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Turkey Diary: The Cistern and the Gorgon’s Head 4 July 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, History, Psychology, Travel.

Istanbul, July 3

The biggest fish are nickel grey, though some of the smaller ones are gold. I do not know if they lose their color as they grow, or if perhaps the more beautiful ones are not, in the end, fit to thrive. I remember my mother’s disdain for flair. She would be pleased by the triumph of the plain.

In the northern corner of the cistern, a feeding frenzy breaks the surface of the water. A little girl throws chunks of ekmek into the shallows. There it takes on water, growing dark, until the carp have torn it apart.

One beaches himself on the foot of the teardrop column. He struggles, and even over the sound of the flute, I can hear the rush of his scales. He sucks in breadcrumbs furiously. Then, his bite consumed, he pushed himself back into the pool. Before him, a dull shape waits.

It is larger than the other fish, with a gut that disappears along the floor. The cistern is dimly let with colored bulbs. These ring the columns, four to one, shining various shades of red. The monster-carp’s mouth is a gaping thing, stained pink by the light. He holds it open, above the surface of the water, while he waits. Now and then he pushes himself from side to side. I watch the water run into his throat. Other fish swim over and under him, but patiently he waits.

From my spot on the wooden platform, I can see deep inside of him. My eyes recoil; I do not want to feel any part of myself slipping into such a beast. We are already too similar, he and I. Both of us are blind, and hoping.

Every prayer, I ask Allah to show me the answer to my question. Back home, in the West, can we thrive? Sometimes, walking in Cambridge, I feel the weight of my family in my back. My spine aches, wondering. Where can I give them the best life? How much struggle is useful? Is there anywhere in the world where Islam intersects with the West, and through its joining is strengthened?

My question weighs heavily on me. Unintentionally, I cry; since arriving in Turkey, I find that I cannot make it through salah without tears. For the first two rakat, perhaps, I am fine. By the third, during sujud, it starts; not weeping, exactly, because there is no sound. My mouth does not
howl, it floods.

I do not know the sunnah of tears, nor much about their connection to the heart. Does one purge the other? I recall that the function of the tears in the eyes is a cleaning one; is the same true throughout the body? Will this outpouring purify my heart?

A crust of bread rubs the monster’s mouth, and gurgling, he snaps it shut. He sinks back into the water, until only the tip of his top fin breaks, black, through the surface. He is almost invisible. Even submerged, he is fearful to me. In each of his grotesque poses, I see myself reflected.

I walk back to the narrow, we path. The cistern covers almost 10,000 square meters, and is crossed with twelve rows of columns. A wooden platform has been erected through it, tracing the cistern’s perimeter, and reaching out in places across its depths.

I wander its every inch. While I move, I think of its history. Of its creation, disappearance, and renaissance. The Emperor of Byzantium, Justinian, built it 1500 years ago, to accompany the Hagia Sophia. During his era, it carried water away from the heart of Istanbul. Its branches stretched for twenty kilometers, along the Golden Horn.

Then abruptly, the cistern stopped. When the Ottomnas arrived, they ignored it. Perhaps they preferred flowing water to water sitting underground; at any rate, more quickly than it was built, the chamber was forgotten.

For five hundred years, no one remembered that it was there. Finally, an explorer from Sweden came to search for Byzantine remains. He spoke to the men and women of the city, and those living in the shade of the gardens told him a curious tale.

By running buckets beneath their houses, they were able to pull water up. More over, it was possible for them to go fishing in this manner. Every so often, when they reached for water, a hearty fish came up. A gift from God for certain, but, the historian wondered, how?

He undertook a careful search of the basements of the blessed. In one, presumably buried, he found what he was looking for. Before his eyes, it opened for him: a path into the well.

And so the cistern passed from its original purpose into obscurity and back. I marveol at its passage whil I walk and listen. Everything around me has a reflection. The curved, bricked ceiling is reflected deep below the water’s edge, as a pale, smooth channel. The columns are themselves reflected, the walls are reflected, and I am reflected. While I study the shape that the ceiling makes upside down, my thoughts return to the heart.

Is not the heart of the convert like this cistern: created, lost and rediscovered? Is it possible that the model of my heart is not a swollen fish, but is instead a miraculous, lasting, beautiful place? Up ahead, one corner of the underground well glows more brightly than the others. I make my way toward it, over a path which grows increasinly slick. Water falls from the ceiling onto my head. My footsteps squeak. I am happy, I decide as we walk, that my heart did not stay buried. Allah guides whom He so wills, and alhamdulillah, He picked me.

When I reach the cistern’s brightest corner, I find Medusa waiting. Two versions of her head, each carved from stone a meter high, sit half-submerged beneath columns. The first head is placed upsidedown. It resembles a deathmask; the virgin’s eyes are curved shut, her mouth is flat and closed. The water rises above her hair, and touches the tops of her eyes. From the place where her neck should be, a column of grey stone roses up to the ceiling. She is stuck, supporting the cistern, less form than function.

