Letter from Istanbul

By Myrna Kostash | October 13, 2001

This cafe, in the heart of Sultanahmet, which is in the heart of Old Istanbul, is called Antiques Gallery and Internet, in English, and is the home—old Ottoman style—of a family who are all involved in the running of it: the very cool son, he of the shaved head, who speaks English, the elegant sister with the red pony-tail and tight blue jeans, the gentlemanly father with a goatee and the unsmiling mother who is probably younger than me who does kitchen duty. While labouring over the keyboard, customers can have Turkish coffee, apple tea, indifferent Turkish wine, heavenly tomato soup, pretty good pizza, and even be served sliced apple sprinkled with freshly ground Turkish coffee (a creation of the shaved-headed host). Nouveau Turkish music plays in the background. The tall windows are open to the mild evening air. It is really very pleasant here, much more than in the airless basement of Backpackers’ Travel Agency where the system is fantastically slow, the chairs tortuous, the p.a. system tuned stubbornly to some killer rock station but which is free.

I was last in Istanbul in 1969, hitch-hiking with the boy named Attila, and we were on our way to Kabul. Never got there. I have almost no recollection of the city from that trip, I am here as though for the first time. And I’m here looking for Byzantium.

In fact it’s right under me, literally. This part of Istanbul was the heart of Constantinople. The Byzantines walked here. For a thousand years. At the end of the street around the corner from my guest house is a partially excavated corner of the Grand Palace where foreign envoys were treated to marvels such as the hydraulically-operated throne that hoisted the Emperor up into the heavens above the prostrated visitors, to their utter amazement. (This includes Renaissance Italians, by the way.) The excavation is hidden behind construction site hoardings but, finding the gate unlocked, I walked through and had a look–at brick archways and foundations, and a pair of men’s black trousers flapping on a line. As I walked back along the street, a merchant sitting in front of his carpet shop having his morning tea, hailed me over to explain that the ‘excavation’ is in fact the construction of a shopping mall. An ex-mayor of the city acquired the property by unfair and foul means and now he can do whatever he wants with it.

My first sight of Byzantium was the floodlit eastern facade of Saint Sofia–Christendom’s largest church—at 4 in the morning when I arrived at Alp Guesthouse after a tedious trip from Edmonton (12 hours in Frankfurt, ugh). Mustafa the night clerk took me up onto the terrace to show me where breakfast would be served. We were looking out over the Sea of Marmara. When I turned around, there she was, Holy Wisdom (Aya Sofia), not 2 streets away, looming up out of the black sky and deeply silent night of the city, just as Justinian had caused her to be built (minus today’s minarets of course) in the 6th century. It was indescribably powerful.

Since then I’ve learned that the Ottomans, who succeeded the Byzantines after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (or ‘Conquest of’ as it’s referred to here), used the idea of the Byzantine dome for their mosques. They went on to build behemoths which, viewed from outside, with their buttresses and terraced half-domes, look like architectural equivalents of Darth Vader. But inside! Nothing but air and light, soft footfalls on the carpets, the sound of water splashing in the ablution fountains just outside the door, and prayers sent up into the weightless dome inscribed with dancing tendrils of calligraphy.

As for Byzantium, the moment I had been preparing for, the visit to Aya Sofia, now a museum–even killing some 10 minutes in the tea garden in its grounds to avoid a particularly numerous group of tourists being herded around with boisterous enthusiasm by their indecorous guide–proved a terrible disappointment. There stands a bloody great ceiling-high scaffolding right up into the centre of the great dome. And the church’s galleries which run along 3 sides of the nave and whose walls contain the largest part of the celebrated mosaics were closed. I could have wept.

Nothing for it but to find Byzantium in other parts of the city. Lucky for me I found a book in the shop of the Museum of Islamic and Ottoman Arts called A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Byzantine Istanbul (by one of that European breed of Turkophiles who visit Istanbul every year of their long and productive lives once they’ve discovered it at age 21 while examining antiquities in the eastern Mediterranean. But I digress.) So off I went, backpack stuffed with guidebooks, bottled water, headscarf (for visits to the churches that are now mosques), ziplock bag full of dried figs, a banana or two, camera, and notebook.

