Narthexes, fetid water, Rick Steves, dovecotes, wreaths of marigolds, Lazarus, human truths, Darjeeling, goat sacrifice, Kali, leather straps, terra cotta tesserae, successive blessings, Constantinople, mosaic bloodshed, enormous overbites & the container of that which
cannot be contained.
Narthexes, fetid water, Rick Steves, dovecotes, wreaths of marigolds, Lazarus, human truths, Darjeeling, goat sacrifice, Kali, leather straps, terra cotta tesserae, successive blessings, Constantinople, mosaic bloodshed, enormous overbites & the container of that which
Church of St. John the Baptist, Çavuşin, Turkey
W hen I look down to check the placement of my left foot, I see past it down the cliffside of jumbled rocks and scrub to the markets on the street far below, and I tighten my grip on Mehmet’s outstretched hand. My foot is secure in half of a child’s grave niche. The other half of the grave is gone, tumbled away along with half the hillside in the earthquake of 1963, exposing dozens of living chambers carved into the Cappadocian rock of Çavuşin, and the shattered narthex of St. John’s church. The valley drops precipitously from the crumbling foothold, and I hesitate for a moment, aware of the afternoon sun, the shadows lengthening in the valley below, the gold of dry grasses clumping from jumbled stone below me, the silver gray of trees down on the street. Every rock face I see, from the one I’m in to the cliffside across the valley, is pocked and carved with doorways, dovecotes, staircases, portals into dark tunnels in the volcanic tuff. Holding tight, I step my right foot over to the ledge where Mehmet is standing, and then pull my left from the grave and up onto solid ground. A doorway in the stone, decorated with carved circle and cross, leads to a massive chamber darkened by smoke, but where decorative pillars turn the walls into a cathedral, and up high, where neither iconoclasts nor local vandals nor the families who lived in these rooms for hundreds of years could reach them, painted friezes depict angels and saints in muted colors. I try for photos in the dim light and have to use the flash, but the resulting images with their sharp contrast and washed-out depth don’t communicate the space, its enduring grandeur and fragility.
In the corners, Christ is healing a man with a withered arm; he’s turning terra cotta jars of water into wine.
Hard facts are hard to come by here if you don’t speak Turkish, but most books and locals agree that this church is one of the oldest and largest rock-cut churches in the area, its construction credited to fifth-century Byzantines whose settlements can be seen in the rock faces all over the region. The frescos are probably much later, tenth- or eleventh-century work covering over early geometric patterns painted in red ochre. Over the course of the four days my wife Mary and I spend in Cappadocia, we see a couple dozen churches, some bigger, some smaller, some whose walls are entirely covered in iconic paintings of early Christian narratives. Many, like the complex of the Göreme Open-Air Museum, are major tourist destinations, packed with guides and explanatory signage. Many charge separate admission, have gift shops. Others are just there, out in the landscape, without names or words or explanations. Mehmet, who pulled us off the street into the shade next to his market stand down below, tells us that his family lived in these caves, used the church as a stable for their animals, lost lives in the quake when the hollowed-out hillside split and fell, leaving a ridge thin enough that you see daylight through the carved doors and windows opening out onto the next valley. Before taking us up the hill to see the church, he insisted on showing us the local mosque—a tiny carved space being re-plastered inside—and some new construction in the old method. Behind barricades, two men work with hand tools to carve a cave room for the new hotel opening in 2012. I can’t tell if the excavation is entirely new or an enlargement of an existing cave. The pick marks on the wall are identical to those we see in each cave, whether fifteen hundred years old or as recent as yesterday. Only when we have absorbed the facts that the area is booming with tourism, that the local population is thriving and growing, that international development of boutique hotels is the new bread and butter of the town and that there is time to get in on the ground floor does he take us up to the ruins of the church.
The grave niches are ubiquitous, coffin-shaped hollows in the floors of caves, especially in the churches. They are at most two feet deep, the majority more like a foot. At Göreme, the guides tell groups that bodies were interred temporarily, for just forty days, then exhumed and reburied elsewhere. But in one church off the main path, we see the graves have Plexiglas covers, and after a few minutes of curious looking from different angles, Mary points out the bones inside, brown and scattered with age. In one, I see an arch of teeth and the birdlike structure of scapula. In some churches, the entire floor is a series of these niches, in sizes ranging from adult to infant. We speculate, quietly, about how these places must have smelled. Often, a grave or two spans the threshold of the doorway. You enter the dark, tomblike space by stepping over the newly dead, to see thousand-year-old images of Christ healing the sick, raising up Lazarus. Up a faint dirt path in the Ihlara Valley, an hour’s drive south, we find a nameless, abandoned church, its friezes mostly gone and the remains etched with graffiti. Beside the door rests a six-foot-wide millstone, rolled back and toppled from the entryway. We stand a minute in the dry heat before stepping inside, listening to a few birds and children down by the water below.
