The Meeting Point Of Two Worlds

I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there.  That vast city seemed to me a living thing: a great golden lion, or a crest serpent, coiled upon a rock, beautiful and deadly.”  So begins the epic story of Aidan, an Irish monk chosen to travel with a company of fellow monks carrying an illuminated manuscript (The Book of Kells) as a gift for the Emperor of all Christendom who resides in Byzantium.  A true story no less, although fictionalized, but a remarkable journey that took far longer and a more circuitous route to complete than was originally envisioned.

Byzantium - Stephen Lawhead

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – for generations untold, that fabled city has been a destination or a gateway to the east for travelers.  Our own trip to that legendary city began with a book also – well, a lot of books actually.  We were invited to help deliver school curriculum material to an International School in Istanbul.  On the morning of our departure a perfect crescent moon and bright morning star hung together in the inky blackness of the pre-dawn sky – a reminder that next time we saw it we would be standing on Turkish soil. Our arrival at Ataturk airport was a reminder that Istanbul is (as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said) “the meeting point of two worlds”.  Middle Eastern culture, customs and people intermingle with those from the west.  We were met by friends at the airport then, after a traffic-jammed ride past blocks of high-rise apartments festooned with air-conditioning units, TV satellite receivers and clean laundry, we found ourselves deposited on the doorstep of a small hotel in the Sultanahmet district.  It was actually quite a pleasant little hotel: clean and quiet (except for a nearby loudspeaker calling the faithful to prayer at about 5:00am) with a helpful and accommodating manager.  It wasn’t the Pera Palace, but then unlike Eric Newby’s account of his stay in A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush as a prelude to his Asian adventure, our plumbing worked quite well.

Hindu Kush Cover Pic“We grew fond of the Pera Palace; the beds had big brass knobs on and were really comfortable.  Our room seemed the setting for some ludicrous comedy that was just about to begin.  Probably it had already been played many times.  It was easy to imagine some bearded minister of Abdul Hamid pursuing a fat girl in black stockings and garters round it and hurting himself on the sharp bits of furniture.  In the bathroom the bath had the unusual facility of filling itself by way of the waste pipe without recourse to the taps.  We watched this process enthralled.”

 As it turned out, this occurrence happened every time the guest next door pulled the plug on his bath causing the water to back up into Newby’s tub.

Our first venture on foot in the narrow, winding roads of the historic section took us past a roadside vendor with his cart squeezing fresh juice from oranges and pomegranates (like this vendor we met in Izmir later in our trip):



Stores lining the Hippodrome.

We made our way up to the broad promenade of the Hippodrome (an ideal location for people-watching) which was filled with temporary booths for the vendors of food and gifts as it was the season for Ramadan.  The streets were mainly given over to tourists since the locals couldn’t eat, drink or smoke until sundown.

One storekeeper, who spoke excellent English (having worked for some time on Alaskan fishing boats), told us the fasting tended to make the populace a bit cranky. Understandably so, if one is used to coffee and nicotine to start the day!  The Hippodrome is now a large city square – a park-like structure with some interesting monuments commemorating its past history as a race course and the sight of a major massacre:

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor’s Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.” (source: Wikipedia)

The Hippodrome was adorned with monuments by the various emperors.  Among the monuments brought was the pink sandstone Obelisk which was erected by Theodosius I in 390 AD.  It was originally made for Thutmose III who reigned in Egypt from 1479 to 1425 BC.

The Obelisk in the Hippodrome

The Obelisk in the Hippodrome

From the Hippodrome we made our way to what may reasonably be called the best known landmark in Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) – the epitome of Byzantine architecture known for its huge domed ceiling.  It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician and stood as the largest cathedral for a thousand years.  From a church to a mosque, it now stands as a museum.

