Sailing to Byzantium: Shabbat Vaetchanan in Istanbul

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. (Numbers 5:12)

Shabbat in Istanbul comes in with the wail of the muezzin, which accompanies us as we daven Kabbalat Shabbat. We sit on the steps outside our hotel and eat the food we have brought with us from Jerusalem: tuna fish, crackers, red peppers broken into with our fingers, and a packaged Osem chocolate cake. The next morning we wake up relatively late and daven on the porch of our hotel room, overlooking a dirty street where young dark-haired boys in undershirts and short shorts heckle the passing tourists with cries of “one lira, one lira.” We face south towards Jerusalem when we bow, aware that we are also turning in the direction of Mecca. When we conclude the Amidah, we take out the xeroxes of the parsha that we made back in Jerusalem and take turns chanting out loud, breaking to share our reactions to this section of Moses’ impassioned soliloquy to the people of Israel who stand poised to enter the promised land. We have come far from that land to see this city, and the day that unfurls before us like an elaborately-patterned Turkish carpet seems full of promise.

He brings potentates to naught, makes rulers of the earth as nothing. (Isaiah 40:23)

We read through the haftorah from Isaiah and then, after breakfast downstairs in the hotel (tomatoes, olives, feta, pita), we set off with guide books, water bottles, and a kilo of granola and yogurt. Yesterday we went only to those places that charge admissions, including the grand Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and residence of the sultans for the next three centuries. We passed by scores of glass display cases featuring thrones bejeweled with emeralds and diamonds, chain mail armor, and jugs made of porcelain and jade. We wandered, too, through the warren of tile-inlaid rooms comprising the harem, the private quarters of the sultan, where concubines were guarded by eunuchs under the careful eye of the valide sultan, the Ottoman equivalent of the queen mum. Amidst all the talk of thrones, eunuchs, and palace intrigue, I could not resist quoting from Megillat Esther every three minutes, until you caught on and started doing the same.

For your own sake, therefore be most careful – since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire – not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth. (Deuteronomy 4:15)

Yesterday, too, we saw the magnificent Aya Sofia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, built at the command of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century as an effort to restore the greatness of the Roman empire. The great iron double doors seemed tower more than two stories above us, leading into the magnificent nave with millions of gold mosaic tiles lining a dome that drew our eyes upwards to the heavens. The church is covered with mosaics of Jesus, most famously a colorful depiction of the Madonna and Child, flanked by Constantine the Great offering Mary the city of Constantinople and Emperor Justinian offering her the Aya Sofia. When the Turks took Constantinople in the fifteenth century, these images were deemed unacceptable: The Koran, like the Torah, rails against idolatry, and thus Islamic art is supposed to have no portraits of saints, no pictures of animals, and no depictions of anything else with an immortal soul. In the wake of the conquest the Christian mosaics were covered with plaster; so those that we saw were either uncovered or restored.

This is what you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire. (Deuteronomy 7:5)

Today we start at the Hippodrome, where rival chariot teams raced one another to the cheering of the Byzantine crowds. A long and narrow expanse of grass is marked by three tall pillars. The first is a massive granite obelisk carved in Egypt in about 1450 BCE and adorned with hieroglyphs. It is mounted on four bronze blocks resting on a marble base with sculptured reliefs depicting Theodosius and his family watching the horse races in fourth-century Byzantium. We marvel that the base looks much more ancient than the obelisk, though the obelisk predates it by many centuries. Further along the Hippodrome is the serpentine column, with three intertwined bronze serpents dating back to the fifth century BCE. Finally, at the southern end, a rough-stone obelisk of uncertain provenance towers above the grass. This is more pillars and posts than either of us expected to see in a day, but we decide to let them be and move on.

It is He who enthroned above the vault of the earth so that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers who spread out the skies like a fabric stretched them out like a tent ot dwell in. (Isaiah 40:22)

