izmit) is that; with this riot, Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) experienced the greatest destruction in its history. Septimius Severus destroyed the city walls and almost all of the important buildings of the city as a punishment after he had taken over the city and killed almost half of its population, for the reason that the city had sided with Niger against the Roman Emperor, which, so to speak, “backed the wrong horse”. Palmira Empire, which was founded in the Third century after its rebellion against Rome while it had been one of the Roman provinces, took over Egypt to access grains and ceased the grain supply to Rome. Then the Roman army suppressed the riot and took Egypt back again. The grains sent to Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire whet Sassanian’s appetite in the sixth century. Though the Byzantium Emperor Heraclius managed to take Egypt back from the Sassanians, it failed to stop the Arabian invasion in 641 and Egypt changed hands for four times in the subsequent nine centuries, it was invaded by the Arabians, Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks, respectively and the grain supply from Egypt to Constantinople ceased until the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I. The Ottoman Empire worked hard to protect Egypt but just like in Roman and Byzantine periods in early 1800s, they lost it to their own governor, who was Mehmet Ali Pasha of Kavala. Mehmet Ali Pasha declared his own Khediviate where the right of ruling descended from father to son and he conquered Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jerusalem, Beirut and Syria after Egypt and founded his own empire within the Ottoman Empire in other words. Egypt Khediviate was an Ottoman province only on the paper, such that, upon a disagreement with Mahmud II. Mehmet Ali Pasha marched to Istanbul and only with the help of the Russians did Ottomans could stop Mehmet Ali Pasha’s army in Kütahya. Foreign countries mediated between the parties, Mehmet Ali Pasha returned back to Egypt and when he died, he had left a dynasty that would rule Egypt for a hundred years.

Mehmet Ali Pasha of Kavala
In the last few centuries, both the world and the needs of the developed countries for which they depend on underdeveloped countries have changed. Today, while the USA is the world’s greatest grain exporter thanks to modern agricultural techniques, Egypt, which had been the “bread basket” of the Mediterranean in the past, is the world’s greatest grain importer. Unbelievable, isn’t it? On the other hand; the top ten crude oil exporters in the world mainly consist of the Middle Eastern countries. The Middle Eastern countries which are rich of natural resources has now replaced Egypt, crude oil has replaced the grains, huge tankers have replaced the wooden sailboats but neither the direction of good flow nor the essence of the relationship between the receiver and the supplier has changed for the last two thousand years. The Roman emperor, who would lose his throne upon a riot if he fails to supply the grain for the crowded population in the capital city, wasn’t so much different from today’s President who worries about the price of oil barrel prior to elections.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Iliad as an ethical guide

400 years after his mother put Moses into Nile River inside a basket and 1200 years before Mary gave birth to Christ in Nazareth; in Çanakkale in today’s Turkey, an Anatolian civilization, the city of Troy was destroyed by the people of Achaea, i.e. by Hellene tribes at the end of a war that lasted 10 years. 3200 years after this war, we learn its story from Iliad, which is the epic of Homer, a poet from Izmir.
For four centuries from eighth century when Homer compiled Iliad until the fourth century when the roots of modern philosophy germinated in Athens, Iliad had been the sole written work specifying the values of the Greek society around the Aegean region. This book which is a beautiful poem and an ancient epic for us today, had a totally different function at those times. Iliad was almost only written text used in education. The most important part of school education and religious education was the memorizing of Iliad. Just as most people learn their values, rights and wrongs from the holy scriptures of the religions they believe, they learnt these from Iliad back then. Until when Socrates and Plato criticized the religious system talked about in Iliad, in which gods punished and awarded the people as they wished and the ethic system in which fame and honor were only achieved by courage and skill in wars through philosophy and asked “According to what shall we live, what is right and wrong? What is ethics?. Criticizing the irresponsible gods of Homer cost Socrates his life who was accused of poisoning the youth. These two philosophers in some respects, brought an end to the polytheistic pagan religions whose holy scripture was the Iliad, and began the era which will lead to the monotheistic religions with sacred books, though this wasn’t exactly what they wanted…
Alexander the Great is ordering that Homer’s Iliad is put into the grave. - - Jean Pénicaud III – 16th century Though his tutor was Aristotle, Alexander the Great had been raised with the memorization of Iliad. According to rumors, every night he slept with Iliad under his pillow.  
