Christmas in Istanbul

Well over a week has passed since I returned from Istanbul, and I have to say that my head is still trying to absorb the message of the beauty I saw there. You might perhaps expect me to be muttering about starlit or moonlit domes disdaining my views and all that they are, given my Yeats obsession which had so much to do with the place of Byzantium in my mind. Don’t look for it any more though. Yeats, I realised in my hotel as I spoke his lines from Byzantium and Sailing to Byzantium to myself, looking out the window one stunned night, never actually went to Constantinople. He got his images from Ravenna and Milan, rather like getting an idea of Europe from some Diego Rivera frieze on an American subway. Denis Devlin, another favourite of mine did go, but was more taken by the light and the waters than the domes. He was a diplomat in the turmoil of Ottoman collapse, after all, and winging it as a Scotsman for Ireland anyway.

What words could properly describe Hagia Sophia? The apse, the domes, the gallery tunnel oddly reminiscent of the pyramids, the Marble Door of Heaven and Hell—even the Viking graffiti on the gallery stones—are beyond description, as the faces of the slowly unfolding seraphim attest. You can almost hear the Emperor, dedicated finally and desperately to Catholic reunion, calling on the Virgin at the end, much as the distilled spirits of Thedora (I mean the co-Empress who ruled with Empress Zoe, not the original who sat in the older church), Justinian and a thousand years of Greek intrigue wafts up from what the stones absorbed below. The masterwork of Isidore and Anthemius—and I suppose I should include Sinan—defies real description.



I was there on the 25th of December, which oddly enough was its dedication day, with madgirl. As with herself, Something as beautiful as Hagia Sophia challenges preconceptions. I had expected the Cathedral museum to buttress my sense of catholic unity, and to attest to something that was a cipher and a model for the mosques which surrounded it, and in a way for every mosque. Looking on Islam as a deviation, or one of those seventh century errors which proliferated after the fall of the West, is at a certain level of the videogame life we now lead, comforting. Yet the church was ruined and rebuilt something like a dozen times, and would have fallen completely but for buttressing by the Sultans. It’s domes harked back to the Pantheon and were different from those Bruneschelli dreamed up in Florence, and the mosaics which looked down on the synodal space were clearly part of a civilisation that represented a route not taken, of an Asian rather than a western Christianity. Unity with the alien and discomfort with the identity—isn’t that what art is supposed to deliver?

Outside Hagia Sophia the square is relatively free of the comical harassment offered by carpet sellers and guides in most of the richer parts of Istanbul. In Anatolia, for instance, where they sell guns, motor engines, and homeware, and where the bookstores are eclectic and the rodeo-drive style of the New Square is surprising, not one person asked us in. In Thrace, we were accosted by leather makers, carpet weavers, porcelain producers, restaurant owners, and a whole host of others. It reminded me of the ‘charity muggers’ in Holborn, except I liked the experience of dealing with Turks on the make. Their culture has been trying and failing to get into the EU since 1962, and in conversations as at breakfast I realised what they’d kept by staying out. Not for me to hold forth on their living standards, obviously, but their food was cheaper and their own, or that of neighbours, compared to ours; their sense of themselves, standing equally in the ruins of a once great Empire, seemed sunnier; and they’d kept their traditions up. They certainly kept their Salep up, anyway, which was a revelation, a milky-vanilla and orchid drink that spoke to the sensuousness of the Ottomans as much as the maintenance of the Byzantine Cisterns, which we visited, spoke to their practicality.

We spent part of the Hagia Sophia day viewing the tombs of the Sultans, which are on the grounds but in a separate area, and again, were struck by the beauty of the domes as much as the carpets beneath our unshod feet. Turkey in December is nippy, but you realise that you’re way past England by the brightness of the light, which I can only compare to the Carolinas in its freshness. Dome interiors which would, in the north of Europe, have accumulated gloom and somehow innuminated, calling out for technology, by contrast seemed to collect and play with light and shade. The Islamic thing of not depicting living organisms until the encounter with the baroque (when the Sultans allowed fruit and trees to be shown in the panels at the Topkapi palace) enhanced this effect, I think. Walking around the covered proliferation of sultans and wives from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Ottomans were approaching a height of power, replaced thinking and rationalising with acceptance. It reinforced the tendency of the architecture and the place to overwhelm and reform, which was an odd and welcome feeling after a long year.

