Hello people İ love,
Turkey is, in a word, incorrigible. I don’t really know what i mean by that, but it’s simply the word that comes to mind. HOpefully by the end of this email, you’ll kind of see what I mean. And so…
It is a city that not so much awakes all my senses, as it rather forces me to use all of them. Walking through its streets is like being blind but still being able to see. I feel a sharpening of the contours of my own psyche, having been grated through its rawness. There are so many moments I’ve experienced here, akin to deja vu, where İ just get a sudden glimpse of clarity and all the sudden İ get zapped with the realization that İ’m actually here, in THIS place, walking down these streets, hearing these sounds, inhaling and exhaling…Turkey. İ think one day, maybe 5 or 6 years from now, İ’ll wake up in the middle of the night and realize that part of my blood is still coursing with the pulse of Turkey. But enough speculation. Let me give you some hard evidence.
İstanbul was our first stop, and we tackled it head-on, visiting Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque (or Sultanahmet Mosque), the Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace–all on the 1st day. They’re all within close proximity to one another, which not only makes it easy for tourists like us, but also makes for an interesting juxtaposition of civilizations and cultures. İndeed, that is exactly what Turkey is–or at least İstanbul. İt has somehow managed to endure through the ages as a site of cultural divergence, rather than consolidation–one of the few still-functioning incarnations of ancient cosmopolitanism. Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, for example, are counter-positioned against each other with a major street separating them. But is this an architectural emblem of the clash of civilizations? Certainly not! İt is the evidence of two religions–and the same culture enveloping each–reflecting on one another.
Anyway, about the sites themselves. Hagia Sophia, rebuilt in the 500s, is an imposing structure whose sharp angles and plump contours cut a shape out of the city sky that bears testimony to its own organic-ness–that is to say, its enduring presence throughout the reign of both İslam and Christianity over the city\empire. İt is a bit of a shame that Attaturk secularized it into a museum at the beginnng of the 20th century, for it has now lost a lot of its primordial spiritual power. The only prayers heard there now lie muffled within its incense-saturated, bare-footstep-echoing walls. That being said, it is still lovely and dazzling–certainly evocative of God (or Allah’s) glıttering kingdom. When it was finally finished, Emperor Justinian is said to have declared something like, “Oh Solomon, I have outdone you!” and truly, the interior with its magnificent domed ceiling soaring heavenward is so sublimely beautiful that it stuns people (unfortunately, not small school children on field trips) into silence.
The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th c., is everything Hagia Sophia is not. It is immaculate, pristine, ageless–very German, if mosques could be German. Voluptuous curves and six (rather than the usual 2) minarets crown dome upon dome (upon dome upon dome…). Rich blues and reds and purples infuse its sacred space, absorbing all the chaos from the city outside and replacing it with a peaceful silence that is such a comfort to worshipers and non-worshipers alike. Every inch displays a detail–however minute it is–that, were it missing, the entire building would be incomplete. It is remarkable how everything in this place simply fits together. Later during the night, Khody and I walked back to the mosque to take more photos and ran into its keeper; he let us in, and we were able to roam around inside the entire mosque without anyone else around! It was a very cosmic experience. I must admit, I did feel a little guilty though. I felt like I was somehow trespassing on the place’s time for rest and recuperation. Still. I got to go where a lot of females could NEVER go under ordinary circumstances–especially since I was hijab-less at the time. All the mosque-keeper asked for was a small tip, which were happy to oblige.
Topkapi Palace is simply a sprawling statement of ease and gentility, built in the 15th centur. It was home to Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne; Ibrahim the Mad, who lost his reason after being locked up for 4 years in the infamous palace kafes (cage); and Roxelana, beautiful and malevolent consort of Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s remarkable how much is said about Versailles and Windsor, but hardly anyone knows about this place, which is just as grand and opulent, if not more. Much of it is now museum-ified, with stuff in glass cases and things like that, but the BEST part about the whole palace is something that can’t be caged. It is the striking view of the Bosphorous Strait all along the north side of the palace. Across the strait lies Asia–now, the modern part of Istanbul. How symbolic that the Palace should be constructed in such a wasy as to miraculously intimate the vastness of conquest and empire. It’s also a bit megalomaniacal, but it’s clever, and I like it.
Finally, there’s the Basilica Cistern, so called because all the hundreds of columns and arches used to support it underground make it look like a basilica. Not your average cistern in so far as most of these columns were brought in from elsewhere, particularly Greece, while it was being built during the Byzantine era. Of particuar interest are 2 heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of 2 columns–one on her cheek and one upside-down. This was a deliberate maneuver by Emperor Justinian to symbolize the fall of paganism and the triumph of Christianity. Quite cheeky of him, really.
So those are the main sites of Istanbul. But probably the coolest thing that happened to us was when we visited St. George’s church, located in the old Jewish and Christian quarter of the city, and the Seat of the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Yes, the British fondly like to think that St. George is safely tucked away in his chapel at Windsor, but this will come as news to the hundreds of churches and monasteries erected in his honor among the people who share his very homeland.) The church itself is a treasure–washed in gold inside, completely stacked with icons–huge ones of St. George, Mary, the Arcangel Michael, St. John the Baptist, oh and Jesus. Countless others… It is also home to the relics of John Chrysdom and Gregory something (I forgot exactly who). We happened to have come when two big groups of Greek Orthodox pilgrims came, and of course the Patriarch felt obliged to visit his fans, so he came into the church (he’s a short, spritely old man, with a long, white beard that screams “wisdom,”–a no-nonsense kind of guy dressed in the all-black vestments of orthodoxy). He talked for a while–in Greek, so we couldn’t understand him–and then we all went up and kissed his hand and received a blessing from him and a little golden cross. It was like a breath of fresh air, truly. Thats really all I can say about it.
I left Istanbul desperate to find reprieve from the city. I like to think it’s because I’m still committed to some poetic notion of what it means to be a small-town southern girl. But more honestly, I think it has more to do with the need to escape the certain melancholy I sensed hovering around the city. I keep thinking about Hagia Sophia–the crosses that were onced etched into the marble, for instance, but were plastered over with its converstion to a mosque. The look like obstinate scars on an already veteraned face. It is the embodiment of melancholy, and I think a metaphor for the city itself. What other scars have been left because of social and cultural biases and prejudices–most of them, I would dare to say, because of some geographical “cordon sanitaire” we have drawn around places like Turkey and the Middle East to separate “us” from “them” and to garrison any currents of sympathy for the third world?
On second thought, maybe the melancholy is mine…
Sorry this email was so long, but I had a lot to cram in! And this isn’t even the half of it. Since Istanbul, we’ve been to Ephesus, Konya, and Cappadocia. I won’t torture you with another epistle about these places, but do be prepared to hear something about Cappadocia. Yes, I think I’m in love here.
Love and peace to you all. You’re in my prayers, as always.
p.s. Hey folks– I just sent a massive email out but I wanted to let you know that I’m in Capadoccia now (it’s AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), we’re leaving tomorrow for Antioch, which is right on the border, and the next day we’ll cross said border into Syria. Tonight, we’re seeing a whirling dervish. Can’t wait to describe Capadocia for you. It is unbelievable out here. Google it if you can, epsecially Gerome, where we are staying.
I love you both so much, miss you tons, can’t wait to see you or at least be on the same soil as you:)