There’s a lot of Byzantiana in the guidebook that I did manage to find myself, following the book. The aforementioned foundation of the Grand Palace. The vestigial marble slabs of the Bucolean Palace down along Kennedy Highway (the sea used to wash up right against the Palace walls), lying in weedy greenery in a kind of rubbish dump while tiny, perfect, brown and gold snails sucked up marble dust on the lintel’s edge….The Basilica Cisterns, a parade of Byzantine columns, carp leisurely swimming around their pediments, that in the soft light reflected off the pools seem an underwater cathedral….The Justinian-era “Little Aya Sofia,” the Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, very near the sea in a humble neighbourhood that tumbles down one of the city’s 7 hills, now a mosque.

I crept round the back of it to get a sense of its Byzantine shape, and rested there awhile on a slab of cement in what is now a long-abandoned Moslem cemetery, watching butterflies and thinking about how the thing that Constantinople had for so long feared and battled with (and had in vain pleaded with western powers to help avert)- the triumph of a “pagan” power over its domains and finally over its own body–had come to pass. And then more centuries passed, and now the two spirits sleep together, everyone’s tombstone having been erased. (Except for the big guys, of course: the pashas and viziers and sultans, not to mention the legendary 16th century Roxelana known in the Harem as The Russian but to Ukrainian-Canadian patriots as The Galician, the daughter of a priest taken away by marauding slave-traders and destined to become the Favourite of Suleyman the Magnificent–he of the stupendously voluminous turban–and the murderer of his first son in order that the career of her own be advanced: she has an exquisite tomb by the genius architect Sinan. While I sat looking at it and thinking these thoughts, several women in black cloaks that left only their foreheads and noses showing entered the tomb along with 2 men of severely religious demeanor and all stood in the posture of prayer at her bier. I tried to look as uninfidel as possible, and sharing in the general sense of piety, but I very much wished I could have asked them what it was about this enslaved Ukrainian Orthodox concubine that brought them here to pray.)

I went to St Eirene church, another of Justinian’s commissions, expecting the worst, given that it is used as an exhibition space, these days for the international Bienale of Contemporary Art. Nothing is left of its mosaics and frescoes but the dozens of pieces of video art played over its walls made up for their absence. Best of all, the entire floor of the nave had been covered with a wooden platform which was strewn with big pillows. And so I joined the others, lying on my back and looking up into the central dome, bereft of its mosaic but displaying a kind of purity of bare brick swirling in concentric circles, as though funneling heaven down upon us.

For those Byzantine remnants I could not find on my own–hidden as they are now in several of Istanbul’s labyrinthine neighbourhoods–I relied on the street smarts of Cevdet, boyfriend of Yasmin the hotel receptionist, who, equipped with electronic Turkish-English dictionary, took me around. He was a very agreeable companion, even evincing interest in what the frescoes and mosaics were all about in the still-intact St Saviour of Chora. (It was a very queer feeling explaining the goings-on in a representation of the Dormition of the Virgin, or the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, for example, to a Moslem [see above re uncluttered mosques] but Cevdet seemed quite taken by it all. And, over kebab lunch in a workingman’s cafe, offered me the Legend of the Second Caliph. And then the proprietor offered up lemon-scented eau de cologne sprinkled on our hands as we took our leave.)

Yesterday, on a day trip to Iznik (Byzantine Nicaea) in the company of Taner, the 20 year old hotel staffer who is studying to be a teacher of English, we viewed Byzantine remnants if anything in even poorer condition than those in Istanbul. We were both shocked by the filthy and odorous little courtyard of the Ayezma, a spring of healing waters attached to the rubble of the Church of the Koimesis. The church had been devastated in the Turkish-Greek war of 1921-22–as had been a small mosque near the centre. When I asked the Izmik Museum’s archaeologist about all this ruination, she became quite agitated. “All historical periods have witnessed mutual destruction of cultural monuments, not just the Greek and Turkish struggle. And note that the Ayezma, for all its filth–and we here at the Museum clean it up every month–has never been damaged.” Point taken.

