The City of a Thousand Names

TURKISH POLITENESS: Reticence, Courtesy, and Frankness of the Mussulman — Men Who Will Not Lie Or Cheat But Protect Their Women And Their Dogs.
—From The Pall Mall Gazette of June 24, 1878

When I arrived in the Sirkeci Train Station in Eminönü, the sun had risen but it was still early in the morning. Businesses opened their doors, shopkeepers swept off their porticoes, and the kebab shops loaded up great cones of compressed meat onto the döner ovens, although few people were eating as Ramadan, Turkish Ramazan, had just started. I changed dollars for lira in the cobbled streets near the Spice Bazaar, and took the ferry Hamdi Karahason across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy to Asia. Rocky fortressed islands and towered shipping galleys loomed in the hazy Propontis, the water dark with the Black Sea's sulfurous sediment.

Ah, those first steps on a continent. When Alexander took them, he lept from the stern of the first boat, like the ill-starred Achaean Protesilaus, and planted a spear in the strand to declare himself Lord of Asia. I did not have a spear and was too busy looking at the Turk Balloon to do anything like that. It looked like a green apple, off on the western end of the old bay of Chalcedon, over some cafés to which it was tethered, and would rise up fifty feet in the air with a few dangling tourists before lowering again.

I arranged to stay with the American couple I ran into in Varna, and met Gavin and Nellie near their office for lunch at a kebab place. Out of polite respect for the fasting Mohammedans, we ate upstairs on the terrace: spicy Adana-style kebab and good ayran, a yogurt drink, with a shot of some neon fruit drink to close the meal. It is a Turkish custom to provide a complimentary gift at meal's end, a happy reverse of the Western tip. They wait until you call them to take an order, and snatch away plates the moment you finish, or often before.

Like the Greeks the Turks possess a generous hospitality, especially towards foreigners, and even security guards and janitors will impose themselves on a troubled and confused looking tourist. They especially love to help cars back up or move around obstacles, however slight or simple the maneuver. Behind the moving car they wave emphatically and shout, "Gel! Gel!" — Come! Come! The Turks exhibit a peculiar trait called samimiyet, which means truthful but is better transliterated as well-meaning frankness or blunt candor. Tell them you bought something, and they insist indelicately that you paid too much. They could have gotten it for a much lower price.

Most follow the Ramazan fasting, although not so many attend prayer services six times a day. Even in secular Istanbul you'll see cafés full of people around empty tables. Some kitapsiz, people not of the book, will eat and drink as normal, and look down on the pious and their religious obstruction of Progress with the same contempt as Western atheists hold towards the believers.

When Atatürk shaved his mustache, took off his fez, slicked back his hair, and put on a suit, the rest of the new and secular Turkish Republic did the same. He is the nation's founder and messianic superhero, and they will not tolerate insult. The country wet so far as to block YouTube because a Greek put up a video questioning Atatürk's sexual orientation. They have filed charges against a number of Turkish journalists for anti-nationalism or for insulting the nation or its hero. This restriction of speech, which Mustafa Kemal would most likely and ironically resent, as well as the Turkish treatment of Armenian and Kurdish minorities and of women in the eastern provinces, are what keep Turkey from the European Union.

The presence of women is supposed to soften social intercourse, yet the Turks, who do not admit women into society, are the most courteous people on earth. They are not born poets like the Arabs and Persians, they have but little taste for art, and they will not smirk to obtain a favor; but they are simple, serious, brave, and grateful.

Sunday I woke up much too early to a strange practice of the Orient: the Ramazan drummer, who plays discordant beats on the stretched skin of his rotund instrument at 3:30 to awaken the faithful wives and start them cooking. The men rise at 4 to eat, and the Adhan, the call to prayer, comes loudly at sunrise, around half-past. From then until the sunset call approaching 8, no food or water or cigarette may pass Muslim lips, until the moon is new again. The faithful even avoid swimming, where saltwater might seep onto the tongue slick as sin, and cannot consummate their marriage during the same daylight hours.

To begin my tourism, I took a ferry back over to Eminönü, Fatih, Sultanahmet, Constantinople, Byzantion, or whatever the hell it's called, and walked up the cobbled hill past the walls of Topkapi Palace and the dome of the Hagia Sophia. A park and fountains lay between that Byzantine monument and the Ottoman one built to rival it: the Sultanahmet Camii (pronounced Jahm-ee) or Blue Mosque. It was smaller than than the cathedral, more artful and less engineered in its technical graces, and was when it was build the only mosque with six minarets except the one at the Meccan Ka'aba. These towers broadcast a mournful call to prayer, to which the minarets of Ahmet's Tomb across the Hippodrome offer dueling accompaniment.

