A few weeks ago I wandered along Istanbul's old city's steep streets. I found myself in Fatih, a district that once, when it was home to many of the city's Greeks, Armenians and Jews, was called Fener. Interspersed between modern housing are still dilapidated wooden houses, churches and synagogues.

A heat wave is still lingering all over the Mediterranean. Here in Rome the temperature is occasionally approaching forty degrees Celsius and it was not much better in Istanbul, but there cooling gushes of wind came in from the Bosporus and the Marmara Sea. To Istanbul I had come together with Rose, who attended a conference, something that gave me an opportunity to single-handedly wander around the city and visit places I had not seen in more than thirty years.

Istanbul has what some other cities I have learned to love, like Rome, New York and Damascus, its very own life; where houses, parks and streets can speak to me even without other people around. They are excellent cities to roam about on your own. However, this time in Istanbul I had a definite goal. I had ended up in Fener because I had several years ago read an account from the last years of the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. In mid-March 1965, three years before his death, he had visited Istanbul together with his wife Ingrid. She remembers:

We walked and walked, stumbling up-hill and down into muddy pits, while the rain splashed on our shoulders, between old Istanbul´s thousand shanties of brownish-gray boards. We could not find our way, but had to return to busier streets. From the Kemal Pasha Bridge we took a taxi that brought us along the Golden Horn and the old city wall. Where we eventually found a small chapel on the spot where Blachernae´s basilica once had stood. A middle-aged Greek caretaker let us in. From a bright upper hall we came downstairs into a small church room. To the right was the spring with holy water. From a silver bailer the custodian poured the water over our hands. On the wall by the entrance to the pool was a large icon, a Madonna with child almost covered with a mighty silver basme, a plate hammered in relief over the icon figures, with carved holes for the faces of the Madonna and her child. Where these were, however, only the black wood could be seen. The icon had been worn down by kisses - or maybe the color had disappeared with the passage of time.

Drenched by the rain and exhausted after their hurried walk the Ekelöf couple probably felt calm and solemn when they finally had arrived at a place that Gunnar for a long time had fantasized about. He was in a poor condition after he a few months earlier had fallen in their home and against the edge of a bed broken several ribs. I assume that he, as so often before, had been thoroughly drunk. After the fall he had spent a month in hospital and while in Turkey, just before their return trip, he was hit by a severe flu, with repercussions that followed him until he died, a year younger than I am now.

As he stood in front of the Virgin's source and the church janitor poured the cellar-cold water over his hands, Ekelöf was caught by a strong emotion:

A tradition that for so many centuries had been unbroken made a strong impression on Gunnar. He was bewildered and dazed. In Greek he tried to explain his feelings to the custodian, but when he seemed not to understand, Gunnar instead kissed him - timidly - on both cheeks.

As soon as the Ekelöfs were back in their hotel room an euphoric Gunnar, who due to his injury and hospitalization had not drunk alcohol in two months, ordered in a bottle of brandy. During the night, he wrote no less than seventeen poems. Later, he described the experience as if an angel had been visiting him, dictating his thoughts. One of the poems depicted the visit to the life-giving spring - Hagiasma, The Holy Water:

The black image

underneath silver kissed to pieces.

A caretaker belonging to

these hidden, humble

pours water over our hands,

the same water that purified

power obsessed, tormented emperors

O, the filthy lust for power!

For sure

would this simple act

also cleanse our hands from what they want,

their lust for power,

the evil of power.

You say you have no guilt

because everything is relative,

but according to our measure

 this small evil is enough.

Even we need this water,

a humble, royal couple



It is now more than fifteen years ago since I read about Ekelöf´s visit to the Virgin Spring, but it was a reading that has lingered and already before I went with Rose to Istanbul I was determined to visit that strange place. In the early seventies, when I did my military service, I spent several nights with a book about Byzantine history that I read during night shifts in front of a switchboard, inside a truck parked deep in the forest. When I much later read about Ekelöf´s visit at the source, I remembered the stories about the God-Bearer´s  Basilica.

Just before sunset on every Friday, Venus´/The Great Mother´s Day in the Aegean world, the Byzantine emperor solemnly strode down the palace's marble staircase to the Theotokos´ Church. In its interior was the kolymbos, the pool of holy water. Before the emperor naked stepped into the water, he had left his princely splendor in an anteroom, where his courtiers waited for him during his lonely encounter with the Madonna. From the outstretched hands of a statue that represented the Birth-Giver-of-God water gushed down into the male-deep basin. The walls were adorned with icons and over it all rose a dome covered with gilded mosaics. Everything was done in silence. Submerged in the water and facing her image the emperor directed his prayers to The Great Mother who now, like Athena had protected Athens, held her hand over his city and kingdom. Before the emperor rose out of the water, he listened to the chorus in the neighboring church when it struck up the Akhatistos, the hymn to Theotokos. At the same time the temple gates were opened and out there in the church hall the Madonna took off her veil and revealed her face, brought to life by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Queen of the Heavenly Host, Defender of our souls, we thy servants offer to thee songs of victory and thanksgiving, for thou, O Mother of God, hast delivered us from dangers. But as thou has invincible power, free us from conflicts of all kinds that we may cry to thee:

“Rejoice, thou through whom joy will flash forth!

