Saturday, August 29, 2020



In 131AD, while on tour in Greece, Philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian, who like all emperors since Augustus revered classical Greek culture and appropriated it in order to legitimise and provide an ideology for Roman imperial rule in the Eastern Mediterranean, founded the Panhellenion, a league of Greek city states, so as to recreate the apparent "unified Greece" of the Persian Wars and to pay tribute to Athens as the most pre-eminent city of the Greek world. The final arbiter of who could join was the Emperor himself and contenders would have to establish their Hellenic credentials in order to gain admission. Many Hellenised, but not necessary Hellenic by Hadrian’s standards cities, outside of mainland Greece, did so by inventing a mythology for themselves that linked them back to the ancient Athenians.  

Ultimately, the well-meaning emperor’s attempt to impose a cultural and ideological structure failed. The Greek states began squabbling with each other and even though a cult was founded to worship Hadrian Panhellene as their unifier, and the Panhellenic Games were held in Athens in 137AAD, the institution did not survive his death, although the ill-fated governor of free Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias revived it for a short period as an advisory body that was scrapped when it did not do what it was told. 

It appears then that the inability of successive Greek ruling entities to conceive of a workable conceptual framework to encompass all Greek communities, especially those without the boundaries of the Greek state, is an ancient rather than a modern phenomenon, one that has its antecedents in the spectacular demise of the Council of Greeks Abroad, (SAE), an institution that resembles the ancient Panhellenion in both ideology and scope and which spookily enough, sponsored its own successful Panhellenic Games in Australia. 

SAE foundered not so much because of the predictable internecine squabbling within and among its constituent communities and regions but because its structure, externally imposed by Athens, was ill suited to the evolving needs of the communities it was supposed to represent. Most of the delegates participating in its deliberations were not the best qualified or motivated to do so and it is questionable that those in charge of administering the body and determining its agenda, held the interests of the diasporan Greeks and their connection to the motherland, rather than domestic political expediency, in pre-eminence. 

In the absence of a coherent agenda or proper procedure, enlightened Hellenes such as Oceania Region Co-ordinator Costas Vertzayias in Sydney, pressed on regardless, espousing the cause of World-wide Hellenism and envisaged a structure that could permit us, here in Australia to share our concerns, expertise and resources with less privileged Greek communities throughout the globe. Under his guidance, the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was able to galvanise the community in order to raise funds for the construction of a technical college in Northern Epirus, Albania. Visiting that college and teaching classes there has been one of the most profound and meaningful experiences in my life. It served an example of the immense benefits that could be harnessed from the diaspora community, when the institution was approached in good faith. Sadly, for many participants in the experiment, encouraged by the cynical administrators at the epicentre of our modern Panhellenion, SAE provided nothing more than an opportunity for a free trip to Greece and to facilitate and perpetuate inter-organisational local conflict, vying for irrelevant political favours with irrelevant vote-hungry Greek politicians and it is these sorry practices that linger in people’s memories, obscuring the glorious potential of the institution. 

It appears however, that after a brief hiatus, SAE is about to be resuscitated. The latest draft Greek bill for the reformation of the ”General Secretariat of Greeks Abroad...and Diplomacy” in which the recreation of the Council of Greeks Abroad is imagined, is however, embarrassingly vague, contradictory and unworkable. In parts, it reads like it has been written by a year 12 legal studies student.  

Semantically, the addition of the words “and Diplomacy” to the already existing General Secretariat of Greeks Abroad is misconceived. This conjunction connotes the foreignness of the diasporan Greek communities to the administrators of the homeland, rather than emphasizing the much touted unity with the centre. Bizarrely, the dilution of the Secretariat’s focus on the diaspora is highlighted by the fact that included within its ambit are UNESCO, Mount Athos (which is within the modern Greek borders) and the Institute of Byzantine Studies in Venice, all laudable institutions in their own right but of marginal importance to diasporans. We are no longer a priority. Furthermore, in the fine print, we read with alarm that the Secretariat is also charged with authority over religious issues. Given that in Australia a) Greek Orthodox Christians primarily belong to the Archdiocese of Australia which is under the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, and that b) other denominations that other Greeks belong to generally have no relationship with Greece, such an assumption of responsibility seems farcical. Will the Secretariat seek to intervene, for instance, in conflict pertaining to the Greek Evangelical Church, a body legally constituted in Victoria? And how does this piece of legislation give the Greek State extra-territorial authority to intercede in matters pertaining to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, also subject to Australian law? 