Entering the cool, dim and cavernous interior of the Hagia Sophia from the heat and bright sunshine of the day was taking a step back in time to a bygone era.  The walls, once adorned with gilded Christian iconographic images and subsequently covered with Islamic designs, are slowly being restored and the images are being uncovered once more. From the main level, a cobblestone ramp leads the visitor around the perimeter wall up to the gallery level.

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom)

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom)

Following in the footsteps of the multitudes who have worn those stones smooth with their feet, keeping ones balance with a steadying hand on the wall, one is swept along by the flow of history. Prelates and princes, worshipers and warriors have all placed their feet on those stones.  Perhaps one of the most fascinating images that remains unchanged (and that harks back to Aiden’s story) is the Viking graffiti that gives testimony to the sacking of the city by Viking raiders.

viking graffiti

The Vikings have hardly been the only trouble the city has seen.  Due to its unique position in the geo-political world it has seen more than its share of turmoil.  With the demise of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, and the rise of the modern Turkish nation under the leadership of Ataturk (who died in 1938), Turkey chose the path of strict neutrality with the outbreak of World War Two; but as with many neutral cities such as Lisbon and Geneva, Istanbul became a hot bed of espionage and intrigue that carried on past the end of the war and into the Cold War era – a time so vividly captured in Joseph Kanon’s suspenseful novel Istanbul Passage.  Istanbul Passage Cover PicIt is quite apparent that Joseph Kanon has spent some time in Istanbul – he speaks of the layers of history that exist there and captures the geography, the atmosphere and the personality of the city remarkably well. All the famous landmarks are brought to life in his novel – the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the University, Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Galata Bridge and even Taksim Square (scene of the recent protests in Istanbul).  From the water traffic on the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus to the Dolmus mini-buses, the commuter rail system and the taxi cabs that run all over the city, Istanbul is a city on the move.  We were advised not to think of renting a car but to rely on taxis for transportation (which we did). Interestingly, the price of a journey is typically negotiated with the driver before the start of the trip. And when you have taken your first taxi ride, you quickly understand why driving yourself is not a good idea!

In addition to the Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia, we were fortunate enough to visit the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar (sensory overloads for the eyes and the nose!), the Blue Mosque (where we were dogged by a persistent carpet salesman), the Galata Bridge (lined with fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder) and the Galata Tower (which offers a splendid view of the city).  We squeezed in a day trip by flying down to Izmir (arranged by our congenial hotel manager) to visit the ruins of the city of Ephesus and we also crossed over to visit friends on the Asian side prior to taking a tour boat up the Bosphorus to the point where it meets the Black Sea.  You can stand on a hill there with your arms outstretched and have your picture taken as though you are touching two continents – two worlds, as it were.

Istanbul is indeed a legendary city – full of the sights, sounds and smells of East and West converging at the meeting point of two worlds.

The Galata Bridge with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque seen from the Galata Tower.

The Galata Bridge with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with the Sea of Marmara behind as seen from the Galata Tower.


Every Book Tells a Story

It is true to say that every picture tells a story – time, place, people and events – all are captured in the blink of an eye or the flutter of a shutter.  When it comes to old books the same is true – every book tells a story.  For me, one of life’s little pleasures is to find an old book that catches my attention.  Sometimes it may be on-line through e-bay or a bookseller site, most often it is while browsing a used bookstore in whatever city I may be visiting (I research them ahead of my visit), rarely it is in a garage or estate sale.  Walking into a previously un-visited used bookstore is first a pleasure to the olfactory senses akin to entering a coffee-roaster, a wine shop or a distillery (to understand why see  Secondly, it is a tactile pleasure – to take down those old books, feel their weight and open the cover in anticipation of what lies beneath.

The first thing one typically finds on the fly page is an inscription or dedication – perhaps the owner’s name or the giver and recipient’s names and possibly the date and place.

Dedications and Owner Names

Dedications and Owner Names

These are a few examples from some of my old books.  They cause one to stop and ponder the lives of these people and the times they lived in – the First World War, the Depression era and the Second World War.  “To dearest Uncle with treasured memories of a very happy month.  Freda 6/9/44”  Really?  Three days after the D-Day landing in Normandy. Fascinating!

