Tuesday, November 27, 2007

From the Golden Horn to the Golden Horde - In Search of St. Mary of the Mongols

From the Golden Horn to the Golden Horde - In Search of St. Mary of the Mongols
When most visitors think of Byzantine Istanbul, they think of the monumental bulk of the great Agia Sophia, but it isn’t the only Byzantine church left standing in the city. In fact there are something like two dozen of them - and the quest to find them takes you across the width and breadth of the city - through time and space. Most of them now serve as mosques; a few like Agia Sophia, are museums. One shrine of some unknown saint is even currently being used as work shop for metal security doors. One, and only one, I learnt, was still a church, the church of St. Mary of the Mongols and so I set out to find it.

The church lies where the flat expanses of Çarsamba, drop through the steep hills of Fener to the golden horn. Nowhere in Istanbul is the cliché of the middle eastern maze of streets more true than here. I searched through the streets of Çarsamba several times but my map was definitely not up to this rabbit warren. Streets go up and down, curving in all directions, and getting from point A to B, even if you can see it, is easier said than done.

Çarsamba, in Fatih, is typical Istanbul combination of 6 story concrete boxes and decaying wooden houses, washing drying in the sun and scavenging cats - but it is also one of the more conservative parts of the city, full of woman in head to toe black and with a grey bearded hoja on every corner. *Beyond what seems like a defence line of mosques is infidel Fener, once the home of the Fanaroite Greeks, a power behind the scenes of the Ottoman empire. At the top of the hill is the huge red brick Megali Scholio, the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, whose great tower is a monument on the golden horn skyline and gave it the nickname of the 5th largest castle in Europe. The grand old mansions were abandoned in the mid 20th century as the neighbourhood dropped from one of the cities richest to poorest and many are mere empty shells. Now it is the scene of a major urban renewal project funded by the EU and with its old mansions and Golden Horn views, it will hopefully regain something of its lost glory.

The name, St Mary of the Mongols, is to put it bluntly, a bit startling. A confused classicist friend honestly mistook it for some bizarre relationship between the stories of Mongols drinking blood from the skulls of their victims and the Christian communion and its wine into blood ritual. The truth is more prosaic. Most of the world viewed the arrival of the Mongol hordes with a terror verging on the apocalypse. *For the Byzantines though, most of the previous owners of the skulls piled high by the Mongols had been their enemies and so in Constantinople this was seen as an opportunity and a mail order bride princess was promptly sent east. This was Mary, Maria Despina Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of the reigning Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos.
Mary began the long journey east to Iran in 1265, with a church shaped tent , decorated with images of the saints, for a her future Mongol flock. When she finally arrived her husband to be, Hulagu Khan, the original Butcher of Baghdad, had died an apparently natural death. She had, though, travelled a long way to marry a Mongol Khan, and so she married his son and heir Abaqa Khan instead. Although she failed to convert the Khan, a Tibetan Buddhist, to Orthodoxy, she was apparently successful at promoting and protecting Christianity and when the Khan began to persecute his troublesome muslim subjects, the christians were left in peace. When Abaqa was assassinated and replaced by his Muslim brother Tekuder in 1282, it was time to go home.

Back in Constantinople her half brother Andronicus, now emperor, offered her hand to another Mongol, Charbanda. He marched west with his army to claim his bride, and as part of the deal, to thump Othman, founder of the Ottoman dynasty, who was besieging the important city of Nicaea, where Maria was waiting. The city fell before he arrived though, and he returned empty handed. Mary, seems to have decided on a quiet life and retired to a nunnery. Byzantine royalty though, didn’t retire to just any Monastery, they preferred to build their own. So whilst the nunnery of St Mary - officially known as that of Panangiitis, apparently existed in some form already, quite possibly a ruin after the great sack of the city during the fourth crusade, she rebuilt it to such an extant that she was deemed to be its founder and so it became popularly known as St Mary of the Mongols.

After a few trips to the back streets of Carsambe, I turned a corner and saw a building, the rose red colour of the Roman world, from the houses of Pompeii to Agia Sophia itself , and the cross above the little dome declared it a church. The red colour may be the source of its Turkish Name, Kanli Kilise (the bloody church), but tradition says it comes from the aftermath of heavy fighting in the area during the conquest. It is not a large building, but from the outside it has a certain charm. The churches of Istanbul, unlike the mosques, are generally closed, making them difficult to visit, but luck was with me as a man with a key approached the door and soon I had talked myself in. Unfortunately the interior was a bit of a disappointment, after several fires and major renovations the interior is now oddly misshapen and with the surviving mosaics transferred to the Patriarchate museum. *Now, apart from the goldern Iconostasis, the interior is a uniform austere white. Beside the door are two Ottoman Imperial Firmans, one from Fatih Sultan Mehmet and the other from his son Beyazit II guaranteeing possession of the church to the Greek community in perpetuity. When various attempts were made to take it from them, these firmans were shown, and the Greeks kept their church. Local Fanaroite tradition has it that Greek born architects Christodoulos (alias Atik Sinan) and his nephew, were responsible for the mosques of Fatih and Beyazit respectively, and used their influence with these Sultans to protect the church.

In Iran little remains of the short lived empire of the Mongols. Whilst they tried to maintain their nomadic traditions, they still built capitals which were in their time marvels. I visited Maragheh, the capital of Hulagu and Abaqa in the hills east of lake Urumiyye on a snowy January afternoon. What Mary thought of this place, and her life as a Mongol queen is sadly unrecorded. Today it’s not much more than a quiet village with little to show for its time as the centre of a world empire. In random corners of the village are some impressive tombs and on the hill outside town are a few stones from the famous astronomical observatory of Nasr-uddin of Tus. East, across the mountains, is the great grassy plain of Zanjan where the Mongols grazed their horses. Here at Soltaniyeh was the capital of Ojeilu, grandson of Abaqa and his gigantic domed tomb dominates the collection of shacks that now squat on his once glorious capital. Whether he was Mary’s grandson is not recorded. Back in Istanbul, the Church of St Mary continues as a church, but with few Greeks left in the city, especially in Fener, it sits alone and little visited. As with the Mongol remains in Iran, it is like a piece of drift wood left on a beach by a receding tide - but it remains an echo of history.

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