In September 2001 I had spent a week in Istanbul foraging for remains of Byzantium when I learned from the young, personable and exceedingly neat hotel receptionist, Taner, that his hometown, Iznik, south of Istanbul, was known as Nicaea to the Byzantines. This was riveting information: Constantine the Great had held the first Ecumenical Council of Christian bishops there in 325, and from that meeting had emerged the foundational creed of the Christian church, still intoned by Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican believers (Protestants have gone DIY). This was the reason for my visit: I had memorized that creed— known even now as the Nicene Creed— in Ukrainian, in Sunday School, in the 1950s.
Taner was studying to be an English-language teacher and had already been practising his (quite good) English on me; he now suggested that I accompany him on a trip to see his family. We could see the sights of Iznik, and make colloquial English conversation along the way.
Taner made his first prayer of the day on arising at 6:15, after showering. “You wash before you pray,” he said, looking crisp in his pressed black trousers as we drank tea on the ferry, and I thought of my somnolent preparations: I reclined on the pillows, reading a guidebook, then finally rose and turned on the shower taps, as though cleanliness belonged to Caesar, not God.
Taner was skipping his first class in the English short story to be my companion to Iznik. It was good English practice for him—vocabulary expansion, for one thing. He scribbled down words he had never heard before: augment, robust (as in the description of a Roman bastion still on view), ostensible, eminent.
The second-century Roman emperor Hadrian had entered Nicaea through the triumphal arch between the two rows of walls whose lintels were constructed of theatrical masks plundered from the theatre. He rode the dead-straight Roman roads, north-south, east-west, the grid of imperial engineering no matter what the topography. Over the next centuries, Goths, Arabs, Persians, Seljuks, Crusaders, Byzantines, Ottomans, Mongols and again Ottomans stormed into the city, although it was surrounded by two concentric walls, each defended by more than a hundred towers.
Orhan, son of Osman and first true sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1326—61), conquered Nicaea for the Turks on March 2, 1331, and in his retinue brought Persian artisans, masters of the coloured tile. The incomparable sixteenth-century architect Sinan, patronized by Suleiman the Magnificent, ordered whole caravans of the gorgeous faience in blues, reds, greens and yellows, for his mosques, palaces, hammams, medreses and tombs in Istanbul and Edirne. He worked at the peak of artisanship in Iznik, but in the late sixteenth century the Persian master ceramists working here were exiled to Rhodes, and their workshops went into steep and irreversible decline. Now the so-called Iznik tiles in the shops come from inferior kilns elsewhere.
Taner prayed a second time at 1:00 in the afternoon while I perused the collection in the Iznik Museum, described as “dedicated to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman periods.” The reality is a hodgepodge of coins, amulets, earrings, patched crockery, pieces of columns and sarcophagi, quite beautiful but unidentified except for provenance and century of manufacture. The museum receptionist, damp-eyed and looking half-hopeful, half-terrified, at my approach, knew nothing. He directed me to the archaeologist working out back.
Returned from the mosque, Taner joined me on a stroll through the museum’s rose garden, whose flower beds were interspersed with a good deal of Roman-era stelae, sarcophagi and cornices, as well as Byzantine marble panels and iconostases. We found the blue-smocked archaeologist standing sentinel over them. I had read that remains of the floor mosaics from the Church of the Koimesis (Dormition) could still be seen in situ in spite of the church’s general ruin, but had found no evidence of it. Could the mosaic pavement, here on the grass, be a remnant?
“We have no idea,” the archaeologist replied. “Most of the pieces in our collection were brought here by people who had simply picked them up somewhere or inherited them. No information whatsoever about their provenance was recorded.” I thought of the mosaic of the Mother of God in violet and gold, of which “not a single cube of glass remains,” a traveller, John Ash, wrote in A Byzantine Journey in 1995. “We must take it on trust that she wore an expression of tender and simple gravity.” Greek armies occupied Nicaea/Iznik in 1920; when they were beaten back, the Turks packed the Church of the Dormition with dynamite and blew it to pieces.
