Jump to page content
The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

New Blog

Twitter @alibrown18

New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Into Asia: Turkey (Part Two)

Into Istanbul

We arrived at the outskirts of Istanbul at about 6.00 in the next morning and, in the grey half-light, through contact lens-less eyes, blurred anyway with the partial insomnia of half-sleeping on a long journey, I could make out traffic, tarmac and smog. This load-bearing axis of a city, heavy and huge with the weight of 12 million inhabitants and centuries of historical importance - Constantine's city with two names, capital of two religious Empires, about which whirl two seas, two continents and two cultures - was grinding to a halt, gritted with the mechanics of commuting. Chaotic pinballs of cars, coaches and trucks, bounced between lanes, almost collided but then, like opposing magnets, bounced away from each other with a sharp honk or a squeal of brakes. The closer we got to the centre, the more we progressed sideways between lanes, each spin of the steering wheel met with an anguished grunt by the driver, and the less forwards, as congested vehicles searched for space. Slowly, though, part of a thick river of metal, we pressed and lurched forwards, into the heart of the behemoth.

As we stepped off in Sultanahmet, the historical core, metallic traffic was replaced by the urgency of human feet, shuffling head-down to work, or scurrying, heads-up, to discuss the possibility of our buying their hotel rooms, buying their carpets, buying their food. Waiting to buy breakfast from a baker, a Turk called Ali, who coincidentally lived in Barmouth, sat himself down, uninvited, at our table and proceeded to tell us about airline tickets ("veryvery cheap") the restaurant of his relative in Istanbul ("seafood speciality"), his kebab shop back home ("kebab speciality"), in return for which unwanted information he helped himself to our rolls and coffee. In the light of the hospitality shown to us by our Turkish blacksmith, I felt such reciprocation in this circumstance was only fair - almost, for he took with such a conscious intention of getting something out of we foreigners he had distinguished from a mile away, that there could be no other phrase for it but that he was taking advantage. We made our excuses and left, lying about the name of the hotel we had booked in full knowledge that he would then try to persuade us to stay at the hotel of his uncle, or brother, or best friend, which he did anyway. Escaping down a side street, we eventually arrived at our pension, and crawled into bed.

When we woke, we walked for five minutes up the hill towards Aya Sofya where a young man asked us, pleasantly and casually, where we came from, how we liked Turkey, how long we were staying, what we should see and - here it comes! - whether we would like to see his carpet shop. Wanting to avoid being trapped in trade, we hurried to the large square and garden which divides Aya Sofya from the Blue Mosque, a kind of botanical no-man's land keeping apart the two monuments of different religious authorities. If Istanbul is one of the world's hubs, then the focal point, the single cell about which the whole wheels, would be located here between these two vast churches.

Before long, a Kurdish teenager sat down beside us and began to talk about the history of Istanbul and invited us to follow him to his carpet shop. Giving up our resistance - perhaps hoping that to submit to one tout's offers would quell them all in future, as if through a kind of telepathy they would communicate the kill to all in the herd scattered across the territory, and therefore stop us from being cornered for a second, or third, or fourth time - we followed, me insisting pre-emptively that we had neither intention nor means of buying anything. "It's OK," he insisted, "Just talk. No buy" and I, hoping for some insights into the Kurdish question by talking to him, was satisfied and secure. Arriving in his small shop, his brother was despatched to fetch tea which we sat drinking as we compared backgrounds and personal histories. Then, as soon as the tea cups hit the saucers for the final time, the hard sell began and we sat, awkward but defiant, as he demonstrated with increasing desperation the quality of his rugs. Like mice in the corner, a cat advancing towards them with dollar signs in its eyes, we were trapped by the idiosyncrasy of social conventions: we had taken his tea, spent time talking to him, he needed 10 worth of sale more than we needed to keep 10. And yet, we had set out our position from the start and so finally, clumsily, we promised to return in a few days and left.

We were angry, cross at our own unguarded naivete and a sense of selfishness, but more despairing of the fact that this non-transaction had just exposed the underbelly of Turkish warmth and hospitality, for if the hospitality is courteous and increases one's sense of belonging and importance for being so freely-given it is, in negative, desperately rude when it is driven by cash. Elsewhere in Turkey, we had been welcomed into places of work, rest-rooms, hotels with absolute and genuine friendliness, a transaction purely of words and tea; here, in this huge city, where too many people are crammed in a desperate drive for wealth, the soft warmth of hospitality had been hardened by the concrete of the urban environment into something ugly, necessary and ruled by the profit margin. In their capital, the Turks have reworked their centuries-old ethos into a modern ethical rule; quite literally, and quite sadly, they have sold-out in their desire to make a sale.