I took off my sandals and entered the Blue Mosque through the tourist gate in the rear courtyard. I sat in the rear on the red carpet. Beyond the starry glitter of lights hung low and the four elephantine columns that supported it loomed the roof, which I will describe momentarily. I wandered on up the hill through the deserted market stalls about the Grand Bazaar, all gates shut, and under the aqueduct of Valens, and heard the afternoon Adhan about the time I returned to the University square along Ordu Sad.

The Muezzin lured me with devotions into the large mosque called the Beyazit Camii, past the men that washed their feet in the courtyard fountain, and inside to a fenced dais in the rear, set aside for visitors. Lights hung here, too, suspended from swirling frames and contained in beakers low over the heads of standing worshipers on the red carpet. In unison they dropped, all of them and the priest facing a niche at the far wall, into a bow, then rose, and then dropped again to their knees, face lowed in submission to the divine and inhuman, until they rose and departed.

Here and in the Blue Mosque and the Şehzade Camii, I felt the same impulse to look up that one feels under a starry sky. As in every mosques, the domed roof echoed the pitiless heavens of Arabia which so humbled Abraham's children that they developed three confessional faiths as enduring tributes to their imperceptible and omnipresent desert God.

Checkered arches straddled the wide columns to support great domes decorated with abstractions and Arabic lettering that seemed to me equally abstract, but with a devoted concourse of design and adoration, an order that can be felt but not understood. The arabesques, in florid ovals like flower-buds and rayed circles like suns, were at once geometric and natural, of Heaven and Earth. Great white spaces separated red, blue, and black devices, like sky and cloud. Colored glass windows glowed with sunlight and bore the same characteristics as the paintings. Scribbled Qur'anic writing stood out in gold and white on the walls and on great discs suspended in the corners. They spelled out the names of God and the Prophet.

Neither of us are very religious, but as TE Lawrence pointed out, we English-speakers really missed out on poetic devotions when we chose such an ugly word as God for the Deity. Instead of taking from the French mother the glad title Dieu, English inherited the guttural Saxon father's Gott. Far better are those distant relations: Latin Deus, Italian Dio, Spanish Dios, Greek Theos; and especially the unrelated neighbors of the Semitic family: the Hebrew Yahweh, Jehovah, and Elohim, and in Arabic the Ninety-Nine Names of the Qur'an, which all refer to Allah. Such glorious ornaments, and ours so mean.

Says the Muezzin from the minarets: "God is great, God is great. I testify that there is no God but God. I testify that Muhammed is the Messenger of God." What ugly words, these of the Adhan, no more poetic when sung than when spoken; yet when trilled in the native tongue in a fit of faithful passion, what then can be more transcendent or closer to the Metatron?

No wonder the temples and iconography of the German, Lowlander, Austrian and Briton is of such insipidly simple prospect next to those artful consecrations of Latin and Greek and Levantine, curved and glorious as heaven and earth. What can the Protestant prayerful expect when their greatest religious word is so hideous in composition and brevity? To decorate such a word is to paint a ramshackle gold.

Oh, my God! what fools we mortals be!

As to street dogs, they are chartered nuisances, who snap, snarl, fight over offal, and bay the moon at nights; but they must not be kicked. To be treated like a dog in Turkey is to be treated with much forbearance; for the Mussulmans think it enough to give a dog a bad name without ill-using him.

As with most neighborhoods
in Istanbul, and in greater Anatolia, the streets of Kadıköy maintain a happy population of stray dogs. My friends call them the Moda Hounds, after that neighborhood that they most frequent. They roll together in ferally cunning but quite personable packs, sleep on street corners while pedestrians step over their fat guts, look both ways before crossing the street, and wear colored tags on their ears to mark some treatment or surgery. They are castaways, born free, without collar or license. Their care is communal and voluntary. Neighbors give out leftovers and watch out for them.

For whatever reason, perhaps for what Melville termed their "sagacious kindness" or maybe because they cannot be responsible for their own destitution, I mark sadder the desperate poverty of a dog than the same circumstances in a man; yet some dogs seem adept at managing their own affairs, even moreso than most men.

On my last night in Varna, when I was eating with friends at the seaside seafood restaurant Nord, a dog came up under our table, which was on the edge of a platform over the sand. He lay down with his head on his crossed arms, and looked up at us with drooping ears and sad eyes, a look so perfectly pathetic it could only be practiced. We tossed down salmon and cod, and the dog took what he wanted and left what he did not like, then stood up and moved one table down to repeat the same performance. Some gruff looking black dog came up, and our busker-hound and his friends barked him away, as well as an old gypsy woman selling flowers. This was his territory!