Kalighat Kali Temple, Kolkata, India
A month earlier, a bearded Hindu priest wearing a wreath of marigolds leads a group of my students through Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata. As the encouraging teacher, I keep a polite, interested look on my face and do not visibly hesitate to remove my shoes, put away my camera, enter the crush of visitors already packing the narrow passageways early on a Wednesday morning. Part of me, though, is recoiling at the strong smell of blood around the goat-sacrifice pavilion where a skinny kid with a yellow nylon rope around its neck waits patiently, at the grit under my feet, at the press of sweaty pilgrims and tourists with each turn in the architecture. The lead guide is in constant negotiation with the priest—making sure we are not rooked out of too many rupees, declining to sponsor a goat sacrifice, slowing the pace of the tour. We enter the tiny shrine to Kali by a series of steep stairs. Inside, men are chanting at full voice, incense is burning and the guide is shouting instructions. One by one, in quick succession, we are prodded forward, handed a blossom and told to look the idol in the face and throw the flower at her. When my turn comes, I’m surprised by the urgency, the hands on my elbow pulling me to the doorway, beyond which an abstract Kali with shining golden tongue stares three-eyed at me. I throw my blossom hard, and they shove me along to make room for the next person. In each corner of the small room, leather straps hang from the ceiling. Later the priest’s assistant tells us they are for when it gets busy; the chanting priests loop the straps around one wrist so that the pilgrims they are blessing with outstretched right hand do not sweep them out of the shrine as they pass.
When I teach Hinduism, Kali presents a challenge. She’s portrayed as demonic, wild in violent ecstasy, her tongue flapping, eyes wild, bleeding heads in her hands, a necklace of skulls, standing among corpses, standing on the chest of Shiva, her lover. My students back home, mostly thirteen and fourteen, ask with earnest curiosity why Hindus would worship her, what they see in her, what she represents. They get Rama and Krishna, avatars of messianic Vishnu. They all know boon-granting Brahma and are spooked by Shiva dancing. They love Hanuman the monkey, and smirk at unmanned Indra, seeing in him a Zeus who had to pay for his excesses. But Kali baffles them. After two weeks in India, travelling largely north of Darjeeling, she is becoming clearer, but this temple, near the black water of the Adi Ganga, throws us all. We’ve learned that she is the violent enemy of evil, that the heads belong to demons, that her expression is one of utter shock because Shiva has laid down before her so that she would go too far and wake from her destructive frenzy. She is pictured coming awake in amazement, not that she has killed all these creatures, but that she has trod on her husband, an act so impossible that it ends her uncontrollable rampage.
Child of the mother, father of the mother, contained by the pregnant virgin, holding the ever-virgin girl-child, above the door within the wall that leads to another door within a wall that leads to the hot sun of Istanbul out in sight of the ancient walls of Theodosius.
The priest walks us across an alley and through a doorway to the Kundupukar, a swimming-pool-size tank of cloudy green water. It’s quiet here, and only a few people are stepping out of outer layers to enter the water. The bearded priest is joined by a younger assistant carrying an armful of wreaths. The bearded priest takes our guide, Max, down to the level of the water, where a small bronze Shiva statue dances on a pedestal. After a minute, Max walks away and the priest calls me down. He fills my two hands with blossoms and asks me my name. I tell him and he instructs me to place a blossom on the statue’s pedestal, where a dozen are already lying.
“Pray for you,” he says. “What is your wife’s name?”
“Mary,” I say, and he motions me to place another flower. They are more golden than yellow, soft and crushable.
“Pray for your wife. What is your mother’s name?”
“Margaret,” I say, and place my flower.
“Pray for your mother. What is your father’s name?”
“Renne,” I say, suddenly tearing up. It seems unnecessary to mention that he has been dead over sixteen years, and that I think about him, if I don’t pray for him, every day.
“Pray for your father,” he tells me. “You have brothers?” We go on, down by the pool, with my handfuls of flowers in the sun, the sweat trickling on my back, through my family, my work, my house, my friends, and I place my blossoms and pray. I am strangely moved and wipe tears off my face before the kids see me. When we are done, I sign my name in a small book he carries, thank him and walk away to join Max. Together we watch an old woman whose bones show through the dark skin of her back, who has waded into the fetid water to bathe and the priest’s assistant comes to talk with us. His English is idiosyncratic, but good, and he asks us about our trip, tells us that this is water piped from the Ganges, changed every week. Before, he says, it was not changed often and people who came to pray often got sick. And then he asks if we have seen Kali, and says the most remarkable thing.
“If you believe, then she is good. If not, then she is a rock. Pray to the rock, or some other rock. Doesn’t matter.”
I ask for clarification. He smiles, shrugs, tries again.
“Doesn’t matter what you pray to. Is all one God, everywhere. So pray Jesus, pray Allah, pray Kali. Or pray rock. Is the prayer that matters.” Down below us the old woman has spread her arms, leaned into the water and started to swim.
The Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey
The Chora Church, in the Edirnekapi neighborhood of Istanbul, has been in its present location in one form or another since the fourth century, seventeen hundred years before we visited on a hot July day, our last full day in Turkey. First a monastery, it was named Chora, which means country, or fields, or the uncontained lands, because it stood outside the city walls of Constantinople. While the monastery and the succession of built and rebuilt churches never moved, both the walls and the meaning of the word changed. In 423 CE, Emperor Theodosius I erected a massive set of city walls, with sixty-five-foot guard towers and forty-foot outer walls, a fifty-yard no-man’s land and smaller inner walls, thirty-one miles of fortification around the shore and across the peninsula. The walls still stand in many places, and just a few blocks from the church they are in such good shape that locals and tourists alike climb them for photos. To the west, past a makeshift camp of blue tarps, a local garden and a cemetery, suburban Istanbul sprawls along multilane highways toward skyscrapers and the Atatürk airport in the distance. To the east, the red-roof-crammed maze of the old city slopes downhill toward the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Just inside the walls and a bit north of the gate tower I climbed, the Chora Church is now contained in a packed residential neighborhood, where it is known as the Kariye Mosque and Museum. The uncontained is now contained and, since Ottoman days, sports a modest minaret. Along the way, the Greek word chora added symbolic meaning too, coming to define the untouched land, the virgin field and, ultimately, the Virgin Mary. My guidebooks tell me that the mosaics of Mary bear Greek inscriptions that read, “He chora tou achoretou,” translated as “the house of the uncontainable” or the container of that which cannot be contained. In later Byzantine times, Christ sometimes came to be referred to as “chora ton zoonton,” sometimes translated as “the land of the living,” as in Psalm 116, now used in Christian funeral liturgies. The Chora Church is full of these double meanings and contrary appearances.
Priests chant inside the shrines, splashing statues and lingam with melted butter for petitioners who stuff rupees into a gilded box.
As a tourist in Vietnam, Botswana, India and now Turkey, I have come to accept that I don’t look like anything but what I am: a tourist. I’m white, and tall, and bald, and in my forties. I’m dressed in quick-dry shirts that keep me from melting, and often have sunglasses on my head, or a baseball cap. My Chaco sandals indicate my status as clearly as my camera. It’s not my favorite persona, but once you realize that you aren’t fooling anyone, you can go ahead and keep the guidebook handy, swig from your bottled water, ask idiotic questions and order anything on the menu that looks good without worrying about what the locals would have chosen. In Istanbul, I read as I walk and look for the tangible versions of what has been described. I have a book by Rick Steves, a Fodor’s guide, a guide to the Grand Bazaar and a tourist map in my bag the day we visit the church, and they lead me. In this case, they have led me to what is supposed to be the finest example of Byzantine mosaics anywhere, and after all the damaged frescos and mosaics we’ve seen in Cappadocia and at the Hagia Sophia, I’m eager to see more-complete images, ones I can recognize, perhaps. Two minutes into the church tour, I’m staring at a corner above the souvenir stands where, on two ten-by-ten panels, Herod’s soldiers are slaughtering the innocents with swords and pikes. There’s a woman screaming while a soldier holds her infant by one foot and stabs it under the armpit; a mosaic of red tiles spews from the wound. Up high, and so small that I have to zoom in on my camera to see it, a baby is impaled on a pike, which enters between the legs and emerges out its face, thankfully turned to the wall. Tour groups are moving by, but I’m stuck wondering about this graphic violence. I was born on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and have always been fascinated by this story.
Later the priest’s assistant tells us they are for when it gets busy; the chanting priests loop the straps around one wrist so that the pilgrims they are blessing with outstretched right hand do not sweep them out of the shrine as they pass.
We move through the narthex, and the interior narthex, necks craning and cameras not-flashing. I’m consulting my guidebooks at every moment to see what it is I’m supposed to be seeing. Doesn’t take long to realize that this is a different gospel being portrayed here, the gospel of St. James, which develops an extended Mary narrative not found in the synoptics. These are stories I know only from folklore and Nikos Kazantzakis—Joseph’s staff leafing out to prove he is the right suitor, Mary dedicated to the temple as a child, an angel feeding her bread. The text was declared apocryphal for the Western Church in the Gelasian Decree of 323, but that didn’t stop the Eastern Church and many curious Catholics from learning these stories. Joseph is an old man in this tradition, widowed with sons from his first marriage, and though the staff blooms, he never knows his young wife, who remains virginal, the chora, until her death, or at least her long sleep.
