Before approaching Byzantine literature in translation, we need to face the question of what Byzantine literature is in the first place. How do we deal with a modern term in the Byzantine context? Stratis Papaioannou discusses what we mean by “Byzantine” and by “literature”, while presenting the new Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Literature in the Byzantium & Friends Podcast

How much Byzantium can fit onto a planet in an outer space, in a distant future? How do we build future storyworlds out of past civilizations? How would you like your entire cultural memory wrapped and handed down? Can meeting a linguistic alien make us ponder on the foundations of our own culture? Are we translatable? And what draws us so much to Empires we strongly dislike?

Listen to Arkady Martine (aka AnnaLinden Weller), the author of the Hugo Award winning space opera A Memory Called Empire, in conversation with Ingela Nilsson, for the occasion of the exhibition “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!” Byzantium in Popular Culture at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.

We present Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen, one of the Narrative Cosmonauts from our Storytelling & Narratology team. His research focuses on hymnography and narratology. He is also very fond of music from the Eastern Mediterranean and an amateur performer of different kinds of traditional music. In October 2021 he visited the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul to conduct research.

At Galata there is a drizzle, at Tatavla heavy rain”
One day in the Fall of 2021, there was indeed a drizzle at Galata. The opening lines of one of the most well-known Greek songs about the City quoted above came to my mind. I did not go to Tatavla (modern day Kurtuluş), but the clouds loomed over the entire horizon in pale grey, so there was probably heavy rain at Tatavla.
Songs about cities are numerus: from Sinatra’s anthem “New York, New York”, Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago”, Rufus Wainwright’s slightly satirical “Hometown Waltz” about Montreal, to the beloved jazz standard “April in Paris”.
Paintings, books and movies can represent the city in detail. Songs, at least in the modern era, are often less verbose. In the early recording industry in the 1910-1920’s songs were restricted by the technology, which only allowed for a length of about 3 minutes. This format has ever since dictated that a songwriter needs to be concise in order to get the message through. The media is the message.

Galata Drizzle
The rain reflects the Galata Tower (Image UHE)

The Greek song mentioned above is “Eche gia, panta gia” or “Eche gia, Panagia” as it is also known. Set to a well-known and catchy tune from Asia Minor, the lyrics tell the story of a person getting drunk in the City, without mentioning it by name. Throughout the song the Greek neighborhoods in the City are enumerated. Besides Galata and Tatavla, we hear about Pera (modern day Beyoğlu), Genti-Koule (Yedikule), Tharapia (Tarabya) and Nichori (Yeniköy).

I have not been able to track its exact origins, but the first recordings of the song are from the early recording industry in the 1920’s. It was another version, however, that made the song rise to its present fame 50 years later. This version, originally recorded by the folklorist and singer Domna Samiou, in 1973, is the best know version, mentioning the areas of the City, here in a recent recording by the Istanbul-based ensemble, Café Aman Istanbul:

A peculiar issue revolves around the refrain. When Samiou recorded it in
1973, the refrain was “Eche gia, Panagia” (Farewell, Holy Mother”), but
she was later informed that it was actually “Eche gia, panta gia”
(“Farewell, always fare well”). It is claimed by many singers today, that
the latter version of the refrain is the correct one. But the earliest
recordings of the song from the 1920’s reveal a different story.
Although the lyrics are entirely different, the refrain says “Panagia”,
not “panta gia”. Whatever the original refrain might be, the refrain
with “Panagia” actually reflects and continues to echo an ancient
relationship between the City and its protector and defender, the Mother
of God, Virgin Mary.

One of the earliest songs that was crucial in voicing this relationship is the Akathist hymn. It is a hymn of praise that celebrates Virgin Mary. It was probably composed in the 5th century, but an extra stanza was added in the 7th century which established a close relationship between the song and the city.

In 626, Constantinople was finally free from assailants (at least for a while). The Avars, the Slavs, and the Persians had tried to conquer the city, but with the help of the Mother of God, the citizens and the emperor Heraklios were finally freed. To celebrate this victory and give thanks to the Virgin, the city’s patriarch Sergios added the extra stanza which goes:

 

“To you, Mother of God, Protector and Leader in battle,
I, your City, delivered from terror,
dedicate songs of victory and thanksgiving!”