Rejoice, thou through whom the curse will cease!

Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

Rejoice, height hard to climb for human thoughts!

Rejoice, depth hard to contemplate even for the eyes of Angels!

Rejoice, thou who art the King's throne!

Rejoice, thou who bearest Him Who bears all!

Rejoice, star that causest the Sun to appear!

Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, thou through whom creation becomes new!

Rejoice, thou through whom the Creator becomes a babe!

Rejoice, unwedded bride!”


After the listening to the hymn, the emperor stepped out of the pool, went to his courtiers, who dressed him and reborn he returned up the marble staircase to his palace and burdensome duties. After one night and a day the Virgin's face was veiled again and the gates to her sanctuary closed.

Theotokos´ Church inside the palace of Blachernae was once Christendom's absolute focal point, more important than the mighty Hagia Sophia, completely overshadowing St. Peter's Basilica in an increasingly meaningless Rome. Besides Hagion Lousma  The Holy Bath, there was in the Holy Mary´s Church in Blachernae a side chapel called Hagia Soros, The Holy Reliquary, which enclosed an amount of treasures associated with the Birth-Giver-Of-God There was, for example, the miraculous icon Blacherenitissa that after the Synod of Ephesus in 431 had determined that the Madonna is not only Birth-Giver-of-Christ  but above all TheotokosBirth-Giver-of-God, represented the Virgin with the infant Jesus in front of her. The Child is surrounded by a circle, which might be interpreted both as the Eucharist Miracle and the entire Universe. The child is associated with His mother's breasts and womb while she opens her arms to both enclose him and introduce him to the Christian community. It is The Great Mother revealed in all her sacred majesty, the protective power of the Universe and it is not for nothing that she wears the imperial palace's name -  Blacherenitissa.

It is alleged that the original Blacherenitissa now is to be found in the Uspenski Cathedral in Moscow, where it was donated in 1654 by the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. The icon is old, made in relief and it was claimed that the material was wax mixed with ashes from Christian martyrs, though stern believers said it was in fact made of clay from Golgotha, ​​mixed with the tears of the Virgin. However, the icon in the Cathedral inside the Kremlin cannot be Blacherenitissa . It is designed as a Hodegetria , "She-Who-Shows-The-Way"; the Madonna directs her right hand towards Jesus, "the fruit of her womb". When the icon first appeared in Constantinople it was said that Theodosius II's sister Pulcheria had brought it with her from Jerusalem, where it once had been painted after live model by St. Luke. Another story claimed that the picture had been looted from city to city before it had ended up in a gold-bound chest of a Mongol army. When some Greek soldiers in 619, after one of the Empire´s many battles, sacked the Mongols´ camp the Hodegetria was recovered and brought to the Hagia Soros where it joined Maphorion, which already was there.

Maphorion was the blue mantle of the Virgin. Pulcheria received it as a gift from the Patriarch of Jerusalem when she asked for Maria's remains. The Patriarch lamented that the Virgin's body had disappeared long ago, but some time after the Maphorion had found it´s resting place inside the Hagia Soros, the Patriarch also sent Mary's sash and grave wrappings. The tales about all these objects are divergent; each and every one of them has at least three completely different stories to tell. There is for example a famous story stating that the Emperor of Constantinople gave the Maphorion to Charlemagne and that his son donated it to the cathedral of Chartres in 876, but either did Constantine V fool Charlemagne, or Charles the Bold fooled Chartres, since as we will see below it appears as if the Maphorion rested in Constantinople much longer than that.

Anyway, it was generally believed that the relics were genuine and they gave even more power and reverence to the sanctuary which surrounded Theotokos´ source. Her life-giving water was the secret power behind the Emperor and the garment of the Birth-Giver-Of-God was a powerful protection for the city and the entire realm of the Empire. Her church became ever more exquisitely ornamented, more revered. It burned down in 1070, but the relics were saved and the sanctuary rebuilt, more splendid than before. One evening in 1434, two boys were hunting for pigeon eggs up on the roof of the church. They brought an oil lamp which overturned and set fire to the entire building, which burned down to the ground. Many of the relics were lost forever, while others had already disappeared during the Crusaders´ devastating looting in April 1204, after which some of them gradually turned up at different locations in Italy, Germany and France.