The stories in the mosaics don’t correspond to a narrative order, either; in one beautifully ornamented dome, glowing with thousands of gold tiles, each containing a square of gold foil sandwiched between glass, we have a cluster of tales about Mary’s birth. In the corners, Christ is healing a man with a withered arm; he’s turning terra cotta jars of water into wine. The jars, for realism, are made of terra cotta tesserae, probably from broken jars like those you would use to hold water. Or wine, in this case. On one wall, the virgin receives a skein of wool. Across from her, Theodore Metochites, kneeling in a sumptuous patterned caftan and enormous turban whose top is spread out by the curve of the dome into a turnip shape, presents a model of the Chora Church to an enthroned Jesus, who looks out at the viewer, right hand in blessing, his left cradling a decorated book of the gospels. He sits on cushy looking pillows and doesn’t seem to see Metochites. There is no sense of the passage of time here; Jesus is a prophecy and a baby and a miracle worker and a throned God simultaneously. Perhaps the order is thematic, an emphasis on offerings; just above this panel a waiflike Mary is presented to the temple. Mary’s life, told in fragments made of fragments, intertwines with images of later saints, supporters of the Chora Church and, everywhere, the uncontainable Christ whose stories can’t be threaded together.
The history of the church is like this too, a broken narrative of cyclic loss and renewal. Crushed by an earthquake in 556 and rebuilt by Emperor Justinian, the church was in ruins again by the eighth century. Restored in 843, it disappears from history until the twelfth century, when the emperor’s mother-in-law had it rebuilt. The ravening looters of the Fourth Crusade didn’t completely destroy it, though they ruined many other Byzantine churches in search of riches. The oft-quoted American historian Speros Vryonis writes of the Crusaders:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable.…The Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered…the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels.…The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention. According to Choniates, a prostitute was even set up on the patriarchal throne.
But the Chora Church survives to be restored by Metochites between 1302 and 1320, when, at the height of his influence in the court of Andronicus II, he pumped a fortune into the construction of the church’s paracclesion and commissioned the mosaics I’m trying to figure out. When the Turks took the city in 1453, they left the church alone; the Grand Vizier of Sultan Beyazid II is credited for repurposing the church as a mosque in 1511. The Muslim worshipers who followed added a modest mihrab and the minaret, screening the images in the nave during services, covering many others in whitewash that saved them from fading for centuries. Renamed as a mosque, it was protected for perpetuity, its treasures preserved to be noted by explorers in the seventeenth century, cleaned and repaired in 1765, catalogued by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in 1822 and visited by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the 1890s.
Metochites himself lived a famous life, due to his prominence in the Empire and his tragic end. His father, a leading cleric, was excommunicated and exiled for advocating union with the Catholic Church. But young Metochites found poetry and science and was good enough to attract the attention of the emperor, who gave him a title, wealth and power. By the age of forty-five, he was the treasurer of the state and the most elevated man outside the royal family in Constantinople. He arranged marriages for pashas, destroyed other men’s careers, became fabulously rich, gained enemies and wrote. He studied astronomy and wrote treatises, composed commentaries on Aristotle, opined on matters theological, scribed poems to saints. Appointed Chancellor to the Empire, he took the Chora Church under his wing at the request of the emperor and lavished his attention on it. And then, poof! In 1328, the emperor is overthrown and supporters of the new regime want Metochites’ eyes put out with hot irons. He is stripped of title, land and wealth and is sent to exile in Thrace. He ages fast, writing letter after letter pleading for return, and in two years he is allowed to come back under the condition that he live in poverty, chastity and obedience at the Chora monastery. He takes the name Theoleptos and dies two years hence, to be buried in the paracclesion he commissioned. Like his church, he rises and falls with the times, is contained by its walls and is yet uncontainable; his kneeling image endures past generations.
She is pictured coming awake in amazement, not that she has killed all these creatures, but that she has trod on her husband, an act so impossible that it ends her uncontrollable rampage.
Just inside the main door to the church, in the exterior narthex, a pregnant Virgin spreads her arms, though not wide, at two angels who fly up the arch toward her on either side. Her eyes have slid in the direction of the one on her left. In the middle of her chest is an egg-shaped bubble of light blue, a clothed infant Jesus at its center. He holds a scroll in his left hand, though from where I’m standing it looks like a dagger. Here is one of the inscriptions that describe Mary, in black letters against the gold, as “The Mother of God, the dwelling place of the uncontainable,” or so my guidebooks tell me, instructing me to watch for the letters HXOPA for Chora. Now turn 180 degrees, walk through the door into the interior narthex and keep going, right through the imperial door reserved for royalty and into the nave. Two large icons here—adult bearded Jesus with hand in blessing on the left, Virgin and child on the right—use the same word to describe their subjects. The inscription on Jesus, faded and broken now, reads “Dwelling Place (Chora) of the Living.” Over Mary and the sad-looking Christ child the lettering is clear: “The Chora of the Achoretou.” But turn around again and look over the door to the nave, where in a panel eight feet wide the mosaic pictures the Dormition of the Virgin. She doesn’t really look like she’s sleeping—she’s laid out on a bier there among all the mourners—but that’s not the interesting thing. A grey vaulted bubble rises from her, and where it overlaps the mourning saints it occludes their color, as if it were translucent. Inside the arch, in glorious gold robes and halo, stands Jesus, holding in his arms an infant Mary, reborn in heaven as a child of God. Child of the mother, father of the mother, contained by the pregnant virgin, holding the ever-virgin girl-child, above the door within the wall that leads to another door within a wall that leads to the hot sun of Istanbul out in sight of the ancient walls of Theodosius. I back inside for one more picture; at the top of the image, just above Jesus’ arched bubble of grey, is a figure I know. It’s a crazy cluster of wings, six of them, swirling in all directions, the veins of the feathers distinct in gold against brown and red. At the center of the wings, a tiny face. The seraphim watches over the scene inscrutably, afire.