Moda Hound turf is down near the waterfront in a green park. There encamped under a copse of oak you will find a great council of the fat and flea-bitten muts and their various allies and dependents. They allow people they like to pass through unmolested, or even to sit in the grass and watch the sunset, but can smell evil and bark wildly at those who canine instinct condemns. They congregate and exchange news with collared domestics, while their owners sit apart on a bench.

A clan of cats live among the piled rock barrier between the park and the Sea of Marmaris. Whenever the rock cats venture out from their salty caves and chambers, the Moda Hounds chase them back, but will not cross the divide. Cats fill the streets and alleys and rooftops of Istanbul, and their lusty cries echo across the city at night. People care for them just as much as the dogs, by putting food and water where only a feline could reach it. There is, in particular, a blind old grandfather of a cat who the other cats make respectful room for around the crowded conflict of the food tray so he may eat his fill.

In a similar feat, a mangled goose lives near the Kadıköy Fish Market and patrols flightless those odorous streets, guarding the stalls from cats in exchange for tokens and tribute. The Kadıköy Goose is a fowl of such magnificent fame and celebrity that he makes appearances in Istanbullu music videos.

Most times of day the Moda Hounds and other dog clans are ubiquitous in scattered teams of two or three, and in their activity do not impose on human society, asides from piles of excrement on the sidewalks. In the dawn's earliest hours, however, while everyone is still asleep, the Moda Hounds take to the streets en masse in riled and playful frivolity. Then the city is theirs.

This impassiveness of mien is the Turk's chief weapon of defense. It guards him from enemies and bores, and, mating with the silence which is congenial to his lazy, dreamy mood, it often excites the wonder of a stranger.

The Muslims break their Ramadan fasting with a great banquet called the Iftar. They wait for the mournful sound of the Adhan at the sun's last red glimmer with forks and knives poised over plates of food. I broke my own fast at my friends' house in Kadıköy, and brought some Efes pilsners to the Mexican Night they hosted.

Of all that I miss in my homeland, Mexican food is at the top of the list. Burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and tomales do not exist in Europe, or exist in such a warped and unsophisticated form as to disgust those who have tasted the real thing. Here, however, we young expats (and one Turkish girlfriend confused by our nostalgia for the tortilla) ate good burritos with meat and beans, and with Spanish rice and real guacamole! Gavin tuned his guitar, and since Steve from Georgia had his own and Carrie from Tennessee sang gospel, together they played folk and bluegrass, until the Ramazan drummer came by and we all went out to stare.

The next day I met Gavin in Taksim Square, in the neighborhood north of the Golden Horn called Beyoğlu. We weaved through the crowds on the İstiklal Caddesi, the broadway there, and broke off into the warren of side streets lined with cafés and restaurants and bars, to visit the sixth floor Üçnokta Teras and enjoy the views, and to Adana Dürüm for cheap çiğ köfte (pronounced chi keufte), the yogurt drink ayran served frothy from a tap into a pewter mug, and Adana-style döner in a wrap with paprika and hot and sweet peppers. Çiğ köfte is traditionally served with raw mincemeat, kneaded for hours with spices that supposedly cook the meat, but the government has since banned places from serving it that hazardous way without a license, and so ours had eggplant or pilaf instead.

The Turks have very good fast food, döner kebab and çiğ köfte included. Compared with German kebab, the Turkish döner is in general blander, without spicy or garlic sauce like in the German stalls, or the tasty Greek blend of yogurt and garlic and cucumber called tzatziki. Within the country it varies by region: Adana kebab from the city near Syria uses more Middle-Eastern spices, and Erzurum kebab, which comes from a city near Georgia and Armenia and the Kurdish territories, employs tender cuts of spiced lamb.

We ate that at a restaurant in Kadıköy on Wednesday night — the cağ porsiyon, with two kebab skewers and flatbread, yogurt, salad, spicy vegetable relish, delicious ayran, and a lahmacun, a pizza sort of thing on thin bread that you roll and eat like a wrap. Then came bittersweet Turkish çay tea, and a feeling like a bursting Turk Balloon. Later I ate a holy fig from Mecca.

Turkish food, as you can sense, is delicious, ranked alongside French and Italian as the best in the world. Kebab with savory chicken or lamb; sweet and savory börek pastries; pilaf with meat and grease; rolled lahmacun; and pide, a sort of Turkish pizza in the tapered shape of a lemon or, more accurately, a canoe. One night we went to Sun Pide and got massive plates of the stuff, with salted meat of every sort but pork and with cheese and even an egg on top. Gavin's description of "gut bomb" would be adequate only if you refered to something with a high nuclear grade, using the densest Plutonium.