Some are a little more typical – family gifts to children, for example.

Kipling's Rewards & Faeries

Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies

Rewards and Fairies was Kipling’s follow up to the famous Puck of Pook’s Hill.  It is delightful to contemplate Uncle Charles sitting down in front of the fire to read to his nieces and nephews after Christmas dinner in 1911 with no television or radio to distract them.

Books were always on my Christmas wish list – in fact, because our Dad worked in Fleet Street, he would bring home an extensive list of books he had access to and we children could browse the list and make our selections from it.  It was a delight, on Christmas morning to find those beautiful new books waiting under the tree for us – perhaps one of my favorite childhood memories.

One of the books I remembered clearly was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter – the story (obviously) of an otter.  Set in Devon, England in the early 20th Century, it is a remarkably detailed and accurate catalog of the flora, fauna and overall ecosystem of that part of the country.  It also tells (unsympathetically) the story of Tarka from his birth to his untimely and tragic but noble death, along with an accurate portrayal of the annual otter hunts which took place in those years.  Just this past year, I decided to find a copy of the book and re-read it.  It was even better than I previously recalled.  When I opened the cover, there on the fly page sat an inscription:

TarkaConsidering that the recipient received his book around the same time I received mine; and given the fact that he had a very distinct name, my curiosity was aroused and I wondered what became of this boy.  As it turns out, he went on to obtain his PhD and is now the headmaster of a prestigious private school in New England.  It reinforces that old adage that ‘readers are leaders’.

Some books come into our possession via other means.  I don’t know if it is still common practice or not to will books to others, but I found this in one of my books:


It would appear Mr. Rich had a stamp made specifically for the diaspora of his library upon his demise.  That’s a nice way to be remembered by one’s friends and family members.

Another means by which books are transferred is as Advance Reader or Complimentary copies (as in this instance):English Forest

A charming little illustrated book with the stamp of the publisher.  It would appear that it was subsequently sold for the price of seven pence.  That alone should giver the reader some idea how old the book is!

One of the outstanding features of many old book dedications is the quality of penmanship.  In this digital era the art of writing is rapidly diminishing among the population at large (to say nothing of spelling!).  So when one opens the cover of an old book and discovers a beautifully written inscription with lovely penmanship (using a fountain pen), it is a visual pleasure (as in the following example – which has the added pleasure for me of coming from my hometown, Glasgow – significantly before my time (in fact while my parents were infants in Glasgow).Penmanship

Then, of course, there are often other surprises and stories to be told in the pages of the books by those things tucked between the pages.  Take a look at this website for some interesting examples:  I have heard of people finding such oddities as the skeleton of a Kipper (Smoked Haddock) which had been used as a bookmark!  Perhaps the one that delights me the most is this tram ticket from Melbourne, Australia which must have been placed there by the reader while riding the tram in the early part of the 20th century.  It has been there so long that the color of the ticket bled into the paper of the book.Tram Ticket
Another find that fascinated me came in a book by a favorite author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars) called The Wisdom of The Sands.  In this instance the story was told by several pieces of correspondence (hand-written and typed) and a snapshot of a castle or monastery (presumably) somewhere in Europe.  I have been completely unable to determine the location!  Regardless, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two friends (male and female).  It is rather strange that it should have been left there when the book was discarded.  Perhaps someone was cleaning out a family member’s possessions upon their death and the book was boxed up with others in haste.  Who knows, but it is fun to speculate!WisdomFinally, there are those books that make their way to us from strange and exotic locations and one can only wonder how they traveled and by what route.  I have an old book of poems by Rudyard Kipling – a collection from his other books.  It was once part of the library of a hotel in the South of France (according to the stamp).  The hotel is still thriving and I’m sure they are not missing Mr. Kipling!HotelThere is a fellow in England who has a blog geared specifically to book dedications.  Of course, I find it quite fascinating!