Sandakphu, West Bengal, India
M y students and I hiked the Singalila Ridge for something like twelve miles on the third day. The numbers changed from guidebook to map to guide to local guide. If you asked the Sikkimese leader of the porters, he said twelve miles at twelve thousand feet, but that was all approximation and bad metric conversion. We were high up, though, and in the clouds the whole long day. Rain began early and slicked down our pack covers and coats. A big dog the kids called Bear had fallen into step with us in the first hour of the hike and before long seemed to be choosing shortcuts across saddles, guiding the guides down to the next curve in the handmade road. He stayed with us until we reached Sandakphu. We joked often that, despite the Nepali border markers, it looked like Scotland, with the grassy hill rolling into the mist. A brief and informal survey revealed that none of us had ever been to Scotland, but we’d all seen it in the movies. In the fog, perspective was limited and photography impractical. We just walked and looked and quietly talked. On the uphills we gasped and on the downhills we took stock of our limited view. We made our lodging much earlier than expected. I was up in front with four kids who seemed to need to take the lead. After we dropped packs at the lodge, we backtracked to the high point and climbed the little promontory to hail the stragglers when they crested, thinking we could take their packs and lead them in. The rocky crag was crisscrossed with prayer flags, most faded and molded to an olive green, with shreds of yellow and red mixed in. One boy said he had to see a man about a horse, and turned away from us, unzipping. I cursed him, asking how he could piss on prayer flags. He just pointed at the bushes and turned his body; everywhere he turned, they were there, moldering in the bushes. He had to piss somewhere, and he was probably going to hit a prayer flag.
The next morning, we hiked uphill from the lodge and over into what was indisputably Nepal. Over the ridge, down a steep trail lined with scraggly pines, we came to a temple our guides didn’t name. A red tin roof nestled tight over a small concrete box of two rooms, and the mist broke up against the building. Feeling pretty damn self-conscious, we tied prayer flags, two to a set, and the peeing boy ended up my partner. Between us, we managed to get it connected high on a pole and stretched to a young, flexible pine downhill. Inside the temple, we used flashlights to see the congealed butter meant to drip on Shiva linga. Walking clockwise around the shrine, we parsed the weird mix of icons from Krishna to Parvati to Rama to Hanuman to a figure split down the middle, half Vishnu, half Shiva. We found a calendar Jesus with well-conditioned hair, and two different Buddhas, like no one had made any decisions about whom to worship here. Kali we found across the hall in a smaller, windowless room. She came as a bronze statue this time, standing with one foot raised, looking through a grate toward the Shiva shrine.
“If you believe, then she is good. If not, then she is a rock. Pray to the rock, or some other rock. Doesn’t matter.”
Outside in the fog, a student and I work together to tie prayer flags to trees. Water beads up silver all over our rain gear. Other members of the group come in and out of focus, just figures in mist against tortured pines. Our lead guide, Baichung, a gentle Sikkimese man with excellent English, an enormous overbite and an encyclopedic knowledge of local flora, touches me on my left shoulder.
“Cris, you will like this other shrine. This way,” he says, and leads us back to another set of red-roofed buildings, built low and up against the hillside. At the door hangs the ubiquitous bell and we each ring it three times before we duck in. It takes a minute for me to understand what I’m seeing—a long shelf of black rock littered with candles, coins, scraps of images, flowers, molding rice. Flags hang from every possible contact point, tied to nails and beams. The buildings house only this rock, these offerings. There are no pictures of gods, no statues, only the rock and puddles of rain trickling down. This time of year, with the park closing for the wet season, the locals moving down off the mountain, the hostels empty of trekkers, the whole region is quiet, but this is the quietest spot we’ve seen. I stand a long time, listening to the rain.
I find the rest of the group crouching around a pool of calm water. The pool is spring fed, and housed in concrete blocks. Our guides fill bottles and look with wonder at the ancient pines and flags all around. The students fill bottles and sterilize them with UV light pens.
We go on, down by the pool, with my handfuls of flowers in the sun, the sweat trickling on my back, through my family, my work, my house, my friends, and I place my blossoms and pray.
