Mystical (and Physical) Visit to Byzantium
n Written at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Thursday October 14.
n I arrived in Istanbul late last Saturday. The story of these six days is very complicated. That’s how it usually is for me with international travel. Why waste any time when one may never get a chance to see the area ever again? I spent most of the time with the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, where I gave the first plenary talk on Monday. I spoke on “Neural Networks: From Toys to Cars to the Brain.” But there was a free day. Here I’ll mainly talk about the hour or two on that free day when I got to visit Hagia Sophia, which is also called St. Sophia or Ayasophia – the main church of the Eastern Roman Empire, built by the Emperor Justinian from 532 to 537 AD.
First, some background ==========================================
1. (Added 10/16.) Just what is the proper name of Hagia Sophia? Wikipedia asserts that the full original name in Greek means “Church of the Holy Wisdom of God.” Sacred Wisdom. Sancta Sophia, not Saint Sophie.
2. It feels very strange, “leading dozens of different lives in parallel.” In my plenary talk, I said a little bit about that. I argued that the biggest, most important challenge to science today is to really understand and replicate the higher intelligence and consciousness which exists in the brain of a single, isolated mouse. “Here in Istanbul and at an SMC Conference, it is very tempting to talk about intelligence and Mind beyond the level of the mouse… but I need to discipline myself, and not discuss that other half of my existence, except for one slide and one line on another slide.” In visiting Hagia Sophia – I do the opposite. If you want real science (as defined by Thomas Kuhn, for example), please read no further. We all have a right to lead parallel lives.
3. For many, many years, I usually try to do some kind of meditation when I visit a unique historic site. I make an effort to contain my ordinary brain thoughts, to avoid being distracted by them, and practice “listening” (a skill which Quakers work hard to cultivate), to project some questions or dialogue, and to shift over different “frequencies” or textures or directions of thought so as to avoid missing things. In other places, the feedback I have gotten has usually been much simpler, more unified and more graphic than what I picked up here. Usually there is some especially interesting stream of thought, which feels as if there is a single mind or nucleus of thinking in the middle of it. (One time, in Guillmaraes in Portugal, I recall at least three streams… but at different places, encountered at different times.) At Hagia Sophia, it was more like eight streams in the one building, which was essentially one gigantic room at the mundane level.
4. Of course, it requires incessant checking and skepticism and analysis to hold on to reality with this kind of activity, and to avoid succumbing to personal imagination masquerading as psychic inputs. I really like the introduction to McMoneagle’s book on time which discusses some important aspects of the required discipline. (It is very unfortunate, however, that he only addresses the basic cognitive discipline, and not the affective discipline, which is even more important. I suspect that lack of proper affective discipline is a major reason why the kinds of programs he worked on did not really prosper.) I have always felt some contempt for people who live their lives by “hermeneutics” – a kind of word game, devoid of spirit, which seems very sensible and logical if one asumes that there was some initial Text in ancient times which was the Whole Original Truth. But it now occurs to me that there is a kind of hermeneutics of experience, which is not so different in structure, form an abstract point of view. I wonder whether folks like Bishop Berkeley or the Reverend Occam ever talked about that? Or Francis Bacon? (added later: Heidegger?) I am tempted to say more, but there are some bits of knowledge which could be misused. In the end – some of the things I have received this way have been “veridical”(testable), while others could be seen as a way to better use my subconscious mind to reconstruct a deeper picture of what I should have been able to figure out anyway **if** I had made full use of the available information elsewhere. If the picture works, and is a big upgrade from my earlier picture, I don’t worry too much about which type of feedback it was. The majority of what I picked up in Hagia Sophia was like that – really what one should have expected anyway.
5. Prior to Hagia Sophia, I had some discussion of Sufi training and such – both at a Mevlevi Hane (dervish training place) near the tramway, and with Professor Okyay Kaynak, chair of the SMC conference, whom I thank for inviting me. (The trip to Turkey was paid for by IEEE SMC. Not a penny from the US taxpayer. The side trip to Hagia Sofia cost me about $3 each way on pubic transport.) A key question: aside from the training to dance, to make the right physical movements and to know the traditional interpretation of the movements, what still exists of the ancient training methods to discipline and exercise the mind, soul and feelings? The dervishes I talked to felt that most of that was lost, maybe even all of it, at the time of Ataturk. (Ataturk led the Young Turks just after World War I to create modern, secular Turkey.) They understood the need for what Ataturk did, and the damage that fundamentalism and corruption do to real spiritual growth, but maybe not quite as intensely as I do. (I have a stronger feeling for the lessons of the reformation in England, and for some things one sees on Fox News.) Perhaps I will have more discussion with them or their colleagues in the future,
6. Like Isaac Newton and Dan Brown, I have generally assumed that the “great miracles” of the Emperor Constantine, converting to Christianity, were not so different from the later “miracle” when Lenin appointed himself head of the Russian Orthodox Church, or when Henry VIII created the Chruch of England. We were not astounded when the Politburo voted unanimously to accept Lenin’s manifestoes. Likewise, it was no miracle when Constantine’s people voted unanimously to bless Constantine’s edited version of the Bible and to bless his offficial party line. “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s”? Long before that, I had several interesting conversations with the older anti-Melkite church, but that’s another story, not for today. Of course, Constantine’s political manuever was inspired in part by what he saw of earlier priest kings, and of certain bishops acquiring power by similar means. Byzantium became the walled city of Constantinople, the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire from 330AD to 1453AD.
