Saturday, December 18, 2010

Orient Unexpress

Before I continue I would like to mention a little nugget of information that I learnt on Athos but forgot to put in my last post, and which also shows how the monasteries are no longer content with the spiritual but also stray well into the temporal realm. Among the Athonite community it is an open secret that Ratko Mladić, the Serbian general indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is spending time at the Hilandari monastery disguised as a hermit. So, if anyone from the ICC is reading this, you know where to find him...

Anyway, back to the main narrative. From Athos my plan was to head east towards Istanbul and Asia. A rather straightforward task when you look at the map, but when I got off the ferry in Ouranopolis, fresh from my monastic sortie, the only buses were going back to Thessaloniki - definitely not the way I wanted to go and in grave violation of my First Law. Instead a brief consultation of a map in a nearby souvenir shop (being careful not to arouse the suspicion of the owner) showed that the bus was heading north (in the right direction) for 40km to the town of Stagira, before taking a right turn west (the wrong direction) towards Thessaloniki. (If the locations mentioned here are not familiar to you then you can consult the following map.) My course of action was obvious: get off at Stagira and keep heading north until I hit the main highway heading east. Unfortunately the map wasnt particularly detailed and failed to show the roads very well, or, for that matter, contour lines that would have informed me that Stagira was up in the mountains rather than at sea level where I needed to be. There followed a few kilometres trudge to a junction to where I wanted to go and an hour's wait as the traffic along the mountain road was sparse to say the least. I was anticipating a night in the Greek countryside but luckily I was finally picked up by a friendly couple who took me a good dozen kilometres past where they were actually headed to get me back to the coast and the main road at the town of Olympiadas, for which I was immensely grateful. And although it was only 6pm the last bus had already left and it was dark, so my hitching efforts were more out of lack of anything better to do than expectations of catching a ride. By 8pm I decided to call it a day and went in search of a spot to sleep. Since the day had been pleasant with blue skies shelter didnt seem to be an important priority and so I plumped for a large log in some abandoned wasteland against which to set up a very crude lean-to. A rather short-sighted choice as I was awoken at 4am by the ever-increasing pitter-patter of rain which made me flee to the safety of a large culvert whilst trying to keep my stuff only partially wet. The rain, interspersed by a few snow flurries, was to last for the next 6 days.

The massive, Byzantine-era walls of Constantinople might be 1500 years old, but they have withstood the test of time remarkably well.

The next day, despite the unpleasant weather, proved more succesful although I did have a moment of panic when I got dumped on a motorway on-ramp in the middle of a snowstorm by a well-meaning driver. But I made it to Xanthi in the end and booked myself a night bus to Istanbul. I was even able to find a friendly group of local Xanthites (Xanthians?) to spend the evening with before my departure, which helped me forget the privations of my previous days. It is these unplanned and unexpected encounters that really make travelling special.

So I finally made it to Istanbul. Fabled capital of Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans; terminus of the Orient Express; and home to more doner kebab joints than anywhere else in the world. I could talk at length about the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, but that has been done before and I have little to add; other than that they made a significant dent in my finances, not least because they don't offer any student reductions to their substantial entry fees, not even for fake ID cards.

I'm particularly fascinated by Byzantine history despite not knowing much about it. Or perhaps because of that. In the UK our history starts with Ancient Romans coming over around the year 0 AD, leaving some 400 years later when Rome fell, then in 800 some Vikings come along and William the Conqueror rocks up in 1066. All those blanks are generally referred to as the Dark Ages and allegedly very little of note happened because people were living in caves. Not so in Byzantium where there was no Fall and civilisation continued apace. So by the 6th century Constantinople was not only home to the grandiose Hagia Sophia, but also vast city walls and water storage cisterns that would dwarf anything built in the West for the next millenium. Seeing the remains of these constructions, which are still in pretty good shape for the most part, is awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Ambling through the streets of old Fener.

The city is one of the great world metropolises (metropoli?) and its attractions are world class, but I was just as fascinated, and certainly financially better off, wandering the back streets of the rough, old districts of Fener and Balat in Europe and Üsküdar and Kadıköy in Anatolia. The former especially, as it was once home to a large Christian minority (mainly Greek, but also Armenian). It may be a poorer and slightly run-down area now, but its houses tell of a more prosperous past beneath the current coat of grime. And every now and again you might come across a house that still has some Greek or Armenian epigraphs, signs of happier, more cosmopolitan days that haven't yet been erased to make way for monolithic nationalism. Not that there isn't some cosmopolitan character left. Istanbul is home to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the highest ranking person in the Orthodox church, and when I popped into his church there was a service going on for the local Greek population who had turned up in their Sunday best. And even within the Turkish population there are distinct differences between the affluent, secular suburbs that are indistinguishable from other European cities, and the poorer ones where houses are often neglected and headscarves are the norm (I even saw a few chador-clad women). This division between secular and religious, educated and not, rich and poor, west and east is at the heart of public debate and opinion in Turkey and is very polarising. I, however, use it to my advantage by shifting my origins depending on whom I'm talking to: for the secularists I'm Scottish (or Czech) and for the religious I'm Iranian, which invariably draws the response: "Ahmadinejad good!" (Unfortunately not a result that fills me with any joy, but that's for another post.)

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