While I randomly walked through the Fatih district, I became increasingly suspicious about Ekelöf finding the right church. Maybe he had been elsewhere, at a place believed to be the Hagiasma; there are namely various springs and cisterns inside the Old Town of Istanbul. I had a map with me, but was utterly unable to locate the remains of what had once been one of the world's greatest and most revered churches. When I asked people if they could show me the way to Meryem Ana Kilisesi the Turkish name of the church they were all equally uninformed. I gave up and went to Kariye Muzesi instead.

The Kora Monastery was also built as a tribute to the Mother-of-God. We meet her already at the entrance to the church where a mosaic with gold background presents her as Blacherenitissa, who in front of her holds her Child within in a circle that demonstrates how her womb envelops him. On the sides of the Madonna Theotokos is written ἡ Χώρα των ζώντων, "Mother of God, dwelling (Chora) of that which cannot be contained."

Kora´s ceilings, and to some extent even its walls, are covered with magnificent mosaics that present Jesus and his mother, but also provide vivid depictions of their lives, against a background of gold shimmering heavens, exquisite buildings and exotic greenery. The scenes are vivid and fanciful, especially those in the ceiling of the inner narthex, which depicts the conception, birth and upbringing of the Birth-Giver-Of-God. The pictures convey a striking tenderness and intimacy, for example, in a scene where Joachim and Anna embrace one another with their daughter in the middle. Or when little Mary takes her first tentative steps towards her mother. A drastic scene is when God's angel approaches Mary from the sky while she is in the process of fetching water from a well. When she hears the voice of the heavenly messenger behind her, she is about to about to fall down the well from sheer astonishment.

Although Kora Monastery's mosaics were made in the early 1300s, much later than the Council of Ephesus in 431, they nevertheless seem to be, like the equally sumptuous frescoes, an answer to why the cult of Mary spread so quickly during the 400's. This was a time when the old gods were losing their power and attractiveness, while incessant disputes about God´s  and Jesus' true nature threatened to make Christianity far too abstract for common people; the Church was in danger of becoming alienated from people's desire for a personal contact with their deities.

At that time, the pagans would have welcomed a revival of the intimacy that had existed between them and their gods, while those already Christian searched for the warmth of a compassionate, gentle and tender-hearted deity. Probably did several of the Church Fathers of the time know where the remedy for this lack and longing was to be found - with The Great Mother who in a not too distant time had been worshiped under names like Cybele, Isis, Anath, Diana, Astarte, Athena, Venus, Juno, al-Lat or Rhea.

The vision of a Birth-Giver-Of-God that the manipulative and highly politicized theologians and church leaders who had gathered in Ephesus finally brought before the people and the Emperor succeeded to some extent in applying to Maria the formula that previously had been applied to Jesus, namely that if he was “true God and true man”, his Mother was also “true God and true woman”. Theotokos, the Birth-Giver-Of-God became the origin of Universe, the sustainer of everything, at the same time as she remained a profoundly human being and a loving mother who felt compassion for God's creation.

The womb is our common origin, the strongest bond between us humans. We are all a mother's children, created within a woman and nourished by her milk. In the same way as we were born, Jesus was born through Mary. The Theotokos seen on the mosaic at the Kora Monastery's entrance welcomes us to her Chora, her dwelling place, which encloses not only her heavenly Son, whose human shape we meet only after having entered into his mother´s abode, but we are not only confronted with the divine manifestations of Mary and Jesus, we are also invited to take part of their history as human beings.

I left the Chora while thoughts about the Birth-Giver-Of-God kept swirling around in my head. I passed a mosque, not as gigantesque as those farther down in the Old Town, built on the orders of sultans like Suleiman, Ahmed I and Murad III, but simple, elegant and exquisitely designed. It was designed by the great Mimar Sinan for Suleiman the Magnificent's favorite daughter Princess Mirimah. The mosque had recently been renovated after it´s dome had collapsed during the earthquake of 1999.

I was alone when I washed my feet by a fountain in the mosque's enclosed courtyard. The water source was a round marble house surrounded by faucets and within its cool, marble interior there was a pool with crystal clear water. The buildings were constructed with white and light gray limestone. Everything breathed peace and stillness. Despite the heat, the courtyard´s marble slabs were cool and when I walked over to the mosque's entrance my naked, freshly washed feet left wet traces, which quickly dried in the sunheat.

While I rested on the deep red carpet that covered the hall under a high, unassumingly decorated dome, I marveled at the gentle light surrounding me. Sinan had done everything possible to expand the wall surface that could be used for windows and had employed various innovative and discreet support systems. It was said that Sinan had been secretly in love with Princess Mihrimah and had personally paid for all his work. Perhaps the mosque was truly an act of love. As I sat back, comfortably leaning against a column and looked up at the dome, I remembered how my professor in History of Art had celebrated Sinan as architecture´s greatest genius. A practical man with outstanding sense of balance and aesthetics.