The proposed provisions dealing with SAE’s restoration are also of concern. We learn from the outset that its role is, just like in Kapodistrias’ time, to be an “advisory” body, yet no framework is envisaged as to what form that advice will take, who will receive it and to what extent the organs of the Greek state are obliged to implement it, or within which time limits. 

The Bill, for the purposes of SAE, divides the world into regions. For some unfathomable reason, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, regions distant and diverse are lumped together as one, indicating complete ignorance as to the disparate prevailing socio-political and cultural conditions affecting Hellenism in these areas. 

Significantly, the bill provides that diasporan “organisations” will be those that will constitute each regional SAE and that out of these, nine Oceanic delegates (which presumably includes New Zealand) will be elected to sit on the World Body. This amateurish and unsophisticated approach whose underlying assumptions present an antiquated and ignorant understanding of the manner in which our communities are constituted and have evolved, does not take into account that the vast majority of Greek organisations registered in Australia, especially those focused around a particular region in the homeland, are ailing, of limited scope and no longer represent the Greeks.. Even if they did, why is it assumed that the presidents of such organisations, who present skill in being elected, organizing dinner dances and holding barbeques, are in any way qualified to analyse or make recommendations on the plethora of complex issues affecting a multi-generational and multi-faceted community, such as language retention, acculturation and social welfare? 

The Bill attempts to address this point by providing for the appointment of “experts” or “distinguished” members of the community upon the World Body, without voting rights. Paradoxically, these appointments are not to be made by the Regions, (who logically would know the identities of the most useful and relevant candidates and be in a position to evaluate their skill sets) but rather, according to the draft, by the General Secretariat and/or the Greek Parliament, bodies that generally have contact with and promote those with whom they are ideologically or politically aligned. 

What the bill inadvertently is doing, is laying the groundwork for the same type of fratricidal squabbling that paralysed the previous incarnation of SAE, where local organisations scrambled to “federate”, present fake membership lists and invent a curriculum vitae, in order to gain the much coveted seat on SAE, knocking off rival groups in the process. The draft bill of course, is silent on the criteria according to which organisations will be deemed eligible to participate in the regional body and indeed how it will be governed, hearkening back to the chaos and inertia experienced by the Youth of SAE each time they attended a convention, where they were told to create their own Constitution, only to have it scrapped by Greece, at the next convention. This is a great way of keeping people busy with unproductive labour and conflict, but it undermines the integrity of the whole endeavour. It is also silent on the fate of the already existing SAE Oceania, a legally constituted body in Australia that has persisted in the SAE dream, organizing Panhellenic Games even after the demise of its parent body and undertaking important advocacy work.  

Interestingly, conflict is enshrined within the Bill; indeed its drafters seem to have anticipated it. One of its clauses purports to give Consular authorities, in the inaugural formation of the World Body, the right to intervene and play referee in determining just which organisations are representative. This of course undermines any belief in the independence of the advisory process, and indeed, in a manner directly akin to that of the Emperor Hadrian, connotes the Centre’s mistrust in the ability of Greeks Abroad to govern themselves. It is also a recipe for disaster, especially given the malign manner in which past consular authorities have intervened in community organisations and played “favourites.”   

