Touring Constantinople

And now we enter an entirely new world, the Moslem. I truly admire the unfairness with which our histories and theologians treat everything that has to do with the name of Mahomet ! We admit that they built a few masterpieces—like the mosque of Achmed in Constantinople and the Taj Mahal in India—but have to drag in insinuations that European architects supplied the plans and ideas. (If so, why didn’t they build a few like them in Europe?) We admit that Mahomet found a nation of idolaters and converted them to the one true God, and then spread that con-version all over India, Malaya, and North Africa, and that in the Koran he treated Jesus Christ with the utmost reverence and appreciation; but there is no meaner and more dishonest piece of man’s handiwork than Sale’s translation of that same Koran, willfully mistranslated to throw discredit on the whole religion.

Let us look on the Moslem world with our eyes open, enjoy its architecture as something peculiarly theirs, and try to understand the theology and philosophy and system of life laid down by the Koran with something of tolerance. Our steamer is going to the Imperial City of that Moslem world now, passing through the straits between Euboea and Andros and up the Aegean Sea.

Morning brings us within sight of the fateful peninsula of Gallipoli. Here a lesson was taught, some years ago, that a man’s a man, be he Turk or Briton: that, given the same weapons, there is no such thing as “Nordic superiority.” A great white monument on shore tells us that some of the best of us Nordics laid down their lives in vain, here, trying to pass—the Turks defending those few miles of mountainous country to Constantinople. There is still evidence of war, rusty wrecks on shore, traces of batteries and fortifications. Entering the Dardanelles, we pass ancient and empty batteries on every point. The modern ones are up in the hills, invisible; up near Chanak are modern Krupp guns in several waterside forts.

The steamer stops there to take on the Turkish control. The officers are polite but strict. Every passport is examined. Arabic script re-places the usual rubber stamp. We pass on through the narrow straits. There are camel carayans on shore, little Turkish villages, more forts. By nightfall the ship has entered the Sea of Marmora, the ancient Greek Propontis, and we are out of sight of land again.

But sunrise brings a wonderful spectacle, a marvelous spectacle, for we are anchored in the Golden Horn and the Imperial City rises all about us, the sun striking with shafts of fire the minarets of its mosques and the soft haze of early morning hanging over all. Constantinople, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and each crowned with a huge mosque, mosques that dwarf to mere toys the best in North Africa. Achmed, Soliman the Magnificent, Mahomet the Conqueror, St. Sophia, the Bazaar Mosque, the Pigeon Mosque, the various Yalidi mosques, they crown each eminence, and, as architectural ornaments, are inspiring and a sheer delight to the eye.

Seemingly only a biscuit-toss from where the steamer is anchored is Seraglio Point, the site of the old Acropolis of Byzantium, and behind it the vast square of the hippodrome where Constantine’s chariots rolled, and then the fora of Constantine and Theodosius. Not a trace remains of that busy old city that was once the axis of the Byzantine world. Three monuments only, representing, curiously enough, Greece, Egypt, and Rome. They are in the park ad-joining Achmed, and consist of the obelisk of Thothmes III set up on a pedestal built by Theodosius, the triple bronze serpentine column taken from Delphi that was set up there in 479 B,C. to commemorate the victory of Plataea, and the masonry column, once covered with gold bas-reliefs, of Constantine. Immortal relics! Three great civilizations, Egypt, Greece, and Christian Rome I And lo, beside them a fourth, Achmed itself, grandest of Saracen mosques, witness of a fourth civilization that has its glories too, at Babylon, Damascus, Agra, and Constantinople.

Our day begins with another appearance of the Turkish control. Positively no one without a Turkish visa on his passport is allowed ashore. We got ours from the Spanish consul in Boston, so were passed through without difficulty; but those who depended on the free-andeasytransit stamp issued at most ports for those merely going ashore for a look-see were forced to get a visa in Constantinople in charge of a gendarme, and lost much time.

The winter-cruise steamers usually give Constantinople forty-two hours, the regular ones twelve; but in that time one can see all the sights of Stamboul and have the afternoon for Pera besides. The kaik (bumboat) men will be alongside in swarms, one rowing the boat, the other hunting you up vociferously on deck. They are asking $1.50 a person ashore and return, although the legal tariff is fifty piastres, about twenty-five cents. I picked out a man with the American Express badge on his cap and arranged at five Turkish pounds ($2.50) for our party, he to settle with the boatman at the regular price. We landed on the Stamboul side, thus arriving in the heart of things at once. Everything in Stamboul is seen by walking. No use in hiring a carriage, as you will be inside mosque or museum most of the time and the distances between them are short.

Our first sight was the Basilica Cisterns, a vast subterranean lake with the city overhead supported on columns. It contains millions of tons of fresh water, and has enabled Constantinople to withstand siege after siege. The water is being used yet. A dank and clammy reservoir, its three hundred and sixty columns lit up by electrics and rising out of the depths like an Amazon forest. I understand that the water is uncontaminated by any inflow and is tested regularly by the Turkish medical control. Thence, for it is yet early, to St. Sophia, a few steps from the Cisterns. The lavatory for faithful Moslems, a Byzantine kiosk in the court, first attracts the eye, for, even run down and neglected as it is, it has been painted by more than one artist. And then we lift the great leather doors found in all cathedrals and are inside the famous St. Sophia.

