“In this city of Constantinople, in Byzantium, lived my ancestors. In other words, they were the great, great, great, great grandparents of my mother and father, and they were Greek.”—Helen Noakes
By Helen Noakes
Author’s Note: This story excerpt, for those large and small, by Neetsa-all-grown-up (and no longer living in Shanghai, China), is the beginning of a book for young readers. A work in progress, it explores the nature of prejudice, the role of cultural traditions in survival, the power of the family unit, and the part all these elements play in the immigrant experience.
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2017—My name is Neetsa. Well, not really: it’s Eleni, just like my Grandma, but everybody calls me Neetsa because it’s a Greek name for little girls called Eleni. I live in Shanghai, China. It’s where I was born.
A lot of people may find this confusing.Why a little Greek girl called Neetsa instead of Eleni, which is her real name, lives in Shanghai, China. Well, I’ll tell you. But you must be prepared for a story of kingdoms with gold-domed churches, battles between great kings, adventurous journeys, and new beginnings.
Long ago and far away, there was a city called Constantinople. This was a magical city of great palaces which overlooked the green waters of a strait called Bosphorous.This strait connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. And because of this, great sailing ships would come into the large harbor of Constantinople.
The people of Constantinople called their harbor the Golden Horn. And indeed, this was a golden harbor, because the sailing ships carried wondrous things into Constantinople—frankincense and myrrh and scented spices from all over the world, monkeys and elephants and other fabulous animals from the coast of Africa, and people from many lands, who spoke as many languages as they had songs, and who brought with them stories and customs both strange and fascinating.
But the sailing ships were not the only means by which the people of Constantinople received their riches. Not at all, for every day, in this city called Constantinople, caravans arrived from places as far away as China, Russia, Egypt, and even Spain.
The camels that carried the riches these caravans transported would stare haughtily at the merchants who welcomed them, and bray in mad relief to have the bundles on their backs removed and scattered for the people of Constantinople to marvel at and to buy. (One such camel, whose name was Pseelomitta, which means stuck up, was purported to tell a tale about her journey to the Forbidden City, in a marvelous land called China. But that is another story.)
In the immense bazaars the goods from the sailing ships and the caravans were displayed: exotic plants and flowers, colorful fruit and delicacies, sparkling jewels and silks, delicate dolls and stern toy soldiers, story books and painted pictures—so many things I cannot begin to describe them all. And, I have it on good authority that if one were wise and blessed with a fine imagination, one just might find a few flying carpets brought to Constantinople by a great Arab sailor called Sinbad.
Ah, but the sailing ships and caravans brought more than things, they brought people with new ideas, intricate arts, and surprising crafts from all over the world. And the residents of Constantinople, for the most part, welcomed these people and marveled at their gifts of thought.They learned their arts and crafts, their music, and their poetry. And soon, the mingling of cultures created a new art that was called Byzantine.
The city of Constantinople was part of a great empire called Byzantium. About one thousand six hundred eighty-seven years ago, way before you or I was born, one of the emperors of Byzantium, whose name was Constantine, decreed that his empire was to be a Christian realm. But decrees being what they are, there were people who practiced all sorts of religions. There were pagan temples and Jewish temples, there were mosques for the followers of Islam and, of course, there were Christian churches.
The greatest church of all was a magnificent cathedral built at the center of this great city. The cathedral of Aghia Sophia, or The Holy Wisdom, crowned the bustling harbor and the busy narrow streets. Its huge golden dome sparkled like a jewel. It was the most important building in the whole city, for indeed, from emperors to urchins, Wisdom was a Holy gift, most deeply needed and desired.
So rich was this kingdom, so powerful were its kings and queens, that it became the envy of the world, and many wanted to possess it. Because of this, a great wall was built around the city to protect it. And the kings and queens of Byzantium created an army, with soldiers and knights, whose only job it was to protect its borders from those who wished to invade it.
The people who ruled Byzantium were Greek, and lots of the people who lived there were Greek, also. But like any great city, it had many different people living within its walls: Russians and Chinese, Italians and Germans, Arabs and Jews. Because it was such a rich and splendid place, they all managed, somehow, to get along.
In this city of Constantinople, in Byzantium, lived my ancestors. In other words, they were the great, great, great, great grandparents of my mother and father, and they were Greek.
I’m not sure if I have used enough “greats” or if I have used too many, nor do I know if they were great or just ordinary people, but I know that they lived there, and worked there, and every day looked up to the dome of Aghia Sophia, and perhaps whispered a prayer that God would be kind to them and to their children. But then, all parents do that every day, and things, I’m told, haven’t changed that much.
As for “great”—the kings and queens of Byzantium were sometimes great, and sometimes not, were sometimes wise and sometimes foolish, were sometimes good and sometimes bad. But that is true of anyone, whether king, queen, or urchin. Except for one thing: these kings and queens were responsible for a lot of other people, indeed for Byzantium itself.
And so it was that one day, on May 29, 1453 to be exact, a very foolish king of Byzantium was not wise enough, nor strong enough to keep his kingdom safe, and Byzantium fell to a great Turkish ruler who changed everything.
This Turkish king, Sultan Mehmed II, was not a Christian, but a follower of Islam, so he decreed that Aghia Sophia would become a mosque, a place of worship for the followers of Islam. He removed the arms of the crosses on the great bronze doors of Aghia Sophia but, strangely enough he left the beautiful mosaic of the Holy Wisdom on the wall, behind what used to be the altar of the church. For Wisdom is Holy in all faiths and most deeply needed and desired.
Perhaps because of this, Aghia Sophia is still being called by that name. For Greek or Turk, Russian or Chinese, all nations have their own words for wisdom. And spoken in reverence, Sophia was as good a word as Bolgelik, мудрость (Mudrast) or 智慧 (Zhihui).
Even before Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, the city was sometimes called Istanbul for it was easier for the Turkish people to pronounce. The name, Istanbul, which Constantinople is called to this day, comes from the Greek words “Is tin poli,” which means “in The City.” For in ancient times, when Turkey was Byzantium, and Istanbul was Constantinople, Constantinople was the greatest city in the empire, and everyone referred to it as “THE CITY!” Their inflection, when they said the words, wrote them large in capitals and followed them with an exclamation mark.
Sadly, long after Sultan Mehmed’s rule, wisdom, holy or otherwise, did not take hold in the heart of Ismail Enver, the Turkish minister of war. In October 1915, he ordered that those who did not agree with his religion or his point of view be persecuted and put to death. Among the people he ordered killed were Greeks. And as is the wont of many rulers of various religions and diverse races, in many times in history, innocent people died for nothing more than the color of their skin or the choice of the prayers they used to praise God, or the simple fact that they were not to the ruler’s liking.
And so it was that my great grandparents from my mother’s side of the family and my great grandparents from my father’s side of the family managed, through the help of their Turkish neighbors, to escape to Russia. They traveled at night, barely able to contain their grief for the friends and family who had been killed by Enver’s soldiers. These soldiers, who were paid to be enraged, were brought from faraway places to slaughter and terrify. These were soldiers who sold their souls for greed, and greed is the opposite of wisdom and heartily to be shunned.
Shall I tell you of my great grandparents’ journey? Of the kindness of their Turkish neighbors? Of the good and the bad, the love and despair, of the sorrows and joys they experienced in their flight?
Well, then, we must begin by looking at the many facets of human hearts, at the force of love and determination, and the majesty of mountains.