We spend the morning packing up and getting ready for our next trek through the rain. Baichung seems reluctant to start into the storm, which is moving from mist to showers to driving rain and wind. While we stand in doorways and wait for a break in the weather, we drink tea from aluminum mugs. I think back to our first day on trek, when we’d stayed at a hut outside a new monastery in the tiny village of Rammam. The temple was austere, even on the day of the full moon puja. A very young lama, not more than seventeen, sat on a bench beneath grimed windows while a local woman filled oil lamps, hundreds of oil lamps. Baichung entered into conversation with her in Nepali, and a note of concern crept into his voice. She covered her face with a rag at something he said, and then lowered it, laughing in what seemed to be embarrassment. I tried not to stare as Baichung shook his head and laughed too. The young lama began to chant, ringing a bell in one hand and turning the pages of a faded book with the other. We sat, unsure whether to face the chanting or the several altars at the front of the temple. Baichung and the woman did not lower their voices or stop laughing at regular intervals. The lama made no eye contact with us and chanted in a steady tenor without pause. He looked annoyed, but our local guides walked about the temple blithely. The lama reached into a bowl of rice and gently tossed some grains onto the floor before us, where they bounced and skittered, some into our laps. After a few more minutes, Baichung said, “Cris. Time to go now.” His volume was normal, conversational and, to me, startlingly loud for casual onlookers of an auspicious ritual. He and the woman with the lamps called goodbyes to each other as we stepped out into the mist.
“They have a lot to learn,” he said, “but they will get there.” He explained that the altars were juxtaposed, that the number of lamps was grossly incorrect, off by a factor of twelve, that the lama should have used his right hand, not his left, to throw the rice. I asked why the lama seemed annoyed and Baichung laughed his easy laugh again. The young man, as the local lama, had to be at the temple early in the day, but the other lamas and villagers and worshipers from the surrounding countryside wouldn’t arrive until much later, probably not till the afternoon, and so it was a lonely chore at the beginning of the puja. Later, there might be a dozen lamas chanting, and forty or fifty worshipers lighting incense, walking from shrine to shrine, icon to icon, filling the tiny space with noise and light. “It will be OK when others arrive. But these people, they don’t know what they are doing yet.”
Later, our guide Navita tells me that it’s not unusual to see one lama complete his assigned chanting and, even as the next officiant begins his prayer, whip out his cell phone and make a call. I am missing something important here, some radically different notion of sacred and profane, where the mundane and divine are so intermixed that reverence looks like something else.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
By 10 a.m. the sun is a weight on my shoulders. We cross the broad pavilions that separate the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia, where college-age men sweating under red velvet jackets and fezzes with golden tassels are stirring ice cream and serving it to tourists. If you try to take a photograph with your subject facing you, the grand dome and minarets of the Hagia Sophia looming in the background, you will undoubtedly capture the backs of other photographers, the sun reflecting off the smiles of their subjects, repeated into the distance. When tour buses disgorge their cargo, one guide with a bright placard held above her head on a stick rushes away at the front of the group while another with the same-color placard brings up the rear. Sections of concrete pavers are being replaced in the center of the plaza and a bulldozer has cut power to the stand of ATMs on the southern end. People still line up, trying to stick their cards into the dead machines. The crowds do not abate as we pass through the metal detectors and X-ray machines, but the interior of the enormous museum-once-mosque-once-greatest-church-in-Byzantium is cave dark and cool in its complex of logia, exo- and eso-narthex. Out in the vast plain of the main sanctuary, under the dome that reaches a height of 182 feet at the center, it is impossible to feel the size of the space. My guidebooks tell me that Notre Dame de Paris and the Statue of Liberty could both fit in here; neither assertion proves to be entirely true. But it is a beguiling space full of floating domes and arches, elegant solutions to a thorny problem: how to create the most massive basilica in Christendom, a temple to outshine all others. Much of what appears to be beautiful open architecture here is of course driven by geometry and physics, questions of weight and mathematical forms never before tried. “Have faith in God,” the Emperor Justinian told the architects, and somewhere between faith and logic they got it pretty right, though the dome has had to be rebuilt several times over the centuries.
I stand for a long time on an upper balcony, watching, taking pictures. Two fast-moving groups take turns around me, each at the rail for thirty seconds, a blur of camera equipment, chatter of Spanish and Japanese, a cascade of shutters nicking closed. When I’ve had my fill of trying to comprehend the enormity of the air contained by the structure, I stroll by the mosaics, where I must wait my turn to approach, as legions of tourists are marched up to each surviving example of thirteenth- or fourteenth-century artistry and given a digest history (often in multiple languages). Everyone takes pictures. Constantine himself appears in one of the better-preserved pieces. Unlike the mosaics of the Chora Church, many of those in the Hagia Sophia were destroyed by Crusaders or iconoclasts. Those that were saved were preserved by conquest: the conversion of the church to a mosque involved plastering over fabulous depictions of emperors and saints, miracles and tribulations, saving a few mosaics from the ravages of time. In the Donation Mosaic, Constantine bends to offer an idealized model of the walled city to Jesus and Mary. Jesus flashes an Orthodox gang sign: three upheld fingers to represent the trinity.