Iliad’s Language
Homer lived 400 years before this war, indeed. So I guess it would be better if we said he had compiled different pieces of oral tradition that had accumulated for centuries and formed Iliad instead of saying that he wrote the epic poem of more than fifteen thousands of lines on his own. When Homer lived, Iliad had most probably been formed already and its lines were being told by traveler bards by heart. It was probably that, he was the first to put these lines down on paper.
Homer – Bust – Hellenistic Period
Today we read the translations of these lines. Considering that translations of poems don’t give the pleasure of their originals even in best translations, one naturally can’t help wondering how good had the original poem been. Homer wrote these lines in ancient Greek language in Ion dialect. It is a weird feeling to know that only few people in this big whole world are now able to read Iliad in the language of Homer. From the link below you can listen to Iliad vocalized in Homer’ language by the ancient Greek and Latin professor Stanley Lombardo from Kansas University; it could give an idea about what the language is like. Unfortunately I don’t speak Greek but if my ears don’t fail me, it is quite different from modern Greek and has a song just like I have imagined. It is not surprising that people have liked this epic for three thousands of years.

Achilles is dressing the wounds of his bosom friend, Patroclus – BC. 5thCentury Greek vase pattern
Subject of the epic
It will be challenging to try to summarize the Iliad in a single paragraph but let me try anyway;
At the beginning of the story, the Greek king Agamemnon wrested the prisoner Briseis from Achilles, who were also fighting at his side, Achilles got cross with the King Agamemnon, rejected fighting and let himself into his tent.  The story ended when Achilles joined the war back upon the slaughter of his best friend Patroclus, killed the Trojan Prince Hector and gave his corpse to his father, the Trojan King Priam. On the contrary to the assumptions of many people, neither the beginning nor the end of ten year war are mentioned in the book; Homer only tells us about a period of fifty one days of the war in its ninth year. Though the epic tells about the story of the outbreak of the war, which states that it broke out from a dispute over a woman, when the Trojan Prince Paris kidnapped the Greek Princess Helen, it doesn’t mention much about the end of the war. You must read the Odyssey and other epics of the period for the Trojan Horse and other similar stories.
Though Achilles may seem to be the hero of the story, I think the secret hero is Paris’s brother Hector, indeed. Hector is the single righteous and responsible hero in the story. He tried to protect his city, newborn child and his wife in a war he had not started. His maturity in accepting the things that happened to him and his commitment to his responsibilities is amazing. Homer, who himself was from Anatolia, Izmir praised the bravery and courage of Hellenes throughout the epic but indeed he praised the civilized and intelligent Trojans between the lines. We shall keep in mind that the epic was written in a time when all Aegean was under the dominance of Hellenes, and the author had to preserve the politic balances despite the fact that he was from Ionia, i.e. Anatolia.
Hector’s corpse is being moved to Troy. –  2nd Century B.C. – Roman relief – Louvre Museum
Now let’s get to the real story; Hellenes were tribes that came to Greece from the North and their following destination was the Anatolian city state Troy, which was attractive for its land, richness and civilization. So this was a rather pragmatic, plundering war for expansion, which was shaped by economic reasons. As the epic was written during the dominance of Hellenes, Homer tried to justify the invasion by claiming that Hellenes began this war rightfully upon the kidnapping of their Princess. The war was declared when Hellenic tribes wanted to reach the richness, trade and especially bronze in Anatolia. The Hittites, Phrygians and Lydians, who were in Anatolia at that time probably fought in the war side by side with the Trojans to protect Anatolia. Hellenes on the other hand, had an assembled army as well. The army, which was leaded by Agamemnon, was gathered from all Hellenic kingdoms, i.e., from the opposite side of the Aegean.