Don’t forget to dedicate the books you give away – posterity will look on and wonder…

Flights of Fancy

I would like to say that the current topic was inspired by our zip-lining experience this past weekend (to celebrate my wife’s birthday we all went as a family to which is just 20 minutes down the road from us).  What fun it was – flying through the air hooked on to a steel cable!  Well anyway, I already had this topic in mind but the zip-lining gave me the momentum I needed to get writing. 🙂

Flying has always fascinated me for as long as I can remember.  I can’t recall my earliest interest in aviation but I do know that as a boy my hero was none other than that intrepid airman, Biggles – Bigglesworth of the Royal Flying Corp to be precise.  He was a character created by Captain W.E. Johns and I followed the adventures of he and his compatriots through the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed.  Captain Johns knew how to capture a boy’s imagination.  So much so that when I was old enough, in my early teen years, I joined the Air Training Corp (a youth organization which is part of the Royal Air Force).  There, I was finally able to realize my dream of flying – first in an open cockpit glider then in a small single engine trainer plane.  I can still recall donning the parachute and flying helmet prior to ascending to fly over Southwest England where we performed some aerobatics that had me looking “up” at the earth.  I was hooked!

In the years since then I have taken to the sky in commercial jet liners, in a closed cockpit sailplane over Stone Mountain, GA, in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley, CA and para-sailing over the Gulf of Mexico in Destin, FL.  Give me the opportunity and I’ll take to the sky in a heartbeat.  One item, high on my bucket list, is to fly in an open cockpit biplane – but when I get up there I may not want to come back down!

So, while I’m grounded I love to immerse myself in tales of flying – a holdover from those old Biggles days (and yes, I have a couple of Biggles on my bookshelves including the one shown above).  Among the authors who have fueled my imagination are Beryl Markham of “West With The Night” fame who was the first to fly solo from Europe to North America, Charles and Anne Lindberg who both wrote of their flying in “The Spirit of St. Louis” and “North To The Orient”, Rinker Buck who wrote of his transcontinental flight as a teenager with his brother in the small plane, Richard Bach (best known for “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull”) who was a USAF pilot and wrote extensively of his various flying experiences including a summer as part of a barn-storming troupe with his Stearman biplane, Richard Halliburton the remarkable adventurer who (among his many books) wrote “The Flying Carpet” recounting his fantastic exploits and my favorite of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (best known for “The Little Prince”).  A lot of his flying experiences were expressed in his novels but the classic of all his aviation writing has to be “Wind, Sand and Stars” – a collection of essays wherein he recounts his experiences as a pioneering pilot for Aeropostale carrying the mail deep into the heart of the North African Desert and across the vastness of Patagonia in South America.

As both an accomplished pilot and author his prose is unsurpassed for its beauty as it relates to flying.  Let me share just a brief portion:

“A minor accident had forced me down in the Rio de Oro region, in Spanish Africa.  Landing on one of those  table-lands of the Sahara which fall away steeply at the sides, I found myself on the flat top of the frustrum of a cone, an isolated vestige of a plateau that had crumbled round the edges…Without question, I was the first human being ever to wander over this . . . this iceberg; its sides were remarkably steep, no Arab could have climbed them, and no European had as yet ventured into this wild region.
I was thrilled by the virginity of a soil which no step of man or beast had sullied.  I lingered there, startled by this silence that never had been broken.  The first star began to shine, and I said to myself that this pure surface had lain here thousands of years in sight only of the stars.
But suddenly my musings on this white sheet and these shining stars were endowed with a singular significance.  I had kicked against a hard, black stone, the size of a man’s fist, a sort of moulded rock of lava incredibly present on a bed of shells a thousand feet deep.  A sheet spread beneath an apple-tree can receive only apples; a sheet spread beneath the stars can receive only star-dust.  Never had a stone fallen from the skies made known its origin so unmistakably.
And very naturally, raising my eyes, I said to myself that from the height of this celestial apple-tree there must have dropped other fruits, and that I should find them exactly where they fell, since never from the beginning of time had anything been present to displace them.
Excited by my adventure, I picked up one and then a second and then a third of these stones, finding them at about the rate of one stone to the acre.  And here is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this miserly rain from the stars.  The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human conciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.”