Regrettably, this Bill, which envisages the reconstitution of an important institution that has a great deal of untapped potential, displays no insight into the mistakes of the past. Drafted without consultation with the communities it purports to represent, it evidences a Greek government that fails to articulate a coherent vision for the broader Hellenic discourse. As such, it disappoints all those believers in worldwide Hellenism and the memories of such titans as Andrew Athens, the founder of SAE, who dreamt that we could be bigger, better and united. 

The Greeks of Australia must resist the temptation to blindly accept and participate in flawed institutions that are setting us up for failure.  It is incumbent upon us at this crucial time in our history, to come together and determine for ourselves, our priorities and the institutions necessary to ensure our survival, and in collaboration with Greece, our relationship with the Motherland, into the future. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 August 2020

Saturday, August 15, 2020



One of the neologisms to come out of the Pandemic is “covidiot,” signifying someone who does not obey health directions. Lately I’ve seen a calque of this word appear in the Greek language in the form of: «κοβηλίθιος», as opposed to «κωβηλίθιος», which possibly describes a situation either when an idiot cuts one off, or when one cuts off an idiot. 

That there were pandemics in ancient times is a given and consequently, it follows logically that there were also ancient equivalents of covidiots, even before the term was invented. One of these, undoubtedly, would have to have been possibly the ancient world’s most brilliant charlatan, Alexander of Abonoteichus. 

According to his chief opponent, the satirist Lucian of Samosata, Alexander was a native of Abonoteichus, in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea, now known as Inebolu, from the Greek Ionopolis, which is the name this remarkable man successfully petitioned the Roman Emperor to change his birthplace to. 

A snake-oil salesman like no others, Alexander plied his trade by working in travelling medicine shows around Greece, professing to effect miracle cures. Sometime along the way, he received some form of rudimentary instruction on medicine from a doctor who according to Lucian, was also a quack and became successful enough to be able to establish an oracle of the healing god Aesclepius in his home town, around 150AD, where he became renowned for his skills in healing the sick and prophesizing the future, much like a modern televangelist, but without the private jet.  

Between approximately 160 to 190AD, a great plague swept through the Roman Empire. According to Australian sinologist and historian Rafe de Crespigny who has researched notices of plagues in Chinese records, it may have originated in Eastern Han China and swept westwards. Its slow, inexorable and devastating progress was described by the Greek physician and writer Galen and its effects were so devastating that its total death count  has been estimated at five million, the pandemic killing as much as one third of the population in some areas and devastating the Roman army. 

Where Emperor Marcus Aurelius mourned the devastation of the pandemic and its effect on civil society stating that even the pestilence around him was less deadly than falsehood, evil behaviour and lack of true understanding, and eventually uttering as his dying words: "Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others," the wily Alexander saw opportunity. Drawing on traditional Macedonian snake worship, he announced at his oracle an imminent incarnation of Aesclepius, When the people gathered in the marketplace of Abonoteichus  at noon, when the incarnation was supposed to occur, Alexander produced a goose egg and sliced it open, revealing the god within, in the form of a snake. Within a week it grew to the size of a man with the features of a man on its face, including long blond hair. What in actual fact the resourceful Alexander had done, was create a very skilled, elaborate sock puppet god named Glycon, the sweet one, who could guarantee anxious women in the time of pandemic fertility. As a result, women seeking divine intervention in order to conceive would bring offerings to Glycon, though Lucian implies that Alexander, keeper of the cult had less magical ways of causing pregnancy, giving a new nuance to the phrase, “put a sock in it.” 

Not content with merely making babies, Alexander soon discovered that propitiating Glycon was a much more effective method of staving off the pandemic than masks, social distancing, lockdowns and self-isolation. This was a magic verse, derived from the omniscient Glycon, which if inscribed upon  residential properties, would protect the inhabitants from the ravages of plague.  As Lucian of Samosata wrote, he revealed the thaumaturgic verses: "which he despatched to all the nations during the pestilence... was to be seen written over doorways everywhere.” These spread throughout the Aegean into the broader Mediterranean. An inscription from Antioch of those times records the words” "Glycon protect us from the plague-cloud," and this, even before the advent of 5G. 

