Büyükada, Princes' Islands, Sea of Marmara, Turkey
For a portal to the Underworld, try the Şişhane Metro station, just above the Galata Tower at the end of the M-2 subway line in Istanbul.. Five very steep and long escalators, plus a moving walkway, are required to get you down to the track. The station is spotless (unlike similar portals in other world cities) with great mural art and no graffiti, putting London and New York City to shame.
I started at Şişhane on a visit to the Princes' Islands. A quick ride to the Taksim Square station, three more escalators, then through another turnstile requiring an orange plastic jeton to the underground "funicular" down to the ferry terminal at Kabataş. The Jetonmatik at the ferry station delivered a metal token, more like the legendary coin for the boatman.
The ferry stopped first at Kadıköy (the Chalcedon of the Greeks) and I again felt the thrill of crossing from Europe to Asia in the time required to drink a glass of the hot tea they offered on board. On to the Sea of Marmara, stopping at Henna Island and Carry-Bag Island before we came to Büyükada, the Big Island of the Princes'.
I was vividly aware that I was on the sea where an ancient poet and shaman named Aristeas, famous to the Greeks, used to fly beyond the body in the shape of a raven. He was said to have been a master of bilocation, showing up in more than one place at the same time. He was also said to have left his body, seemingly dead, only to rise again, showing up in another place and time. I had first heard the name "Aristeas" in a boyhood dream. More recently I have been dreaming the title and scenes of the Arimispea, an epic poem of adventure across mythic borders that is attributed to him; it survives in the world of documents only through second-hand accounts,
I saw plenty of ravens on Büyükada, above the bustling restaurants and ice cream stands around the port. Cars are banned on the island, and the easiest way to get around - unless you feel like a long uphill climb - is by phaeton. Here the give the name of the chariot of the sun god to a horse-drawn carriage. I was again feeling the mythic edge, clattering up the hill behind a pair of silver gray cart horses. The streets were lined with tall Ottoman era mansions, some in desperate need of TLC, and acacia and bougainvillea was rife everywhere.
We came to a restaurant below the Greek Orthodox church that is popular with pilgrims. When I saw the name of the restaurant, I had no thoughts of making the 30 minute hill climb to the church. Luna Park.
I burst out laughing. "It's where I went when I died, aged nine!" I exploded. My friend was confused and concerned. Was it a terrible mistake, to have brought me here?
"No, not all. I can't wait to see what is beyond the Moon Gate this time."
Luna Park is the name of a popular theme park in Melbourne, Australia, my birth city. Its entrance is through the mouth of a huge moon face. At aged nine, when I died in a Melbourne hospital under the surgeon's knife, undergoing emergency appendectomy, I left my body in the operating theater and enjoyed the freedom of flight, leaving the scenes of blood and pain and grieving parents behind. I flew above the beach. When I saw the gate of Luna Park, in my second body, I was not too clear about my circumstances. I was excited by the chance to do things any ordinary nine-year-old would want to do, to go on the rides and have fun in the fun park. So I flew through the Moon Gate. And found myself in a different world. A world of beautiful, pale, very elongated people who received me as their own. Thay welcomed me and raised me and I lived a whole life among them until my new body was used up and I was required to return to the body of a nine-year old boy the doctors had finally managed to revive after he lost vital signs for some minutes.
I tell more of this story than I have chosen to make public before in my new book, The Boy Who Died and Came Back.
I bounded up the steps of the Luna Park on the Sea of Marmara full of eager curiosity. What would I discover when I went through the Moon Gate this time. As I passed the stands of postcards and shiny things and tourist knicknacks, it occurred to me to wonder whether I had any evidence that I was not actually dead again. I had paid a coin to the boatman to come here.
The upper level of this Luna Park was more than a step or two above the milling tourists below. A charming, spacious restaurant overlooked one of the most glorious views I have ever been privileged to see from my table. I looked out through the pines, over Spoon Island in the Sea of Marmara, to the continent of Asia. The food was delicious, and the many dishes were brought by an old-fashioned waiter with grace and impeccable timing. They had fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, but I decided not to have it on this side, remembering what happened to Persephone. I drank of Ephesus (a popular Turkish beer called Efes, which is Ephesus in English) and lingered over coffee. If this was the afterlife, it was a lovely reception.
On the return ferry, I thought again about the legends of the raven shaman who died and came back, and how the raven had spoken to me early that morning, from the streets of Beyoglu near my hotel. I was on a different ferry line than the one that had carried me out across the sea. As we docked at the neighboring island, named for a certain kind of carry bag, I wondered again about which side of which reality I was on. The sign on a portside restaurant read Terk-i Dunya. "Leaving the World." What an improbable name for a restaurant, in ordinary reality. The question became inescapable: which world am I leaving now?
Maybe Trotsky had similar questions, even if they went outside his standard belief system. I learn after the voyage to the Moon Gate on the Big Island that Trotsky spend the first four years of his exile here, after Stalin threw him out of Russia in 1929.
The poet shaman who died and came back
Herodotus wrote about Aristeas in Book IV of his Histories:
- I will now relate a tale which I heard concerning him both at Proconnesus and at Cyzicus. Aristeas, they said, who belonged to one of the noblest families in the island, had entered one day into a fuller's shop, when he suddenly dropped down dead. The fuller shut up his shop, and went to tell Aristeas' family what had happened. The report of the death had just spread through the town, when a certain Cyzicenian, lately arrived from Artaca, contradicted the rumor, affirming that he had met Aristeas on his road to Cyzicus, and had spoken with him. This man, therefore, strenuously denied the rumor. However, Aristeas' relatives proceeded to the fuller's shop with everything required for the funeral, intending to carry the body away. But when the shop being opened, Aristeas was not there either dead or alive. Seven years afterwards he reappeared, they told me, in Proconnesus, and wrote the poem called by the Greeks The Arimaspeia, after which he disappeared a second time. This is the tale current in the two cities above-mentioned.
Two hundred and forty years after his death, Aristeas appeared in Metapontum in southern Italy to command that a statue of himself be set up and a new altar dedicated to Apollo. He said that since his death he had been travelling with Apollo in the form of a sacred raven.
Proconessus, the island where Aristeas died and came back, is called Marmara by the Turks. There is no daily ferry service, so I contented myself on this visit with another island in the Sea of Marmara, and that choice seems to have been just right.