Under the Black Blanket




Choppers securing the Hudson for today's 9/11 commemoration jolted us awake at dawn.

I'm among those who won't be participating in the ceremonies downtown. For one, I have no interest in sharing any part of my city with President Bush, whose multi-trillion-dollar, needless folly of a war with Iraq did more damage to our nation than anything the jihadis achieved on that horrid morning ten years ago.

I'm also not sure what purpose is served by this ten-year anniversary memorial. I would prefer to let the dead rest in peace, and let their families and friends mourn them well. And to contemplate the Christian notion that turning the other cheek is sometimes the best way to deal with savagery.

Last year, I spent some time in the Italian city of Otranto, a pretty Adriatic town and site of an infamous 15th Century beheading massacre in the long and bloody skirmish between Islam and Christianity. Otranto was also the setting for an 18th Century publishing phenomenon, the first novel in the psychological horror genre we now call gothic .

The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, describes the supernatural punishment meted out to a usurping Italian feudal prince in a haunted castle packed with what we now consider standard fright stock - secret doors, gloomy tunnels linking castle and monastery, haunted suits of armor, portraits of ancestors jumping out of their frames. These images were so fresh and shocking at the time that Walpole's little book became an instant best-seller.

Walpole had never set foot in Otranto, although he had traveled through Italy as part of the Grand Tour of the Continent that all moneyed Englishmen undertook. He based his tale on accounts from friends who dallied there, and picked up lore that survives today.

"Local history is filled with blood and darkness," Otranto guide Francesco Calignano told me. Locals believe a headless horseman still appears near a martyr's sanctuary on hot August nights, a shade of one of the beheaded brave Christians who refused to bow before the invading Turks in 1481.

Otranto's blood and darkness is rooted in memories of a 600-year-old massacre. The town was once a beachhead for Byzantium in Europe, an embarkation point for Crusaders, and later a prime target for Turkish invaders. The Cathedral of Otranto reflects this multicultural past, and is a World Heritage site for its complex mosaic floor depicting scenes from every human myth and legend known to the world circa 1100 A.D.: pagan pantheon, India's Ganesh and yogi culture, Jewish Kabbalah's tree of life, Confucianism, Buddhism, Puss in Boots, the Old and New Testament prophets and King Arthur and the Grail.

But rather than celebrate that multicultural past, the Otrantans take their obsession with the memory of victimhood to macabre levels. Beyond the tile floor, off to the side, 800 skulls of victims beheaded by the Turks line the walls behind glass. Bits of their preserved flesh are stored in a locked drawer beneath the skulls, which is opened once a year in August, and the contents paraded through the streets.

A deserted street called via 800 martiri, leads up a hill to a sanctuary, commemorating the victims of the Turks. The real Castle of Otranto, built by the Aragonese who eventually repelled the Turks, is a photogenic, perfectly preserved, white fortress, with turrets and gunwales and surrounded by a waterless moat and accessible only by drawbridge.

Modern-day Otranto is a white-cobbled tourist attraction in summer, but during the other ten months of the year it is an unpopulated, somber, haunted, dead place. Silent white alleys surround the castle and cathedral, glowing in moonlight beneath the hilltop sanctuary, carefully tended by monks and dedicated to the memory of the 800 martyrs. Otranto's obsession with its 600-year-old victimization presents a cautionary tale about what New York might be in six centuries if tragedy - and not our glorious, universal spirit - became the city's binding legend.

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