Sock puppet cults will only go so far without the support of the establishment and it is here that Alexander got spectacularly lucky. Sometime in 160AD, the governor of the province of Asia, Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, declared himself protector of Glycon's oracle and later bought into the family franchise by marrying Alexander's daughter. This was a sound business decision,for while dispensing pandemic protection, Alexander would sit in the shrine with his sock puppet wound around him, giving  "autophones", or random unasked oracles.  As for specific questions, there were answered by Alexander in rhymes, in his most profitable year delivering nearly 80,000 replies, for the bargain price of one drachma and two oboli, a goldmine if there ever was one. According to Lucian his devoted followers believed that he  "made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases actually raised the dead," which was handy, if you had perished before getting round to inscribing Glycon’s verses on your door. 

 The skeptical Lucian alleges that Alexander became adept at opening sealed inquiries by heated needles, forging broken seals, and giving of vague or meaningless replies to difficult questions, while also profiting from those whose inquiries were of a rather sensitive nature by blackmailing them and predictably, his investigations into Alexander’s practices, led to attempts on Lucian’s life, purely as a means of asserting copyright and trademark rights of course. 

Sadly, for all of Alexander’s adroitness, Glycon the sock-puppet did not confer protection against plague and the governor of Cappadocia was apparently led by Glycon's oracle to his death in Armenia. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius was sucked in. An oracle was sent, his request, by Alexander to the Roman army on the Danube during the war with the Marcomanni, declaring that victory would follow on the throwing of two lions alive into the river. The result was utter catastrophe although the unflappable Alexander avoided loss of credibility by spinning his ambiguous oracular pronouncements in the opposite direction.  

Neither the defeat on the Danube nor the five million pandemic deaths served to diminish devotees’ faith in their beloved sock puppet, even after Alexander died in his seventieth year, Glycon mysteriously neglecting to warn him that he would contract gangrene at that time. Instead, he became so mainstream that in 20 BC he was referred to by the Roman poet Horace, in his Epistle 1 to Maecenas: "... you despair of the muscles of the invincible Glycon..." Worship of Glycon spread from the Danube to the Euphrates, with Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius even striking coins in honour of the sock puppet and these remained in circulation continued right up until the third century AD. Glycon has also appeared on currency in the modern era, on a Romanian 10.000 lei note in 1994, owing to a 4.76 metre long ancient marble statue of the sock puppet being unearthed underneath a railway station in Constanta and another in the city of Tomis. 

Alexander, possessed of dashing good looks, mind-blowing charisma and all the answers was the archetypal cult leader of his day. Not for him the mindless adherence to state propaganda, the giving up of his civil liberties, the entertainment of vested interests or the refusal to see past the obvious and discern hidden agendas. With his sock puppet in his hand he conferred absolution and a sense of security to his adherents throughout the Roman Empire, basking in his popularity and raking in millions, even as millions perished. Though his memory barely lingers, his practices and ability to capitalize prejudice remain perennial, a cautionary tale for us all. Inthe words of Dave Matthews: “The world and the universe are for more wonderful if there is no puppet master.” 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 August 2020

Saturday, August 08, 2020



         “Now we pop it in to cook,/The timer has just begun.” 


The first thing to note about South Australian journalist Stephanie Timotheou’s bilingual children’s book “Cooking with Yiayia,” is that it is beautifully illustrated. The lines are simple and yet have a flow and dynamism all of their own. The palette is austere yet bright enough to capture the attention, and given the subject matter, stimulate the gastric juices of even the most internet addicted child. Rachel Darling’s illustrations are not only a delight for the eyes, they are also, remarkably plausible and have an authenticity all of their own. 


My copy arrived of the book arrived recently and I read it with my children. They were most interested to peruse it because it refers to one of the key enduring elements of the traditional relationship between Greek Australian grandmothers and their grandchildren, the topography of which is primarily centred around the kitchen and revolving around the supreme act of nurturing: cooking. 

