On the Sea of Marmara


Sunset at Heybeliada

During out last weekend in Turkey, we decided to escape the city to the nearby Princes’ Islands.

About an hour’s ferry-ride later, we discovered the perfect view of the sun as it set in the west, drawing a shadow over the Anatolian mainland behind us. On the cliffs below an old lighthouse on the island of Heybeliada, a fisherman allowed me to take his photo in front of the westward sun, but I would have much rather picked up a fishing rod and join him.

Edit – Here’s a story I wrote for the Wheel about Istanbul, sunsets, and the connection between the two: ‘The View from Galata Bridge

Istanbul’s hüzün

My eyes take their time adjusting to the sudden lack of light. Only moments earlier, I was walking through the crowded Isteklal Avenue, a hub of nightlife – a battleground of light sources, each trying to overpower the others until the natural darkness of night becomes littered with the fluorescence of stringed lighting hanging between the neons and incandescent bulbs providing excessive visibility to each shop, cafe, and bar. Even the luminescence of the moon in its spherical entirety maintains little to no influence over the momentary inhabitants of Isteklal. The brightness never sets, and even at this late hour the crowds show no signs of retiring to their beds. Thank you, Thomas Edison (and many other innovative contributors) for artificial day, through which Isteklal thrives and the Moon is forgotten.

Someone shuts the lights off, or at least it seems that way once I step over the threshold into the bar’s relative darkness. This nighttime establishment does have lights, but they seem to be dimmed by layers of smoke originated from the lungs of the thirty-or-so present members, each with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of raki or Efes in the other. Conversation and live music fill the place, and in leaving my solitary silence at the door, I try to acquaint myself with the two friendly Turks sitting beside me. Actually, they approached me with conversation. One of them had heard Henry, Ali, and me adding our American English to the generally Turkish murmur of conversation filling the room and pronounced in the clearest English he could muster, “Where are you from?”

Amerikaliyim,” answers Ali, and to that our neighbor gives a subtle smile beneath his dark beard, indifferent to our answer but proud of the communication he had accomplished, and raises his glass of raki in honor of our quick exchange. Cheers.

Eventually, the five of us, gathered around a small table in the corner, exhaust our mutual knowledge of English and Turkish and figure that any developing friendship would be better understood in a shared silence, sitting in appreciation for the live music that inhibits easy conversation anyhow. One of our new friends, named Oguz, invites us to join him in the center of the room to dance; he does this by pointing to each of us, raising his arms and snapping his fingers, and venturing off towards the band.

Now I found myself in the center of the bar, trying to follow his steps as the band plays its rhythmic tune. Without cracking a smile, Oguz raises his head, closes his eyes, and snaps his fingers with the rise and fall of the flute’s chromatic scales. I begin to feel the music pulsing through me, and I break a sweat proving to Oguz that dancing is simple fun that knows no linguistic barriers. 

But suddenly, I feel I must step aside. The song falls into a repetitive emphasis – the guitarist strums his heavy heart, the lutist dances his fingers up and down the fretboard, the flutist proudly whistles its lyrical phrase, and the drummer rides the kick toward an unseen finish line – and all the Turks in the bar join hands in communion, moving in cyclical synchronicity, two steps right one step left and repeat. I see no signs of cheerfulness, not a smile or a laugh, and as the song deepens in its repetition, growing louder and louder, the participants of the communal circle lift their perspiring brows to the smoke-stained rafters above, which shake with the pounding of the floorboards below. 

The simplicity of improvisational dance is gone, and once again an invisible barrier separates the outsiders, of which I am one, with the collective Turkish body, joined by the hand and moving together like a flock of birds with no leader. Abruptly, the song ends with a resonating note. The trance is lifted, and the dancers return to their individual seats.

What sort of mental geography disconnects me from the Istanbullus? Nationalism, ethnicity, religion? Or maybe that physical distance of 8000 miles I traveled to get here? I can only speculate, but I think I just witnessed the hüzün emphasized in Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of this city. Hüzün, the Turkish word for melancholy, given specific implications in the context of Istanbul and, more specifically, this particular bar. Pamuk explains that it’s not a private melancholy – a happy solitude in which to dwell on the emotional tendencies of loneliness – but a communal one, binding the residents of Istanbul with a shared remembrance of a golden past not forgotten. As an outsider, I can only start to observe this communal melancholy, only half-understand the pain it afflicts and comfort it provides.

