The Bells Of Hagia Sophia Toll by Sophia Kouidou-Giles and Karina Ioannidou

Κρούν στην καρδιά μου οι καμπάνες της Αγιάς Σοφιάς…

Sometimes, history comes to life through a personal story; one voice from the past stresses the dimensions of a contemporary event by speaking truth to power.

In a play entitled I Come from the City, playwright Karina Ioannidou captures such a private moment in the life of her grandmother, Rhea, a Greek woman who arrived in Thessaloniki as a child refugee. I wanted to translate it because we live in such a moment, and it should not go unnoticed.

On July 24, 2020, the headline of The New York Times read “Erdogan Fulfills Cherished Goal, Opening Hagia Sophia to Prayers.” This marked the latest shift in identity for the massive Byzantine cathedral the Emperor Justinian intended for Christian worshippers in the 6th century. It served as the seat of Christianity for centuries, and was converted into a Moslem mosque in 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans and renamed Istanbul. Then in 1935, it was turned into a museum. Now, in July 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned Hagia Sophia back to a mosque, to the dismay of many in the Western World.

Karina’s play gives depth to the distress felt by many in Greece following this announcement. So many Greeks still today feel the impact of 1922, when over a million Greeks were forced to abandon hearth and home in Turkey to save their lives. It was a time when a movement of religious cleansing pitted Christians against Moslems in that part of the world, where Asia meets Europe.

In a heartbreaking story of survival, the playwright relates her grandmother’s experience. Many of us heard similar experiences from our Greek grandmothers and parents who also were ousted from their birthplace.

Cultural conventions that might be lost to the reader, although minute, play an important role in the story. In this context, Greeks would recognize that ‘City’ stands for Constantinople, today’s Istanbul; for the sake of clarity, I have inserted a parenthetical note naming it in the translation. Similarly, Hagia Sophia would be immediately recognized as the massive Byzantine cathedral dedicated to God’s Wisdom. (Sophia means wisdom in Greek.) The cathedral has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a museum and favorite stop for tourists, a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence—until the announcement in The New York Times about Erdogan’s leading the first Moslem service in Hagia Sophia. But enough background.

The play begins with Rhea’s recollections about the time she escaped death and, under horrendous conditions, arrived in Greece. We meet her at Thessaloniki’s promenade, where she tells her story to a passerby.

Sophia Kouidou-Giles, Translator

Istanbul Byzant Islamic Aya  - FilipFilipovic / Pixabay
Hagia Sophia FilipFilipovic / Pixabay

The Bells of Hagia Sophia Toll

By Karina Ioannidou

‘Are you a child or a wad of lint?’

‘A child, a child, a girl!’

‘Where do you come from?’

‘I come from the City (Constantinople).’

‘Ptooey!’ he spits on the ground, then strikes a match on the side of his matchbox and lights his cigarette. He covers his mouth to protect the cigarette from the raging winds and draws a puff.

 He smells like rotten fish; I stink of gasoline and alcohol. We sniff each other like dogs. He smells the fear in me and I sense his wickedness. I think that all it takes is one spark for me to burst into flames. Sparks of fire have been chasing me from the start, everywhere I go.

‘The Turkish seeds came and brought their kid-seeds along.’ He mocks me, and then … ‘We were certainly foolish to let you come here. What do they call you?’ he asks and blows his cigarette smoke into my eyes.

‘My name is Rhea. And I am from the City…’

I traveled by boat to Thessaloniki, crammed in like merchandise. I have known terror and how to be invisible, in hiding, a refugee since my birth. Wild memories often haunt my mind and crumble my soul; they shatter me into pieces, small, tiny pieces. I try to put them back together as if they were a child’s puzzle. I try to sort them out, place them in the right spot to reconstruct the picture, like a child. It is not easy. It takes a lot of patience and time to put them together, to match them up. And once I have them assembled and put together, they get mixed up again, and they demand that I start from the beginning to recreate the story over again … to recreate history, which some have made it their regular mission to spoil.

I was put aboard a ship when I was an eight-year-old child, stuffed into an empty wine barrel – a container that I barely fit in – a barrel made of curved planks fastened with wooden stave joints, held by hoops and two flat covers, one on top and the other on the bottom. I could breathe only from in between the crevices of the wooden planks, half-eaten by the woodworms … woodworms that dug into my tender flesh, ate my insides, and sucked my life. My grievances were great. My silent pain made my heart beat loudly, like a wall clock: tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. I struggled to choke my tears, so they on the outside would not detect me, so they would not hear me cry for the City I was leaving behind, for the innocence I was saying goodbye to, for my past life that would never be the same. I could still hear the bells of Hagia Sophia toll, sounding mournful. They were ringing and that sound penetrated my temples like a hammer. I was in pain.

At last, we were taken off the boat and left in the port of Thessaloniki. I crouched down in a fold, tangled up to wait for some strangers, relatives I had never met, to come and pick me up. People were passing by, watching us: ‘Refugees! Immigrants! They scratch themselves like lepers because of lice,’ they said, and they walked away. ‘Horrible shame!’

There are times when I still shake in my sleep from night terrors. I smell that stifling, acrid stink – a product of decomposition, of the general decay, the smell of rot. It’s all around. It envelops me. Later, I learned that I was lucky, because I barely managed to escape the catastrophe that followed. My father had seen it coming. When the dreaded moment was to come, like all suffering, the wretch showed up on the exact hour in the fullness of time!

The fire has ceased, but I smell the smoke. I feel it on my skin, burning my childhood dreams. They flew and left … they turned into angels … and they, too, were lost in a purple sky, a sky that was raining blood.

I take a sip of my coffee! Ah, life is like coffee. Whether you drink it sweetened with sugar, with a little sugar, or overly sweetened, like sherbet, or black with bubbles or without any bubbles, in every sip you smell, taste, feel, you count the blisters of your life. Then you turn the cup upside down to read the future.

Ah, harken the hammer striking the bell! I hear the bells of Hagia Sophia ringing again, ringing through to my heart. Will this ever end?

Playwright: Karina Ioannidou lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. She studied Theater Arts in England and is employed by the National Theater of Northern Greece. Her plays have been performed since 1985 in Greece and Cyprus. Recipient of two awards from the Ministry of Culture, she is a founding member of Theatre Fleming.

Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Translator: Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. Her work has appeared in Voices, Persimmon Tree, Assay, The Raven’s Perch and The Time Collection. Her poetry chapbook is Transitions and Passages. Her memoir, Return to Thessaloniki, written in Greek and forthcoming in English is published by She Writes Press.

About the contributor

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