The second carved Medusa head is placed on its side. In this statue, she is alive. Her eyes are open, tilted up. Her mouth is pursed, and the corners of her lips are smiling. Her hair, where it falls in serpent
curls, is almost lovely. This head too supports a column. In both of her aspects, she is a butterfly, pinned by a scientist. She does not move, nor will she, ever again.

The sign by the heads says that they are Roman. The Byzantines brought them here, perhaps stole them from a ransacked temple, but to what end? As a former Catholic, Rome is marked in my heart with the weight of the Church. The two are inseparable; I cannot think of Rome without remembering the Vatican. I cannot think of the Vatican without remembering my mother’s faith.

I have forgotten, or almost, that Rome was once pagan. Medusa’s eyes, whether open or shut, remind me. Empires change. What once seemed as if it would go on forever is now reduced to rubble. Could America ever become Muslim, I ask my heart. From inside, a voice replies. Could Rome ever
become Christian? Could it let go of Hera, Perseus, Zeus? The gorgon’s head, floating, seems to whisper “Yes.”



1. redwan ahmed - 4 July 2008

Muslim narrated the following hadith:

Isnad: Suleiman bin ‘Abdir Rahman and ‘Ali bin Hujr » ‘Ibsai bin Bunus » Hisham bin ‘Urwa » ‘Abd Allaah bin ‘Urwah » ‘Urwah

Narrated ‘Aisha (radi Allaahu ‘anha):

Eleven women sat (at a place) and promised and contracted that they would not conceal anything of the news of their husbands.

The first one said, “My husband is like the meat of a lean weak camel which is kept on the top of a mountain which is neither easy to climb, nor is the meat fat, so that one might put up with the trouble of fetching it.”

The second one said, “I shall not relate my husband’s news, for I fear that I may not be able to finish his story, for if I describe him, I will mention all his defects and bad traits.”

The third one said, “My husband is a tall man; if I describe him (and he hears of that) he will divorce me, and if I keep quiet, he will neither divorce me nor treat me as a wife.”

The fourth one said, “My husband is a moderate person like the night of Tihama which is neither hot nor cold. I am neither afraid of him, nor am I discontented with him.”

The fifth one said, “My husband, when entering (the house) is a leopard, and when going out, is a lion. He does not ask about whatever is in the house.”

The sixth one said, “If my husband eats. he eats too much (leaving the dishes empty), and if he drinks he leaves nothing, and if he sleeps he sleeps alone (away from me) covered in garments and does not stretch his hands here and there so as to know how I fare (get along).”

The seventh one said, “My husband is a wrong-doer or weak and foolish. All the defects are present in him. He may injure your head or your body or may do both.”

The eighth one said, “My husband is soft to touch like a rabbit and smells like a Zar’nab (a kind of good smelling grass).”

The ninth one said, “My husband is a tall generous man wearing a long strap for carrying his sword. His ashes are Aboondant and his house is near to the people who would easily consult him.”

The tenth one said, “My husband is Maalik, and what is Maalik? Maalik is greater than whatever I say about him. (He is beyond and above all praises which can come to my mind). Most of his camels are kept at home (ready to be slaughtered for the guests) and only a few are taken to the pastures. When the camels hear the sound of the lute (or the tambourine) they realize that they are going to be slaughtered for the guests.”

The eleventh one said, “My husband is Aboo Zar’ and what is Aboo Zar’ (i.e., what should I say about him)? He has given me many ornaments and my ears are heavily loaded with them and my arms have become fat (i.e., I have become fat). And he has pleased me, and I have become so happy that I feel proud of myself. He found me with my family who were mere owners of sheep and living in poverty, and brought me to a respected family having horses and camels and threshing and purifying grain . Whatever I say, he does not rebuke or insult me. When I sleep, I sleep till late in the morning, and when I drink water (or milk), I drink my fill. The mother of Aboo Zar’ and what may one say in praise of the mother of Aboo Zar’? Her saddle bags were always full of provision and her house was spacious. As for the son of Aboo Zar’, what may one say of the son of Aboo Zar’? His bed is as narrow as an unsheathed sword and an arm of a kid (of four months) satisfies his hunger. As for the daughter of Aboo Zar’, she is obedient to her father and to her mother. She has a fat well-built body and that arouses the jealousy of her husband’s other wife. As for the (maid) slave girl of Aboo Zar’, what may one say of the (maid) slave girl of Aboo Zar’? She does not uncover our secrets but keeps them, and does not waste our provisions and does not leave the rubbish scattered everywhere in our house.” The eleventh lady added, “One day it so happened that Aboo Zar’ went out at the time when the milk was being milked from the animals, and he saw a woman who had two sons like two leopards playing with her two breasts. (On seeing her) he divorced me and married her. Thereafter I married a noble man who used to ride a fast tireless horse and keep a spear in his hand. He gave me many things, and also a pair of every kind of livestock and said, ‘Eat (of this), O Um Zar’, and give provision to your relatives.” She added, “Yet, all those things which my second husband gave me could not fill the smallest utensil of Aboo Zar’s.” ‘Aisha then said: Allaah’s Apostle said to me, “I am to you as Aboo Zar’ was to his wife Um Zar’.”

May Allaah grant the believing women the thorough reflection upon this Hadeeth…Ameen!

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