Istanbul is a city of memory.
The past permeates every street, shop, iconic edifice and passing face. As I walked through its streets and explored its buildings, I began to detect the city’s dominant themes.
The theme of Topkapi Palace is seclusion. A graduating depth of shadows. Deeper shades of obscuring darkness. Privacy nestled within privacy like Russian dolls, visible in the layers of courtyards and iridescent tiled chambers.
For 400 years, Topkapi was the royal residence of the Ottoman sultans and their families. Each layer of rooms contained its own household of secrets that transcended and included the rooms that surrounded it. Only those at the centre knew all.
The innermost chambers were places of decadence concealed behind walls and pleasure gardens, shrouded in the speculations of those outside. A surfeit of opulence as symbolized by the ornate visual overload of the tiles, and as realized in the women of the harem: specimens of pleasure from every nationality and every race of the empire. Istanbul retains this pleasure orientation even today.
As I walked up to the Imperial Gate, flute sellers approached at an oblique angle like lewd birds, tootling at me with a suggestive leer. They were matched only by the guidebook vendors who sidled up and spread the book low, as though they were offering pornographic postcards in 1920’s Paris.
This temporal disorientation continues nearby at the Grand Bazaar.
My senses reeled as I was pushed and shoved along a steady current of people, with curious eddies alongside the main thrust of the relentless two-way flow. Flashes of colour, fabric and glittering jewels tugged at my consciousness amidst brightly painted pottery and tiles, the intricate geometry of carpets, and the Eastern allure of silver hammered into patterns of portable wealth.
I felt like a spectator on a conveyor belt, viewing the scene at one remove, carried along without will until I washed up in the spice market with its conical piles of orange and yellow powders, and honey-dripping sweets stacked like chord wood.
I stumbled outside to be greeted by the Bosphorus, it’s waves chopping and foaming in the cold bite of a November wind.
With my head reeling from the crush of the crowds, I sought solace in the vast open spaces of Haghia Sophia.
A church until 1453, it was converted into a mosque by the conqueror Mehmet II. When Ataturk and the secularists took over in modern times, the building was closed for restoration in 1934 and reopened as a museum. The Bosphorus has always been a crossing point for cultures and armies.
Despite its turbulent made-over past, Haghia Sophia retains a deep sense of Christian history. I felt a faint impression of centuries of incense in the slanting beams of light. A palimpsest of painted images is ghosted onto the walls. Their scratched out faces and eyes betray the presence of the iconoclasts.
It is an edifice of immense size, but it doesn’t feel heavy. There’s a feeling of space and airiness that seemed to float above me in great faded domes, and on the beams of light cast from high windows.
I imagined this space in Byzantine times. In candle-gloom, when the chandeliers held actual wax tapers that sputtered and dripped, and that barely broke the chthonic darkness between rays of light from windows high in the dome; light which shifted as the sun marked its passage across a distant sky.
But the tile work in the domes has lost its brightness, and the broken mosaics point to a religion whose hold on the city has long since faded to museum obscurity.
Today enormous plates hang from the walls, decorated with Arabic script. They seem to float so lightly on their wooden frames, like the most delicate ceramics on the walls of an apartment. It’s impossible to appreciate how enormous they really are, or to feel their great weight. The theme of Haghia Sophia is weightlessness.
Standing in the centre beneath the great dome, with the chandelier chain reaching upwards to infinity, I wanted to spread out my arms and walk slowly, stretching out to embrace this vast space and all it represents.
Instead, I walked outside and leaned my back against the cool stone of a wall just outside the well worn artery of the tour group flow.
An Asian woman — possibly Japanese — walked past wearing a giant smoked visor that looked like a welding mask. Even the cats stopped their washing to watch her.
There were many cats here. Istanbul is a city of cats; silent creatures that carry secrets along with them. As I write these lines in my notebook, a cat walks over and sits beside me in a patch of sun.
We stretched out for a while in companionable silence. But then I moved on. I still had to explore the city’s other religious face. The face of today.
Istanbul is a city that punctures the sky.
Domes and minarets soar above the Bosphorus. But none towers with more grace and silent gravity than The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque).
I’ve visited many mosques in my travels through the east, and they all have a common atmosphere. A mosque doesn’t dwarf you in grandeur and iconography the way a Catholic cathedral does, although the ceilings and domes soar above just as high. Instead, there’s a sense of silence and peace, of contemplative gardens. And they always smell like feet.