7. I scanned about 4 little guide books or blurbs before going to Hagia Sophia. Only one of the four mentioned that the world headquarters of Orthodox Christianity is in St. George’s, only a little west of the area I explored. They said that a large part of the Byzantine Empire was actually run from Hagia Sophia for a long time, rather than the rundown palaces which were removed when Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror came in 1453 AD. But actually, The Great Palace was the greatest government center in Byzantine times. There is an archeological park near Hagia Sofia, where the ruins of the Great Palace have been partly excavated. It too had interesting palpable vibes. But in 1202-1261, “Latin invasion,” it was razed to the ground, presumably by crusaders sent there by a jealous church in Rome. It seems there was a triangle of power for many years, from the Great Palace to Hagia Sophia to the Hippodrome (a focus of political parties when these were tolerated). The Great Palace had a beautiful commanding view of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, which reminded me of George Washinston’s view of the Potomac – with a similar degree of confidence and competence.
Next: Experience of the Place ==============================
1. As you enter, you first go through a kind of long hall, as broad as the whole front of the massive building, but only about 10 meters or so deep into the interior, with several big openings to the main chamber. Lots of typical poster boards with background for the tourist, but only one – in the center – with unusual information. It basically says: “Here you see a relief image of Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe, palling around with his buddy the Roman Emperor.” I immediately felt a kind of visceral negative reaction to this, welling up through my viscera. I really doubt that Jesus would have said kind words to folks who would call him the “creator of the Universe.” (After all, wasn’t he the guy who said “I do not do these things of myself, but only the Father does them through me?” And who used the words “lawyers and hypocrites” to certain folks he encountered in other temples, and warned about certain kinds of rich folks? ) My reaction was so sharp and so intense that I immediately damped it down, to avoid going so negative that it would block my sensitivity and create inappropriate side effects. I always remembered the need to maintain balance, in working with the complex thoughts and dynamics of this world. I then thought: “I wouldn’t even begin to let myself get so far out of hand in China, with all its golden calves and pigs and goats. I guess it is especially upsetting when one’s own people do such things.” But then as I stretched, I realized… this was not just my own personal reaction that I was feeling here. In fact, the main essence of this place, from about 1453 to 1920, was a similar horror by even the most enlighted Moslems at precisely what was highlighted, in such dispassionate objective terms, at the entrance here. I looked for thoughts about the foibles which exist within Islam as well, but did not find them here. Not a major theme in this place (though of course there were some Greeks still loyal to their church, visible even in the streets outside).
2. Beyond the thin veneer of later thoughts, the ground floor (the floor of the whole gigantic domed chamber) was pretty much all Justinian’s show. The guidebooks were proud about how quickly the church was built … after the the earlier version built under the Emperor Theodosius was burned to the ground in the Nika rebellion. That sank deeper into my mind as I explored the ground floor. There was a lot of typical average-person piety in the air, which reminded me of one of the better Catholic churches in Munich, but a lot weaker, perhaps because of time. But there was also a lot of clear awareness, perhaps from earlier times, of the “bait and switch” game the Emperor was playing when pretending to be Christian but stifling the real spirit of original Christianity. (It reminded me of the incessant bait and switch games now routine in Washington, and of the folks who tried to sell the Waxman or Kerry-Boxer climate bills by pretending they address our addiction to oil. Such games are played by both parties, but that’s the one which came to mind here.) I asked: were they really aware of the seriousness of letting that bait and switch game go uncontrolled? Of course – that’s real reason why they burned the first version of this church to the ground!
3. Circling around the edges of the big ground floor…back near the entry, a kind of open passageway with a high rounded ceiling, with amazing acoustics I could literally feel before I tested them. And I could tell they were very consciously used in the past. Following tradition somewhat, I began a kind of low humming (low in its mundane component) to resonate and use to probe the area a bit further. Of course, I made sure that the mundane component could not be easily traced to me; mouth closed, sounds from all directions. I could maintain that same resonance all through the rest of my movement around that floor. At points it felt as if I were moving quickly through statue-like clumps of inert tourists, a bit like part of Dan Brown movie or like a science fiction about walking in a lively way through people whose time flow had slowed down.