I mentioned that the Seyh Kutbeddin mosque, now inhabited by storks and sprouting bushes in its brickwork, had in turn been destroyed by the Greeks. The archaeologist retorted with some vehemence that all ages had witnessed forms of mutual destruction of cultural monuments and she didn’t wish to linger over the Turkish-Greek issue. Note, however, that the sixth-century Ayazma (sacred spring)—which Taner and I had found appallingly derelict, its little courtyard overcome by noxious weeds, rubbish tossed into the long grasses, shit on the marble steps leading down to the baptismal pool—is cleaned up every month by the museum staff. Note, too, that the shrine itself has never been damaged. “No one else cares in Iznik.” But the fact is that the damage had already been done: of the original, extraordinarily beautiful mosaics (so I read) laid here by the mosaicists of Byzantium, all traces have vanished.
Taner prayed a third time just after dinner. He left me with my polluting glass of wine contemplating the late- afternoon sun rounding itself into a perfect fiery sphere in the haze over Lake Iznik. On his return, I noted his freshness. “Yes, I feel clean. I wash, say my prayers, note my sins, talk with God, and now I feel light and cleansed.” He beamed as though irradiated by virtue. I stroked the wine glass as he explained that his postures at prayer—bending at the waist, crouching on the haunches—he performed in imitation of the postures of the angels, from all the ascending levels of heaven, who once greeted the prophet when he was taken up to meet God. So, with a swoop and a bend of our human form we can be like the angels. Though Taner’s place of prayer would never countenance music or poetry or icon, nor altar, sacrament or priest, it admits the dance of angels.
1453: Taner called it The Conquest. I called it The Fall. We were talking about the capture and devastation of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, by Ottoman armies in 1453, after a thousand bloodied but unbroken years of Late Roman, Greek and Christian civilization. What does Taner know of us? Almost nothing. In school in Turkey, very little is taught of Byzantine or indeed European history before Ottoman contact with it. And off he went on a bewildering account of several central Asian hordes and their fate in Europe. I realized what I was hearing: an account of essential history in which we Europeans are of little interest until these “others” run into us. Centuries of other developments and adventures preceded that particular encounter: Huns, Seljuks, Timerlane; decisive battles fought on battlegrounds at the very border of our peripheral vision.
At the ruins of Hagia Sophia church, we crouched before the fresco of the Deisis (representation of Christ flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist). Beneath us at some now-impenetrable layer lie the stones of the first Hagia Sophia, to which Constantine the Great had summoned his bishops in 325, making his entrance in vestments glittering in spun gold, purple brocade and scintillating jewels. Did Taner have any idea of how unsure of myself I felt as I described to him who these personages of the Deisis were and, in Taner’s Muslim company, how vulgar it seemed to me to have wanted to represent them, however austere, hieratic and formal they were? But in the apse a semicircular tier of stone seats for clergy has been excavated, and among the blobs of masonry and brick, lumpish and randomly deposited on the scrub land, I demonstrated for Taner how priests might have emerged from their position behind the marble iconostasis solemnly bearing the chalice of bread and wine, right here on this reedy knoll from where I looked down on a woman at work.
Dressed in charivari, slippers, and a voluminous scarf wound around her plump face, she was rhythmically making bricks, one at a time. She scooped a hefty handful of concrete from a bucket, slapped it onto a frame, bore her weight down on an overhead lever and pressed it into a form that extruded a brick. This she laid out in the sun on a plank of wood, and began the process again. How many times had she repeated this motion before we caught sight of her? How many more would she perform before dying? In 1648 the celebrated Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi wrote in his Book of Travels that Iznik boasted three hundred furnaces firing the famous tiles that went out through the Ottoman world as bowls, plates, oil lamps and cups as well as decorative architectural embellishments. A century later, the furnaces were cold. Now there is this single woman, and her bricks.