and perfect, delicious ambiguity.
Thinking is the enemy of doing. The more you think about a thing the less likely you are to do it and live your life.
So said my Turkish friend Mehmetcan as we were killing time outside customs a week ago, waiting for the worst day of my life to be over (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/1/). Perhaps because of learning English as a second language he has developed a lovely way of explaining his thoughts simply and I often find myself thinking of his frank insights later on. Such was the case a few days ago as I waited by the bull in Kadıköy to meet some friends and go for a drink. They arrived and explained they could not stay out late because they were going to a festival early the next morning on one of the Princes Islands, and did I want to join them. With my friend's words still in my mind I accepted, asked no further questions aside from what time to meet them at the ferryboats, and off we went to spend some time with our dear friend Rakı.
The ferry was peaceful and half empty as not many people go to the islands in the winter. The population of the islands is 15,000 in the winter but this number swells to around 100,000 in the summer. In a few months the same lazily-filled 9 o'clock boat will be jammed with affluent Istanbullus and tourists escaping the busy polluted streets of Istanbul. We spent the trip warmed by hot çay and fresh sımıt, silent faces to the glass, mesmerized by the hungry seagulls following the boat like moths around a candle. Finally curiosity overwhelmed my sense of adventure and I asked the girls what sort of festival this was. They did not know; they had been invited by a woman they had met on a previous ferry and knew nothing more than the name of the venue and that we should go early. Perfect, delicious ambiguity.
The origin of the islands' present name dates back to the Byzantine period when princes and other royalty were exiled there, followed later by members of the Ottoman sultans' family. There are no cars on the islands so visitors are welcomed to a charming world from the past with horses and wheelbarrows and pedestrians stepping off curbs without a second thought. In the spirit of history we hired a horse and carriage to take us to the top of the hill and our unknown destination. Jokes about channeling our inner Cinderella were cut short as the horses burst into a galloping frenzy from hell. Only Zeus himself could have stayed calm as the driver of our kamikaze chariot YAH'ed and whipped the beasts into an absolute fury. Time ceased to exist as we careened up and around and up again. Our bodies were shaken so hard that it was impossible to focus on anything outside of our coach. The trip was a colourful haze of laughter and frantic hooves on cobblestones. Then suddenly it was over and we were standing, dazed, on top of Heybeliada's highest point looking down at the Sea of Marmara.
With wobbly legs and praise to our insane driver we made our way to the entrance gates where we were ushered inside a great hall by a very cute man with twinkly eyes. My senses were on high alert - there might be festival food around any corner! Keeping my eyes open for signs of a celebration and still without a foggy clue where we were, I lit two candles for my parents, followed my friends into a tiny courtyard and into a tiny church.
There was gold on every possible surface and no food to be found, aside from some stacked loaves of bread that looked very official and tragically off-limits. There were, however, many smiling faces and the sense that something important was about to take place. This thought terrified me. With an apprehension of religion and no knowledge of the language, customs, tradition, cultural faux-pas or any other significant things I should have been aware of, your writer had unknowingly joined a four-hour long Greek Orthodox service.
I will spare description of every mental milestone I went through in that time and summarize by saying that my experience in the church evolved from intrigue and curiosity to boredom and suffocation to complacency and peaceful resignation. The service was in ancient Greek so my friends and I could not understand, only feel. It took the first three of four hours to convince my thoughts to slow down and my hands to stop taking pictures, but once my brain took a recess the peace of the small church was tangible. Followers of Greek Orthodox believe that the human voice is the perfect instrument of praise, so men sang and chanted throughout the entire service without instruments. The small, hunchbacked deacon scurried around setting tables and handing the priests what they required, including an ornate silver censer adorned with small bells that was purposefully swung around the room, letting frankincense and the ringing of small chimes waft outward.
The cozy golden church was filled with a sweet smoke and rich song that had enveloped congregations for over a millennium. The baritone reverberated through the dark wooden seats and the people sitting within them as the head priest, dressed in elaborate golden robes, enacted traditions that had been been performed since the Byzantine era. The faces and the prayers behind them have changed and evolved with time, but the ceremony remains the same. After watching, listening, breathing the ritual for a few hours it became apparent just how much living history is preserved in these traditions.