4. I ran across a couple of interesting small high open corridors to the right of the chamber (from as you enter). One for confident middle level importantly busy clerics, on typical important errands, not the kind where you could tell whether they were Christian or Moslem – all pretty much the same at that level. A less important corridor for more maintenance kinds of people, a bit more aware of what was around them than the clerics. At the far back, some more recognized area without much energy.
5. Back to the entry hallway, on the far left, the wide entry to a gallery passage, a wide winding ramp to to the second floor, a kind of vast balcony overlooking the one great chamber. Near the entry, looking over the ground floor and ahead towards where the old altar had to have been. The feeling here was very different from the feeling on the ground floor. It was basically the same as that in the Washington Cathedral, which reminds me of comfortable jackets and ties and George Bush and prep school. Loyal comfortable burgers. Of course, not complacent; very active, but assured that they were better and more insightful than the average folks. More educated. And of course more aware and proud of their true Greek cultural roots, deeper and more intellectual than the Christian side of their sphere, but still proud to be good charitable people, creating progress in this, the most enlightened center of the most modern and advanced civilization ever. A very, very familiar set of thoughts!
6. Still in the gallery level, closer to the front, still overlooking the altar. The imperial place. And many stages or layers, though flowing together, in that place. (On the whole, Hagia Sophia reminds me of what someone said about Cappadoccia – seven layers of civilization in one place! Sic on the psychic/spiritual level here!) Such a great struggle to try to maintain civilization, and whatever progress one can manage, in the face of so many challenges. And so many unfortunate unavoidable shortcuts. (After having seen China, and how the Emperor Qin approached the issue of achieving peace and order, how much could I complain about these guys here?) It was so unfortunate to have to shut down the more powerful spiritual side of Christianity, but it was necessary, and, besides, those who were really worthy could simply follow the more advanced Greek (and Egyptian) traditions. Later, it was so unfortunate to have to make so many allowances to the growing power of the church as such, and allow restriction of the Greek culture and less freedom even for one’s own cousins… but we all must make some sacrifices to maintian civilization when it is under threat. (Added later: it reminds me a bit of changes in pension rules in France this month – or rather, of a whole set of changes around the world economy today.) But in the end, no matter how hard we struggle … each effort seems to give way to a need for even more compromise… nothing more than prolonging an inescapable long prolonged slide down to the ultimate horror. Could not find any way out.
7. In the same general area – I paused. This was such a center of culture and civilization and of mind and spirit. What could I find at a higher level? In all that time, were there any clearer and more disciplined minds, more like “eagles,” flying high and seeing far, breathing fresh mountain winds? Anyone there? Certainly. What would you make of all this depressing stuff (not so different from the depressing global trends which upset me in the present time, though far less global)? No depression, no worry at all. Great confidence and optimism. (Not what I feel!) Yes, the government structure in Byzantium is on an inevitable long slide, due to things like corruption and lack of vision and various politico-economic forces, but there is a good balance between some fundamental progress in the higher culture here and the development of new nuclei elsewhere which will carryr on. One to the north a few hundred miles away. One towards south and east not so far. (Comment: that’s as much as I got. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.) I started to walk away, but came back: “But hey, what about what was lost when the library of Alexandria was burned down?” Laughter. “Don’t worry about that ancient history. We have everything here, and it is all being taken care of.”
8. On the ramp down, I did notice some real special energy around a little holy water fountain in a side corridor.
9. I intended to walk a bit (east?) to more Islamic areas, to see if I could catch a glimpse of later history, at a meditative level, but living people had different conversations to offer, along with apple tea and rugs and so on. I later saw a Rosicrucian cross (but flower next to cross) from 6th to 9th century providing a bit of modest support. From the work of Corbin and others, we already know there was a major Pythagorean (and Stoic and neoPlatonist?) influence in the genesis of Sufis, and a whole lot of constructive interchange at the same time as the bad stuff during the crusades. And I remember Alexander’s letter to Aristotle, in Plutarch’s Lives.
There is more to be said on these themes, but not here and now.
Added Later ================================
To entertain myself in the airport and on the flight, I brought a new paperback novel, Blackout, by Connie Willis, whose writings seem to demonstrate a really acute awareness. This novel talked about historians trying to interrogate past time. It asked – is there a risk that one might actually CHANGE past time?
At http://arxiv.org, I have posted my paper in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics on backwards time effects. From all I can see in any laboratory experiments, I have arrived at conclusions quite similar to what she calls “estbalished physics of 2060.” It is possible in theory to “affect” the past but not to “change” it. The universe is “able” to minimize its Lagrangian between two time surfaces, even if we humans make it very hard to reconcile them; a solution between two hard-or-reconcile states would basically act like a “weirdness generator,” like the kind of flow of events she depicts with amazing clarity.
But our laboratories today are not the whole realm of physics. Could it be, when we learn more, that we will have to revise this picture a little? Maybe. Certainly beyond the scope of this posting.
As for optimism – even the most far-seeing of us must sometimes rely a lot on hope and faith and waiting for openings.