San ta marmara tis polis - “Like the marbles of The City” - is a beautiful old Greek song from Istanbul probably composed some time in the late Ottoman period. It is from the urban folk tradition, and therefore anonymous, and exists in numerous versions. The earliest commercial recording I am aware of was made in 1925 by Marika Papagkika, who had emigrated to the United States and ran a Greek-Turkish “café-aman” near 8th Ave in New York.
The song breathes and throbs in every note and pulse the Ottoman ‘common life’ of Istanbul: a city where religious festivals, like Bayram or Easter, were often shared among citizens of different faiths and where the “millet” system (from the Arabic for “nation” - millah), meant that people were in principle free to follow the laws of their communities – Muslim Sharia law, Christian Canon law or Jewish Halakha.
The music of the song tells the same story of integration and respect for identity. It is in a slow karsilamas rhythm (9 slow beats: 2+2+2+3), exactly the same as the Turkish karşılama. The melody is a cross between the fourth of the eight Byzantine Octoechoi (Ὀκτώηχοi) scales, and the Turkish Uşşâk Makam. Music does not lie. The truth it tells here is of an intimate, interwoven common life.
Music does not lie. The truth it tells here is of an intimate, interwoven common life.
The words of the song are similarly intercultural. They follow the normal rhythms and intonation patterns of the Greek language, but the refrain is derived ultimately from Arabic through Turkish, with repeated words aman, aman , originally meaning “safety” or “peace”: here a kind of “Oh-oh” chorus typical of the Sevda (Σεβντά) tradition.
This tradition of a music of unrequited love and sad longing stretches from the Levant through Anatolia to Northern Greece and the Western Balkans. The word Sevda itself comes primarily from the Turkish word for “love”, but is also sometimes associated with the Arabic sawda' meaning blackness or melancholia, a pathology with roots in Graeco-Arabic music medicine.
The song tells of unfulfilled love for one whose beauty is compared to the marbles of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia – at the time of course, the Great Mosque of Ayasofiya. In some versions, the poet/composer wishes to be a dome in Hagia Sophia beneath which both Christian and Muslim girls can worship. According to Professor Ioannis Zelepos of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, the song celebrates the “aesthetic harmony” of Ayasofiya itself, and the harmony of a shared Christian and Muslim identity.
In some versions, the poet/composer wishes to be a dome in Hagia Sophia beneath which both Christian and Muslim girls can worship.
There is a back story I have heard told by both Turkish and Greek musicians, although I know of no written record. The story goes that at the time of the song, Christians would come at the Ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, to pray beside the marbles of Hagia Sophia. If it is true, it adds another dimension; the metonymy is reversed: unrequited love – the marbles – longing for Hagia Sophia. But the longing in the lyrics of San ta marmara is not selfish. It is a longing to share.
But the longing in the lyrics of San ta marmara is not selfish. It is a longing to share.
Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian the Great between 532 and 537, and was to remain the centre for the Eastern Orthodox church for almost a thousand years. But from the moment, in 1453, when Mehmed the Conqueror rode into the cathedral on his white horse, gazed up in awe, and ordered his troops to stop looting, Ayasofiya was destined to become a mosque.
Its status as a mosque was not disputed until 1918, when Istanbul was occupied by British, French and Italian forces following the armistice of Mudros. There was serious talk of reverting Hagia Sophia to an Orthodox cathedral, but according to Turkish sources (quoted in Cumhuriyet), British Prime Minister David Lloyd George feared reactions among Muslim members of the Armed Forces and the Empire.
Whatever the position of Lloyd George was, there is a view commonly held in Turkey, and indeed in Greece, that western pressure played a decisive part in Ataturk’s decision in 1935 to turn Ayasofiya into a museum.
On July 10, 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree that Ayasofiya should be opened for Muslim prayers. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Erdoğan was so shaken with emotion that he did not sleep until first light the next morning. What he thought of as an era of humiliation had ended.”
It is easy to empathise with the President’s pride in rolling back former western political interference in Turkey, and standing up boldly for a faith which has been so much misunderstood and abused in our world. But I hope in his sleepless hours he also spared a thought for the compassionate, common-life spirit of Sevda, and for the harmony between Christian and Muslim that both Ayasofiya and San ta marmara represent.
If, as I believe, the President’s motivation was deep spirituality and not imperial bombast, then these thoughts would surely have concerned him. I hope as he lay awake and reflected on his ambitions for his country, he saw the danger of falling into western populist neo-conservative traps, which already have caught some members of the Turkish Right in their snare: the hubris of “make America great again” and the angry jingoism of some Brexiteers are surely not worthy of the sophistication and complexities of the Ottoman past and of the needs of Turkey’s (or anyone’s) future.
As dawn was breaking
I hope that as dawn was breaking in his palace, and before he fell asleep, the President reflected that a former colleague, loyal citizen and embodiment of everything that is fine in Turkish culture, was waking to see the bare wall of a prison cell. Osman Kavala has been imprisoned for nearly 3 years now on unjust and surreal charges. If anyone embodies what was good and wise in Ottoman culture it is Osman. Osman has worked tirelessly for cultural and spiritual harmony. His talent for building bridges between cultures and faiths is now needed more than ever. If the President wishes to help restore the real human values of Ottoman times, and the true spirit of Ayasofiya, he should free Osman now.
And I hope as he finally fell asleep that an important spiritual truth dawned: that there can be no state of grace for one who liberates mosques but imprisons angels.
There are numerous creative ways the President can deal with both his dreams and his nightmares. Turkey has admirably enlightened laws about access to mosques. It is clear from plans to cover and uncover the mosaics for prayer that some kind of timetable is envisaged.
Can Hagia Sophia be open to Christian worship? It is a very big building. Can a space be designated for Christian prayer? There are precedents. Religious scholars and lawyers were able to agree, for example, on a spiritual and legal framework for the House of One in Berlin, described by Imam Kadir Sanci as “a signal to the world”. As things stand, the withdrawal of the “universality” of Ayasofiya in the interests of a single faith goes very much against the spirit of the Imam’s wise words.
San ta maramara tells the story of times that were perhaps far from perfect, but where there was an authentic vision of love, harmony and the common life. If the President wishes, he can make himself worthy of Turkey’s exceptional past, of Ayasofiya, of a humanly magnificent song, and of the “honour and reason”[i] of Osman Kavala.
[i] A quotation from the opera “Osman Bey and the Snails”.