Monday, July 23, 2012
Amongst the many responses to Istanbul a sense of romantic melancholy is common. The mighty Byzantine empire, after a thousand years, died here in 1453. The city is haunted by the anonymous broken foundations, abandoned archways and solitary columns scattered about the city. A few structures, however, still stand among the architectural bones of Constantinople. One of these, less known by tourists, is the Church of the Panocrator. On my first night in Istanbul I set off to find this mostly ignored relic. Yet, once it was an important site. The church was the burial place for the emperors of the Comneni dynasty in the 12th century and later, the Palaeologus, the last to wear the purple. The tombs were destroyed years ago and the ashes of the emperors cast into the Bosphorus by the conquering Turks. The church was also connected to a famous monastery which is long gone although its vast ruins and substructures can still be seen all over the hill below the church. Today, the Panocrator is crumbling and corrugated tin fences block the once grand entrance although some restoration work continues. The sadness of the place deepens when one considers not only the plight of the tombs but desperate attempt to save the empire that was launched from here just before the end. It was a delegation from this monastery that traveled to Florence in 1438 to patch up a reunion between the Roman Catholic and the Byzantine Orthodox churches. The Byzantines hoped that the west would send armies and to stop the advance of the Turks. Too little came too late. Although the building was converted into a medrese it was abandoned at the beginning of the last century. Like most Byzantine churches it is a puzzling labyrinth of small domes, Roman arches and chapels attached to the main structure. No single architectural feature dominates like a Gothic cathedral. Today a terrace restaurant has been constructed in what was probably a part of the attached monastery. After looking over the church I settled down to have supper. Moslems are discouraged from eating or drinking anything from sun up to sun down during the holy month of Ramadan. When I sat down several other tables were already filled with Turks eager to break the fast. The terrace looked out over Istanbul in twilight with the lights of the Sulamanye mosque just beginning to come on. Following the lead of the Turkish patrons I ordered the set Ramadan menu. Gradually a half dozen waiters brought out small plates. When they were finished the table was covered by olives, figs, dried meats, jellies, honey, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheeses, whipped butter and fresh bread. This was followed by various fruit juices and clear cold water. Nevertheless, none of the patrons touched any of the food or drink. It is rare that one can take time to enjoy looking at food without eating it but that is what the Turks did so I respectfully followed their lead . The contemplation was enhanced by the sound of a skilled Ud player singing old Turkish melodies filled with longing. Slowly the sunlight withdrew from the city allowing the lighted minarets and domes of the mosques to turn into science fiction like space ships. Still no one touched the food or drink before them. At last, the muezzin of the Sulemanye mosque signaled the end of the day with his chant of "Allu Akbar." Like throwing a pebble in a pond the sound of other muezzins throughout the city picked up the call in waves. The neighboring tables broke their fast first with dates and then tucked into the food before them. However, the meze course was just the beginning. This was followed by a sort of cheese and ` egg pastry called a Borak. Next came a meat and noodle soup followed by a chunk of roast lamb and rice. So perfectly cooked was the dish that the meat fell off of the bone. The dessert was a cool almond, egg and cinnamon concoction smothered in Pomegranate. The meal ended with spicy cookies topped with dates. Stuffed, I headed back down the hill aware that like the Turks but for different reasons I would fast the next day.