Mimar Sinan was originally a Christian Armenian and born in 1489, as son to a stonemason near the town of Kayseri in Anatolia. When he was thirteen years of age he was noticed as an unusually bright boy and was sent to Istanbul. The so called Devschirme System meant that Christian peasants and workers were prompted to send particularly outstanding sons to the Sublime Porte, where they were brought up in the Muslim faith and became soldiers, Janitschars, or Government officials. Sinan was educated as acemioğlan, officer and followed the sultans on their war expeditions; he thus came to Rhodes, witnessed the conquest of Belgrade and took under Suleiman the Great part in the Battle of Mohács. He rose steadily through the ranks and became for a time commandant of Austria, in 1535 he participated in a campaign against Baghdad and two years later he was sent on an expedition to Corfu, Apulia and Moldova. Constantly, Mimar Sinan deepened and perfected his architectural skills and knowledge. He ended up as chief architect for the whole of the Ottoman Empire. When Sinan1588 was buried in a mausoleum next to one  his of his great creations, Süleymaiye Mosque, there had in accordance with his drawings and calculations been built 131 mosques, the  55 schools, 34 palaces, 33 public baths, 19 mausoleums and a large number of hospitals, schools and bridges.

Where I rested within the cool beauty of Mirimah´s mosque my thoughts continued to circle around The Great Mother. In my hometown, Hässleholm, we used to call the cupola crowned palestra the "breast" and I now wondered if there could be a connection between The Great Mother, Hagia Sofia and Sinan's mosques.

Several dome crowned places of worship had been built long before the mighty Hagia Sophia was completed in 537, this maybe makes it a preposterous thought to associate Hagia Sophia and Sinan's mosques with the idea of ​​The Great Mother; the Theotokos and her life-giving breasts? Though, why not? Domes are often compared to the sky, a protective sphere enveloping all creation, whose sun, moon and stars control time, the changing seasons, day and night, the growth of plants and crops, and women's menstrual cycle. Inside the mosque I rested with a vault over my head, like the child in his mother's womb. As an ancient Egyptian peasant imagining Nut, the Sky, like a great mother who with distended breasts leaned herself over the male Geb, the Earth.

From the outside Istanbul's many mosques undoubtedly resembled shapely female breasts. Why would not the brilliant and once Christian Mimar Sinan sometime during his ninety-nine years long life not have thought the same thought? Thought about the Theotokos, her domed sanctuary and life-giving source that like a mother´s breasts gave protection and nourishment to the entire Christian Empire, which the Ottomans eventually became heirs to?

When Jesus on depictions of the Theotokos Blacherenitissa is placed in front of her breasts and womb it indicates his close connection with her human nature - that her flesh nourished him. Italian art displays countless representations of La Madonna Allatta, the Breastfeeding Virgin, such depictions also occur as Orthodox icons, but they are more common in Western European art tradition. However, Orthodox hymns describe how Christ nourishes his flesh through his Mother´s milk. For the ancients, mother's milk equaled creative vitality converted into meat. When a child suckles its mother's breast it receives her flesh in liquid form. This was how Jesus obtained his humanity, his flesh. What he had received from his mother's breast made it possible for him to listen to and understand those who prayed to and took refuge with his mother. 

Through the bond that had been established between him and his mother, Jesus could feel genuine compassion for humanity. St John's Gospel opens with the words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  […]  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. […]  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

It was believed that the Word had resided in the milk of the Mother-of- God. The Word? This was something else that ancient scholars had disputed about. The Jewish Bible, Tanakh, the Christian Old Testament, occasionally mentions the Virgin of Israel, Zion's Daughter, as an object of God's love. It seems as if the country turned into a living being and not only Israel, but something even more abstract, incomprehensible and mysterious might be personified in the Bible, turning into a female figure. Wisdom, in Hebrew Chokmah, is in the Proverbs of Tanakh a woman. This book was probably written in Alexandria sometime in the early 300 BC.

Can’t you hear the voice of wisdom? She is standing at the city gates and at every fork in the road, and at the door of every house. Listen to what she says: “Listen, men!” she calls. “How foolish and naive you are! Let me give you understanding. O foolish ones, let me show you common sense! Listen to me! For I have important information for you. Everything I say is right and true, for I hate lies and every kind of deception.  My advice is wholesome and good. There is nothing of evil in it. My words are plain and clear to anyone with half a mind—if it is only open! My instruction is far more valuable than silver or gold! [...]

My gifts are better than the purest gold or sterling silver!  My paths are those of justice and right.  Those who love and follow me are indeed wealthy. I fill their treasuries.  The Lord formed me in the beginning, before he created anything else. From ages past, I am. I existed before the earth began. I lived before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters onto the earth, before the mountains and the hills were made. Yes, I was born before God made the earth and fields and the first handfuls of soil.

