A postscript on the Vlachoi

15. Juli 2013 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’ve had exactly one day to do my sightseeing in Istanbul, and that wasn’t even so bad because I’d been here for nearly a week on a snowy and cold trip in January 2012. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul all rolled into one minus the tourists – it was great and memorable as I now find out wandering through the streets of the old centre without a map: I can still remember the basic topography, the main thoroughfares though not all the names of the countless mosques.
My aim is to exactly visit the one site I had to leave out last year because it was a bit too far off, and I didn’t know how to take buses then. It’s the wonderful little church of the St. Saviour in Chora, outside the old walls of the city. Its mosaics can be compared with those at Ravenna which I saw on my 2011 bike journey. They are from a different era, alright, and made up of much smaller pieces, but they tell the comic strip of JC and his mother in fine narrative fashion, and they sparkle with many humane faces (if we ignore for a moment Herodes‘ butchers doing their cruel work on babies).
But this is not what I want to delve into. At the museum bookshop, I pick up „John Freely’s Istanbul“, the observations and musings of a tireless city wanderer, and decide on the spur of the moment to emulate his walk along the western side of the Golden Horn. I quickly note his reference to a palace named Vlachoi Saray, and this brings to mind my quest for the Wallachs, the Romance language speakers in the Slavic or, formerly, Ottoman Balkans (see entry for 3rd July). With the help of friendly but not very multilingual locals I find the compound, and the commemorative plate for one Dimitrie Cantemir mentioned by Freely. He writes that the palace is long gone, so I have low expectations. There is a high stone wall around the site, where there are supposed to be two churches, one of them burnt down in 1976 and left to rot. But nothing can be seen through any of the putative gaps, and there is no evidence of a Cantemir museum, as the sign claims.
I’m left, once again, to continuing my research on the Internet and discover that this Hellenized Moldavian fellow was an illustrious and versatile personality who spent his formative years from age 20 here in the teeming Fener neighbourhood where the mercantile Greeks had built their mansions. Born in 1673 and raised in Moldavia as the son of a Voivod ruler, he was forced into exile by the Ottomans who thus sought to ensure his father’s political loyalty. Cantemir had been raised on Greek and Latin classics and then developed a keen interest in and knowledge of Ottoman culture, especially music, and the Muslim faith and traditions. Apart from styling himself as a geographer, historian, linguist, in short, uomo universale, he acted as a mediator between cultures. This was in fact not so uncommon a role for the Phanariotes, the Greeks and Hellenized Vlachs and Albans of Constantinople, to play, as they increasingly helped the linguistically uninterested Ottomans to negotiate conflict solutions with the unruly inhabitants of their vast empire.
But Dimitrie was different and a man of letters who developed a musical notation system which, as I was astounded to learn, is still being used in modern interpretations of traditional compositions suchs as those researched by Jordi Savall and played by his fantastic ensemble Hesperion XXI. To bring the circle to a close, it’s the kind of music I sometimes listen to on train rides or when relaxing after a bike tour, and it’s absolutely magic (if you go in for such ancient stuff played on weird-looking instruments).
Old Dimitrie did sometimes get things wrong, which I suppose is inevitable if you’re intent on meddling in every discipline, and in politics to top it all. After a long princely wait, he finally became Hospodar/Voivod of Moldavia in 1710. After only a year and a bit, he turned coats and joined the Russians under Czar Peter the Great in a campaign against the Turks. He promptly lost the decisive battle, fled to Russia and henceforth could return neither to Moldovia nor Constantinople, for which he developed a hopeless longing. He died in 1723 and all he got, apart from high reverence in Romania (where a university is named after him) and Moldova is a hardly readable plaque on a barbed-wire topped wall in Istanbul.
As opposed to those poor Vlach shepherds, Dimitrie had a lot going for him, at least materially and educationally. He did use his privileges and his leisure time for fascinating pursuits and did leave traces – pace Jordi Savall -, but, and I find it hard to formulate this as I walk through the misery of modern-day Fener back streets with dirty little children playing in the doorways of dilapidated mansions, did he make use of his wealth to grapple with the plagues of his time? Is it enough to write learned books and explain the half-understood cultures of places one dwells in temporarily to others? Of course, I ask the same question to myself, having just spent four weeks of well-paid holidays doing something as immaterial as cycling through the Balkans and writing blog texts that few people ever read. Is it enough? I’ll keep pondering this question on my way home, and beyond.

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