Ostensibly, the book abounds in cultural stereotypes: Yiayia is in the kitchen. Pappou is in his pre-ordained domain, the garden, the dutiful granddaughter, wearing a dress and an apron, is taking her prescribed place by yiayia’s side. This I sub-consciously took for granted, and only noticed it because my youngest daughter asked me why she was not outside helping pappou to pick apples.  The brief story ends with a prayer before the family partakes of the meal, while an icon and a cross is prominently displayed on the well behind them. 


It is trite to mention that the majority of Greek-Australian grandparents of grandchildren currently under the age of ten, who now are in their sixties or early seventies and have grown up, or spent the majority of their lives in Australia, no longer confirm to the traditional gender roles and cultural assumptions implied by the characters depicted in the book. Nor should we assume that this generation’s culinary understanding is restricted solely to “Greek” food and we have the corrosive effects of two decades of reality television to thank for that. The absence of an iphone, or an ipad, within the narrative, the main babysitting tools of many a modern Greek-Australian grandparent, is also noteworthy. As for the pre-meal prayer, that is an almost obsolete cultural relic, generally confined today to only the most obscure and reactionary households, such as my own. Thus, even though the text is directed towards the emerging generations of today, the world it evokes is one of yesteryear. The experiences it negotiates are more those of the second migrant and current parental generation than that of the third generation. The nostalgia evidenced in the illustrations and the text, seems to refer to values, customs, cultural memories and an awareness of a specific type of ethnic identity rather than the actual synthesis or current practices of Greeks in Australia. This makes Stephanie Timotheou’s  portrayal of these values from a Greek-Australian perspective important and unique. It also provides a subtle jumping off point for a discussion with a child about the different forms and styles Greek grandparents come in, providing opportunity for the sharing of family and social memories. 


At a time when the language, customs and traditional lifestyles of the Greeks of Australia are evolving, it is significant that Stephanie Timotheou has pointed to a motif that has sustained Greek civilisation since times ancient as the quintessence of the Greek identity: that of the hearth, the epicentre around which the family, relatives, friends and the Greek community at large revolve, in ever increasing concentric circles. To us who have direct experience of the practices she so artfully describes, the book abounds in authenticity. To those of the latter generations who have not had this experience, it provides a much-needed window into a world that informs one or both of their parents’ worldviews, and forms part of the foundation of their own. Furthermore, it has an important function: It acts as a record and disseminator of those cultural memories that create an authentic Greek-Australia, an Australian-based Greek tradition all of our own. In this way, Stephanie Timotheou’s children’s book has vast historical significance for our community. It is possibly the first children’s book, written by a second generation Greek-Australian, for the purposes of enshrining a corpus of key elements of identity for preservation and transmission to the next generation. Whereas up until now, the first generation have been the sole arbiters of that identity, we are witnessing in this author’s contribution, an assumption of that task by the next generation, in literary form. It is a breathtaking moment. 

I originally cringed with the choice of Moussaka as the dish being cooked in the story, as constituting the apogee of clichés (although the dedication “and for all the yiayiathes (sic) around the world – we love you more than moussaka” is so endearing that it melts the heart of even the most curmudgeonly critic) but upon consideration, this choice is an inspired one because  as moussaka is not as popular or known among the third generation as it was to the previous ones, it allows one to discuss other Greek dishes children may be familiar with, it engenders a  comparison of Greek cuisine with other cuisines the child may be familiar with, and serves as a sound starting point for the introduction of vegetables that modern Greek-Australian children may not be so familiar with, enjoy, or consider to be Greek, such as the egg-plant. Significantly, the author is thus passing down a culinary legacy that is also in the process of being lost and an examination of how food is, or is made to comprise a key component of ethnic identity in multicultural Australia must invariably consider this valuable work. 