Not far from the Hippodrome stands the Blue Mosque, built at the command of Sultan Ahmet in the early seventeenth century in an attempt to rival the Aya Sofia. Although I am wearing a knee-length skirt, it is apparently too short, because I am handed a long piece of cloth to wrap around my waist by the guards outside the tourist entrance. (The worshippers, of which there are many at all hours, enter through the main door adjoining the forecourt.) We take off our shoes, as expected in all mosques, and marvel at the endless expanse of colorfully carpeted floorspace. Then our eyes lift higher and higher and higher, past the low-hanging Ottoman chandeliers to the luminous stained glass windows, the walls inlaid with rich blue Iznik tiles, and the soaring dome stretched out like a fabric above. In front of us, we take note of some of the token architectural features now familiar to us from other mosques we have entered: the mimber, or pulpit, which consists of a long and narrow flight of stairs with a kiosk topped with a conical spire on top (each time I see one I think of Dumbledore in a wizard’s cap with a long flowing beard); the mihrab, the niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca; the mahfil, the high elaborate chair from which the imam gives the sermon on Fridays. The mihrab is useful to us when we leave the mosque and find a quiet corner to daven minchah – we think back to the prayer niche and know, immediately, which way to face.

Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. (Deuteronomy 3:27)

It is already quite late in the day when we eat our granola in a small garden and then wander down narrow windy streets to the rocky shores of the Bosphorus. Here there is no sand and no beach – the main highway we walk along comes within a few meters of the edge of the water. In the distance we see the Galata bridge and the Ataturk bridge crossing the Golden Horn. Yesterday we enjoyed magnificent views of the strait on both the European and Asian sides when we took a two-hour ferry up and down its length. The word “Bosphorus,” we learned then, is Greek for “cow crossing,” and refers to the Greek myth about Io, a beautiful woman with whom Zeus had an affair. When his wife Hera found out about it, Zeus turned his lover into a cow. Hera then took revenge by providing a horsefly to sting Io on the rump and drive her across the strait. I delighted in the etymology and tried not to have a cow when I saw how the ferry operators attempted to milk us for our money, charging three different prices for the ride.

All flesh is grass, all its goodness like flowers of the field: Grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass…(Isaiah 40:6).

We turn off the highway lining the Bosphorus and enter into a quiet park with windy pedestrian paths and large grassy expanses. It is not that different from Central Park, were it not for the high stone walls of the Topkapi Palace in whose shade we sit and read our novels throughout the late afternoon. Nearly everywhere we look we see young couples on benches making eyes at one another; we are surprised that many of the girls being courted are wearing head scarves with long sleeves and skirts. On the main pathway Turkish vendors wheel small carts, hawking not hot dogs and soda but corn on the cob and a sesame-seed covered ring of bread called simit. At the edge of the park is a public WC, but when we come closer we see that an attendant is guarding the door and asking everyone for one lira. Oh well. If it is like most of the bathrooms we have seen thus far, there will be no toilet – traditional Turkish facilities are designed for squatting above a small drain in the floor. Since we cannot pay the lira on Shabbat, we opt instead for the quiet secluded corner behind the bushes, as we have so many times on this trip.

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. (Deuteronomy 4:19)

Shabbat does not end in Turkey until after 9pm, so we still have over an hour to kill. We decide to walk across the Galata bridge to the newer parts of the city. We are surprised to find that here the streets are narrow and windy and street signs are few and far between. There are no garbage cans in sight, but heaps of trash line nearly every corner. Although we are not sure exactly how to get there, we head towards the Neve Shalom synagogue, which was the center of a rich Sephardic community in the nineteenth century. Our guidebook tells us that the synagogue is still in operation and we are hopeful about finding a minyan for maariv. But though we take our last tired steps up the final windy hill at the very moment Shabbat goes out, the synagogue is deserted and a Turkish-speaking guard outside can do little more than reassure us that we have come to the right place – albeit at the wrong time. So instead, we saunter back down and try not to get too lost in the dark streets as we make our way to the Ataturk bridge which will take us not far from our hotel. Midway across, we daven maariv overlooking the Golden Horn. The erev Tu B’Av moon is more huge and golden than any palace jewel I have seen yet, and the heavens loom higher than the dome of the loftiest mosque. We cannot make a proper of Havdalah, but by the light of the gorgeous orb suspended above us we lift up our hands, look at the half-moons on our fingernails and recite, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who creates the illuminations of the fire.”

3 thoughts on “Sailing to Byzantium: Shabbat Vaetchanan in Istanbul

  1. Lia says:

    That’d be the “Hagia” Sophia (not “Aya”). “Hagia” sophia is from the Greek word for “holy.” An interesting thing about those mosaics is that Justinian was a really daring and arrogant guy, and he had himself painted as Jesus – in purple robes and at the center of – which if I recall correctly pissed some people off. (God bless Barnard’s art history survey.)


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