I was there when he established the heavens and formed the great springs in the depths of the oceans. I was there when he set the limits of the seas and gave them his instructions not to spread beyond their boundaries. I was there when he made the blueprint for the earth and oceans.  I was the craftsman at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence. And how happy I was with what he created—his wide world and all his family of mankind! And so, young men, listen to me, for how happy are all who follow my instructions.”

It seems as if it is The Great Mother who speaks from Alexandria on the Mediterranean shore, where ancient thinking and knowledge were gathered within the walls of its huge library, while philosophers from all over the known world gathered to discuss the big issues of existence - Greeks, Jews, Persians, Arabs and Indians. We are in the age of Hellenism, when global thinking colored religion and philosophy, when ideas and traditions were compiled and formed to be transmitted further on, to Ancient Rome, to Byzantium and on to the Renaissance, when they once again blossomed in full splendor through exquisite art and literature. I wonder if the beautiful woman that God keeps under one arm while he on the Sistine Chapel´s ceiling creates Adam, not at all, as I learned in school, is the unborn Eve, but simply Chokmah, the God-loved Wisdom who inspires and takes part in his creation.

A hundred years after the writing of the Book of Proverbs a Jew named Ben-Sira, dedicated an entire chapter to Wisdom in his book Ecclesiaticus:

Wisdom will praise herself, and will glory in the midst of her people.

In the assembly of the Most High she will open her mouth,

And in the presence of his host she will glory:

“Í came forth from the mouth of the Most High

And covered earth like a mist,

I dwelt in high places,

And my throne was in a pillar of cloud.

Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven

And have walked in the depth of the abyss.”


Wisdom continues to praise herself in verse after verse. With a sensual language reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, she describes how God and man gave her hope and confidence. Through the depiction of a dreamlike landscape, lush of Mediterranean's most captivating richness and vegetation she reminds the readers that The Great Mother in ancient cultures was the mistress of animals and plants.

“I am the mother of beautiful love, of fear, of knowledge,

and of holy hope;

Being eternal, I therefore am given to all my children,

to those who are named by him.

Come to me, you who desire me,

and eat your fill of my produce.

For the remembrance of me is sweeter than honey,

and my inheritance sweeter than the honeycomb,

Those who eat me will hunger for more,

and those who drink me will first for more,

Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,

and those who work with me will not sin.”


It was in this Alexandrian environment that the female philosopher Hypatia, six hundred years after Ben-Sira, wrote her, now lost, praise of Wisdom. Hypatia, who attracted vast audiences, was a representative of the dwindling ranks of educated philosophers and scientists at places like Athens, Alexandria and the Persian Ctesiphon, who maintained the tradition of ancient thought, while refusing to convert to Christianity. As a Neo-Platonist, Hypatia apparently celebrated Wisdom in her guise of Sophia. In the tradition of Pythagoras, Neo-Platonists considered someone who ponders on the human condition and tries to explain the questions of existence as a “lover of Sophia”, a philosopher.

Around Hypatia gathered an exclusive group of eloquent and influential disciples. Their main opponent was the rabid, handsome, eloquent and wealthy patriarch Cyril, who devoted all his power and wealth to bring an end to Alexandrian paganism. One of his methods was to convene and incite groups of armed monks to let them loose on his opponents. During Lent 415 Hypatia´s carriage was attacked by an enraged mob in broad daylight, in the center of Alexandria's Forum. The rabid monks pulled her out of her carriage, tore off her clothes, dragged her into a nearby church, tore the skin from her with sharpened oyster shells and then threw out her bleeding body into the square, where they set it on fire.

It was the same Cyril, who had inflamed the religious lynch mob that butchered Hypatia, who during the Synod of Ephesus in 431, through manipulations, intimidation and bribery, succeeded in getting his vision of Theokotos accepted as dogma for an official Christendom sanctioned by the Emperor. Perhaps Cyril´s attack on Hypatia had been part of a process that intended to wipe out the heretic worship of The Great Mother and instead bring her in to the pen of Christianity by transforming The Virgin Mary into Theokotos.

One hundred years after the Council of Ephesus, Justinian gave the orders to erect the mighty Hagia Sophia, The Church of Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople, which well-known structure and form soon was taken over by Muslim builders and architects. One of the world's oldest Islamic buildings is the magnificent Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which Caliph Abd al-Malik erected in 691 CE, roughly 50 years after the Umayyads had conquered Jerusalem. The mosque was built with the Byzantine Kathisma Church as a model.


During the fifth century, Christian pilgrims poured into Palestine. Indigenous guides and relic vendors were quick to provide them with a wealth of stories indicating places sanctified by Jesus' presence. After the meeting in Ephesus had turned Maria worship into a dogma Palestine became filled with memorials of TheVirgin. Among other things, it was said that when Mary and Joseph were on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem the pregnant, tired and thirsty Mary sat down on a rock to rest, suddenly a crack opened  in the earth in front of her and a gush of water sprang forth, forming a spring of sacred water. The place came to be known as Kathisma, seat or resting place.