Architects have raved, and with reason, over its perfect flat dome. But, speaking without religious prejudices, St. Sophia is rather fatiguing. You fail to get that exaltation caused by the fitness and beauty of things that will overwhelm you in Achmed. St. Sophia is a horrible hybrid, to be exact. You see galleries crammed with small columns, tier on tier, where should be soaring spaces. You see the eight columns stolen from Greek Baalbec and much out of place here. You have no enthusiasm for the massive square columns of masonry and marble supporting the dome, without grace or beauty. Everywhere is some pagan decoration taken from somewhere else; and, superposed on it, all those Moslem properties, the mimba, the ladies’ screened gallery, the thousand lamps and prayer rugs. The Christian mosaics have been covered with gilt burlaps, and on them are painted Arabic texts from the Koran and names of Moslem saints.

Poor St. Sophia I. In a word, it is the pathetic attempt of the man of war to make something beautiful, taking this and that from the temple of some conquered pagan, and the Turks have only made it worse. I see that smile of disdain on the face of the Venus de Milo over the whole performance! Let us hope that some day Mustapha Kemal will feel strong enough to return, gracefully, St. Sophia to the Greek Church. Each to his own; bad as medieval Romanesque architecture is, let us have St. Sophia as it was—and perhaps return those Greek columns to Baalbec. They were moved before; with what incredible labor in Roman triremes one can only imagine. Aurelian carried them off to Rome, and from there they were sent to Constantine by a Roman lady named Marcia “for the good of her soul.” The appalling folly of man, particularly when obsessed by religious dogma !

It will be ten o’clock when we have finished with St. Sophia, and the museum near by will be open. It contains the usual Grieco-Roman collections; but also something that no one should miss, a wonderful collection of sarcophagi and statues in pure white marble, direct from the hand of the Greek sculptor who made them fifteen centuries ago. They were buried deep in catacombs near ancient Sidon, and so escaped all the ravages of time and war. Discovered by a Turkish archaeologist, they were brought to the museum.

Here we have Greek work, utterly untouched by ruin, each statue pure white, and its most delicate chiselings just as they left the studio. The sarcophagi are small temples, all finished in column and pediment and roof and ornament exactly as the large ones once stood. It is Selucid Greek work, more florid, as was all Syrian architecture when the Greeks flourished in Asia Minor, less severe and simple than the parent Attic. But do not miss them, for they can be seen in no other museum in the world.

Up from the museum, we visit the departed glories of Seraglio Point. There is an air of neglect and decay about all Stamboul. The Sultan is a thing of the past; the government has moved to Angora. ‘ The place is becoming politically a vast museum. But religion still holds sway, and the mosques are as flourishing as ever. We walk past St. Sophia once more and cross the great open square to Achmed, sometimes called the Blue Mosque. Here we gasp with delight, for here is something real, the true expression of the Saracen soul. Europe had nothing to do with this mosque. It was built by a Turkish architect named Senia—to whom reverence—and everything is on grand and simple Iines, yet conveying throughout the feeling for luxury in the Arab soul. The four great supporting columns are fluted as if bamboo bundles in stone forty feet in diameter. They sweep out in groined arches to the sup-ports of the dome, and all above the caps is blue tile, acres of it, in great masses of color. Be-low that, a broad frieze in pleasing green; and down where detail is significant to the eye, decorations in colored tile, borders, designs. The immense floor is untroubled by anything but rugs; up the Mecca wall runs a tall and narrow flight of stairs, to reach a pulpit (mimba) far above where one imam alone ex-pounds the doctrines of the Koran.

Those of you have read that book in the Arabic, or even in Rodwell’s lifeless translation, can appreciate the significance and beauty of all this, and can echo with reverence those opening words of every sura that the imam reads, “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate 1″ Achmed breathes out, in tile and stone, the grandeur of that conception—”There is only one God, and He is God, and there is none like unto Him. He neither be-gets nor was begotten.”

From Achmed we head for the Grand Bazaars. But on no account let the eagerness of the ladies allow you to pass the tombs of the Three Sultans that lie on our way, adjoining a quiet square in the quiet streets of old Stamboul. Here are the tombs of Achmed I, Mahomet the Conqueror, and the last of the sultans, Abdul Hamid II. They are all magnificent, the sarcophagi walled in beaten gold and covered with priceless damask. Very fine illuminated copies of the Koran are kept at the feet of each sultan. The imam will show them. I astounded that individual by opening the illuminated parchment at the back and reading the whole First Sura to him. I doubt if, for many a long day, he had seen that much tolerance and sympathy for his own great religion from the many Inglezi who had come, looked, and gone!