The Topkapi palace and the Harem, reached best early and via a walk from the Sublime Porte through a park, filled in the next exhausting day. I don’t think that the small audience chamber of the Sultan, or the Gate of Felicity, or the way the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn sneak up on one unawares to the right of the audience chamber steps as one descends into the garden sum the place up. I think that the most beautiful diamond which I have ever seen, which lit the Treasury and which was found, unannounced and mysterious in a rubbish dump, does. The 86-carat Spoonmaker’s gem held me like nothing else, even after the swarms of tourists descended, each glancing for a couple of seconds at everything and then allowing themselves to be pushed on. Yes, I know. We were travellers, but they were tourists. But I am a stubborn orange-tinted brick wall and they had to go around me, so there was some distinction to be drawn, and some basis for my elaboration. I saw the rod of Moses and the mantle of the prophet after that; but, well, my mind wasn’t all there. In fact, the long corridors and Imperial councils and schools, the Harem, the gold-and rose covered alleyways that were, all somehow flowed in after like tributaries through a hole made in a dam. I can recall sensually every moment, but find it hard to find the words of that wonderful day.

Our final day began in Suleyman’s mosque, the square outside of which challenged me again. Topkapi had set the trap; here was a huge expanse set out for an Emperor, a keeper of slaves, and yet it was relatively modest and small, but for the Sultan’s trousers and the possessions of state set within it, which I suppose bettered the British and compared to the Vatican. Yet Suleyman took a pay cut for his mosque, and paid those who built it rather well; he proclaimed what he believed to be good governance in the square, and was enlightened for his time, much more so than his contemporaries in the west. I loved having my girl with me, obviously, but for a moment I wished I could have brought Thomas Hobbes. I wanted to know what he would have thought, and whether his earnings as a Tutor and peregrinations in the continent in search of some positivistic explanation for the iterations of order more naturally rooted in the human heart had ever brought him anywhere like this. I doubt it. Leviathan would have been a lighter book if he had.

From the Mosque, having braved the Egyptian Bazaar and a small, run down and delicious kebap shop we discovered, we walked across the Galata bridge to Asia. We walked--hurdled really--past rows of fishermen seeking bluefish and more. The fish made me think of the absurdly cheap Iranian caviar in the bazaar, which we'd foregone in favour of saffron and apple tea, but which I should have bought a few tins of. The Turkish and Iranians had never been associated with fishermen in my mind before, but I suppose that it's a natural connection given the three seas and great rivers around them. Staying out of Europe has kept that for them too.

I’d encountered the professionals down at kumkapi, where we went to eat, the evening before, but my thoughts were of air, not water. Specifically, they were of an old hero of this blog, Ahmed Celebi, who launched himself on a rocket from around there, and who, I discovered, also developed a sort of hang-glider and flew six kilometres from Galata. We climbed the Venetian tower that Christian slaves rebuilt and dodged Bulgarians on its narrow viewing ledge. Up there, with night fallen, I thought of how fickle things were for Celebi. The Sultan of his day at first embraced him and then became highly suspicious of his goals. From the heights to the dump in a day, with only, I suppose, the hope of finding the odd diamond in the gutter to keep one going. Would he have done it again? Given that I did more exercise than I had in months, walking up those steep hills on which Anatolian Istanbul is built, I can see how Celebi wanted to take a lighter route. At least on his adventure, unlike Werner Von Braun, he didn’t bomb London.

Turkish room service, and Turkish Airlines, as one small coda to this piece, are great. I don’t think that I’ve had a club sandwich involving veal and chicken anywhere else, but I can recommend that which is to be found at the Prince Hotel, flight and hotel having been booked very very cheaply on E-bookers. There’s so much more to write, and I am sure that I shall because the trip we took was one of the most pleasant holidays of my life, but, well, if you’ve come this far you’ve suffered enough. Normal service will resume shortly.

A Happy new year, and Hristos se rodi where appropriate, to you all!

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