In the 450´s a rich lady paid for the erection of a church above the stone called "Mary´s Seat" and since it was built around a spring, what was more natural than to build the church as a replica of the one above the Virgin Spring in the palace of Blachernae? When Justinian in 560 ordered the construction of a dome over the source in Constantinople, they did the same over the Kathisma in Palestine.

Maybe my thoughts about Muslim shrines would be considered as heretical and offensive to Muslims who do not let women take part in men's prayer and devotions in the mosques, but refer them to invisibility in small wooden cages by the entrance.  Nevertheless, had it always been like that? After all, the Mirimah mosque was a woman's mosque built for the glory of God, and maybe The Great Mother also could be found by Islam´s springs?

Disappointed for not having been able to have find Hagiasma I wandered in the stifling heat down through Fatih, until I sat down at an outdoor café for a kebab and an ice cold beer. Finally there came a few gushes of fresh wind, in fact, they were so powerful that they grabbed hold of the postcards I had bought in Kariye Muzesi and placed in front of me on the table. The wind spread them fluttering over the patio and into the street, while the always friendly Turks chased after them and one by one picked them up for me. I felt like an awkward, very old man. 

Refreshed from food and beer I continued my way down to the Süleymaiye mosque. While I washed my feet by the fountain on the marble courtyard, I thought that it needed a people of desert walkers to fully appreciate the relief it means to rinse your naked, hot feet in cool water. The Prophet himself had during his twenty-five years in the service of his wife Kahdidja, as a caravan driver traveled far over mountains and deserts and he knew well the great importance water and stones. Ancient Arabs were known for their litholatry, worship of stones. During day the desert stones are heated up by the intense heat of the sun. Hottest become the black rocks and in the dark of night they warm like a black sun.

Tertullian, the first Christian author who wrote in Latin, noted that "Syria has its Atargatis and Arabia its Dusares". Dusares, The Mountain Lord, was represented by a stone, a baetyl, which in the temples of the Arab Nabatheans was venerated as "a cube-shaped black stone resting on gold plates placed directly on the ground."

Hajarul Aswad, the Black Stone which is walled into Mecca's cubic Ka'aba sanctuary was worshiped long before Allah had revealed the Quran to the Prophet. The Ka´aba was badly damaged in a flood in 600 CE and when Muhammad had conquered Mecca in the year 629 he cleansed the Ka´aba from its idols with the words: "Truth has come and falsehood vanished." Left in the sanctuary, however, was three pillars and the Hajarul Aswad, which was immured on the  Ka'aba´s eastern corner.

Since the Nabateans originally represented the presence of their gods as stones and pillars, it is possible that the Ka'aba´s three pillars once symbolized the three goddesses mentioned in the Quran: ”Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-´Uzzà  and Manāt, the third, the other? These are the exalted gaharānig, whose intercession is hoped for." (Surah 53: 19-20). The meaning of the word gaharānig is obscure, but it is used to denote “a crane”. Nabateans equated al-Lat with Athena, the wise warrior-godess, al-Uzza, the morning- and evening star, with Aphrodite Ourania and Manāt with Eutychide, goddess of destiny. Manāt was believed to be the divine mother of Dusares, supreme god of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Apparently, the three goddesses were originally different aspects of The Great Mother.

Herodotus wrote four hundred years before CE that the only gods that the Arabs admitted was "Dionysus and Uranus". Dionysus was the Nabateans´ Greek name for Dusares, while they called the Greek Uorania  - Alilat. Like the Quranic al-Lat, Alilat was a female deity and they are probably identical. al-Lat sounds like “Allah” and her name is usually interpreted as "The Goddess", in a similar manner as Allah is interpreted as "The God". The word Allāh, الل, is a combination of the definite article al and Ilah, God, indicating that he is the only existing God. In the Qur'an, Allah is denoted by the pronoun Hu or Huwa, usually translated as "Him", but the word is actually gender neutral. Allah encompasses everything. He is the unifying force behind all existence and can accordingly not be grasped by our finite thoughts.

When al-Uzza was identified with the Greek goddess Ourania she was also linked to the cult of The Great Mother and Sophia, the Wisdom. Ourania was in Greek religion the muse of astronomy and originally similar to the Egyptian goddess Nut, the firmament that motherly enveloped all mankind. Rarely are you so close to what has been called The Sheltering Sky, as when you travel through the desert in the night. It was thus only natural that some of the desert wandering Arabs imagined that Heaven could be a woman.