Kaymak is somewhere between butter and cream in the genus of spreadables and is delicious with honey and almonds. For cheese, the Turks have many varieties. Some is creamy as butter, some hard like feta, some sweet and some spicy, but all variations come from great buckets labeled beyaz peynir, or white cheese. What you end up with is something of a gamble. The Turks enjoy their ayran yogurt drink with dinner, but not usually with breakfast. They think yogurt makes you sleepy.

But I digress, and my gluttony is showing. It's time to turn back to something less deadly sinful.

On our way down to Galata Tower, the last remnant of the Genoese ramparts of the European Quarter north of the Golden Horn, Gavin and I stopped in a few bars including an indie rock establishmen called Peyote, where on the trellised terrace Turkish proto-hipsters sipped beer and wrote on notepads with fountain pens and listened to the DJ play post-rock. The Turks have something of an independent music scene, especially in Istanbul, but all of them appreciate a motley collection of bands, including Depeche Mode, Leonard Cohen (which they pronounce phonetically), Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Placebo, KISS, and Metallica.

Now dispel some misonceptions of Islam in Turkey, at least in westward Istanbul, where kitapsiz Muslims drink beer and play rock, and where girls go out in modern fashion. The Turks are still learning to handle this progression to uncovered and liberated Turkish women, and perhaps with less alacrity than unshackled Westerners of the Free Love generation. The change here was greater, and their culture shows.

A young woman walks into a Turkish bar (A) alone, and is mobbed, leered at, plied with drinks, clicked and shppph-ed at, and approached in every sort of manner short of the tackle; (B) with her boyfriend, and is ignored, noticed only for as long as it takes to determine what Facebook calls her Relationship Status, after which time she fades entirely from the scenery. Libidinous as they are, the Turks are honor-bound to respect the ties of romance, at least publicly.

Perhaps the annoyance of this, and the severity with which some Turkish women treat their styling, has led to the recent and secular resurgence of the hijab head-scarves, among women who disapprove of the requirements placed on their appearance by Westernization. The feminists re-shackle themselves!

Gavin also showed me some of the hip streets in the hive, the bars called Synergy and Fermentation and other words chosen at random from an English dictionary, and the brothel alley where, when it's not Ramazan, cooing prostitutes will dangle out the window. We went through the street of TV repair stores and passed the Tower, and then we took a ferry from the Russian waterfront of Karaköy back to Asia.

Turks never become openly aggressive unless you insult their women, their mosques, or their street dogs. You may wink at a Christian woman if you please — that is her business or her husband's; but neither that liberty nor any other must be taken with a Mussulman woman... The best thing the Frank can do is to walk past without making any impertinent attempt to peer through the veil, for the women might squeal and arouse the whole quarter.

The calls of Turkey give it life. The eskicis push carts of junk down the nicer streets and call out for more donations, which they will sell for scraps or to antique shops. Other cart-pushers cry, "Simit!" with glass cases full of the sesame-coated bread rings. Vendors and restauranteurs call, "Buyurun! Buyurun! Buyurun!" — Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! Turks whistle a noise like shppph-shppph-shppph to call over stray cats for a scratch. One could say that nowhere else is the blossom more prized than in Turkey: gypsies wave bouquets of flowers at those disembarking from the ferry and shout, "Bir milyon!" — One million. The old continue to think in the hyperinflated lira from before the economy collapsed in 2002. One-million of those equal one New Turkish Lira.

Gavin and I took a long ferry across the Bosphorus and then up under the bridges of the Golden Horn to the large and pious district called Eyüp. This is on the south bank of the Horn, on and past the hill that once and still does support the great Theodosian wall of Constantinople. At the feet of the hill lies the Eyüp Camii, the mosque where one of Muhammed's disciples lies buried who died in the Arab assault on the Byzantine capital. It is the third holiest site in Islamdom, after Mecca and Medina.

The surface area of exposed skin on girls, especially about the arms and legs, in Turkey serves as a thermometer or a sounding for affluence, tolerance, modernity, and secularism in a given neighborhood. Kadıköy could be judged progressive, and Sultanahmet may be called liberated by the swaths of pale-faces in immodest shorts and sleeveless tops. The Eyüp quarter, and especially the two poorest neighborhoods we passed through, called Fener and Balat, proved the opposite.

As we passed the seat of the Byzantine Patriarchate and the Church of St. Steven of the Bulgars, a church prefabricated in cast iron and sent to the city like an Erector set, we went up into impoverished suburbs of sparse buildings and stores, where most women wore full black burkas with only the eyes and nose showing and all the rest wore long sleeves and head-scarves. Even the men dressed modestly, and some wore long coats and skull caps despite the heat.

