29 October 2009


I am not so sure, even though I am glad to see something happening to a long empty corner in my fair city.

Grand Rapids MI, like many other flyover towns, is laid out on a grid that is divided into quadrants. Two streets, one north-south the other east-west, form the physical sign of that grid such that everything in town derives its location from the intersection.

For many years, long before I came, this intersection, Fulton and Division, was a bit run down. Urban renewal came after the place had declined in the late 1960s, leaving a modern courthouse cum police station on one corner, a small Civil war memorial park on another, an abandoned Five and Dime looking place in late Deco style, and an empty lot on the fourth. Hardly worthy of our city center.

But one thing was there that I loved. An old painted advertisement of the time from the 1930s to the 1950s. We actually have a hard number of these left on the walls of old buildings. Most are more faded and less colorful. But they had a certain panache about them, a level of craft that was admirable even if the product was ordinary.

This year we broke ground on a new art/business/residential building that will fill the old lot. And this week the concrete pillars and piers that are the parking garage (called a 'ramp' in these parts) finally obscured the wall. It's still there but the view is gone. It will be great, but I will miss the White Sewing Machine sign and the Coca Cola lozenge. Progress, too, has its price.
(And if you don't know by looking, the parking ramp is what will be on the corner, which is no great improvement even over a empty lot.)

25 October 2009

Moving On

I was wrong. The Blue mosque was designed by a student of Sinan. Read more about this history of this place via Wikipedia. There are also better photos there than I snatched.

Sure enough, upon leaving the mosque and putting my shows back on, my self appointed tour guide was there, waiting for me. Talk about determination. He wanted me, of course, to see his stuff. I said I needed to return to the courtyard to take a few pictures which I did, but like the wise men from the east, I left by a different route.

This put me on a plaza to the north of the mosque, which is what is left of the Circus Maximus, or Hippodrome, that was the main stadium of old Constantinople. Nothing of the stadium itself is left, but there are two objects still in place - columns - that were once along the 'spina' or spine that formed the divider of the race track around which chariots sped.

This is one of them. Like most Roman obelisks, it is actually Egyptian, purloined from there to stand as a trophy here, testimony to the power of the emperor and the empire to do as it wishes. Old Roma has several such stolen obelisks, including one standing in the center of the Vatican courtyard. It was in Rome long before the Vatican was built, but the pope as the de facto monarch of medieval Rome appropriated one to make his Kilroy mark on the city as well.

I believe there is a spot, the piazza quatre fontane, where one can look down each of the four streets and see in the distance an obelisk in a distant square or piazza. But the point of these monuments was, as I said, to demonstrate the power of the emperor.

So, to make it clear who put it up, Theodosius, an early successor to Constantine, created a new base that is carved with Latin (which was still the official language) and and Greek, and illustrated with bas reliefs of the emperor at the circus doing mighty things. Again, article about it on Wikipedia is fuller and had better pictures.

Today, the circus is a narrow park that is surrounded by roads. Another column, the walled column, is younger by centuries but of less sturdy stone because it once was clad i n bronze and another shorter bronze column, called the serpent column also still stands in broken splendor. All three actually sit about 2 meters below grade, as the city has been built and rebuilt several times, always on the rubble of the previous structure. Families are everywhere in the little park, which is dotted with palms. The sun is bright and I decide to move on.

The goal? The Museum of Islamic Art which sits in this Ottoman palace which is along the north side of the Hippodrome, a pasha's palace in fact, Ibrahim Pasha to be specific, who was the prime minister/vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent. Note the hanging bay windows that are all but required of buildings here. But the palace is far larger than you see here. It contains a large collection I will describe another time.
But for now let me show you the best sight of all. From the covered porch and cafe of the Museum of the Blue Mosque across the way.

22 October 2009

Where was I?

Ah yes, in the park between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. My self appointed guide, who wants me to buy a rug, advises me to visit the mosque now and the church later. He ushers me across the park to courtyard of the mosque, which is built upon the ruins of the former royal palace which was in ruins before the Ottomans arrived, as it had been abandoned by the Byzantine emperor for better digs.

This view, from with the courtyard, recalls the Ayasofya, as the architect, Sinan I believe, incorporated the engineering techniques of half domes into his work over and over again.

All imperial mosques, so far as I can tell, have at least two minarets and a courtyard. The courtyard was where worshippers could relax and prepare for prayer. The fountain in the center, which you can see on the right, was for ablutions before prayer. Observant Muslims wash hands and feet and face before entering. Many, like this one, also once had colleges and hospitals and caravanseries (places where pilgrims and caravans could lodge) making such mosques very like Christian cathedrals in that they were meant to attract more than worshippers.