Since ancient times, The Great Mother has been present in the Middle East. The first secure representation of her can be seen in Ankara´s Anatolian Museum. It is a terracotta figurine from 6 000 CE, found in Catal Hüyük and it represents a mother goddess with huge breasts and hips, placed on a throne between two felines. It is The Mother as nature's mistress and she has been found at many sites in the vicinity, most spectacularly carved into a cliff near Ephesus, where Artemis in her guise of The Great Godess could be worshipped in a temple that was considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was also in Ephesus that the Byzantine theologians agreed upon establishing the dogma of Theokritos.

The voluminous woman from Catal Hüyük is placed on a throne and so is she, who the Romans came to call Dea Syria, the Syrian Godess, Atargatis/Astarte, who in the entire Mediterranean area was worshiped as The Great Mother, origin of all living creatures. Her throne is found in a museum in Beirut, though it is empty except for a four-cornered stone pillar, a baetylBaetyl actually means "abode" and is not symbolizing a deity, but her presence on earth, the place where she reveals herself. Baetyls may still be encountered all around the Middle East.

The goddess of Catal Hüyük was probably the origin of Cybele, also she a personification of The Great Mother. The first inscription that first mentions her calls Cybele Kubaba and she was early on in several places equated with a black stone - perhaps were notions about cubic baetyls of Kubaba the inspiration to the design of the Ka'aba. الكعبة Al-Ka'bah, the "cube" in Arabic, the great shrine in Mecca which preserves the Hajarul Aswad the stone that encloses the warmth of Heaven, at the same time as it constitutes an enduring sign of the first tangible contact between Heaven and earth, since it once fell to earth to indicate where Adam and Eve should build the world's first temple.

Dusk fell over Istanbul and along the steep streets of the textile quarters I went down to the boats by the Galata Bridge. I had found that the easiest and cheapest way to get to our hotel was to take the boat to Üsküdar on the Asian side and there change to another boat that took me over to Europe again, thus I could also during the sunset, after a rather tiring day, enjoy the fresh winds of the Bosporus and admire the Ancient City's clear-cut silhouette, with its domes and minarets.

I was far from being the first Northerner who traveled across the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. The Old Russian Primary Chronicle tells how a Viking fleet already in 860 threatened the Imperial City, while most of the Byzantine forces were fighting in Sicily:

When the Emperor had set forth against the infidels and had arrived at the Black River, the eparch [the Governor of Constantinople] sent him word that the Rus´ were approaching Tsargrad [Constantinople], and the Emperor turned back. Upon arriving inside the strait, the Rus´ made a great massacre of the Christians, and attacked Tsargrad in two hundred boats. The Emperor succeeded with difficulty in entering the city. He straightway hastened with the Patriarch Photius to the Church of Our Lady of the Blachernae, where they prayed all night. They also sang hymns and carried the sacred vestment of the Virgin to dip in the sea. The weather was still, and the sea was calm, but a storm of wind came up, and when great waves straightway rose, confusing the boats of the godless Rus, it threw them upon the shore and broke them up, so that few escaped such destruction and returned to their native land.

Once again the Theotokos had protected her city and that happened again and again, until her Maphorion was burned in 1434. It seems that the mantle of The Mother-Of-God, often had to leave its home in the Blachernae. For example, the princess Anna Comnena (1083 - 1153) told in a very interesting and fast paced book portraying her so boundlessly admired father, Emperor Alexius I, how he during an unsuccessful campaign against the Pechenegs, a people from the Russian steppes that Anna calls Scyths, personally carried with him the Maphorion as a battle ensign. When Alexius´ troops deserted the battlefield, he and a small group of his most loyal warriors stayed behind. Two Scyths gripped from either side hold of the bridle of his horse, while a third was clinging to the Emperor´s legs:

Alexius immediately cut off the hand of one and raising his sword and roaring loudly made the second withdraw hurriedly. The man who was clinging to his leg he struck on the helmet, but the blow delivered with less than his whole strength was too light to do damage. Alexius was in fact afraid of two things might happen; the sword, when too much violence is used, generally swerves and he might either strike his own foot  or the horse on which he was riding, and so he would be taken prisoner by this enemies. He delivered a second blow, but this time he took careful aim! In all his deeds and words and movements Alexius let reason be his guide, he was never carried away by anger or swept off his feet by passion. At the first blow the Scyth´s helmet had been thrust backwards and he struck the man´s bare head. In a second he was lying speechless on the ground.

Alexius was intoxicated by blood lust, savagely cutting through the enemy crowd. Afterwards  he stated: "If I on that day had not held the standard I would had smitten and killed more Scyths than I have hairs on my head.” But the situation was untenable and Alexius was forced to flee the field. One of the Pechenegs grasped a long spear in both hands and stuck the Emperor on the buttock. The blow did not break the skin, but caused an excruciating pain that persisted for the rest of his life. To his anger and anguish the Emperor had to leave the Maphorion behind and therefore threw The Virgin´s Mantle into a thicket of Teucrium, where his enemies hopefully would not be able to find it. If they had seized the sacred mantle it would have meant the downfall of the Byzantine Empire. Thankfully it was later retrieved unharmed from the thicket of Teucrium.

