St Nicholas Island, October 23rd

This was quite possibly the best day I had during our entire visit in Turkey. This was the day when I really felt like an art historian. Not only an art historian but an art historian in the field, seeing something for the first time and knowing right away what she's looking at. Usually I only play one on TV.
St. Nicholas island was an uneventful, lazy cruise through bouncing waters from the blue lagoon. At tea time Nathan and I compared Jan Van Eyck to Albrecht Durer.
"Durer is clearly more skilled than Eyck," Nathan declared.
"I don't really feel that's applicable," I countered. "Considering the span of years that separated them. It would like comparing Citizen Kane to Star Wars."
"Well, you have to admit Durer's sense of proportion and perspective was better than Eyck's."
"This is true." I bit my lip and thought. "But Van Eyck just has this way of playing tricks with your eye, and his attention to detail, however minuscule is just mind-boggling. Not to mention his use of colour."
"Durer was a master of colour," Nathan shot back.
"True. There is one painting of his in which he brags about his colours." I smirked. "Too bad it's mostly in browns and blacks and whites."
You might, Dear Reader, wonder where I get off on lecturing my elders on who is the better artist. My degree is a BFA in art history, focusing specifically on Northern Renaissance and the Itinerants of Russia. I wrote my thesis comparing the Itinerants to Icon writers. I know my shit.
What does this have to do with St Nicholas Island, you're wondering? On the surface; nothing. Yet, when it comes down to it; EVERYTHING.
St. Nicholas Island, original name now forgotten by me, is a hump of olive trees and wrecked stone churches and tunnels. It lies in between two larger strips of land making the water on either side warm, and luxurious. At one point, centuries ago, it was a thriving community, as evidenced by the three churches that were built on its hump and apparently spared no expense. An earthquake reportedly made the inhabitants think twice about their choice of lifestyle and they packed up to move to the mainland.
Because it's a popular destination of the Gulet circuit, other money making opportunities drift around, eyes peeled for suckers easily parted from their Lira.
There is the option of peeling off 15 Lira to be whip lashed into a frenzy by tubing behind a speedboat piloted by a Turk (remember; Turkish drivers), while Turkish pop music throbs over the water. For about half an hour. The second option, if you're not into adrenaline, is a more sedate mom and pop skiff that putters close to the larger gulets, make crepes and spreading them with sugar, butter and lemon juice. Nutritious, delicious and only 8 Lira.
At first Kirsty and I wanted none of it. All I wanted was to see these old churches. It correlates directly to what I was doing for four years of my life and what my mother shelled out huge sums of money for. This is where Russia received the word of God from. It's churches such as the ones on St. Nicholas, well really the Hagia Sophia, that impressed the Slavic emissaries who wanted to know what this whole "One God" thing was about.
We jumped into the skiff with Ali at the helm as usual. He grinned at Kirsty and growled out "Atchaba." This was becoming his regular salutation for her and neither of us had any idea what he was saying.
"What does that mean?" Kirsty demanded of him. He just flashed her a wolfish grin.

Ali displays his animalistic charm.

Also in the skiff was Veronica, Nathan, Mark and Jonah. Syrah and Marcus had opted to be spun around on the tubes; James and Katherine preferred to stay on the gulet, consuming the white wine.
We paid the obligatory 8Lira for the privilege of experiencing Turkey's past, and began pushing ourselves up the stone-cut steps. They were in about the same state as the amphitheatre in Kash, maybe even a little worse. We pushed ourselves up the slope with aching calves, encouraged by signs that promised three churches up ahead. Every once in a while we'd have to pause, losing sight of the trail, confusing blindingly white rocks that crowned from the ground for the marble steps. Mark had fallen behind us taking pictures, but Jonah kept up clad only in the diving shorts he had bought from Kash and his camera hanging around his neck.
The first church loomed ahead of us. It was mostly ruined and I can only assume it was the church of St. Nicholas (he's pretty popular in the Orthodox circles). But the rounded remains of the apse still stood, perched like a crown with the sunlight peeking through the windows pierced in the masonry.
We stopped at... well, I guess it was a landing, and Veronica began describing to me the experience of standing before the Mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna Italy. These are additional Holy Grails for art history students and I explained to them why; what made the mosaics so groundbreaking, ushering in an entirely new method of representing events and persons.
"Sorry," I apologized sheepishly. "I never know when to hold back. If it gets incredibly boring, just let me know."
"No!" Nathan exclaimed.
"No, you're very good at explaining it, and you're right: it is fascinating," Veronica agreed. Jonah snapped a picture and we pushed on.
The first church was constructed in a typical fashion for the area, combining a rectangular basilica with round mausoleum. We stopped outside the door, breathing hard and I squinted at the door jambs.