Two street urchins guided us up to the top of the hill, to the Roman wall and the Orthodox Chora Church with its well-preserved mosaics, and then we climbed back down into Fener to see the Patriarchate of Istanbul, the de jure head of the Orthodox religion. In the Church of St. George we met an Italian gentleman named Leto who walked with us and told us about how the Greeks were parasites, although he had to search for the words. He was from Milan and like all of the Northern Italians looked down on any nationals, and especially at certain regionals of his own country, less industrious than his. However after we stopped in some Catholic church run by a Turk and drank vials of holy spring water, Leto left us. He had no interest in the infidel.

We came to the Eyüp Tomb, where the Arab hero lay buried and where Ottoman Sultans received the Sword of Osman on their coronation, and where we felt intrusively out of place among the crowd of Muslims in the midst of pilgrim devotions. They held their hands out and bobbed their heads in mental chants.

When we left, we decided we were hungry and looked for something to eat. This is difficult in a pious neighborhood like Eyüp during Ramazan. Some stalls were open but without patrons. They seemed to only be preparing for the Iftar since it was already four. However we saw one kebab store that seemed functional and went behind a curtain into a dark courtyard. There were two families, mothers and children, enjoying happily some dürüm and ayran, and also four men who ate theirs guiltily and alone. We decided, as we Christians enjoyed our right to keep eating, that this must be some secret sanctuary for the irreligiously hungry. The more severe the religious practice, it seems, the less severe the furtive offense.

We passed several boys, age seven to ten, being led around this neighborhood by doting fathers and groups of family and friends. The anxious youths wore regal imperial outfits and capes, with silk scarves that say Maşallah! — What wonders God has willed! They were on their way to be circumcised, and then to spend the rest of the day in bed receiving gifts.

Our tour ended at the tip of the Golden Horn, at a hillside cemetery near which the Turkophilic French author Pierre Loti made his home, and drank Turkish coffee on a scenic terrace and tried to make the coffee grounds into auspicious patterns but only made a mess. Then we walked back down and took a ferry home.

The next day we went out again to the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, two sight-seeing magnets that Gavin had managed to avoid over the nine months he lived in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia is very impressive. The twice-sacked interior lacks much ornamentation, but the remaining Mohammedan discs and Orthodox iconography make it more of a relic. The austerity highlights the engineering feats of the building: the immensity of the dome, and its lack of visible supporting columns. Those are hidden in the walls, aided ingeniously by archways in supporting the heavenly roof.

The scaffolding of restoration work filled a quarter of the interior, but we moved around this to see the circle where Emperors received the crown of Rome, the site of the altar, and the box where the Sultan sat during Muslim prayer services. In the corner near the narthex is a pillar with a hole in it at shoulder height. If one puts a thumb inside and twists the hand around and finds that finger mysteriously damp on removal, then one's wish shall come true! The copper around that hole is dark with the hopeful swipes of greasy hands, and there is a line of tourists ready to finger this grossest tradition and have a pornographic picture taken of them doing so.

Upstairs we saw Viking graffiti on the banisters and the balcony of the Empress in the back and old painted saints near the ceiling, and in one corner I was surprised to find the tomb of Enrico Dandalo. The Venetian Doge, who diverted the Fourth Crusade to Byzantium, who though blind and a nonagenarian led his troops onto the city walls, and who is single-handedly responsible for the downfall of Constantinople, the victory of the Seljuk Turks, and the rise and enrichment of the Most Serene Republic! — that hero of history has for a tomb an unremarkable slab of marble with his name and date carved in it, in a corner of the greatest monument of the imperial city he ravaged, while other Doges who ruled inconsequentially own towering equestrian statues in the piazzas of Venice. The Turks, whose victory he facilitated, removed his bones and fed them to the dogs. Posterity is a capricious wench.

Back in Topkapi Palace, Gavin and I passed through the public parks of the outer courtyards, and at the inner gate we tightened our belts and ignored frugal instincts, and payed the exhorbitant ticket price demanded by that tourist fulcrum. We looked in a dozen cubic sitting rooms and audience halls, carved from wood or decorated with porcelain tiles of the Near and Far East, and looked out from garden terraces onto the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. There was a garage full of carriages, and a small room with the clothes of the Sultans, who were comedically short.

In the mythic treasury were kris knives with emeralds as big as chicken eggs furnishing the pommel; carafes and flasks and jars for rouge and paint made of rock crystal, jade, and silver; mirros with frames of gold and lines of rubies and emeralds; medals of knightly orders and honors with lines of diamonds; glass and gold cases of emeralds and star sapphires; gilt candlesticks from Mecca with thousands of diamonds; a thousand examples of the finest craftsmanship and the richest materials.

In a different vault we saw the motley and amusing assortment of religious relics: the Sword of Osman, the sword and bow of the Prophet, and the swords of his followers; tufts of Muhammad's beard in vials of glass and gold; Moses' rod, David's sword, and Abraham's sauce pan; the arm and skull of St. John the Baptist; keys to the Ka'aba in Holy Mecca, and the gilded drainage pipes from there.