On days like we’ve been seeing recently when the sky is clear and the mildest of breezes ruffles the fresh green leaves of Spring, the sound of a small plane flying overhead automatically draws my eyes upwards and my breath catches a little as I place myself in the cockpit beside the pilot and gaze out at the broad landscape spread out below and the blue horizon that awaits exploration.

We are earth-bound creatures but how we long to fly like the birds.

Rabbit Trails and Literary Connections

Literary rabbit trails.

Anyone who has ever chased rabbits (presumably with dogs) knows that rabbit trails lead hither and yon with no apparent rhyme or reason to them.  The rabbit does his best to shake off his pursuer by any number of devious tactics from backtracking to creek swimming; from climbing up hollow trees to disappearing underground.  If you saw the trail plotted on a map it would be a confusion of crossed lines that takes the pursuer all over the place – which brings me to books and authors…
As I sit and gaze at my personal library shelves I am somewhat amazed and surprised by the books I have collected over the last few years.  Given that I have a limited amount of space to hold books in my bookcases, I have to choose what to keep and what to pass along.  How a book gets onto my bookshelf in the first place is what brings me back to the rabbit trails.
Often, it is the mention in one book of another or a particular quotation that fires the imagination or sparks an interest and sets me on a quest to find that particular book.  One particular trail started with the mention of a writer in an article by a well-known Christian Apologist, Ravi Zacharias.  Mr.Zacharias rediscovered the writings of a turn of the century preacher, Dr. F. W. Boreham, who was immensely popular and prolific in his time but had somewhat faded into obscurity.  By shedding light on Boreham’s writings, he introduced a whole new generation to the beauty and imagination that was lying in those dusty volumes waiting to be uncovered once more.
A word about Dr. Boreham is in order.  As a young man in the early 1900s, he studied in London under Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher, then took a calling to the ministry in Mossgeil, New Zealand where he soujourned for a while before traveling on to Tasmania and ultimately Australia, where his remains lie.  In the course of his ministry years he wrote over 50 books (30 or more of which sit on my shelves) and introduced us to many of the colorful characters who populated his parishes.  A voracious reader in a time of great global change, he set his mind to study all subjects from etymology to exploration, from literature to nature, from engineering to economics.  Every week the mail brought him a stack of new books and his writings reflected his thirst for knowledge, his marvel at the world and his assimilation of that knowledge into the big picture of life.  A master at the art of word-smithing, he delighted his readers with his insights and observations.
Among the many authors who now grace my bookshelves, the rabbit trails of Dr. Boreham have brought me Carlyle and McCauley, Chesterton and Tennyson, Richard Jeffries and Izaak Walton, Charles Kingsley and Gilbert White.  Each of these, in turn, have led me to a number of other authors.  All of that from one source – and that has not been the only rabbit trail I’ve followed.  Wherever my travels take me, I like to pick up a book about the area so Wilfred Thesiger introduced me to the Middle East, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner to the American West, while Ronald Blythe and Edwin Teale took me back to England.  Ronald Blythe came by courtesy of friend and author Donna Fletcher Crow whose ‘Glastonbury’ carried me back to the old legends and stories of ancient Britain.
So how a book ends up on one’s bookshelf is a part of life’s journey which often ends up looking more like a rabbit trail than a flight path as seen on the on-board monitors of modern transatlantic flights.  Dr. Boreham would have been thrilled by the technology – a wise man, all in all – and an avid rabbit hunter too.