There were faint contours of a draped robe outlined in red and ochre. They were almost faded, but if you looked carefully you could see them, and if you followed the folds painted on the stone, you could just make out long slender fingers pressed together in prayer. No doubt an archaeologist had already seen and catalogued these fading frescoes, but let me have my belief that I had discovered them.
I went bounding up to the door, stopping just close enough to the stone that to anyone it would like I was inhaling the particles of paint flaking from the structure.
"Oh my God!" I exclaimed in a hushed whisper. "These are old frescoes!"
I began to jump up and down I was that excited. Nathan and Veronica surveyed me with a tolerant, indulging smile. Kirsty refused to look at me and Jonah was focusing his camera lens. "I feel like Panofsky." (Panofsky, for all you non-art history majors, wrote the tome that is assigned every Survey 1 class). Jonah, fortunately (I think) knew who Panofsky was, due to his architectural education.
He stared at me, stony faced and then smirked.
"Wow," Jonah said. "You just geeked your pants."
I settled down, blushing furiously and we stepped carefully into the "interior." Mark caught up to us, puffing with exertion. He stopped, surveyed his surroundings with awe and within moments the shutter of his camera could be heard snapping open and shut.
Mark stopped for a moment, put his camera down and said to the air, "So, what do we know about this place?"
Jonah put his camera down and looked at me. "Rosie, go."
"Oh!" I put my hands on my hips. "Before I was geeking out, now you want me to talk, huh?" But really, who was I kidding? I preen for chances to show off.
And yet, whenever someone turns the spotlight on me it's an instant deer-in-headlights reaction.
"Um, uh," I took a few deep breaths. "Okay, so back there is the narthex, this curvy bit we're looking at is the apse, and what devotees used to is walk the ambulatories or the aisles, around the altar. Sort of like walking around a Buddha Stupa."
"A what?" Jonah interrupted.
"Never mind." I pointed to squares of marble with a rusted hole in the centre. "There would have been a colonnade all along here, that you walked along, leading behind and around the altar."
"Where would they have put the pews?" Jonah asked.
"Um, they wouldn't have."
We stepped gingerly among the ruins, peering with fascination at fractures of stylobates carved with swirling vines. As we crept closer to the curve of the apse I looked up and squinted. Faded almost completely away, but still just visible was another fresco. This time I believe it was of a warrior saint, like Saint George or Saint Sebastian. Something in his pointy shoes and his very stiff stance betrayed the masculine nature and unyielding conviction.
I went running up, excited beyond belief once again. "Look!" I cried, "there's another fresco."
"Huh, look at that," Mark aimed his camera lens at it. Snap.
"Why don't you pose under it," Jonah suggested. I leaned against the wall, trying to look like it was no big deal, this is just something that I do. "Look over to your right a little bit," Jonah instructed. "Yeah, that's nice."
The result, dear reader, is what you see to the right of this text. Not bad, eh?
Nathan, Veronica and Kirsty had moved on, gathering under a dome that had half collapsed. I amazed them once more by pointing out that it was built after the Hagia Sophia as evidenced by it being on squinches as opposed to pendentives. Eyes widened and heads nodded with the appropiate amount of appreciativeness.
"What would you prefer?" Nathan asked, "Do you want to see more churches or should we investigate the tunnel they made?" It was quite clear which one excited him the most (hint: the tunnel).
"Let's find the tunnel," we agreed.
Of course, one has to take into account that St. Nicholas Island had been deserted for years, centuries, only to be mildly inhabited by Turkish Heritage officials every once in a while. But still, it's hard to imagine that at one point there was solid community there. We found no ruins of homes; no hearth places, for instance. There were olive trees all over the place, depositing pale green berries under our feet. Kirsty and I tried one; it was like eating kitty litter.
Every once in a while the thumps and screeches of disco music would peel by us as though two different worlds were bleeding into each other. Kirsty stopped on the trail and pointed to a structure.
"Do we think this is the tunnel?" she asked.
We looked at her. I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but I imagine a tunnel has an entrance and an exit, that it connects to points of destination. To be honest, what she was pointing at might have been one large special tomb. This did not occur to me at the time, however, at the time the best explanation we could muster was that it was either a storage room or a basilica.
What we were seeing was a large stone chamber that at one point had been covered by a barrel vaulted roof. The interesting thing, however, was that it was long and sunk into the ground. If it was a storage chamber, how did you get stuff in? If it was a basilica for people to gather in, how did they get in and out? Very curious.
Kirsty's hypothesis that it was the advertised tunnel was shot down and we kept walking.