We proceeded into the Harem, which cost us another ticket price, and was so underwhelming and overpriced that I won't bother describing it. Stick with your fantasies, ye lusty sots, of that pinnacle of man's animal nature, where every desire is made manifest through wealth and splendor and slavery.

Their regard for truth is so great that they attribute the same quality to others, and are, consequently, easily outwitted the first time. But you must not think to deceive a Turk twice.

At night, after our Erzurum feast, I went to the English Time office where Gavin and Nellie worked to be interviewed by Nellie's level one class. Ramazan effectively undermines any attempts at education — the Turks spend the first half of class starved and anxious for Iftar, and the second stuffed and anxious for a nap. I contrived to make the interview interesting by a change in profession. Everything else was the same, but when asked, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "I'm a hunter. A bear trapper. I trap bears."

My grungy and shaggy appearance lent creedence to this forester's profession, which was generally accepted by the Turks, as much as an American would accept the story of a Turk who claimed to be a pirate or harem eunuch. I defined bears and bear traps through pantomimes, but had not really thought through my ploy. When the mystified but intrigued Turks started asking how big my bear-hunting team was (I have a more experienced partner), what kind of gun I use (a Winchester hunting rifle), and other detailed questions, it became time to improvise.

Question: How much does a bear weigh.
Answer: Well, I don't know what it is in grams or kilograms, since we use pounds in America, but an average sized bear is about twelve-hundred pounds. (Nellie helpfully, and contrary to my deceptive intentions, provided a rate of conversion for this, but luckily my guess turned out to be pretty accurate for a young adult brown bear.)

Q: How much do you get for a bear?
A: I can sell the skin for about a thousand dollars, as long it doesn't break in the skinning. The meat is really smokey and gamey, and I can make another thousand selling that to butchers.

Q: How many bears did you kill before your trip?
A: Umm (I said, with a junior look of embarrassment), I only just started a few years ago, so I've only killed thirty bears so far. It was enough to save for a trip, though.

Q: That scratch on your leg, did a bear do that?
A: No, I just fell down. But my partner, though... Well, one time we had trapped this bear, and we thought it was dead, only it wasn't. We went up to it, and the bear lunged with the last of its strength. Snagged my partner right on the calf, from here at the knee, all the way down to here. (The Turks winced and gasped.) Yeah it was a really bad gash. That's why it's important to be very careful, when you're hunting bears.

Q: There are bears in Turkey, in the mountains. Why don't you come kill Turkish bears?
A: I might do that.

My interview complete, I left the class to their Iftar break. To teach is difficult enough, but to teach a group of young and rowdy Turks, without sharing their language, first starving and then stuffed and prepared for nothing but napping and contented chatter — that is an unenviable mission.

One of the many characteristics which excite the Turk's contempt of the Frank is the latter's mania for putting foolish questions for the mere sake of opening his mouth.

Army museums reflect peculiar aspects of national sentiment. The German museum in Berlin was mournful and apologetic, the Greek one in Athens emotive and backwards-looking; the British War Museum was somewhat stunned at the loss of naval superstardom; those of the Balkans speak of injured resentment; and the Istanbul Askeri Müze is nothing but pride.

Downstairs I saw a blur of swords and yataghans and qamas and chafrons, the arms of Crusaders and janissaries, and the muskets and rifles and culverins and mortars of newer armies. In one room was a diorama of the siege of Constantinople, with a tumult of sound effects and music and a statue of Mehmet the Conqueror at the side, anxious for his triumph. The upstairs was more propagandic. Exhibits included Atatürk's Salvation War, the Cyprus Peace Operation, the Armenian Issue (With Documents to prove Turkey's guileless innocence), and the Korean War — where a sole Turkish brigade "proved that Turks are still a force to be reckoned with."

That same day, before visiting the museum, I saw the Rumeli Hansari, the complex of rotund and hollow fortress towers and great walls that Mehmet built on the Bosphorus upstream from Byzantium before taking the city; and after I went back down from Taksim Square to the Galata Tower, across the Galata Bridge, and uphill to Sultanahmet. In the old Hippodrome the Istanbullus held an Iftar festival after sunset. Musicians played Eastern melodies on a small vertical fiddle with a mournful sound, on a sort of recorder or ocarina, and on the dulcimer. Around the field's circumference and the courtyard of the adjacent Blue Mosque stalls sold Qu'rans and crafts and food at festival prices: gözleme potato crepes, lokma donuts, candies, and Turkish coffee cooked slowly on hot coals. A group of Turks marched around with a box that had a fire hose in it and beat a drum rythmically.

