I wrote my college senior thesis on portrayals of Near-Eastern and North-African women at the turn of the century by French and American painters. By way of oversimplified summary, I posited that French painters often used such depictions as propaganda tools in support of colonization and oppression, while American painters used their subjects to explore newly evolving ideas of the role of women, psychology, and a return to “Zion” in an effort to understand the New World. Nevertheless, artists from both cultures viewed the people of the East as an “other” – sometimes exotic, sometimes erotic, sometimes dangerous, and other times beautiful, but always “other,” a term carrying with it feelings of fear and judgement, curiosity and intrigue.
“The beauty I see in Süleymaniye Mosque is in its lines, in the elegant spaces beneath its dome, in the opening of its side domes, in the proportions of its walls and empty spaces, in the counterpoint of its support towers and its little arches, in its whiteness, and in the purity of the lead on its domes – none of which could be called picturesque. Even four hundred years after it was built, I can look at Süleymaniye and see a mosque still standing in its entirety, just as it first did, and see it as it was meant to be seen.” Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul
Standing in the Süleymaniye Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as it’s known to tourists, I found my thoughts drifting to interior decorating, connecting first with the beauty of interior design rather than the beauty of the divine interior. Like Julia Robert’s character in Eat Pray Love, day dreaming about decorating her meditation room while in an ashram in India, my mind wondered to decorating my future home with painted Turkish tiles rather than contemplating the spiritual nature of the space. Nevertheless, there are times when a space’s beautify imparts a sense of tranquility, which allows one to transcend the present and pray. Eventually, I got there (or somewhat there) and was touched by the spirituality of the place and the faithful within it (even though I was forced to wrap my legs in a blue sheet worn by innumerable other pilgrims….sometimes fashion has to take a back seat to discovery). With the opportunity to experience places like the Blue Mosque, S and I are truly blessed.
Before we entered Hagia Sophia, meaning “Divine Wisdom” in Greek, our tour guide* explained that the church was not christened with its moniker in honor of a woman named Sophia. Of course not. Such an enchanting, imposing, and persevering building could not have been named after a human called wisdom, but directly after wisdom itself. Built by Emperor Justinian around A.D. 532 as the “eastern Vatican,” transformed by the Ottoman leader, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453 into a mosque, and then converted by the Turkish Republic in the 1930s into a museum, this architectural marvel has seen much history, heard many prayers, and survived to tell her tales through the combination of Orthodox Christian mosaics coupled with Islamic inscriptions on her walls. Megalo Ekklesia, Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya – however you call her, her years and experiences must have made her truly wise, indeed. Standing beneath her main dome, marveling at the intricate ceilings and hanging light fixtures, S and I both said that we could stay in there all day. However, Istanbul’s other wonders bekoned. Perhaps one day Hagia Sophia will welcome us back.
The sooner I can get back to Malta, the better. The food is the perfect combination of southern Italian, Greek, and a whole bunch of other things. The weather is warm. The wine is delicious (and, surprisingly, local), as is the prickly pear liqueur…when you live on a small remote island you learn to make the best use of everything. The people are friendly and, most importantly, you’re never more than 30 minutes from the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean…unless you’re taking the bus. Now that is an adventure. There must be one bus manufacturer for the entire world, because the Maltese buses (including their psychedelic fabric seat backings) are exactly the same as the buses in DC, Mainz, and probably Mars. The funny thing is that these buses do well on the (mostly) smooth, paved, and relatively flat roads of DC, but put them on the insanely narrow, crazy hilly, and potholed roads of Malta, add a wannabe Mario Andretti as the driver, and you have what S and I decided is the real life version of the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. We’d sling around corners, and people and things would sling around the bus. We’d crest a hill and I swear the whole bus would catch air like the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the valet took it for a joyride. A couple nights, we hopped on after some of the busiest stops and had to stand. Holding the ceiling hand straps and attempting to stay upright without slamming into our fellow riders was the hardest arm workout I’d had in a long time, maybe ever. At one stop, a lanky (slightly tipsy) Brit failed to get off in time. On his way toward the door, Mario suddenly took off. Half signaling Mario to stop, half attempting to verbally steady himself, the wobbly Brit weaved around yelling, “whoa whoa…whoa whoa whoa.” Something about his goofy tone and cadence mixed with the scene of the Knight Bus struck S and I as truly hilarious. We haven’t stopped repeating it since.
A month into my year of “anything can happen,” and I’m reminded of the trip I took last January to visit my sister in the city where anything really can happen, New York. I’m also wishing that by now someone had invented teleportation so I could beam in to NYC to celebrate the engagement of one of my very best friends to a very cool red-headed Irishman….since that hasn’t happened, I’ll have to wait for the invention of the time machine so I can go back to the party from the future….
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.” – Cesare Pavese