It is thus a shame that the author chose not to actually show to the reader, how the moussaka dish she is implying is under construction, is actually made. The provision of a list of ingredients, a description of how these combine, possibly with an exposition of which process the child in the story was able to assist her grandmother with, and the provision of a recipe, would have been excellent for discussion purposes, allowing older readers to share memories of their own cooking experiences, or suggesting variations, could have encouraged the children to try the recipe with their elders at home, thus facilitating the practice of the cultural norms the author is both revealing and preserving. Again, this was something pointed out to me by my eldest daughter, who especially wanted to know how the grandmother in the story was going to generate the béchamel sauce, having had some experience of this in cooking with her own yiayia. 


It is laudable, in this age of increasing Greek language loss, where Greek is no longer the mother tongue of most, but not all third generation Greek-Australians, that Stephanie Timotheou has deliberately chosen to provide both an English and a Greek text. Even if the child has no understanding of Greek, just the visual experience of sighting the unfamiliar alphabet on the page, is a precious one that grants insight into the literary world of their ancestry. The presence of the Greek text may also encourage parents rusty in the language to attempt to recover or to hone their linguistic skills, thus providing direct contact with the very medium in which Greek culture was developed and adapted in this country. The presence of the Greek, in a lighter font, below the darker English, is inobtrusive and thus does not feed the hysteria many Greek-Australians feel when confronted by the Greek language in written form. It is a wise and informed decision and one that reflects the albeit changing, bilingual nature of the modes of communication within our community. 


The Greek in the bilingual text, although generally sound, is sometimes awkward in rhythm and expression. Part of the reason for this, is that the author requires the Greek to conform to the same rhyming pattern as the English text, leading to convoluted and tortured phrases and vocabulary that occasionally fail to rhyme altogether. As this is the first of a projected series of books revolving around the concept of “Ikoyeneia,” the author may seek to address this point, possibly by considering more traditional forms of Greek rhyme, such as the 15 syllable metre, or by expanding a parallel narrative that broadly follows the themes of the English, with a few quirks of its own. Brilliantly, the current text already does do this in parts. Though the English has yiayia set a timer, in order to cook the moussaka, in the Greek, «ο χρόνος αρχίζει να τρέχει,» presumably, because as my daughter observed, “yiayiades don’t use timers.” The presence of this ingenious parallel narrative also constitutes one of the main arguments for the necessity of children to be exposed to both sets of texts. There are cultural gems encoded within each language that defy translation. 


“Cooking with Yiayia” is an important book. Children’s books that genuinely depict Greek-Australian life  are rare and have not been published in significant numbers since the joint South Australian and Victorian Education Departments’ initiative in the 80s. The Greek-Australian literary scene, both in Greek and English, with notable exceptions has largely ignored the younger generations. The fact that this book is authored by a second generation Greek-Australian, in order to create a literary corpus that will address the cultural and identity needs of her children and their generation is also of supreme consequence. It speaks volumes as to who we think we are, who we want to portray ourselves to future generations as being, and which "Greek" values we want our children to retain. And the idea of “Ikoyeneia”, which is the title of the series to which this opus belongs, should not be bypassed without consideration. Here, the author is expanding the often rigid and hidebound pespectives of what it means to belong to the broader Greek-Australian family. She is extending a warm familial embrace to those who may not necessarily understand all the nuances and references comprising our identity narrative. And in so doing, she is ensuring our continuity as a relevant cultural discourse. 

It is my firm belief that this heart-warming publication will surely become a literary classic for  all young Greek-Australian children. Hopefully, Stephanie Timotheou’s courageous and principled initiative will sound a clarion call for the production of further works of literature geared towards the children of our community. We look forward to the publication of the further books of the projected “Ikoyenia” series, with “Gardening with Pappou,” soon to hit our shelves . A well -thumbed copy of the first of the series, “Cooking with Yiayia,” must be an integral part of every Greek-Australian upbringing. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 August 2020

