Beneath the first hill of Istanbul lies the Basilica Cistern. During our reporting trip to Turkey last summer, we visited these extraordinary caverns built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532.
Arranged in 12 rows, 336 columns from ruined structures support the massive cistern. Two of the columns supported by upside-down Medusa heads (pictured above) are tucked-away in one of the corners. The cistern supplied a massive amount of water to a palace and surrounding buildings via aqueducts for hundreds of years. But then the cistern was forgotten. As Lonely Planet explains:
“Enter scholar Petrus Gyllius, who was researching Byzantine antiquities in 1545 and was told by locals that they could obtain water by lowering buckets in their basement floors. Some were even catching fish this way. Intrigued, Gyllius explored the neighbourhood and discovered a house through whose basement he accessed the cistern. Even after his discovery, the Ottomans (who referred to the cistern as Yerebatan Sarayı) didn’t treat the underground palace with the respect it deserved and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, as well as corpses. It has been restored at least three times.
It’s a treasure not to be missed.
Photo by Nikolai Vassiliev/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Longing for the Muezzin’s Call
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the things I find I most enjoyed — and, now, most miss — about my travels to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Istanbul is the periodicity of the muezzin’s call to prayer. It greets you in so many unexpected ways.
Standing on the Mount of Olives, one call drifts across the valley from the Old City only to be washed over by another one down the way. But walk within its walls and it beckons you to stop. Sometimes sternly and at others as a mother would remind her child.
Walk around a corner in Ramallah and the muezzin’s voice may greet you as a friend and wrap its arms around your shoulders; walk down another alley and it barks at you. Sit atop a rooftop patio in the oldest parts of Istanbul and several voices vie for your affections without competing with one another. The voices of small, underpowered speakers from a nearby local mosque provide background vocals for the melodic mix of the more prominent mosques like the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque, in what seems like a talent show of some of the world’s best.
And, then there’s the greeting from one’s home, as you can hear in the audio embedded audio above. It’s the maghrib athan, the fourth call that summons the faithful to prayer just after sunset, during Ramadan from what seems like an apartment window somewhere outside of Nablus.
One sees so many sites, eats so much delicious food, meets so many wonderful people. But it’s the rhythmic reminder that stays with me, a discipline I’ll cherish long after the memory of such encounters slowly erode themselves in my mind.
About the photo: The muezzin at the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo demonstrates his vocal abilities in the liwan. (Photo by Christopher Rose/Flick, licensed under Creative Commons)
The Last Quiet Places: The Sounds of Nature’s Silence Are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives
by Krista Tippett, host
This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.
Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.
Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”
Sitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.
This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.
Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.
Amazon rain forest (photo by Oscar Federico Bodini/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”
Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.
As I think about this map posted on The Denver Post’s Tumblr, I can’t help but think about my own limited daily range with spurts of summer vacation routes and the like. Tracking humans migratory routes and spikes might surprises us — or depress us, non? Now, make this a project that compares this with data of other cultures and countries, or previous generations’s habits, and we might gain a new sense of what it means to be human in the 21st century:
GPS tracking data collected from radio collars on mountain lions, lynx, wolves and other wild mammals are challenging scientific understanding of the animals’ range and habitat.
Until about five years ago, the use of GPS technology was limited.
Now, Colorado Division of Wildlife and other Western biologists are tracking more animals using satellites and computers and seeing them wander farther, more frequently and far beyond the bounds of what is believed to be their normal habitat.
(map and photo by Colorado Division of Wildlife)
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Do You Know the Way to Sacromonte?
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor, with photos by Tamar Salibian
The road may be — and almost always is — made of our footsteps, as Antonio Machado said, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other. The Camino du Sacromonte, which we recently climbed all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail is such a place.
We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail. On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra; on the other side, and at a sharp elevation, we could make out the Abbey. It was a grey afternoon. We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away — literally. And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.
Then, it began to rain — first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers. The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour. We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey. The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again. For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement. But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape — the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water in its roots but also on its surface.
It was not fear that seized me for that instant, though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other. It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures — the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century — would suddenly jump out in an ambush. But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something transcendent.
We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight. We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate. In the distance the Alhambra of the Muslims extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies: a quintessential moment of faiths in violent embrace.
We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, pure and of this place, at this moment. Perhaps this is what faith feels like, we said. This sense of being on top of the world, held — contained is a better description — by something invisible, something beyond this religious edifice. But ask the question and you’ve subverted the sentiment, you’ve sullied the faith. But if not faith, then what?
There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees — even if you are a card-carrying secularist — and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods. Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter. You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while — and a bit less wet. Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.
After some time, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home. We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.
We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street. It was going in the opposite direction, up to the Abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in. Inside the bus was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus. They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way, which is more likely. Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey. No one was, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of the ravine on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts that inhabit these mountains. But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty precipitous.
We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin. No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands — Christians, Muslims, Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers, the kings, the commoners. Those who were burned at the stake, those who were occupied, those who were expelled, and those who built their monuments on top of the destruction, the mayhem.
The ashes. All in the name of faith. But if not faith, then what?
Taline Voskeritchian is a translator and teaches writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, BookForum, London Review of Books, Agni Review, and in Alik (Iran), Warwick Review(UK), Daily Star/International Herald Tribune (Beirut). She also blogs at Passages Home.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Day 16 - Parisa Popalzai: “Ramadan in Indonesia”
Revealing Ramadan: 30 Days, 30 Voices [mp3, 3:04]
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Parisa Popalzai, an Afghani-American woman who immigrated to California after the Soviets invaded her home country in 1979, is our 16th voice in this series. She is an American Muslim who didn’t grow up with Muslim friends and, in the process, began to lose her religious identity. Her year of studying abroad in the world’s most populous Muslim country gave her a new perspective on the month of Ramadan, and her religious identity.
Check back on this blog each day or on our Facebook page to hear a new voice in our “Revealing Ramadan” series. If you’re the on demand type or simply need a more automated form of listening, we’ve produced a special podcast feed that’s available now. Oh, and a special show too!
Just Add 30 Minutes…
Shubha Bala, associate producer
This morning, when I woke up, I thought to myself, “Oh great! I have to travel on Friday morning!” When traveling after a brown person gets arrested, I have to tack on an extra 30 minutes to get through security. (I am of Indian origin.)
I relayed this story to my colleagues this morning after reading an article in the Huffington Post by Sumbul Ali-Karamali. She talks about her personal frustration with the news, being an American-Muslim herself. She also notes, “I hope we can remember the Muslim Senegalese man who raised the alarm about the smoking car, as well as the criminal who put it there.”
(photo: Ned Richards)
Krista on the Airwaves, via Online Streaming
Colleen Scheck, Producer
Our hard-working host is traveling this week for speeches she has given in both Salt Lake City, Utah and Fort Collins, Colorado. As part of these trips, she’s done interviews with a few local public radio programs. What I enjoy about listening to these interviews is hearing Krista talk about the history of Speaking of Faith, the approach and scope of the program, and her thoughts on a range of religious and ethical issues. While these are things I’ve heard her say before, each time I hear them anew I am inspired about the work we do.
I recommend her interview with Doug Fabrizio on the KUER program “RadioWest.” They cover broad territory, including Krista’s thoughts on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, how we handle negative reaction to programs, the relationship between science and religion, perspective on Islam in light of the Fort Hood tragedy, and Mormonism (of course, it’s Salt Lake City!) — and, it includes questions from callers.