Today it is still a functioning mosque, but is a major secular tourist attraction and one reason is this view from inside. The blue color of the interior, partly from Iznik tiles and partly from the light, suffuses the place.

You can also see the nesting of the interior domes and how much light gets in from all the windows pierce the many half domes.

This picture shows a side aisle, if that word applies, and how the electric lights hand just above the people, from very long cords. Most of the light hovers above, playing in the ceiling. Down below the shadows prevail. One area, under the arches, is reserved for women at prayer, something I would find universally true.

Look at how many people there are, all tourists like me. All people are required to remove their shoes, carrying them in complimentary plastic bags. Women are asked to cover their shoulders and hair, though many ignore it which bothered me. I know that the modesty of Islam is part of its sexism, but just as men visiting synagogues should wear kippot whether they are Jews or not because it is a mark of respect, it seems that courtesy prevails over politics in a mosque.

The place for prayer is roped off, even when it is not time. And this covered woman walked back and forth - somewhat like a sentinel at the tomb of the unknowns - to reinforce both the limits of tourists and the ambience of religion.
What a stark contrast between the teeming gawkers on one side, listening to their tour guides with little flags and speaking in Turkish accented German and Italian, and this area with one woman and a man vaccuuming the enormous carpet that covers the entire interior.

I do apologize for the fuzzy photos. I was just learning how to use the camera, you see. They are fine when seen small but if you click on them to see them at full size some are blurry.

18 October 2009

Back To My Story

After the distraction of senators behaving badly, I am now returning to my intrepid travels to Istanbul.

Arriving late in the day after a long flight is actually smart. While I got some rest on the flight, it was not more than 2 hours overall, and so when I went to bed five four hours later (around 230 pm back home) I fell asleep readily and slept rather well.

The hotel had a nice breakfast included, spread out on a rooftop lounge that was where guests met.

But once dressed and fed I set out to cover the usual tourist haunts, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, among others. But as the whole city was new, I was instantly distracted by a cemetery.

I love cemeteries, as they are generally quiet, rarely busy, and open a different door into a new culture. This cemetery, marked with shadows, grew up around a late Ottoman sultan's tomb. The sultans often built themselves lavish octagonal mausoleums in which they placed their coffins and those of their family. I visited several over the week. Of course, people wanted to repose in good company much as they wish to live in good company, so public officials (pashas) and men of means sought to be buried nearby. This one is halfway between my hotel near the University and the ancient square that stands between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

While people do visit cemeteries, and this one had a notable cafe attached, the current denizens are cats. Cats fill the corners of Istanbul. They are the favored domestic animal, at least the one not eaten. For some reason dogs are unpopular in Islamic countries. There is no rule against them, but there is a broad cultural distaste that means I saw very few canines and abundant felines. I should add that urban cats are common in Rome as well. Time and again Istanbul reminded me of Rome. Cats among the ruins was just the first indicator. The second was how ancient ruins are everywhere, a stray column, a crumbling wall, and yet the modern city simply wraps around them. Unlike the US where the old is scraped completely away, modern lives next door to ancient in a way I find consoling and appealing. Only Boston has a vestige of this in the United States. Quebec City has its old town, which evokes Old World life, but everywhere I have been in Europe the ancient is never far away. It may not be in good shape, but it is there and visible and usually preserved.

This fellow here is one of the half dozen rug merchants who approached me whenever I got close to the tourist sites. They are all well versed in English and so eager to sell that they volunteer as tour guides to get your ear. This fellow found me in the old square (you can see the Ayasofya behind him) and counseled me to go to the Blue Mosque first, as tour groups mob the Ayasofya in the morning. He insisted on walking me there, striking up conversation and trying to get me to look at his wares. I was warned of their persistence and that it was perfectly acceptable to decline often and firmly.

Crossing through the park that was once part of the Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, I turned around to get this photo. Classic, predictable, even hokey, the sight was still impressive. To know that this was both the largest church and the largest building in Europe until Michelangelo's St. Peter's of the 16th century, to know that it was 1000 years old then and is almost 1500 years old now, and that it was built when Rome itself was tumbling into a ruin that would reach a nadir of 40,000 inhabitants (less than one tenth its size in the first century) is to have your perspective on history and time and culture jolted to one side. Byzantium was Rome, New Rome officially, Constantinople by common parlance, Constantine's City, and so central to the world that people simply called it "The City," which in Greek is "sten polin," the origin of the word Istanbul.

BTW, you can click on any of these photos and see them in their larger original format. My skills are minimal, but it is a decent camera.
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16 October 2009

Balloon Boy...

... took over the news yesterday. But I still think the "dirty thirty" are more important. Thank goodness I am not alone.

Alternet posted something last week.

Huffington post commented yesterday. (But the real star was Jon Stewart.)