Friday in swim trunks I took a morning ferry across the Propontis to the Princes' Islands, so named for their usual charges of recalcitrant heirs of Byzantium — and incidentally Leon Trotsky. Of the nine islands, four are large enough to warrant a ferry stop, and of those I went to Heybeliada and walked about, and to Büyükada, which simply means Big Island.

I climbed south up the thickly forested hill behind the port and passed a massive structure of decaying timbers, four stories and as big as two city blocks. The windows and supports were cracked open, and the place looked cold and haunted. I found out later it was built as a hotel in the 19th century, converted into a Greek orphanage, and is the largest wooden building in Europe.

Down that hill, I came into a depression at the center of the long island and a parking lot filled with horse-drawn carriages. I had some tea at a restaurant and then followed a cobbelstone path up a second, steeper hill. Some tourists rode donkeys, and others rested regularly on benches overlooking the beaches of Büyükada and the Victorian houses along the Propontis shore. They tie white wish-making ribbons to every stump and staggered evergreen shrub. The ancient Church of St. George and a panoramic vista occupy the rolled summit.

I enjoyed this, then climbed down and followed the road along the western side of the island, stopping at a small beach between the luxury houses to swim in the sea, and returned to the port for a late ferry. A fleet of seagulls, wheeling and noisy, followed us home. Girls made their boyfriends buy simits and packages of crackers and held them to the wind, while seagulls swooped in to grab the wafer.

Turkish tradesmen seldom make fortunes, but they have not yet reached the high culture which consists in selling shoddy; they do not cheat you, nd they scarcely ever become bankrupt; so that on the whole they may claim to believe that Allah sends them as much prosperity as they need.

On Saturday I set about seeing the last few tourist sites on my list and took a ferry to Fatih. First I went to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, where the Turks display every bit of antiquity they could dig up after the nineteenth century rampage of English and German collectors, including a great collection of Heinrich Schiemann's rubbish from the fields of Troy. The culture of Ionian and Levantine Greeks becomes their own: Ilium a Turkish city, and Mehmet the Conqueror a Trojan avenger. After taking Constantinople the Sultan wrote to the Pope in Rome that after millennia justice had finally been done upon the Achaean nation for destroying the city of the Latin progenitor Anaeas.

The greatest part of the collection are the Sidonian tombs discovered in Lebanon and extradited by Osman Hamdi Bey to Istanbul, including the famous Alexander Sarcophagus, which holds someone else's bones but bears the King's likeness in relief. The conqueror himself was entombed Lenin-like in a glass coffin in Alexandria, had his nose broken when Augustus kissed the mummified corpse, and was, somehow, lost to the surges of history.

From Topkapi, I walked up to Sultanahmet to visit the Basilica Cistern, under a hill near the Hagia Sophia. A vendor in a vest and little fez removed a rubbery mass of dondurma Turkish ice cream from the bucket in the display case by the tip of a lance, and whirled the thick stuff around until it stretched like silly putty, so far it looked as if it should snap. He shouted, "Oh my God!," and then replaced it to the stand and waited, occasionally prodding at passer-bys with his lance, which had a plastic ice cream cone at the end.

Aqueducts from the Belgrade Forest fed Justinian's massive water tank until it was sealed up and forgotten late in Byzantium's history. 336 columns taken from old temples and buildings stand in twelve rows of 28 like a grove of trees under arched brick bowyers. Two have for strange bases large blocks with Medusa heads, one turned on her side, one inverted. The capitals are mostly of the plain Doric or acanthus Corinthian orders, and the scavenged columns are occasionally mismatched, with an upper half wider than the base of the shaft. One has whorls like knots on a tree and another obscene wishing orifice.

Red lights illuminate the trunks and the shallow water, the glittering coins, and the flicking Gollum fish, pale and blind — doubly-so by the constant camera flashes. A slippery stone walkway circumnavigates the room under coffee can street-lamps, and triumphant elevator muzak plays over echoed voices.

To discover such a place! To be there alone with a torch and whispered thoughts for company. The terrible solitude, the fear of unknown darkness, the cthonic depths, the secret waters. According to the story, a scholar named Petrus Gyllius, researching Constantinople a century after the conquest, found locals drawing up buckets of water through their basement floors, and fishing for carp there like Eskimos do in the ice. He entered the chamber through one such entry point, but when he reported the find to the Ottomans, who considered standing water unclean, the Turks used the pit as a dump for rubbish and corpses.

Now all that is swept away, but there is an equally noxious ad for Miniaturk in one corner, with a movie and a model of the tourist trap, and in the other corner are the candlelit tables of a café and fast food restaurant.

