ST JOHN’S BASILICA looks like it has been picked up and dropped.
The vast rambling ruin of St John’s Basilica was demolished by earthquake, ravaged by marauders, scavenged by later builders. Huge jagged chunks of sixth-century masonry rear at improbable angles. Columns march in all directions, supporting nothing, reassembled and re-erected by the Turkish Government. Hordes of Christian pilgrims stagger in the heat, a babble of guides in all languages, and I crouch in the weeds to draw this:
It’s my favorite capital. Rows of them are set out in a field. Nearby, storks nest in season– this time of year, they’re off to Africa. The tombstone at left is likely a gladiator who converted and died rich. Here’s a drawing from years ago showing the same capital, this time with storks.
Selçuk is near the Biblical city of Ephesus, about ten minutes by car from the Aegean Sea. Ephesus was rediscovered in the 19th century and somewhat reconstructed. It’s big tourist business. It seems like every travel agency pushes Ephesus tourists to stay in nearby Kusadasi, which is great if you like rampant development, traffic, clubs and stores, but I’ll put my money on Selçuk–in English: Selchuk. It’s got the Selchuk Museum, full of Ephesus, with its statues and gladiator tombstones. It’s got storks nesting on a Byzantine aqueduct. It’s got great tribal art stores and hotels. It’s got St John’s Basilica, and above it the Citadel.
And it’s got Female Power. At the edge of town is the Great Temple of Artemis, a swamp the size of a football field, filled with broken marble, the ruined seat of power for the great Goddess of Asia Minor: the place where it all began. The Great Temple, a wonder of the ancient world, was burned so long ago that Alexander the Great had it restored. Centuries later it fell in an earthquake.
The Goddess Artemis, the Great Mother Goddess of the Near East, appears to be a previous incarnation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, having much in common with her: powerful purity; attributes in Holy Trinities- three griffins, three bulls, three bees, etc; affinity with nature and birth; affinity with the moon, ancient source of female power; powerful, self-sufficient, life-creating sexuality. Priests of both dedicate their sexuality to the Goddess. And of course, physical proximity. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived a few miles away. I’ve come to see them as a sort of double Goddess, which in no way detracts from the mystic power of either diety, I just find it fascinating. But the overwhelming presence for me on this trip has been St John the Apostle. His huge ruined basilica dominates the town, topped by the Citadel above.
THE CASTLE ON THE HILL
Subsequent civilizations have left artifacts still being excavated: chapels, baths, tombs. The sixth-century Byzantine castle is built on Hitttite bones. The castle walls and fifteen towers were built from stones taken from buildings in Rome. The Citadel is closed to the public, but there are these aerial photos and old drawings. Here’s a photo of that little central chapel from a sign at St John’s:
There must have been a wooden settlement inside the castle walls since all that’s left is what looks to be a 5th-century Byzantine chapel with an Ottoman minaret next to it, and nearby a mounded ruined hamam. On this hilltop, St John is said to have written his Gospel. Here’s how it looks today, from a stairway at the back of the basilica. A staircase entire, all by itself, with one turn in the stairs, roofless and leading up to nowhere. I spent a few hours in this wedge of deep shadow set in the dead white heat of late summer, sitting on marble steps scalloped by centuries of feet.
A guard came upon me, and I showed him my sketchbook. It’s wonderful the way people’s faces crease into smiles, seeing the drawings. Later, he and a colleague invited me to tea. I may dedicate my next book on Turkey to the men and women who guard the ruins here, as they have allowed me perspectives I never would have found on my own. They’ve provided chairs, shade, secret views, restroom privileges, heat, tea, and enthusiasm, while protecting these world treasures so that I can experience them. Here on the right is my nice guard, Arif, and his colleague Ismet posing in front of a passage in St John’s. I did this all from life. Don’t they look fine?
I snapped some shots of them, and as they were cracking up in one, I did another take from the photos, wanting to catch those grins. That’s the Citadel again, this time from their guard station at the back of the Basilica ruin.
THE MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN
The Gospel According to St John seems to some scholars to be the memories of an old man, with the perspective of long life. John outlived all the other Apostles, dying in 98 AD. He must have been about 100 years old.
He and his brother, future Apostle James, started life as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. They may have been cousins of Jesus. They came to this part of the world after the Crucifixion, when John was entrusted by Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary.
So John took Mary into his household. And sometime between 37 and 48 AD he and Peter took her with them to Ephesus. She is believed to have settled here, in a hilltop community high in the mountains above the city.
This is Meryemana, generally accepted as Mary’s home and last resting place.
Meryemana is a huge attraction, especially now since Sister Mary Emmerlach, the stigmatized German nun who dreamed that Mary lived here, is being canonized this year. Excavations based on her 19th-century dreams revealed the foundation of this house, which corroborated various records including a 4th-century Ecumenical Council, enough to convince the Pope. Whether you believe Sister Emmerlach or not, the collective faith left by millions of pilgrims of all religions is impressive, as attested by these wishes left by the faithful. In dozens of languages, they fill a whole wall. The wishes are left up until they biodegrade, leaving a palpable energy.