Rachel Maddow commented on it last week. (Long report with other stories as well)

A two year old story from Dallas, not a well known left wing town, wonders why a woman can't get a hearing even then.

In other words, there has been coverage. But I searched in vain for major dailies like the NYTimes or the DC Post or the LATimes, or network or major cable news.

I guess the fake balloon boy is more important to us than the fact that over half the Republicans in the US Senate think rape is not a crime when corporations are involved.

15 October 2009

Oh Crud

I really wanted to post a few more pictures from my journey to Instanbul and make insightful comments and stuff. But while I was away our Senate, a word which means elders and thus the thoughtful and wise voice of government, voted on an amendment to H.R.3326, the DoD appropriations bill, sponsored by the newest senator, Al Franken.

The amendment would prohibit the DoD from spending money for any "Federal contract with Halliburton Company, KBR, Inc., any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, or any other contracting party if such contractor or a subcontractor at any tier under such contract requires that employees or independent contractors sign mandatory arbitration clauses regarding certain claims."

Sounds simple, and it did pass handily. But there's more to the story. Way more.

The amendment arose from the news that an employee of Halliburton KBR working in Iraq states that she was gang-raped by fellow employees and when she tried to sue the company Halliburton KBR pointed out that her contract prohibited lawsuits and only allowed arbitration. Read the story here, from the Minnesota Post of October 6th.

The good news is that Franken amendment passed handily. The bad news is that 30 senators voted no. Thirty male Republican senators I should be precise, and they all talked about how government should not encroach on contracts and the perils of government intrusion.

To stop gang rape?

This is an inappropriate role for government?

Corporate liberty is more sovereign than citizen safety?

Yes, it is. When enough power and money collect anywhere, it doesn't matter who elected whom. They serve those with the power and the money. So in the end, we have 30, yes thirty, and here they are for your enjoyment (scroll down to see them in person, and remember not a single woman including Republicans voted no).

One third of the senate who would excuse rape rather than stand up to Halliburton. One third of the senate is more beholding to Halliburton than the combined populations of Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming , Idaho, Arizona and half the populations of North Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada and New Hampshire.

If I were not a clergyman whose members read this blog, I might more openly suggest that no one willingly votes to criminalize what you yourself do.

But I can say we should call them the pro-rape senators. Be it American women in Iraq or mere taxpayers in the United States, it's OK with them. And shame on us if we do not call them all to account.

Rant over.

11 October 2009

First Sights

Looking out from my hotel room, this is what I saw. Those are all commercial buildings which could be on the Lower east Side of New York City as much as Istanbul. Off to the right out of the picture and up hill about 50 meters is the local mosque, originally built in the 1480s, but recently restored. Also out of view on the right, directly across the cross street are other commercial buildings. I am on the third floor and can see into them because of the large windows. Every night men work large sewing machines for the clothing manufacturers around here.

This part of town is the old commercial center of town, less than a 1/4 mile from the fabled Grand Bazaar. A warren of narrow streets, small trucks block the streets, and men push hand carts along the narrow sidewalks. Others smoke and drink tea from little tulip shaped glasses. Men deliver the tea on platters, walking from a galley kitchen on every block whose sole task is to make tea. What New Yorkers call bodegas, tiny stores that sell soda and candy and cigarettes, are on each block. Each block also has a small eatery of some kind, usually a 'locanta' which is a simple restaurant. There is often a tourist hotel as well. In other words, every block is a complete community.

My first evening, after a desultory sandwich and glass of beer, I take a stroll on the Ordu Caddesi, the main avenue since Byzantine times. These ruins are of an arch set there by the emperor Theodosius in the fifth or sixth century. It was enormous, a double arch that spanned the wide road back then. It fell many many years later, I am not sure exactly when. The collapsed columns are so large and heavy that instead of moving them, the city simply rolled them to one side. For all I know they have been in this position for 1000 years. The tram and the traffic fill the old street where chariots and horses once went, people choke the sidewalks as they must have 1500 years ago, but now they all flow around these broken bits of glory. Oddly, I find it consoling at not at all sad. Even crumbling grandeur still has a place in this town.
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Before I Forget

Journeys begin at home. My flight to Istanbul left from Chicago. I got there very early as the flight was leaving at 1030pm.

This fellow was also going, but only as a stopover on the way to Tehran. He is Iranian-American, and started his day in Wichita Kansas. Once in Istanbul he would wait another three hours before leaving for Tehran, arriving there at 1am local time. And I thought my trip was long.

I saw others like him, on their way to Tehran, Mumbai, Amman Jordan. My European ancestry was in the minority on this flight.