Once you realize that you aren’t fooling anyone, you can go ahead and keep the guidebook handy, swig from your bottled water, ask idiotic questions and order anything on the menu that looks good without worrying about what the locals would have chosen.
It’s an appropriate connection to draw, as it was Constantine who convened the First Council of Nicaea, held in what is now Iznik, in 325 CE. The council settled a number of theological concerns that mattered not a bit to Constantine, who just wanted a unified church for his own political reasons having more to do with expediency than salvation. The big fight was to settle the Arian Controversy—a claim now known as the Arian Heresy—that Jesus was the creation of God, made not begotten, of similar but not the same substance. The fighting got so heated that Bishop Nikolaos of Myra is reputed to have risen from his seat while Arius was lecturing, crossed the council hall and slapped Arius in the face. He was jailed for this breach of decorum, though when Jesus and Mary came and freed him, the good bishop was restored to his position. Or so the story goes. This is, of course, the same Nikolaos who came to be canonized and is now more commonly known in the West as Santa Claus.
But why was the matter so important that St. Nick came out swinging? So critical that the words of the Nicene Creed, established at the Nicene Council, are mostly about this question? Consider the 325 CE text:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.
In case the opening sentence left any doubt, the 325 creed concluded with this little warning, which I guess seemed mean-spirited by 381, when a new council removed it:
And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion—all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
Legions of Christian schoolchildren who memorize the creed are thankful for this editing, but the matter is in some ways the central Christian paradox, that God can be man, can be fully incarnate and yet of one being with God. That God can be a Lord or King, or voice from the whirlwind, or a fire on the mountaintop, or a man on a cross, or a breath across the dark waters. To me, though, it is linked to a deeper paradox still. The Gospel of John opens with these words in the old King James Version: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Five verses later, John the Baptist is bearing witness to coming light, and by verse 14, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” This gospel, like the synoptics, was written in Greek, and the word for Word is Logos, a term that in philosophy and religion can mean different things to different people, but is the root of words like logic and logistic. For the Stoics and Neoplatonists, it was a term that embodied Plato’s idea of forms, the structures that generated the shadowy world in which we live, the rational rules of the universe. The Word, then, can be understood as the generative principle of the world, the perfect concept, the mathematical, logical, deep-down-things divine truth that can be glimpsed only in imperfect versions down here in the cave. But. The word can be made flesh and dwell among us. One can be three, and three one, and the divine can be human, and the human divine.
These paradoxes both confound and comfort me in my travels, and make me feel at home when in Darjeeling I am standing before a depiction of bodhisattva, each straddled by tantric consorts at the moment of greatest resistance to ecstasy. There are bodhisattva of anger, of revenge, of fear, of hate. They are fearsome and monstrous, with wild hair and green faces. I have come to recognize the container of the uncontainable in the echoing beauty of calls to prayer, broadcast by loudspeaker from a minaret in Uçhisar. Though the recording of the muezzin is keening and lovely, his words are preceded and followed by an awful squawk as equipment in the minaret powers up. I’ve come to reconcile the old message that he who loses his life will find it in the perfect irony of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna tells Arjuna that victory and defeat are illusions, that life and death are illusions, that his essence cannot be created nor destroyed and that he must fight the battle before him. I’m still wrestling with Crusaders who destroy churches, who slaughtered Muslim civilians in Jerusalem because Urban II told them “to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends,” adding that “Christ compels it.” Perhaps it is only in paradox that we can glimpse the fabric of existence stretched so taut that through the warp and woof of reality we begin to comprehend the incomprehensible, begin to understand not what’s behind it all, but at least what is missing.
He had to piss somewhere, and he was probably going to hit a prayer flag.
I change the batteries in my camera before we head out into the sunlight of Istanbul in July. I am aware that throughout my travels in Turkey I am often busy taking digital photographs of painted or mosaic representations of theological concepts and characters, images of images of ideas of human truths. I read guidebook after guidebook, sometimes even while in the physical place I am trying to understand. The Hagia Sophia, I read, was in fact dedicated to the Logos, the second person of the trinity, the Word, the unknowable ideal form. Its dedication feast is celebrated on Christmas Day.
Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
The light comes up early at Andy’s guesthouse on Dr. Zakir Hussein Road, and with it the horns of puja down in the valley. I walk into Chowrasta Square with one of my students, also up in the pre-6 a.m. cool, and buy chai—milk, no sugar—at the stall there for something like five rupees. The proprietor has excellent English and has been friendly with us throughout our visits. He serves the chai strong, squeezing the cheesecloth sack of tea and spices between two chopsticks to extract the darkest brew into our glasses. He plunks the glasses into holes punched roughly into an aluminum sheet covering his counter. If you run your hand under the counter you risk lacerating your fingers on the jagged flanges of these holes, but they hold the chai glasses securely. We promise to come back later for egg sandwiches with chili and cilantro inside.