In these verses the city itself sings to Virgin Mary and by singing confirms the unique relationship between the two. Later, the word “city” was replaced with “people”, probably because the hymn became very popular in the liturgy in and around the Byzantine Empire. The specific historical and local connection had to be loosened so that other faithful could chant the hymn around the world.

However, the Mother of God could not protect the City forever against the Ottoman Turks who conquered the capital of the Byzantine empire in the end of May 1453. One year later, the Flemish composer, Guillaume Dufay, wrote a motet in which a mother – symbolizing both Virgin Mary and the Great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) – sings with tears to God the Father about the fall of the City and the Church. This is reflected in the title of the piece “Lament of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople” (in latin Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae).

 

The events are not mentioned directly, but are alluded to through a paraphrase and expansion of the biblical Book of Lamentations 1.2 which bewails the fall of Jerusalem. The motet was probably written to be performed at a banquet in Lille in France, where Western noble men were eager to initiate a crusade to deliver the City from the Turks. Through the mediation of the Mother of God singing in her own voice to God, the City should once more be freed and protected. It obviously had a different outcome than intended.  

Other songs were later written about the City, now firmly established as the Ottoman capital. These songs reflect the air of the Sultan’s Palace – and his harem. The Greek-Turkish song “O kaixis” (“The Boatman”, in Turkish “Gel, gel, kayıkçı”) was probably written in the 19th century. In the song, a man standing on the shore of the Golden Horn calls for a boatman to pick him up and sail him to the Sultan’s palace. He wants to free a beautiful lady, who is trapped in the Sultan’s harem.

The song mixes Greek and Turkish words and thus reflects the language of the Greeks living in the Ottoman city, called Istanbul by the Turks. Perhaps the beautiful lady could be interpreted as the Mother of God, but this theory would need some explaining of how she ended up in the harem in the first place.

Farther away from the capital, in the Balkans, another song brings tidings from the City, called Stambol in Slavic. This song is written from a Muslim perspective and is a well-known sevdalinka, the music style that is sometimes called the “Bosnian Blues”. In the song, “U Stambolu na Bosforu” (“In Istanbul upon Bosphorus”), we hear about a pasha who is sick and about to die. He promises his faithful servants that they are to receive six wives each from the harem, then he sheds a tear and dies. When his wife hears about his death, she also sheds a tear and dies.

In “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, which was made famous by the sevdah singer Himzo Polovina, the prayer call of the muezzin is recited, or rather just “Allah illallah”. This prayer call was and still is an audible reality in Bosnia as well as in the City. But like “O kaixis” and “Eche gia, Panta gia”, the song invokes a certain image of the City, which was already a distant past by the early recordings of the songs.

This brings me to the Retracing Connections research programme. Songs are, as noted above, often much shorter than literary poems, novels and movies, and do not allow for the same detail as such media or paintings do. In all the songs, the City is mentioned directly or indirectly, but not described in any detail. Rather, we hear what is going on in the City at a certain, but not clearly defined period in time, at very general geographic locations (Galata, at the harem, in the [mind of] Hagia Sophia).

In other words, listeners are invited to imagine the world in which these sung stories take place. The songs invoke storyworlds that draw on the listeners creative imagination. I am quite sure that the way I imagine Sergios’ praise of the Mother of God in 626 or the lamenting church in 1454 has very little to do with historical realities.

I am also quite certain that I have a slight orientalist reading of the songs “O kaixis” and “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, when I imagine the pasha or women in the harem. My knowledge about the harem at the Sultan’s palace is very limited and the image that pops up draws on a visit to the Topkapı palace some years ago as well as some brothel-like scenes from old movies.

 

I am convinced that most listeners function in the same way. In their minds, the songs do not prompt a historically informed image of the City, but rather an imagined Constantinople/Istanbul, a semi-fictional storyworld that blends all kinds of images, stories and impressions available to each listener. One can even sing the songs without knowing much about the history or geographical locations.

This was the case for a friend of mine, who is a Greek singer living in Denmark. She had sung “Eche gia, panta gia” a thousand times at tavernas and parties in Greece. When I told her that I was staying almost literally between Pera and Galata, she was surprised that Galata was a part of the City. She had never thought about the exact locations of the areas mentioned in the song. For her, the City in the song was almost completely an imagined city.