The Trojan War was also the starting point of Hellenic dominance in Anatolia.
Anatolian- rooted god Apollo
The Gods
Homer included the gods in his epic, it was almost that the gods sided with the humans and they fought in wars. The interesting thing here is that, in the epic we see the implicit genesis of Olympus Gods which Hellenes who came to Anatolia formed by combining their pagan gods with the ones of the Troy, Lydia, Phrygia and Hittites civilizations in Anatolia.  Throughout the epic, Hera, Athena and Poseidon sided with Hellenes whereas Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemisia sided with Trojans. This is so natural because it wasn’t the war of Anatolian and Hellenic societies anymore, it transformed into a war between of Anatolian-rooted pagan gods and Hellene-rooted pagan gods. When the war ended and Hellenes came to dominate both sides of the Aegean, Anatolian-rooted pagan gods got absorbed among Hellenic ones and I think in order to preserve the balance, a consensus between the religious beliefs of the two societies was built with the neutral leader cult (Zeus) and the Greek mythological gods we know today came to life.
Iliad as an ethical guide and a mean of training
Religious books are the written forms of the ethical values and social rules of societies which are ornamented with rituals changing from one geography to another. In this respect, the impact Iliad had over the Aegean shores for four hundred years can be seen as the impact of a religious book considering that all children were made to memorize it, it was almost the single written source about the gods of Olympus and it identified the values of the society.

The religious and ethical values Iliad presented to its reader can be summarized as the following;
-          Humans shall believe in gods and offer sacrifices to them. Gods have complete dominance over the destiny of humans.
-          Gods do not act or decide with any ethical view; One may have a perfect or a rough life as the gods desire and it has nothing to do with what one deserves. A simple example to this is that, in Iliad Zeus makes Agamemnon see a false dream to mislead him and tells a lie in this sense. Furthermore; gods of Homer sometimes fight with each other; you may imagine how a great problem it could create for humans; you have gods that have different expectations and it is inevitable to make one angry while trying to please the other. Your gods fight with each other, they got cross, they become jealous, they cheat, lie and have no concerns about your wellbeing.
-          The most significant things in life are glory and honor; these are gained or lost in war depending on how courageous and resistant you are. Your being fair, helpful, honest and hardworking are relatively insignificant.
-          Even rather unethical things can be done if “approved by gods”.
Now let’s go back to the fourth century before Christ, when philosophy as we know today originated and people asked the questions, “What is right, according to what shall we live?; Plato in ‘the Republic’ and Aristotle in ‘Poetics’ objects to having education with the memorization of Iliad. People shall decide what is good and bad on their own, it shall not always be as the gods wish. People shall mostly assume the responsibility of the things they do, especially when the gods are so irresponsible and insensitive.
Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David – 1787 / Socrates was executed by hemloc poison as he poisoned the youth with his questions.
Socrates tired the people of Athens by questioning their beliefs in “Socratic Methods” and paid this with his life. It also tells us a lot that, Miletus, who accused of Socrates at court represented traveler bards in Athens. Obviously when Socrates criticized the gods of Homer and Iliad, that is, the bread and butter of Miletus and his friends, they apparently wanted to get rid of him.
Socrates’s pupil Plato shaped the gods for the first time as “good” and “righteous” as we know today. Plato’s gods didn’t tell lies, cheat on their wives, get jealous or do bad things to humans anymore. He developed the concept of ‘idea’, which means that all the things we see and touch are symbols of ideas. Though we consider the world we live in as real, it is just the image of the reality, in fact.
On the other hand, Plato’s pupil Aristotle observed the philosophy Plato had carried up to the ‘sky’ empirically and ‘brought it back down on earth’ through experiments. Humanity was closing one age and starting another then. Iliad would just be an admirable epic, and leave its place to the New Testament day by day in the following centuries.
Athens School (Details)– Raphael – 1510 / While Plato on the left is indicating  ‘the sky and heaven’ with his hand; his pupil Aristotle,  who materialized philosophy through observations and experiments and brought it back down on earth, is indicating ‘the ground’.
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