They are driven by financial inequality which, with wealthy Taksim, the skyscrapered business centre, and the low slums of the Asia sitting on opposite sides of the same city, cannot be ignored or lived with. Likewise, with Europe to the north, the West must be partly to blame and, as Western tourists, we are open to exploitation. The West has created the image and myth that any amount of profit is possible through the magical manipulation of money, as if there is a secret method which, if found, would open the cave to wealth. Part way through our dealings with the Kurdish carpet seller, when I explained - quite honestly - that we did not have enough cash to buy any souvenirs, he replied happily that we could pay by credit card or Traveller's Cheques, with the suggestion in his tone that, to him, this was a kind of free money to which Westerners have access, a digital or written cash which could not possibly cost us anything because it could not be touched, counted or handed over. Not only do we have more money we have, it appears, the means to make money meaningless, as if in a modern, miraculous, plastic alchemy we could spend anything forever without ever paying.

This myth is dangerous. The British economy seems heading for a fall, with a trillion pounds of debt sitting, like a vast mined cavern, waiting underneath the houses, and new sofas, and computers of middle Britain. And if we cannot control the powerful miracle of credit, if we have still not, in spite of all the literature and advice, understood the terms of the Faustian pact we have with the bank, how will they here? The plastic culture has already spread south to Turkey, with millions owning credit cards. As I watched the news on the Turkish Airlines' plane home, with a feeling of having abandoned a country in need of this message, I learned that 98% of transactions take place on credit, rather than through direct withdrawals. Sometime soon they, in their unfortunate ignorance, exploited by banks, will also be heading for a fall, one that will have a harder landing than ours.

Top of Page

Two Churches

Empires rise and fall, conquer new land then sink into the soil they once owned, turning to dust which, when brushed away by an archaeologist's finger, may reveal a coin or a cup, a tiny trinket still containing, in microscopic form, the image of the time in which it was made and through which, like a lens through time, because of its smallness we are left to wonder at the assumed magnitude of that Empire passed. In Istanbul, though, that symbol is not small and buried but stands visible and massive, a witness and monument to time and ambition, culture and religion.

Ayasofya is an architectural Frankenstein's creation, constructed and added to from the limbs of successive Empires. Of the first church, built on the site in the fourth century, nothing remains. A second was destroyed in riots of 532. A daring domed church was built as its replacement by the Emperor Justinian just five years later and, although the main dome later collapsed, the third Ayasofya standing today became the centrepiece of the Byzantine Empire. Then, in a triumphalist demonstration of their new conquest which proved their superiority more than destruction ever could, it was turned into a mosque by Mehmet and Sinan, the crosses and candles of Christianity being replaced by the calligraphic displays of Islam. Although under Ataturk the building was officially secularised, in practice when walking around one has to negotiate the bowed figures of praying Muslims, whilst the fact that the Christian mosaics are being slowly uncovered seems to pull the building further back into its Christian past.

Photograph of a colourful wall covered in tiles
Inside Ayasofya (taken without flash)
[Larger Image]

Today, above all religious significances, however, it is its technical achievement that astonishes the most. For a thousand years - an inconceivable time in an age when architecture in one Western capital reaches responsively higher above the skyscrapers of another, always aspiring beyond the media of vertical space and gravity - this was the largest building in the world, its dome defying gravity centuries before Michaelangelo's in Florence. Today, though, slowly, acceleratingly, with none of the tragic fire or fanfare of military conquest, it is crumbling into the dust which is the bed of Empires past. Plaster peels from the walls, mosaics are chipped and partially erased, the original pillars have been clumsily supported by new buttresses. Its new enemy is the white heat of a thousand flashing camera bulbs, the corroding sweat which collects on the walls from combined gasps of tourists, the marble-cracking tread of freely-roaming feet. Restoration work is going on, but someone has forgotten, in their sudden realisation that the past makes money, to make conservation for the future the first priority.

Glowering across the square at Ayasofya, a powerful symbol of architectural enmity, stands the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Camii. From the outside, this vast and pointed presence on Istanbul's skyline makes two ambiguous gestures: it exhibits power, its size and dominant position giving it the dominance of a fort over Istanbul, but its stone is a subtle white-blue, not the dark grey battle scarred stone of ancient citadels. Its six minarets make defiant vertical stabs but, between these, domes wash over each other into a pyramid of gentle, curving lines. This is an ostensibly religious building, but its statement of faith is too explicit, designed with the intention of surpassing the power the ancient Byzantine Empire portrayed in Ayasofya and, with a touch of hubris, to rival the mosque at Mecca with its six minarets.

The combined expressions of power and faith do not complement, and the result is stark and uncompromising. The Blue Mosque rarely slips beneath the sightlines of anyone in Istanbul's centre, whilst inside four giant elephant pillars dominate the square, preventing any sense of accumulating space from being felt. The constructors of Ayasofya's dome had to support it from the outside, with huge buttresses turning the building into a squat and indefinable pile of red brick; Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, the architect of the Blue Mosque working some thousand years after those of Ayasofya, faced the same problem, and moved the buttresses inside. Two solutions, millennia apart, and neither of them elegant. It is not helped by the modern lights which are slung low, at head height, which blind the eyes and which are held up by such a web of wires that, even were one not forced to blink to look to the roof, the dome's uniformity and true scale would be lost.