Back in the 1st century, John and Peter set about converting the pagans of Ephesus, with such good results that they were kicked out of the city by the Guild of the Silversmiths, which was taking a loss in the sales of little silver Artemis charms. Mary had not yet been recognized as a goddess by sufficient numbers to warrant charms of her own, although now they abound. Here are mine, in local stone.
Emperor Domitian exiled John to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. There are pieces of a giant statue of Domitian in the Selchuk Museum, a monstrous baby face remniscent of the horrifying giant Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.
After Domitian’s demise John was pardoned and returned to Ephesus, where he lived out the rest of his days. Now the town of Selchuck is modern, built since the late nineteenth century around the aqueduct at the Ephesus railway stop. Its main attractions in old days were the Temple of Artemis and the Citadel. John must have lived there, in house or hut, writing his Gospel up there, howling out the Word in the wind and rain, the searing sun.
He wanted to be buried near the Citadel, and he was. Every other Apostle was martyred, but John was said to have “gone into the cave of his church” and vanished. Of all the saints, John is the one with no relics anywhere. When Constantine, in the 4th century, opened his Tomb, there was nothing but air.
The original church fell to pieces, and in 536 our old friend Byzantine Emperor Justinian started this new one. He built a magnificent six-domed cruciform church echoing the Church of Holy Apostles, now lost, in Constantinople-now-Istanbul.
The love story of Justinian and his Empress Theodora is legendary. The basilica has Theodora’s name all over it, in monograms of capitals on the columns, in the very walls. I find this poignant, as Theodora died in 548 and was buried in Holy Apostles long before St John’s was finished: in 565, the year Justinian died. It was built by Ephesians under Justinian’s edict. Emperor of the greatest High Byzantine monuments, he was a bloody, tax-levying, hubris-ridden autocrat, but it is not farfetched to imagine him lost in contemplation of a reunion with the most compelling of Empresses.
THE MIRACULOUS SHIFTING SANDS
John was said to be sleeping beneath his tomb, and his breath caused the dust on it to stir. This dust was said to perform miracles, especially every year on May 8, the all-night Feast of St John. The church called the dust Manna, and sold it to the faithful. For a thousand years, pilgrims came, even St Augustine, leaving with flasks of Manna. It is surely dusty there now, dust blowing into the cracks of the few surviving mosaics and around the shiny modern marble of the monument now over the supposed Tomb.
My own personal non-scholarly feeling on this is that St John was actually buried up on the ancient Ayasuluk mound, but who am I to argue with St Augustine?
St John is credited with an earthquake while imprisoned on Patmos which got him sprung, but the one that demolished St John’s happened in the 1300s. It must have been a lulu. Just look at this!
The earthquake-wrecked temple was further ravaged by Tamerlane’s Mongol army in 1402. In one of the poetic ironies that keep me living in Turkey, the marble of the ruined Temple of Artemis had been pillaged by Justinian’s builders to create St John’s Basilica in the first place, which was in turn pillaged to create Isa Bey Mosque. This is what’s left.
MANY FACES OF LOVE
Battered but miraculously whole amid the wreckage, this is supposed to be a tomb that was turned into a fountain. I sat on a rock in dwindling black shadow and drew it for about two hours. Had to finish the wall behind it from a photo, as the sun was killing me. This has all the earmarks of a lovers’ landmark for generations of Selchuk teen-agers. The graffiti is all about love, and from the number of postings, I’d say Deniz and Ozon must have had one hell of a romance.
The Selchuk Museum has all kinds of imagery: lions, dolphins, emperors, warriors and saints, and love in all its forms. Right in the middle of the drawing above is this juxtapositon: Augustus with a cross in his forehead and an Early Christian-like Roman, flanked by Dionysius and a headless angel. Now where else are you going to see that?
It’s all here: Storks, aqueduct, ruined temples, ancient and modern Goddesses, the Tomb with its shifting dust, the memories of vanished romances. The people of Selchuk keep it all alive. In this place of sainthood and miracles amid reverberating female power I drew this lady, Karim Hanim, who lives just around the corner from that longshot of the CItadel and St John’s. I met her through my lovely friend Frances, who has lived here for years and speaks fluent Turkish. Karim Hanim worked her whole life. She posed for me in her home, surrounded by children and grandchildren, on the Bayram, the holy day following Ramazan. Of course I drew the patterns later from photos, to save our precious time for her hands and feet and presence, her face. For some reason, drawing her made me cry.
All drawings Plein Air. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. All art © Trici Venola except for the two drawings from Google Maps. All drawings created in sketchbook format, using drafting pens on 18 X 52 cm rag paper.
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