Mosques seem to lack the imposed formality of churches. People were chatting, children were tumbling and playing on the vast carpeted floors, and friends sat in the courtyards and gardens like a park. I wondered if the vast carpeted prayer space at its centre might have been inspired by the vast empty spaces of Arabia, and the carpeted Bedouin tents of their origins?
The interior is decorated in fine Iznik tile work of geometrical patterns, in soft blues and reds on a pure white ground, with gold Koranic lettering, leaves and bunches of grapes. The woodwork is inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. And the stained glass windows were the work of a glazier known as Sarhos “the Drunkard” Ibrahim. The simple grandeur of the decor never overwhelmed. It added accent to the sense of boundless space, and allowed my spirit to float through this infinite emptiness undistracted.
At the edges of the central prayer space, massive porphyry pillars support the soaring weight of nested domes. Next to them, the slender marble pillars of the side arcades seem as delicate as twigs.
Each successive layer of domes is opened by stained glass windows that transform light into jewelled hues as it slants down and graces the pious far below.
As I stood there admiring this space, lost in contemplation, the call to prayer drifted in, muffled by thick walls, giving it a certain Tarzan quality.
It was time for me to leave. Prayer time is no place for atheists.
But I didn’t just leave the mosque. I left the city entirely. I needed to know if this layering of memory was unique to Istanbul, or if it symbolized the geography of all of this ancient land.
I discovered that the feeling continued even out in the countryside, in Turkey’s most desolate regions.
The theme of Cappadocia is Seclusion and Fear. Isolated by its arid emptiness, its people sought further concealment by digging vast cities deep under the ground. They tunnelled to escape invasion, military recruitment, and puritanical government attempts to control the distillation of raki.
The houses are like icebergs, ⅔ below the ground. The rock is threaded by rooms in which thousands of people could live for 4 or 5 months without ever coming out. I wonder if they forgot the sky?
I ventured deep beneath the earth, like this region’s ancient inhabitants. But now I needed a way to get above its vast landscape. To put it into perspective with a god’s-eye view. And so I set my alarm for 3am and drove to a field in the pre-dawn dark, where hot air balloons were being warmed by lashing tongues of flame.
It was that rare sort of day when the clouds hung low in an unbroken layer. They were in reach. And so we fired our burners and rose.
At first it was like being enveloped in a dense fog. A feeling of stillness and void. All sense of space and altitude and movement was gone, though the altimeter showed that we continued to rise.
And then we punched through the cloud layer and cruised above it. We were alone in our basket, connected by delicate ropes to a silk bag of hot air. Mountains poked up in the distance, transforming the scene into a zen garden that stretched from horizon to horizon.
It was silent like the void, but it wasn’t a deathly silence. We didn’t even hear the wind. I guess because we were being pushed along by it.
And then our time was up. The fuel was spent. And we sank slowly, silently to the earth from which we’d come.
I found another key cultural influence a couple hours flight to the West, at the edge of the Aegean and the ancient Greek world. It, too, left its imprints of memory on Istanbul and the hinterlands.
Ephesus is Greece transformed into Rome.
The landscape is entirely Mediterranean, with stony hills, olive trees, pure classical light, and a reverence for the vine.
In the ruins of the temples and brothels, half-transfigured gods morph into Christ and Emperor-worship. The pleasures are Greek, though the rule is of Rome.
This was a city where slaves warmed the toilet seats of the rich. A towering statue of the cyclops Polyphemus and Odysseus stood in a central square (…how did that feel, in this town so close to the shattered walls of ancient Troy…?) And the Temple of Artemis was proclaimed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Yes, the feeling continued in each place I visited. It wasn’t entirely a phenomenon of Istanbul.
Back in the city, I covered myself in a blanket and wrote on my wraparound balcony. Spotlights lit the domes and spires of Haghia Sophia near my hotel, and silent ships passed through the cold waters of the Bosphorus far below.
It must have been a similar view to those enjoyed by the Ottoman sultans from the walls of Topkapi. How would they have felt knowing that an infidel and a commoner could purchase the greatest luxuries of the city, if only he had the requisite gold? Do their ghosts pulse and rage through the empty nighttime palace even as I write these notes?
Even after so many centuries, and such dramatic shifts in fortune and rulers as diametrically opposed as the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the modern supporters of Attaturk, the city retains an atmosphere of Empire and pleasure. And of decadence, for the upper classes at least.
Anything can be had here in this mysterious veiled bridge between East and West, if you have the price.
It is a city of pleasures and a city of light. A city of history and a modern thriving town.
But more than anything, Istanbul is a city of memory.