After the service we emerged from the smokey room into the small bright courtyard, me drinking in the sunlight and sea-fresh air and my two friends clambering in their purses for long-awaited cigarettes. The pivotal moment that would see us attend a private feast on the grounds followed us going back inside to take pictures: I accidentally let my eyes linger on the official off-limits bread for a moment too long. The deacon noticed and encouraged us to come forward and take some. Never one to refuse food I obliged and was handed enough that both hands were needed to hold it all. It was delicious - there were fennel seeds inside the holy loaves. Brilliant.
Soon we were chatting away with the deacon as he tidied up. He jokingly scolded us for taking photos with a flash and warned that using one required written permission from the head priest. With mouths stuffed full of fennel bread we laughed and agreed to seek permission and then join the feast that followed the service. I still had no idea what we were celebrating, but finally there would be food! Off we went again like a small school of lost fish, floating aimlessly up a wide staircase and into a large beautifully decorated room full of red velvet chairs. The congregation from the church was seated there, so we also sat and were soon served a small glass of liqueur and chocolates wrapped in Santa foil. It was a cute way to pass the next half hour of Greek speeches.
Little did we know we were eating Christmas chocolates in an 11th-century Greek Orthodox monastery which housed the Halki seminary, the main Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey and Theological Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Among many notable students, the current patriarch and spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, was a student here. The seminary operated independently for over a century until Turkish authorities forced its closure in 1971 after it failed to nationalize. This impressive building has been the focus of much international attention of late: both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have publicly campaigned to have it re-opened as a symbol of freedom of religion and expression within Turkey. Both houses of the United States Congress passed resolutions that supported the reopening of Halki, and the European Union raised the issue as part of its negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU.
But as mentioned, we were a lost school of meandering fish, floating from here to there with wide eyes completely oblivious to the building's significance, both past and present. The most information we gathered was from a lovely man who had studied for his master's degree in Ottawa of all places. In perfect English (that felt like a breath of fresh air for my tired ears) he explained that we were celebrating the name day of Photius I, founder of the original Monastery of the Holy Trinity built in the 600's on this site (Photius I is also Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, how could I forget that). Finally! Our celebration had a name and its name was Photius!
Ironically I felt much less ignorant with that one small piece of information as we made our way to the feast through halls steeped in significance. We passed through the seminary and peered into old classrooms with antique desks arranged as though they would be holding bright young students at any moment. There was an aura of order and discipline that unsettled me, but that feeling soon disappeared as we were served course after course of salad, soup, fresh Turkish bread, fish, mashed potatoes, rice, shrimp, Turkish pastries and stewed quince. Heaven.
I was lucky enough to sit opposite a nice man who shared some interesting observations about Turkey and Europe at large. He explained that the Istanbul of his youth was home to only two million people, the same as urban Vancouver. After the population exploded to its current twenty million he said that Istanbullus grew tired of being so crowded and lost respect for each other. The situation is the same in the major cities of Europe. Paris and London are not the same as they were twenty or even ten years ago; now they too suffer from overcrowding and a tired, disrespectful population. When I expressed fears that Vancouver's population may also explode from two million and my paradise may be lost he calmed me by praising Canada's cautious immigration policies and noting that ours are vastly superior to those in America. How lovely that he knew the difference.
Our visit to the monastery ended with another candid chat with the deacon as we walked out. After asking us about our respective countries he divulged that he had wanted to study in the seminary since he was a child but the Turkish government forbid it, instead ordering him to study engineering. He protested but those in charge said he would have to wait until they died before he could change his profession. So, our dear committed deacon worked as an engineer for forty years until the men died, entering the church gleefully as an old man five years ago. He bid us farewell by extending his deepest respect to our parents and we left from the same gates we had wobbled in earlier. The walk down the hill and back to the ferryboats was much more peaceful than the ride up, for a number of reasons.
Writing this a few days later with much more information, the irony is not lost that the act of not thinking could lead me to one of the most important places of thinking in the country, and perhaps, if one considers the symbolism of an Orthodox Christian seminary closed by a secular government in a 99.8% Muslim country, the world. I learned - and certainly lived - infinitely more by doing than I ever would have by thinking, which is why in the interest of both living and learning as much as possible, this author vows not to think from this day forth.