A few minutes later we arrived at what was, unmistakably, The Tunnel. It was massive and the floor of it littered with crumbling rock. The roughly rounded, vaulted ceiling was punched through sporadically with holes, as were the walls. I don't think it was Cyclopean Masonry, mostly because I don't think the time periods jive together. But it was definitely of that style. Cyclopean Masonry is called such because the Greeks literally believed Cyclops had built the structures; they thought only those gigantic, and somewhat slow, phenomenas of nature had the power and strength to assemble those undressed, primitive stones into a rough approximation of a building, or in this case, a tunnel.
Primitive is definitely the word for this tunnel. It was wide, and snaked steadily up hill for a good stretch. The holes, placed either intentionally or forced upon the structure by the ravages of time and nature, gave us peep holes for some truly spectacular views. We would see the shimmering blue ocean, or rows of olive tree marching down to the shore line, or our Gulet peeking between the trees, the sea-foam blue crepe-boat hovering around it.
The tunnel finally spat us out at the apex of the island. We stood upon a sun-burned plain, the grass and other vegetation having almost totally absorbed the golden light from the sun. It dropped suddenly to bald rocky cliffs perched precariously over the hungry waves.
Piled on top of this plain, almost like Lego blocks, were stones. I had to study them for a moment before my eyes and brain recognized the assembly as another church.
In the interests of preservation tourists are not allowed to actually go into the ruins of this church. But you can press your face against the chain link fence surrounding the perimeter and stare, slack-jawed, at the mosaic floor that still remains, camouflaged by vegetation growing through the cracks.
There is a sort of path/stairway that can lift a determined observer (such as we were) above the foundations of the church, able to look down into it. Nathan, Veronica, Mark and I leaned against crumbling rocks and I pointed out that the altar was oriented in the opposite direction from most churches, meaning the builders had never heard of St. Peter's in Rome, or they just didn't care.
"What do you mean?" Mark wrinkled his brow.
The thing about Christianity is that a lot of it is appropriated or recycled from the previous, prominent religion (prime example: Christmas), no matter how much my Catholic boss wants to deny it. When Christians were no longer being fed to lions, and were grudgingly allowed to build their places of worship, they aligned their altars with the greatest source of power they knew of: The sun.
I'm not joking.
Until St Peter's in Rome was first constructed. The other source of power for Christians were the relics of whatever saint they were calling upon. Interestingly, St. Peter's remains were buried in a spot that forced the architects to put the altar to the West. But St. Peter is the bee's knees and his church the most grand, and opulent, the seat of Catholic authority (though the Orthodox church hotly disputes whatever authority the Vatican might have when it comes to the Word of God). Thus, churches built after< St. Peter's are oriented to the West.
But I digress.
Turning our backs to the church we were dazzled by the sea stretching out before us.
Jonah was clicking and snapping away, telling us to get together for a group shot.
"You need to have a picture of you, though," Kirsty told him.
Jonah handed her his camera, and as she focused on him he spread his arms wide and flung his head back. Behind him was the sapphire blue of the sea and the grass he stood on was almost as golden as his skin and hair in the sunlight (source of power, remember). Apollo in diving shorts.
St. Nicholas Island had an interesting effect on us, as a group. Maybe it was just me, but it felt as though Nathan, Veronica, Mark, Jonah, Kirsty and I had entered into some other dimension, or a bubble containing only us. There were other people in t-shirts and shorts, sunglasses reflecting brightly the sun, crawling around the island. But after the obligatory smile and nod, they ceased to matter to us. We were contained, held by the island.
Until, that is, Zafir gave two sharp blasts on the Gulet's horn. He had told us we had an hour to explore St. Nicholas island. We had taken an hour and a half. Climbing back down to the shore line would take at least another twenty minutes (I have bad knees and a pathological fear of heights/stairs). But we began the descent; I fell last in line fairly quickly due to my intense concentration of not falling to my death. Jonah and Mark scampered down barefoot.
"Your sister knows a lot about this stuff," Jonah remarked to Kirsty.
"Yeah, that's why I love going to museums with her. She knows all about art and shit," Kirsty replied.
"Can I tell her that?"
"Sure," Kirsty shrugged. "She knows."
"What do I know?" I asked Jonah.
"Kirsty says you know all about 'art and shit'" Jonah grinned at me.
"Yeah, she sent me an e-mail from Florence saying she was about to go to the Uffizi and asked, 'Mary's the chick in blue, no?'" I laughed and my heel slid a little under the gravel. My right arm flew out in an emergency attempt to correct the in-balance.
"Whoa! Careful!" Jonah put up his palms, prepared to catch me.
"What happened?" Mark asked.
"We almost lost our art historian," Jonah explained.


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