Twice during our meanderings Taner left me to go pray at the designated hours in the neighbourhood mosques, returning each time positively irradiated by virtue. He felt cleansed each time, he said, having literally washed and then expunged his sins of the day by the routine of prayer. And did I know that the gestures and postures performed at prayer–the bendings and genuflections and prostrations–were symbolic of the movements of the bodies of the angels who hovered around Allah and Mohammed when they met one time in heaven? No I did not but I was enchanted.

So, in a word, this travel project cum journey into Eastern Orthodoxy via Byzantium has me stumbling into the Moslem Other (not to mention all the Others that have left their imprint here in Turkey, and their bric-a-brac in the Archaeological Museums: Hittites, Persians, Hellenes, Romans, Arabs, Seljuks, Osmanlis…) As I travel on from here back into the European Balkans, I will have to keep this in mind. After all, the Ottoman Empire ruled hundreds of years in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, parts of Hungary and Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and created a cultural zone that not even latter-day nationalist movements have completely deconstructed. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Although I arrived in Istanbul with some trepidation, unsure of how I would handle a city of 9 million and a language I knew not a word of (and 10 days later I know only how to say hello and how much does that cost?),I leave with the mellowest of feelings. I am aware of having succumbed to Orientalism–that pleasure of the senses when living in a city of flower gardens and fountains around the corner, of tea gardens, the call to prayer by muezzins out-singing each other (I am told that that a mosque was built at each point where the muezzin in the nearest one was no longer within earshot; given modern amplification, this arrangement now produces a kind of hullabaloo, beginning at 6:15 am), of bus drivers sprinkling your hands with lemon water, of fishermen serving up fried fish sandwiches from their bobbing boats in the Golden Horn (to which you add a pile of sweet raw onion and lots of salt and lemon juice), of the still soft late summer breeze that blows up each evening from the Marmara…and so on. Most of all I have been overwhelmed by the unfailing kindness, even gentleness, of the people I’ve had anything to do with. It is not an exaggeration to say that one’s normal, Canadian way of expressing oneself, in voice or body language, seems uncouth and even vulgar.

A cautionary note is in order however. As a diligent Canadian writer I have also been reading the Turkish Daily News. And so I know that my blissed-out reactions to life here are those of someone who is not poor (my very modest hotel bill for 12 nights was the equivalent of a doctor’s monthly income ; God knows what the income is of the lovely woman who serves me breakfast on the roof terrace and rubs my back in a maternal gesture though I am much older than she), who is not trying to keep house in a derelict apartment building or looking for work as a migrant from the eastern provinces or who is not a Kurd nor a human rights activist whose protest against the bombing of Afghanistan lasted exactly 5 minutes until the police moved in. I’m not the Art student at the Bienale who said the country has been ruined and that he wants to leave although he loves his home (a recent poll of some 5000 people revealed that ‘only 41% of people want to live in Turkey,’ and ‘some 34.2% answered the question, What is the most trustworthy institution seeking solutions to the country’s problems, with “No one”).

As for the ‘war against terrorism,’ anecdotally I have found no one who sympathizes with the Taliban or even with Afghans, for that matter: ‘They may be Moslems like us but they’re fanatics.’ ‘We know about terrorism (i.e. the Kurdistan Workers Party).’ But the editorial writers are not gung ho for the American war effort (remembering perhaps that for their pains in supporting the Western side in the Gulf War against Iraq Turkey ended up with a huge bill and a large protected Kurdish area on the Turkey-Iraq border). There is fear in some quarters that ‘Washington has a secret agenda to establish an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq’ and that a prolonged war in the region will inflame home-grown fundamentalists. That same poll I cited earlier also asked ‘what is the most dangerous country for Turkey’: 24.1% named the US, followed by Iran, Greece, Israel, Russia, Syria, Iraq, France and Germany.

On the other hand, I count 11 cinema screens in Istanbul where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider can be seen in Istanbul this week.

On that note, I sign off. My cheese and tomato omelet has just been delivered and I’d better eat it before the black and white kitten, mascot of this cafe, gets to it.

2503 w. posted October 13, 2001


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