Indeed, we find an imagined Istanbul in the somewhat cheesy songs C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra from 1928 and the more famous “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” sung by the Four Lads in 1953, marking the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople. These songs do not in any way reveal an intimate relationship with the City, but merely use the name to write a witty song.

However, the last song on my list, which is in no way exhaustive, might reflect an almost private relationship. The short-lived British pop group The Flyers – which was more or less based in Denmark – made a small hit with the song “Don’t be a fool in Istanbul”. The song is 80’s/90’s disco pop with some exotic elements like a synthesized “kanun” (a kind of zither) and a Turkish clarinet.

The singer begins the song by stating: “I can tell you a story, and I swear every word is true!” He then reveals that he met a “dark-veiled lady” who “through her mask was beautiful” but wanted him to be sure “not to break the rules”. As in every good tragic story, the singer of course breaks the rules and ends up in jail. Whether or not it is really true, as the singer claims, is not interesting. The interesting question is: why Istanbul?

An answer may be that “Istanbul” rhymes (almost…) perfectly with “don’t be a fool” which is the refrain of the song. Again, the lyrics do not give us any information or detail about the City, it rather invites the listener to imagine a city where dating rules are strict because the women are religious – did anyone say orientalist exoticism?

 

Galata
Despite the rain, many people visit the Galata Tower, while a shopkeeper sweeps away the showers. (Image UHE)

All these songs come to my mind that day, when there indeed is a drizzle at Galata. My imagined Constantinople/Istanbul merges with the real world Istanbul. I look at different places and spaces and try to reimagine where the stories told in the songs took place. The City is a symbol that embodies a whole civilization, ideologies, religions and empires.

The songs project storyworlds in which the City is an important setting full of emotions connected with for instance Hagia Sophia or the Harem. In some songs, the City even becomes one of the main protagonists: in the Akathist hymn, the City is victorious as in Epic, whereas the City and its Church of Holy Wisdom are tragic characters in Dufay’s lamentation.

In all the songs to the City, the lack of detail and description makes it possible for the listener to imagine the City in many ways, as a world, a storyworld, to inhabit for a short while when the song catches the attention of the ear, especially when not being present in the City. As the lyrics of Eche gia, Panta gia came to my mind, I initially wanted to follow the protagonist in the song, who wants to get drunk at Pera. However, I decided to adhere to the warning from the Flyers not to be a fool in Istanbul, so that I avoided ending up as a tragic character in my own storyworld.

Sources: 

  • Beep!: Farewell, Virgin Mary (merphant.blogspot.com)
  •  Έχε γειά Παναγιά | Δεν χρειάζεται να είσαι ΔΕΞΙΟΣ για να είσαι ΠΑΤΡΙΩΤΗΣ ούτε ΑΡΙΣΤΕΡΟΣ για να είσαι ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΗΣ (ttsiotikas.blogspot.com)
  • Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae - Wikipedia

Thanks to: Damir Imamović, Haris Theodorelis-Rigas, Alexandros Charkiolakis, Thomas Arentzen, Therese Helga Emborg, and Fedja Wierød Borčak.

Discover the countless worlds and faces of Michael Psellos, the intellectual whose words and stories marked our image of the eleventh century more than any others. Stratis Papioannou presents the Greek edition of his book ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΨΕΛΛΟΣ: Η ρητορική και ο λογοτέχνης στο Βυζάντιο, in the LiFO ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΚΑΙ ΣΥΓΓΡΑΦΕΙΣ Podcast.

 

Follow the exciting life of a charter, from a medieval monastery on Mont Athos to a bronze monument in central Belgrade. Why don’t the kings let the librarians do their job? How do we fit a complex life and a controversial historical figure into a monument? Can nameless beekepers also build a state?

Read more about all of this in a new blog post on the Nordic Byzantine Network Blog

The text Ink, Bronze, and Blood of the Nation: Living in Medieval Serbia Today is written as an announcement for an online Oxford – Uppsala event held on March 25th, 2021. You can access the recording of the event below.