After tea, we walk across the square and up the spiraling road toward the sonic chaos of Observatory Hill, a massive Shiva temple under a cloud of brilliant prayer flags gleaming in the sun. It’s a riot of color, noise, smell and action, even this early. Pilgrims ring bells three, five, seven or even nine times before they enter any space or go through any door. Ragged-clothed Brahman chant by the gates, each slightly out of sync with the other, one hand raised and the other on faded pages of scripture. Priests chant inside the shrines, splashing statues and lingam with melted butter for petitioners who stuff rupees into a gilded box. The monkeys swing through the prayer flags, the mothers clutching young with one arm while they cross the web of color, the males dropping down to menace or beg if you stand still too long. A pall of incense hangs along the ground so thick I can taste it, and oil lamps stand ready in gleaming rows. We circle clockwise, keeping a wary eye on the monkeys, visiting each shrine and making the obligatory bows, taking off sandals to step inside, slipping them back on between holy spaces. We try to be respectful and diligent, but I know I am about as far out of place as I can be, in many ways. No one pays me any mind. There are locals and pilgrims and travelers and beggars here, and old women who will keep the monkeys from stealing shoes, and we seem to all be on the same journey together.
We found a calendar Jesus with well-conditioned hair, and two different Buddhas, like no one had made any decisions about whom to worship here.
Teaching Hinduism always involves one last paradox, the lovely Upanishadic idea of atman and Brahman, the individual spirit and the universal energy, how these concepts are unified and how little they seem to affect the daily expression of Hindu ritual. Over and over again, Hindu scriptures assert that the one and the all are in fact one. Composed between 1100 and 900 BCE, the Rig Veda describes Purusha the cosmic person out of whom comes almost everything, including the sun and moon, the castes, the gods, the cords for binding the sacrifice, the prayers and the sticks for burning the sacrifice. Once all of these elements are in place, the gods bind Purusha with the cords and sacrifice him to himself. In the Chandogya Upanishad, composed 500 years later, the poor smart aleck Svetaketu comes home having learned the Vedas and is repeatedly, torturously instructed to learn a higher wisdom, that atman, the one self, is Brahman, the infinite. Thou art That, he is told until he begins to conceptualize it. This utterly monistic idea, that all creation is really one thing, one universal divine energy, has implications for what actually matters in life, or cycles of lifetimes as one moves toward reunion with the universal. This reunion is inevitable; eventually we are all released from this play, this world of maya, illusion. The greatest illusion is that we are separate from one another. Yet Hindus offer sacrifice and prayer to the gods for not just wisdom and understanding, but also for healthy sons, good luck in business, victory in war. Even dharma, the sense of duty and cosmic order, is an illusion in this cosmology, but woe to he who fails to do his duty, who fails to honor dharma. You do your job, you know your place, you live as well as you can, you come to the temple and pray for an auspicious marriage, and if you are wise you do it knowing that all things are already married, and auspiciously too. Nevertheless, you put your crumpled rupees in the box.
When we first arrived in India, we were trained in the namaste bow, palms pressed together on our chests. It seemed stereotypical somehow, but everywhere we travelled, the bow in gratitude or greeting or farewell brought smiles and good wishes in turn. I have read many translations of namaste; the simplest and most literal is, “I bow to you.” Western New Agers sometimes prefer the more extrapolated translation: “I recognize the divinity in you,” or “The divinity in me recognizes the divinity in you.” It satisfies me mightily that inside the Hindu universe, the simple translation already means the more overwrought version, “I” and “you” being different atman who are, of course, Brahman.
On the way out of the Shiva temple, one of the chanting Brahmans gestures for me to approach. He sits cross-legged on a little platform, pillow and book on a simple cloth. The lettering of the book is faint and purplish, like old mimeographs. He is dark and wrinkled, has a gray-and-white beard, wears a heavy brown sport coat despite the rising heat. I come closer and without stopping his verses he blesses me with an outstretched finger, dotting white paint on my forehead. I swallow down a familiar lump in my throat, mouth namaste and walk into the morning. Down on Chowrasta Square, I order another chai, this time with sugar, and savor it while the crowds build up.
Cris Harris teaches writing and experiential education at an independent school outside Cleveland, Ohio, and spends his summers growing tomatoes and restoring a turn-of-the-century barn. His essays and poems have recently appeared in Alice Blue Review, Proximity Magazine, New South, Rogue Agent, Cleaver and The New Engagement and are forthcoming at Cobalt Review and Post Road Magazine. A condensed version of “Paradox” previously appeared in Alice Blue Review no. 26.
Lead image: Igor Ovsyannykov