Saturday, August 01, 2020


I freely admit to deriving much enjoyment from listening to Sakarya University History Professor Ebubekir (P)sofuoğlu’s (the P may or may not be silent) enlightened ruminations. The depth of learning of the august mass educator is quite breathtaking. Take one of his more recent tweets, or rather squawks, calling for the complete removal of the mosaics of the Great Church of Agia Sophia on the basis that one of the figures portrayed therein, Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita, was a prostitute: 

“Will there be a whore in the mosque? If the icons are not removed, the legacy of Mehmed the Conqueror, Hagia Sophia, along with the prostitute Zoe will have become the first mosque in the world where a whore will be displayed. An end should be put to the nonsense regarding the protection of the idols and the icons that constitute disrespect to the Conqueror should be removed.” 

(P)sofuoğlu’s outrage is only surpassed by his erudition. Sadly, he may have been bolting down baklava at the time he was consulting the New Testament for the purpose of composing his tweet and as a result, the pages of the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, where Jesus, who also happens to be a prophet in the Islamic tradition, refused to condemn a prostitute brought to him and instead, commended her to: “Go and sin no more," became stuck together. 

In like vein, the learned Professor (P)sofuoğlu must have had the pages of his Gospel of Luke stuck together by the syrup from the lokma he may have been devouring running down his fingers, because he seems to have missed the scene in Chapter 7 where the repentant prostitute anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissed them and wiped them with her hair. 

Had not the polymath (P)sofuoğlu his dondurma reputedly melt from the fervor of his research all over his Gospel of Matthew, perhaps he would not have missed the part where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, saying: "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." So much for ladies first. 

Consequently, Professor (P)sofuoğlu’s rancour at the depiction of prostitutes in a place of worship is not shared by Orthodox Christians. The central role played by prostitutes in the ministry of Jesus seems to reinforce the universality of the Christian message, as one of acceptance of all people, regardless of their past, or their position in life. Undoubtedly, this is something that as a pundit, (P)sofuoğlu would appreciate, considering that the districts around Agia Sophia teem with prostitutes and exploitation of these women, often migrants or refugees, by local residents is rife. Those exploiters are in dire need of finding some religion and it is hoped that the pious (P)sofuoğlu whose name means “son of the religious one,” may point them in the right direction. 

Nonetheless, Professor (P)sofuoğlu’s is fortunate that in modern Neo-Ottoman Turkey, it appears that the use of misogynistic hate-speech within the public discourse is socially acceptable. Calling the Empress Zoe, who has been dead for the past one thousand years a “whore,” and a “prostitute,” the tautology being explained by the fact that his thesaurus is online and therefore he didn’t get any pages stuck together while consulting it, and demanding the removal of all mosaics from Saint Sophia as a result of her alleged career as a sex-worker is a fascinating conceptual leap that would confound even the most dexterous Hegelian. It is therefore logical for a Professor of History at Sakarya University to draw the inference that because he believes that a dead Empress provided escort services, the mosaics of Saint John Chrysostom, of Emperors Constantine and Justinian, and of Panagia Theotokos, who is also revered according to the Islamic tradition, should be removed from Agia Sophia. 

Professor (P)sofuoğlu’s concern that the presence of Empress Zoe’s image within Agia Sophia constitutes an affront to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror is touching. After all, Mehmet, with his large harem, in which the enslaved daughter of Byzantine historian George Sphrantzes, Thamar died at the age of fourteen, was renowned for his acute sensitivity to women. What is more, his harem was a gender-neutral employer, given that the Conqueror also compelled Jacob Notaras, son of Byzantine noble Loukas Notaras, also 14, to enter it, for his pleasure. According to the dictates of Sakaryan logic therefore, it is axiomatic that the ghost of Mehmet would be mortified by the presence of a Queen on a wall outside, but not inside, his harem. 

Sadly, even by exacting Sakaryan Historical Faculty standards, there appears to be no truth to pontificating Professor (P)sofuoğlu’s groundbreaking claim that the Empress Zoe was a sex-worker. Rather, hers is a rather woeful story of a lonely girl brought up in the cloister, denied the opportunity to discover herself and love, by an overbearing, over-controlling father. Indeed, she was only permitted to marry the day before her father died, to Romanos Argyros, at the age of fifty. Romanos was sixty and could do nothing to slake the passions pent up in Zoe over the past half-century. Nor was he particularly interested in Zoe’s obsession within perpetuating the family dynasty. Desperate to become pregnant, before the invention of Fertility Clinics, the hapless Zoe employed magic charms, amulets, and potions, assiduously, but without effect. As is often the case, the emphasis on procreation took its toll on the marriage, with an exhausted Romanos finally refusing to share his bed with her. 

The estranged couple did that which many Real Housewives of Affluent Constantinopolitan Suburbs and modern Turkish soap operas do: They engaged in affairs while tolerating each other. Lovelorn Zoe became infatuated with a servant, Michael and soon after, according to Byzantine historian Michael Psellus, Romanos was found drowning in his bath, as some of his retinue had "held his head for a long time beneath the water, attempting at the same time to strangle him.” Chronicler John Scylitzes wrote that Romanos was drowned on Michael's orders, while Matthew of Edessa, in his history, accused Zoe poisoning Romanos. 

Eager to legitimize their love, Zoe had the patriarch marry her to Michael on the very day of Romanos’ death. Regretfully, with young Michael’s ascent to the throne, his previously overwhelming eagerness for the middle aged Zoe magically dissipated. He took steps to sideline her from power, confining her to the palace gynaeceum, and kept her under strict surveillance. He refused to see her, even when he was dying, despite her fervent entreaties, and when his nephew, also named Michael, succeeded him on the throne, he banished her to a monastery on the island of Prigkipo, where she was forcibly tonsured and sworn into a religious order. 

Restored to power at the insistence of the Constantinopolitans, lonely Zoe arranged to be married to court official Constantine Atroklines. Just a few days before the wedding however, tragedy struck, when he was poisoned by his ex-wife and the heart-broken Zoe settled on marrying the handsome and urbane Constantine Monomachus. Unlucky-in-love Zoe’s troubles did not stop there however. Monomachus brought his long-standing mistress Maria Skleraina to court and insisted that he be allowed to publicly share his life with her, and that she obtain some official recognition. Poor loveless Zoe, who was then sixty four years of age, was forced to share her bed and her throne with the perfidious Skleraina, who mistreated her and may have been plotting to kill her, if it was not for the Constantinopolitan mob, which rioted, threatening to dethrone Monomachus if he did not protect Zoe, the source of his power. 

If Zoe was guilty of anything, it was of being stunningly beautiful, with Michael Psellos in his Chronographia commenting appraisingly that: "every part of her was firm and in good condition". Having been isolated for so long, Zoe realized that she could employ her beauty as a political tool. In order to protect her most important asset, she became a ground breaking cosmeticist, far eclipsing the paltry efforts of Garnier and Estee Lauder, developing a variety of creams and treatments in the gynaeceum, and carrying out experiments in her own laboratory. Psellus reports that as a result, her face looked youthful, her pores clear, her skin pert, with minimal signs of ageing, well into her sixties. 

The Empress Zoe depicted on the walls of Saint Sophia was not a prostitute. She was not even a very naughty girl. Instead, she was a dynamic ruler, a diplomat, an entrepreneur, and what in modern parlance would be termed, a cougar. And all she wanted was to be loved, valued and respected. According to today’s standards, her ingenuity, her refusal to “know her place,” her perseverance in the face of adversity and her immense and multifaceted skills constitute her a feminist icon. Quite possibly, it is this assertion of female potency that Professor (P)sofuoğlu finds so confronting that it compels him to require her urgent exmuration from the walls of Agia Sophia.  

A word to the wise, however: You don’t mess with the Byzantine sisterhood. And if, despite having being warned, you do, watch your back next time you take a shower. 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 August 2020