I left that humid domain and went to a crowded one: the Kapalı Çarşı — the Grand Bazaar. The 58 covered streets hold 1200 shops in new quarters painted yellow, blue, white, and red, all around the old oven brick bazaar, a series of domes and arches. As everywhere, the Turks segment and categorize their shops into lanes for metalworking and leatherworking and other crafts, and into districts for wedding dresses and electronics repair, which creates dramatic competition. You can find anything there: worry beads, key chains, bad art, urban prints, Turkish rugs, Turkish flags, leather shoes, leather bags, leather jackets, cheap clothes, football jerseys, head scarves, silk sarongs, chess sets, tea sets, copper wares, gold watches, "we won't, stop shit, everybody move."

It is a great place to spend money, take pictures, and get lost in, in the right sort of mind and while watching your valuables; otherwise you will only get a headache.

"Hey brother, you want some jacket?" "I can give you a beautiful scarf for yourself. For your mom!" "Hey man, where you from? America! Hey John Wayne, wanna buy a rug?"

Young hearts be free tonight, time is on your side.
Don't let them put you down, don't let em push you around,
Don't let them ever change your point of view.
—Rod Stewart, "Young Turks"

Look around the bay, from your bench on the ferry as it crosses the Bosphorus late at night. Start by looking westward to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Europe. The Byzantine church looms fortress-like under the floodlights, the Blue Mosque celestial, with lights strung between the six minarets to issue some Ramazan greeting.

Turning in a circle you see the walls of Topkapi and the activity of the Eminönü waterfront, marked by the Yeni Camii and the mounded Süleymaniye Camii with their glittering minarets, the Galata Bridge and its neon underbelly. On the other side float the kitchen boats of small wharf diners that roll on the wake of ferries passing down the Horn, and their sure-footed sailor-chefs continue frying fish and boiling corn and cooking potato crepes. Fishing poles that glint when cast line the bridge like the spearpoints of Byzantine wardens. On the opposite bank of the Bosphorous are the neon facades of Russian-run clubs on Karaköy's waterfront, with the Nusretiye Camii on the right end.

From there the hill rises to the illuminated Galata Tower, with fire in its high windows, and higher climbs the İstiklal Caddesi of Beyoğlu to Taksim Square under searchlight maniples that close on nothing. Below them spotlights give the marble of Dolmabahçe Palace a yellowed hue like old parchment, and the corporate skyscrapers of the Levent district dawn brightly behind. (I visited that quarter to resolve a banking issue and found it to mirror Houston.)

Now look to the right, north up the Bosphorus, to Beşiktaş, to Cırağan Palace, and to Yıldız Grove, bald of lights. The Ortaköy suburb is a line of marinas and stone houses and a Golden Mile of nightclubs. Then comes the Bosphorus Bridge, the Ortaköy Camii dwarfed by its modern pillars. Green and gold lights run along its suspension cables, forming jagged lines like teeth over the channel.

The bridge brings your eye to Asia, to a coast of stale balconied buildings in devout Üsküdar, once called Scutari. The district's shoreline bends out toward the Golden Horn directly across the Bosphorus, with the minarets of the Şemşi Paşa Camii at the northern corner, and Leander's Tower on an island, Kız Kulesi, off the southern. Now the eye skips across the ill-lit dockyards and industry of Harem and the gridwork buildings of Selimiye and the barracks where Florence Nightingale toiled to save casualties of the Crimean War, and on to the next monument: a German built palace, a neoclassical gift from Kaiser Wilhelm. The palace occupies Seraglio Point, along with a ferry debarkment and the Haydarpaşa Train Station, its rail lines faced south-east towards Ankara.

Seraglio Point marks the northern end of the bay of Chalcedon, where are today many ferry terminals with more of the bulky craft, and beyond, the modern apartments and glass offices of Kadıköy. From the southern tip inflates the golden apple of the Turk Balloon. South past Moda is the blackened Sea of Marmara, which twinkles through a slight fog with the wispy lights of ships.

The intersecting waters of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn turn one metropolitan sprawl into three juxtaposed entities, neighborhoods as distinct in character as entire cities: Üsküdar's piousness, Kadıköy's modernity, Sultanahmet's Disneyland crowds, Beyoğlu's energy, and the oppressive faith of Eyüp.

I would never have seen it all without you, my friends, and am inestimably grateful for your patience and hospitality.

_________________Ah! had I never seen,
Or known your kindness, what might I have been?
What my enjoyments in my youthful years,
Bereft of all that now my life endears?
And can I e’er these benefits forget?
And can I e’er repay the friendly debt?
No, doubly no.
—John Keats


  1. I enjoyed reading your article. It's quite long but I had fun reading it. Asian countries has definitely one of the most exciting culture and tradition. Their cultures are rich with varying beliefs. I would love to travel to all Asian countries soon.


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