09 April, 2010

Ghosts of İstanbul

I step wearily from another all-night bus. The ride from Karacabey was long and punctuated, winding eastward to Bursa and then northeast around an arm of the Marmara Sea. Then came stops at İzmit, and as a grey dawn broke, the Anatolian side of İstanbul. Finally Esenler. The terminal is massive, drab; a weary cement structure in a weary part of town. The bus entered through a narrow maze of columns that barely seemed to accomodate it. A few questions later i descend into the metro, and then it's a short walk to connect from the subway to the tram. Day grows and with it, the stream of people bound for work.

Sultanahmet. Over the conjoined buildings and scattered trees just coming into leaf, the massive, clustered domes of the Hagia Sofia and Sultanahmet Camii are visible, the city spreads in a flat, uninspiring light beneath a curtain of stratus clouds. My first impression of the place is a pale stone fantasy-land, a sort of erudite Disney kingdom of fossilized histories. A raw breeze comes off the Marmara Sea. First things first: a scalding paper cup of Lipton Yellow Label to warm my hands. Then i notice the tourists. Everywhere. For the first time since i arrived in Türkiye, it's hard to spot a single Türk.

The first fact of İstanbul has yet to settle in: it is massive. With a population estimated at 15 million, it is one of the world's largest cities and with over 9,000 per square kilometer, ranks even higher in population density. Combine the above, and you will discover that getting around in İstanbul is time-consuming. Public transportation is everywhere - buses, the tramway, two distinct subway systems, light rail, and a fleet of ferries connect the three big chunks of mainland and link them to the outlying Prince's Islands. But my friend Osman is en route an hour and a half from his family's home near Bostanci to our meeting place here in Fatih.    

When Osman arrives, we embark on a marathon day of sightseeing. First is Sultanahmet Camii, also known as the Blue Mosque. The quiet interior resonates with an energy that other historic buildings seem to lack. Perhaps it is the residual reverence of Ottoman traders, their boats moored just offshore centuries ago, pausing here before their departure, or perhaps it is the reverence of contemporary worshippers. Whatever the reason, despite its place as a tourist attraction, the Blue Mosque is not a mere sight.


Sultanahmet Camii

Next door, the landmark known by Turks as Aya Sofya has a radically different character. You can find descriptions of the Aya Sofya in any travel guide, or on the web. For once, backlogged as i am, i'm feeling lazy - and besides, i am not a historian. I'm a rambling woodchuck. So the woodchuck description of Aya Sofya… it's a museum. Literally; the building, which is still undergoing restoration work, is a museum. Unlike Topkapi Palace (which we shall visit next), Aya Sofya houses only the accumulated centuries of itself. A fresco over one entrance door depicts Mary and the Christ-child, flanked by two emperors: Constantine presents the holy ones a model of his new city, and Justinian presents a miniature of this, his new church. Within, beneath an arch of particular interest to architectural historians, Christian and Islamic iconography coexist - though their coexistence is in some respects a function of restoration, and the delicate uncovering of the glimmering Christian mosaics after centuries of refit as a mosque. Though the stylized arabic script in stained-glass was  of particular beauty, Aya Sofia felt hollow; the strongest energy i felt in the place that of the echoes of wingbeats as pigeons flew from cornice to cornice. Aya Sofya's most resonant element, i feel, is the smoothness of stones in the passages that lead to the second story, or the fabled thumbprint of an emperor's hand in which millions have laid their own hands, wearing a deep, smooth place in the ancient column.

how to be a tourist: photograph a Hagia Sofia mosaic



Topkapi palace completes our museum tour for the morning, as we stroll the extensive grounds from the first court to the third, and innermost. The tulips are a high point of Topkapi, and a taste of things to come throughout the city. Within the palace, lines snake from one display room to another. We spend what seems like half an hour inching our way past the Ottomans' collection of sacred artifacts: a rod attributed to Moses; a sword alleged to belong to David; and swords, a bow, and elaborate cases carrying bits of a beard or a cloak, artifacts of the Prophet Mohammed. Ottoman costumes with their impossibly long sleeves prove interesting, but upon seeing the line - over a hundred meters long - we agree to skip the jewels in favor of the Harem. These, the private rooms of the Sultans and their concubines, remind me of the alcott house - the sterile- frozen-in-time feeling that leaves the details of daily life to your imagination. Still, things come to life when you step onto a portico and see the city spread beneath your eyes, ruler for an imaginary moment, or notice staircases and doors to rooms hidden from public view. Such staircases bring a line of prose from L.M. Montgomery to mind - i'd prefer to sleep in a wild cherry tree; "there's so much more scope for the imagination."   

After lunch at the oft-imitated Sultanahmet Köftecisi, we track down Torbjörn, a Swedish dorm-mate wandering the city alone, and set off for Eyüp. Down a street filled with vendors of the Qu'ran, headscarves, and other artifacts of Muslim faith, Eyüp Camii awaits us. By contrast to the morning's fare, Eyüp is a contemporary place of worship, a shrine. In the square a fountain is surrounded by pink tulips. Polis in dress uniforms mill about - we learn that today is a holiday commemorating those killed in the line of duty. 

Eyup Camii



On the hillside behind Eyüp Camii is a graveyard. The stones vary - from the graves of Ottoman children to the grave of contemporary Turkish poet Necip Fazıl. Fazıl was famous for his late conversion to sufism, and the prolific work that followed it, according to my friend Osman, writings describing a Sufist philosophy now influential in Turkish government. We climb the hillside roads winding among graves until we reach Pierre Loti coffeehouse, named after a French writer, and a favorite haunt of many writers poets. Haunt is a strangely appropriate word for the day, surrounded as we are by history and rank upon rank of graves. Riding the metro this morning i began to think about the immense past of this city, a past that means less to me in terms of emperors and city walls than in terms of the everyday lives that unfolded and ended within them. I titled this post "ghosts of Istanbul" because, as it struck me in the morning, that is what many travelers see - only the ghosts. 

where tourists rarely go: Eyüp Camii framed in spring green

The view from Pierre Loti is, without doubt, inspiring - sweeping out over the "golden horn" to Galata, and the spires of now-distant Yeni Camii, Suleymaniye, Sultanahmet, and Aya Sofya. As we stroll back down the hillside, sun catches the orange blossoms of calendula between gravestones. We are pleasantly sated, though attempts to read a future in the dregs of our Türk kahvesi were comic at best.

I owe a great deal to my Turkish friends, in particular one Egemen Bezci who was my dorm-mate last fall at UMaine. Thanks to Ege's exhaustive list of things to see, do, and taste in his native town, we topped off the first day in Istanbul with a visit to Karaköy Gulluoğlu, the world's premiere baclava joint. I exaggerate not. It is a place of presidential merit - and when the waitstaff heard i was American they proudly produced a portrait of Barack Obama {note to self: insert LINK to PHOTO} in baclava (they gifted Obama with an identical portrait upon his visit last year). My guide was quick to point out that like Sultanahmet Koftecisi, Karaköy Gulluoğlu is beset by imitators - literally, flanked by baclava shops with similar names - but none of them had that havası vardı.