Quite tired after my somewhat unsuccessful excursion, after all, I had not found The Virgin´s Spring, I returned to our hotel just in time for the completion of Rose's meetings and I could together with her from a table at the hotel bar on the glazed top floor enjoy a breathtaking view of both the Bosporus and the Golden Horn.

By breakfast the next day, I met Dianela, who is married to the leader of the research network that organized the conference Rose was participating in. I knew her from before, and we had some years previously spent a nice day in Rome, when her husband was there on another conference. Now, I told her about my futile search for The Virgin Spring and Daniela suggested that I, together with her and her sons, would go join an outing with her Turkish friend. Daniela assured me that there were few things about Istanbul that Ilknur did not know. And Daniela was absolutely right. Ilknur, who is member of a female Sufi society, was a faithful visitor to the chapel of Mary of Blachernae and she was moreover a good friend of its caretaker, a Greek Turk named Jan, just like me.

It was not strange that I the day before had been unable to find the small church. It was located in a lush garden behind a high wall with an armored door and a security camera. A tragic reminder of the concerns that never have left the few Greeks who remained in Istanbul after violent riots had broken out during the Cyprus crisis in 1954. A sad story provoked by right-wing groups within the military (initially supported by both the CIA and MI6) and which completely degenerated during two days in August when only in Istanbul 4 214 mainly Greek homes were vandalized, along with 73 churches, 26 schools, two monasteries and one synagogue. Most of the perpetrators had by buses been brought from rural areas into the city.

The little church building was erected in 1867 over the remains of what once had been Byzantium´s absolute center. Through a staircase we came into the church's lower hall where a marble vault by the left long side opened to the grotto where The Virgin´s Source gushed forth. We could not enter the cave because it´s entrance was blocked by a marble bench from which five gilded taps brought the holy water to the visitors. Over the taps was a Greek palindrome engraved, a text which can be read from both sides: Nipson anomemata me Monan opsin, "wash your sins, not only the eyes." By the entrance to the source hung behind her silver basme the icon of the Madonna and her Child, the same picture that Gunnar Ekelöf had described in his poem. Pilgrims had stuck bank notes and prayer slips behind its protective glass and just as Gunnar and Ingrid Ekeköf had seen them, the faces of Mother and Child were blackened, destroyed and unrecognizable. I asked the friendly Jan, who spoke broken English, if the icon has been destroyed due to all the kisses it had endured, but he told me that it was a replica of an original that was in Moscow and that Mary´s icon in Blachernae had not been kissed, but burnt and destroyed during the riots in 1954. Jan was wondering how it was that I knew about the icon beforehand and I told him what I had read about Ekelöf´s visit. He had already heard about it, both from his predecessors and some of the Swedes who over the years had made it to the Church. In his poor English he was even able to quote the first stanza of Ekelöf´s poem to the Madonna: The black picture kissed to pieces under silver.

We drank the water, which was good and fresh. I filled a small bottle and have taken it with me to Rome. It now stands in front of me on the desk and I wonder if I will ever drink the water. I am satisfied and happy that I finally came to visit Ekelöf´s source and like him met a friendly caretaker of Theokotos´ church. That even I could be seized by the sanctity of ”one over many centuries unbroken tradition". There, in Istanbul's remarkable interior, the true source of faith and mystery lives on - under churches, mosques, apartment buildings and airports, violence and fanaticism, love, friendship and death, beats the living heart of Theotokos.

Ashe, Geoffrey (1977) The Virgin. Frogmore, St. Albans: Paladin. Augé, Christian and Jean-Marie Dentzer (2000) Petra, The Rose-Red City. London: Thames & Hudson. Brown, Peter (2003) The Rise of Western Christendom. Oxford: Blackwell. Comnena, Anna (1969) The Alexiad. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. De Osa, Veronica (1982). Sinan, the Turkish Michelangelo: A biographical novel. New York: Vantage Press. Herodotus (1973) Histories. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. Ibn al-Kalbī (1952) The Book of Idols, Being a Translation from the Arabic of the Kitāb al-Asnām. Princeton University Press. Sartre, Maurice (2002) La Syrie Antique. Paris: Gallimard.Toniolo, Ermanno M. (1996), Akathistos. Antico inno alla Madre di Dio. Rome: Centro di Cultura "Madre della Chiesa" Tradigo, Alfredo (2004) Icone e Santi d´Oriente. Milano: Mondadori. Turcan, Robert (1997) The Cults of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell. Warner, Marina (1983) Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage Books. 


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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt