Eulogy for service at Feriköy 11.5.17

Maureen Freely on her late father John Freely: "His first guide was Evliya Çelebi. During our first week in Istanbul, in September 1960, he found a century-old translation of Evliya’s Seyahatname in the Robert College library"

13 Mayıs 2017 20:48

All of you assembled here know my father’s story. From his books, if not from the man himself.

There is his childhood in Ireland and Brooklyn.

There are his adventures during World War II.

There is my mother, with whom he signed a pact in blood to travel the world, as soon as he finished graduate school.  

And the move to Istanbul, in 1960, with three children, aged 8, 5 and 1.

There are the travels along almost all the shores of the Mediterranean, always returning to Istanbul and the shores of the Bosphorus, where he and my mother made their home for most of the next 55 years.

There are the legendary parties, most especially the St Patricks Day parties.

And the books. 65 of them at the last count.

Those of you who worked with him or were taught by him will remember him also a man of science, and as a dedicated chronicler of the history of science.

But those of us who had the good fortune to accompany him on his travels either in person or in print will also remember that it was the poets, ancient and modern, who fired his imagination and shaped his life.  

There were, first of all, the ballads of the West of Ireland, where Irish was still a spoken language when he lived there as a boy. There was Homer, whom he read as a young man, not long before he himself sailed through the Suez Canal during the last months of World War II, to enter a Mediterranean Sea he could not help but see as mythical.  There was Shelley’s Ozymandias, which captured what he’d seen by then –an entire world in ruins– and what he saw in the beautiful, haunting remains of the classical world during his many travels thereafter.

And then there was William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, with whom my father sailed to Byzantium in his imagination many years before he saw it with his own eyes:

Let me read that poem to you now.

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees

– Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing‐masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I have chosen to read this poem today not just because it brought him here, but because when I read it now, just weeks after losing him, I can see so much of him in it. Because John the scientist thought a great deal about eternity. All his life, he sang of what was past, or passing, or to come. And it was in Istanbul –Constantinople- Byzantium that he found his soul.

His first guide was Evliya Çelebi. During our first week in Istanbul, in September 1960, he found a century-old translation of Evliya’s Seyahatname in the Robert College library. Before another week was out, our father was leading us through the back streets of the Old City, and finding at every turn clear evidence that –four centuries on- Evliya’s spirit still lived As it is in Strolling through Istanbul, which he wrote with Hilary Sumner Boyd. And in Stamboul Sketches, Evliya Efendi is not just the ghost but the acknowledged co-author. For the aim of that book was, in my father’s words, to ‘bridge the gulf of years that separate Evliya’s time from ours, so as to reveal something of the continuity of human experience which seems to exist in this ancient city.’

It was a young man who wrote those words. The young girl I was then did not really understand them.  But I do remember our father’s almost transcendent wonder, every time we found an old wooden house propped up by an ancient column, or walked through a fish market or a flower market or a cauldron market that dated back centuries and perhaps millennia, or happened onto a gang of street boys whose games and tricks and secret codes took him back not just to his own boyhood in Brooklyn, but also, perhaps, to the days when his own great grandfather had walked these same streets as a soldier during the Crimean War.  It was in Evilya’s Istanbul that he found clear evidence that the past was always with us, but not just in what we saw.  It was also in the stories, and in the beautiful voice telling it.

During the last years of his life, John set out to make sense of his own journeys in four memoirs. One of these, still to be published, was Stamboul Ghosts, which was, in his own words, an evocation of his departed friends. ‘They reappear to me from the night of time,’ he says, ‘in the lost city I once knew. Their shades still speak to me from beyond the grave, as did the comrades of Odysseus when he met them in the Underworld, the Country of Dreams.’

Many of those friends now rest in this very cemetery, alongside the plot that John will now be sharing with our beloved mother, Dolores.  It was his final wish to be brought back here to rest alongside her. And though it will break our hearts to leave him there, we can take comfort in the fact that there could be no better place for him. We have brought him back the city where he found his soul. We shall place him next to his Dolores, his Toots, his Penelope, in the loveliest corner of this lovely cemetery, surrounded by the friends with whom he shared so many adventures and sparkling conversations, and so much fun.

To help us along the way, let me end with the poem that led him through his final writings, and wove itself in and our of so many of our conversations during his last months and days:

Ithaka, by C.P. Cavafy, Translated by Edmund Keely

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.


Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.


Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn't have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.


And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


Thank you for sharing with us the last leg of John’s journey.

This eulogy was delivered by Maureen Freely at the service at Feriköy on May 11, 2017