Searching for a goddess in the land of the gods
There is a story that Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, tried to take the city of Byzantium by digging under the walls on a dark night. As the night progressed, the crescent moon appeared, and by its light the watchmen on the walls were able to see Philip’s men digging below. They sounded the alarm, and the city was saved. The crescent moon was the symbol of the goddess Artemis, and henceforth, she became the city’s guardian. The crescent moon was her symbol. When the city became Constantinople and embraced Christianity, the star was added as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.
Another story tells that when Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1448, a reflection of the moon occulting a star appeared in pools of blood after the battle. He kept the symbols of the city, appropriating them for the new city of Istanbul.
When Barbara Stoner invaded the city on the last day of February in 2004, she soon found herself sitting on the curb in the Street of the Satellite Dishes in the Beyoglu under Galata Tower, nursing a severely sprained right ankle and casting baleful glances at the pile of old banana peels in the gutter that had been her downfall. I felt curiously akin to Phillip of Macedon. Meanwhile, behind me, two Turks had dragged a stool out of their shop and were insisting that I sit on it. When I resisted leaving the comfy curb, they became very insistent and explained to my sister, she told me later, that they feared “she might get sick through her – excuse me – rear.” Turks apparently believe that sitting on cold stone makes one ill. You can even get – excuse me – diarrhea.
As I sat on that curb, I could almost hear the thought way back somewhere in my head that all was lost, the trip was ruined, I was toast. I banished the thought. I had places to go, goddesses to find. If Artemis was putting me to a test, I was going to pass it. We hobbled down the hill and found a cab.
The day had begun auspiciously enough the morning before when I boarded a plane from Seattle for Chicago to meet my sister and travel on to Istanbul. My sister, Joan, is married to a Turk. One family adage for years was that Joan only bought imports, and married them as well. Her first husband was German. But the Turk, Mete, was a keeper. He is a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, and goes around the world after earthquakes to tell folks why their buildings fell down. My take on it is – you had an earthquake, your house fell down. Mete tells me there is more to the story.
Mete isn’t with us on this trip. It is Joan and I, two sisters off on an adventure. You know what they say about adventures.
I spend one day seeing the sights in my sister’s genuine old Turkish apartment, filled with an assortment of old family furniture and found antiques. My ankle has reduced in size from that of a Persian prune (a peach) to that of an Armenian prune (an apricot), and Joan has bought me a new red cane, replacing the red-handled mop with which I have been hobbling about the apartment. We have only one more day in Istanbul.
Aya Sofia, the Great Church, was built by Justinian between 532 and 537 A.D. It incorporates eight pillars taken from the Artemesian, the temple to Artemis at Ephesus, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror on the very day he conquered Istanbul in 1453. Today it is a museum.
I caress a pillar, black stone beneath my hand, polished by more than 2000 years of hands. The marble ripples like a living thing, flexing the muscle that upholds the dome. A golden mihrab along one wall indicates the direction of Mecca. High above, clerestory windows light a mosaic of the Madonna and Child. There are layers upon layers of belief in this building. I want to press my forehead to one of the ancient pillars and mind meld. Aya Sofia, Sancta Sophia, Holy Wisdom. She is here.
Within hobbling distance of the Great Church is the Blue Mosque, the Mavi Cami, in Turkish, wherein “c’s” are pronounced as “j’s”. So Joan and I process across the boulevard in the rain to the Mavi “Jahmee.” Just as we entered the courtyard, the Muslim call to prayer arose from all six minarets, and from the hundreds if not thousands of other minarets in this city of 12 million people. The effect was amazing. Powerful energy filled the air. Allahu akbar. Allah is great. I turned around and looked back toward Aya Sofia, lifting my face to the rain, and remembered that this is the city of Artemis. For the moment, it all becomes one. Bismillah.