Today is my mother’s birthday … I thought it would be fun to share an excerpt from her book called “Around the World by Mistake”, the story of a freighter trip we took many years ago. Happy birthday, Jane Winslow Eliot!
I had stopped against the last three rungs at the top of the ancient iron fire ladder, almost half way between the floor and the top of the dome in the Mother of all Churches: Aghia Sophia. I was alone. Well, not exactly alone. If I looked straight down five stories, I could see Alex leaning against an enormous iron wheel, seemingly to keep it from moving. Beside him Abdul, glowing in a white linen suit topped with a wide-brimmed white Panama hat, locked it in place. Another six men, in dark grey work-clothes, receded anonymously into thicker shadows around the fire ladder’s base.
Under these conditions, it’s better to look up. Above me floated the most influential dome in architecture, its crown lost in darkness some five stories beyond my ladder’s end. A ring of forty thick stone ribs separated by arched glass windows defined the circumference of the dome’s immense base. If I could have stretched my arms fifty feet to either side of my lofty perch, I could have touched the base of the great arched walls. There was nothing in the way. I was floating in space scooped out from infinity by the architects Anthemios and Isidorus, then held in place for some fourteen centuries essentially by the integrity of their mighty design. Many thousands can fit into Aghia Sophia at one time and they have, whether to worship or to seek sanctuary in time of wars, witch-hunts, crusades, conquests, riots and restorations – separately and together.
From the grandeur of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque down to the tiniest of Christian churches sprinkled like sugar cubes across the thyme-purpled landscape of the eastern Mediterranean, to the Duomo of Florence, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, and our own Capitol in Washington, all were birthed by glorious Aghia Sophia.
Little remains of its fabled Byzantine embellishments. Gone are the emperors in their golden robes, followed by their trains of sugar-stuffed courtiers playing with their golden mechanical toys. Gone, too, are the great silver iconostasis and the golden altar. A few of the frescoes and mosaics remain. History’s dark shadows are still wrapped around porphyry columns once stolen from pagan temples. Shadows penetrate the gouged eyes of frescoed saints; they encircled the great green discs from which the golden name of Allah glows; they blur the edges of holy space now become secular. Yet nothing important is missing.
“Do you wish to go higher?” Abdul’s voice floated up.
“This is fine.” My voice floated down.
I had met Abdul two hours earlier when I looked into the two pools of dark amber that were his eyes as he said firmly: “Aghia Sophia is closed for ten days’ repairs.” We had taken the morning flight up from Greece. Alex was writing an article on Istanbul. But there was to be no entrance into the great church. No way. That was Abdul’s position.
“You are Americans, You live in Hollywood. All Americans live in Hollywood,” he changed the subject after half an hour of us trying to persuade him to let us in. “You make my photograph. Carry it to Hollywood. My dream is to be a movie star.”
“Closed?” My mind was on the church.
“Closed.” He shook his white sleeves to show they were empty. His mind was on Hollywood.
You cannot tell about other people’s dreams, nor anticipate the accidents of life.
I agreed to photograph him. I had only one roll of twelve Roliflex negatives with me, but obviously closed meant closed. I’d get more later. Abdul posed happily against the front doors: Voluptuous lips wet: Victor Mature. Click. Eyes squinting with passion: Rudolf Valentino. Click. Profile, nose in air: John Barrymore. Click. Deadpan, George Raft. Click. Eyelids veiling the goodness of his heart in an evil world: Humphrey Bogart. Click. About to open the door: Charles Boyer. Click. One hand in pocket, murderous: Edward G Robinson. Click. Vacuous: Robert Taylor. Click. Eyebrows meeting in a steeple: Don Ameche. Click. About to bring the chili rellenos: Cesar Romero. Closeup: Hat at a rakish angle, one shoulder forward, intense: Abdul himself. Click. Eleven pictures done
I kept back one for good luck.
“Wait here,” Abdul ordered. A fidgety twenty minutes later, the fire ladder platform was rolled up to the three story sized bronze doors by six panting ‘Istanbullions.’ The base held a folded iron ladder pointing up into the air about eight feet. It was wrapped in cloth rags. “The iron gets too hot for the hands in a fire.” Abdul explained. The ungainly machine ran silently on two eight-foot high, rubber-sheathed wheels.
“Our machinery is not up to date, but we take good care of it,” he said proudly.
Pulling out an iron key about a foot long, he slid it into the great front door keyhole, turning it with both hands. The doors slid open on well-oiled hinges. “Go in,” he motioned. There was no electric light – only grey shadows on silver atoms. We had the entire church to ourselves. The men rolled their machine into the center under the dome, and cranked the ladder straight up. When it reached some five stories up into the luminous dark, they stopped and turned to me.
“You can go take pictures.” Abdul smiled the gratitude that knows no bounds.
I climbed the shaky rungs to where the ladder ended in mid-air, my Roliflex with its one negative dangling from my neck. I floated in space scooped out from infinity and, hanging on with one hand I lifted my camera. The click rolled down the dome, the semi-domes, and the quarter-domes. I wound and clicked the now empty camera a dozen times more so Abdul would hear and not call me down. I became the still camera and the thirteenth negative. Shadows, space and silence were silver-printed on my soul.