Eventually, we got on board our plane and I was lucky to score a bulkhead seat with extra leg room. Lousy view, but it was mostly a night flight, so not much of a loss. The Airbus plane did have a couple of new features. The plane has cameras showing what the pilot sees as we take off. Very cool. And there was comprehensive flight info on the little TV screen if you wanted, showing how far and how long and how fast and even maps of what was below. Also very cool.

And ultimately, I was on the ground in Istanbul, riding to my hotel with this fine fellow. One must buy a visa as well as get a passport stamp. Two lines to wait in. But airports are airports in the end, with baggage carousels and people lined up outside with signs. I saw mine, and he led me through a maze that could have been Laguardia or OHare. Only when we left the airport area and entered into the evening traffic rush could I tell I was in someplace very new.

He was not well versed in English, so we made our way slowly in person as well as in traffic.
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10 October 2009


I spent a week in Istanbul, my first overseas journey in eight years. Entirely too long.

People asked me if I was going for business or pleasure. Are those the only two choices?

It was a pilgrimage. Not officially of course, like the Camino del Santiago or St. Patrick's Purgatory or the month of annual pilgrimage to Mecca. And truthfully, Christian Constantinople was a religious destination for centuries, with the largest church in the world before St. Peter's in Rome. Even after it became a Muslim country it drew pilgrims to see Islamic holy things as well.

When I say it was a pilgrimage I mean that it was an intentional journey of the spirit as well as the body, one that I made in order to venture inwardly as well as outwardly. Vacations are about vacating, getting away from it all. Pilgrimages are about getting deeply into something.

Istanbul is the place where everything meets. Ancient and modern, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, western and eastern. It is a city as chic and modern as Paris. and as sprawling and shabby as Mumbai. In the old city center ancient Roman and Greek life is under foot on every street, and the Byzantine and Ottoman eras are visible on every block.

And yet trucks fill the old streets and students choke the sidewalks and everyone is talking on cellphones. Young girls in tight jeans laugh and walk arm in arm on the main street, the Ordu Caddesi, near the University. Young men in untucked shirts smoke and laugh in groups as well, as this is the crossroads of their world. Stores on the street are bright and white, eateries are full of people visible through large glass windows. I could be in LA or New York.

But then I see old beggar women with leather faces and few teeth and hair scarves who lean on canes and hold out their empty hands, or sit on small boxes to feed the birds and sell you crumbs to do the same. And along side the avenue with its modern light rail tramway are broken columns from an ancient Byzantine arch, too big to remove and so the city simply goes around them.

Every few hours each mosque, and there is a mosque every four or five blocks , broadcasts the call the prayer - each with their own muezzin and each at their own time so that a random choir of loudspeakers with undulating and ululating male voices rises up like a flock of birds in the ear, all at once but not in formation.

Ships fill the harbor, more than I have ever seen before in one place - the freighters anchored in long lines like a parking lot waiting for the appointment to traverse the Bosporus, the fishing boats wafting lazily between them, innumerable ferries scooting headlong about, like the cars in the streets, oblivious to physics and law. Gulls circle above the pigeons, the air is moist and smells of salt and men and diesel and charcoal.

I arrived at supper time on a Tuesday, having left 12 hours before at 1030pm from Chicago. Eight time zones and twelve hours at once. Serious jet lag. Crossing the border, getting a visa and having the passport stamped is momentous. My old passport expired two years ago so this one has gone unstamped until now.

Driven in by the hotel car, I enjoy my first traffic jam, the sight of palm trees along the roadside, the harbor coming into view, and my first sight of Asia, which lies on the other side of the straight. In the fog of a long flight and little sleep I am hyper-aware and also unable to take it all in. My room is small, clean, and at the end of the hall. The place came highly recommended and so far it has been just what I expected. My body wants to lie down, but I know it is best to stick it out until bed time, and so make my first foray into the streets which I just summarized for you. Seven days lie ahead.

This post is now officially too long. Perhaps tomorrow I can write more, and figure out how to upload a few photos as well. I did it before, but somehow it is not working this evening. They truly are worth a thousand words.

09 October 2009

But First, This Word

Yes, I am back. My brain is still somewhere over the Atlantic, meaning it takes a while for my brain to catch up to my body, which went throughy seven time zones on Wednesday.

That's further than I have even been, more than 1/4 of the way around the world. I was closer to Beijing and Bangalore than Grand Rapids. Very cool. Actually very warm, as Istanbul is a Mediterranean city, near the same latitude as Naples or Barcelona.

Anyway, I took over 1000 pictures (thanks to improved digital cards) and truly stretched my experience inwardly as well as outwardly. It is worth telling you about when I get my head together. But right now I want you to do something different.

I caught on on old NYTimes magazines while flying and before bed at night. One of them was the August 23, 2009 issue which knocked me over. Until I get back, you need to read it, especially the article by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn. So click here, and get to it. This just might change your life.

Tell me what you think.