At the Grand Bazaars prepare to spend money, all you have got. It is an amazing place, a whole town of shops under blue-colored concrete arches; rug streets, brass streets, silk streets, amber streets, silver and gold streets, leather work, weaponry, junk. Up to this time the guide has disbursed for all tips and fees; now he throws up his hands, not having capital enough, but you lay in a store of Turkish pounds at the change booths and proceed to gratify the ladies’ hunger for silken abaias embroidered in Damascus silver, shawls, rugs, amber necklaces, brass tea sets in silver and copper inlay, all the plunder that they will want. And I advise you to do your shopping here, for you will find the prices better, and far more variety of offering, than in Beirut or Jaffa or Cairo later. These things all come from Baghdad and Damascus—by caravans as of yore. They are cheaper here than in any of the smaller ports; the reason, competition. You are literally besieged by suk men begging you to come in and buy! They know better than to overcharge; the guide will simply go into the next shop.

An hour is none too little for the Grand ladies away by force. We walk uphill to the Bazaars, and then you will have to drag the War Office square, with its fine views out over the harbor, and thence to the mosque of Soli-man the Magnificent. Here the feature that will be specially noted is the Saracen treatment of stained glass. The mosque has the usual simple austerity characteristic of them, but its glory is its stained glass windows making brilliant the east wall. Here is neither picture of saint nor martyr, such as we have been accustomed to in the European cathedral, nor any design of any recognizable object made by the Creator. To imitate such would be a sacrilege, according to the Moslem faith; so we have just intricate design. The effect, lit by the sun, is of masses of blazing jewels, pleasing, completely novel in our experience of stained glass, yet getting the effect aimed at, that exaltation and enthusiasm of soul that responds joyously when any completely beautiful thing is looked at.

This mosque will have about terminated our morning of sight-seeing. It is time to go oyer to Pera and have lunch, a thing easily managed by simply walking down hill from Soliman and taking the tram. The old Londres and the new Tokatlian hotels are good for lunch purposes. American Express, for money-changing and mail is near the Galata Bridge on the tram line. You cross from Stamboul to Pera on this bridge and ascend yet another of Constantinople’s hills, passing the old Fire Tower of the Genoese, for this was the Italian quarter of the town in the thirteenth century. Beyond the Londres a short distance is a good shop to buy Turkish-Delight candy, and a short walk farther brings you to the best coffeehouse in town, a good thing to know, as most of us do not like to load tip with a heavy dinner on our sight-seeing.

I note that the winter-cruise steamers, for all their two-day stop, do not cover very much more ground than I have given above, the second day being given over to shopping—”free” as the term is, meaning that they will spend no more money on entertaining you. The second afternoon is devoted to a sail up the Bosphorus and back. We get that on the regular steamers, for all go tip into the Black Sea to Constanza in Roumania. Constanza is a bleak place, where the snow comes down horizontally and you wish ardently you were somewhere else, and eyeryone ashore is in black astrakans and full of vodka. But the Bosphorus is well worth while, bordered with all the palaces of the Abduls, the Yalidi mosques, the Constantinople and Robert Colleges, and then come the Roumeli Hissar, those old towers and walls forming the fortifications from which Mahomet the Conqueror launched his final attack that took the city in 1453.

A tour of the old Byzantine walls is worth our afternoon’s time. The history of Constantinople is so long and world-embracing in its significances, and so much happened here during the twenty centuries of its existence that it is hopeless to enlarge upon it here. The walls, however, have witnessed all three of its periods, Roman, Medieval, and Turkish, and each tower and gate has a story to tell. The three arches of the Golden Gate commemorate the victory of Theodosius over Maximus in 388. The Zali Kiosk marks the site of the chain bridge de-fending the harbor, and near it was the residence of Justinian and Theodosia. The Gate of Jesus was the one through which Constantine himself entered the new city in triumph after its completion in 328.

It is hard to reconstruct those early times and to realize that Constantinople had three walls, the old walls of Byzantium, the wall of Constantine enlarging those limits, and the walls of Theodosius, the ones you now see in picturesque ruins enlarging it still more. To Constantine’s wall the city owed its deliverance from the Goths after the defeat of Valerius at Adrianople in 378. It did fairly well, for a hundred years more, when an earthquake dam-aged it in 447, just when Attila, the Hun, was carrying all before him in the Balkans. A second wall was hastily thrown up in front of the breach, 170 feet thick and 100 feet high—they built solidly in those days! But that has disappeared and Theodosius’ wall was run outside of it.

The towers of Isaac Angelus and Ancinus mark where the Crusaders attacked in 1203. In the Phanar Quarter those same walls saw the fleet and army of Doge Dandalo carry the day in 1204. The gate of Selivra commemorates the entrance of Alexander Strategopulos in 1261, which put an end to the Latin dominion of Constantinople. Finally the gate of St. Romanus is the one where Mahomet the Conqueror entered the city at the head of his Turks in 1453. The great breach in the ram-parts near the valley of Lycus is the scene of the hardest fighting during that siege, and here Mahomet stormed and won. Men, and their defenses against the invader 1 Give them a wall and weapons, and there was never lacking the courage to hold the breach! But the coming of artillery, Turkish in this case, put an end to the wall—forever. The old Byzantine walls are now well within the city, but the guide can show you as much as there is time for if you make known your wants.