Top of Page

The Sea

The word 'Marmara' sounds exotic, like an undiscovered African tribe, or a rare Himalayan fruit, or an undescribed shade of colour. Indeed, it takes no imaginative leap to believe that it does infer something of the latter, for the Marmara sea which separates Istanbul's European and Asian shores has a violet-purple hue to it, from a distance a mosaic texture of glass and reflected light, broken with white cracks of wind-whipped foam. This is the blue-blooded artery of the city, as ships heavy and low in the water with cargoes of oil slide in and out of its heart. In the mornings, their horns echoed across the sea, and down the straits, and up the steep and narrow cobbled streets where rotting wooden houses hang onto vertical, and through the open window of our humid hotel room, a sonorous ezan to sailors and bankers.

Up close, however, the appeal of the sea is lost. Debris floats in sticky corpses of oil, weed and plastic bottles. Around the ferry ports, the thick stench of dead, rotting fish being sold on the street, or dying fish circling in orange buckets, is overwhelming. The shore consists of a triple margin of old defensive walls, the road, and the sea defences. At intervals, sprawled on the rocks which constitute the latter, cancerously sun-browned bodies drip sweat onto dirty beach towels, flab respectively covering or absorbing tight y-fronts or baggy boxer shorts. Sunflower seed sellers stalk foreigners and locals alike, and it is inevitable that when one walks round the shoreline one will end up following a modern-day Hansel, spitting seeds behind him to add to the crushed white carcasses that lie like hail on the pavement.

The atmosphere, heavy with fish and exhausts, reaches its stickiest point at Eminonu, the main ferry port on the European side, an intersection for thousands wanting to move between the city's halves (and continents) as quickly as possible. Here, the buses at one of the principal stations churn out brown, nausea inducing fumes but one runs through these only to find the stink of diesel and fish emerging from the ferries. Only once on the boat, gently side-swaying, can the sight start to clear although even here, disconcertingly and in a naive disregard for security, a man suddenly jumped up with a box of knives in his hand and held hostage to the passengers with a torrent of persuasion; twenty minutes later, by the time the ferry had arrived at Uskudar, several of the men had paid their ransom and bought a set, no doubt a transaction they would regret when their wives had the opportunity to test their flimsy quality.

Getting off on the Asian shore, very little had changed. Here were the same traffic sticky streets with their contrast of large shops on the main roads, and small stores hidden in the alleyways jutting off at right angles. In the centre of it all, a mosque and bazaar; as in the west, the two loci of life, religion and shopping, although here not conflated into each other. From one of the market stalls, I bought a banana for lunch and I was shocked when, five minutes and several streets later, a tap at my shoulder and a hand owned by the stall holder proffered 50 000 lira I had paid over what was asked. Dropping what amounted to little more than a few pennies into my palm, he sprinted back off amongst the crowds; in his gesture we had finally recovered, amidst the over-stressed commerce of Istanbul, some of the undiluted spirit of Turkey.

Istanbul is commercially driven, and Taksim is its citadel, where the piles of skyscrapers out-advance each other in vertical, masculine assertions of prosperity. The main shopping street could have been anywhere in Europe, a wide tree-lined boulevard with shop fronts of glass and steel on either side. Oddly, Chicago-style trams buzzed along the centre, kids swinging like monkeys from the back.

Related Link
Travel Writing
But at right angles to this buzz of the modern, alleys jutted off, anachronistically taking one to family run stalls selling fish, clothes, textiles, music. It was as if a commercial motorway had, in the early '90s, ploughed its way through an old bazaar, although these minor roads still received their share of traffic, the old back street shops, with their family names hanging from boards, being as crammed with shoppers as the new main street.

At night, the crowds increase, gravitating towards the cafes, restaurants and bars. The urban drinker - chic, relaxed, preferring a speciality coffee to a kebab and raki - is evidence of the growing middle class. Whirling Dervishes, their gowns opening like quick petals the faster they spin, entertain the tourists.

Top of Page

Your Comments on "Into Asia: Turkey (Part Two)"

To add your thoughts about this page, use the comment form below.

Top of Page

Top of Page

This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Turkey, Istanbul, Eastern Europe, travel journal

The content of this website is Copyright © 2016 using a Creative Commons Licence. One term of this copyright policy is that plagiarism is theft. If you use information from this website in your own work, you should use the correct citation.

Valid XHTML 1.0. Link opens in a new browser window. Level A conformance icon, W3C-WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Labelled with ICRA. Link opens in a new browser window.