“Offering no clarity, veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a teakettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day.”

As our new friends Emre and Oguz sing and dance through their cloud of cigarette smoke, their fingers are wiping across a windowpane steamed with melancholy to produce a clearer picture of the reality beyond – a reality that they know they would rather not have to bear alone, whatever it may be. The truth only hurts when it comes, and when it comes, when the view through the window becomes clear and tangible, unobscured by the comforting fog of an early morning, Emre takes another slow drag, inhaling deeply into the pit of his lungs, and wishes for another fogged pane to wipe with the back of his broad and work-worn hand.

In the house of the Sultanate

Everyday, visitors flock to the Topkapı Palace to see the primary residence of approximately four hundred years of Ottoman sultans. Within the Imperial Gate stands all that has been recollected from generations of sultanate history, now on exhibit for the convenience of the eager tourist. In quick succession, the various sites within the palace anticipate any particular visitor willing to pay a measly ticket fee: the Harem, where a hierarchy of women claiming love with the sultan replaced the traditional ceremonious marriage; the divan and grand vizier’s room, where a council of bobbing turbans discussed and decided the policies of the state; the treasury, where the sultan’s gold-plated wealth represented the imperial accomplishments of the Ottoman capital; the royal chambers, where sultans would sleep on their oversized mattresses, dreaming each night of the next campaign in Iran, or the next construction of another külliye, visioned to be more impressive than those of their predecessors; the courtyards, where members of the sultan’s inner circle could find a physical escape from the common crowds of a rapidly expanding port city.

But where is the dark corner where Suleyman murdered Ibraham Pasha at the persuasion of the manipulative Roxelana? Where is the window from where Murad IV, after a night of heavy drinking, would carelessly shoot his arrows upon any unfortunate passersby? What genuine love persisted within the promiscuity of a closed door in the Harem? What reverence did the sultans feel for the Islamic relics – pieces of the Ka’ba and of the beard of the Prophet Muhammad – brought into the palace from areas of conquest?

Dates and names, items from the treasury, Ottoman clothing, and other artifacts reminiscent of Topkapı’s past can be exhibited within glass cases for millions of tourists from all over the world to crowd around, fighting against elbows and body odor for a closer look. However, there is a mysterious aspect of sultanate history that cannot be displayed. The Palace stands in representation not only of a golden age unforgotten but also of stories of bare humanity that are now lost in time. Historians and curators have assembled an excellent exhibit of what was formerly the center of Ottoman imperial politics, but a museum never tells a complete story. 

I like what my professor said to me when I told her my thoughts on Topkapı Palace; with the wisdom of a historian, archeologist, and storyteller, she casually remarked, “As you saw, there are several novels lurking in the shadows of those roped off quarters, waiting patiently to be written.”

The Beyazid Hospital

As I venture slowly through the multi-domed, white-washed complex of the Ottoman-era Beyazid Hospital in the dusty Thracian town of Edirne, a pamphlet tells me that although advanced medicinal practices were used – the complex in fact includes a medrese, or medical school – humanistic methods based on spiritual beliefs became the main aim of treatment. Patients came from all over not only to receive medicinal treatment but also to find release in a spiritual medium.

At the entrance to the third section of the hospital, a lady sits in the mid-summer heat, waving a folding fan directly in front of her. Her headscarf sways in the self-generated air as the fan provides momentary relief to her wrinkled and weary face. Within ear-shot, the water pours from the fountain with a soothing melody – the last choral part remaining of a therapeutic harmony that formerly filled the Ottoman corridors for hundreds of years. 

Music therapy. Musicians trained in flute and fiddle worked alongside doctors practiced in medicinal and surgical procedures. The hospital contained a hired orchestra of about ten musicians, collectively trained in various musical modes beneficial to different types of illnesses. Irak mode calmed the nerves; Rehavi cured headaches; Büzürk alleviated suspicions and fears; Rast fought eclampsia and paralysis.

Where are the musicians now? In the summer heat, in the dusty streets of Edirne, after weeks of classes and ceaselessly exploring what Turkey has to offer, my friends and I are looking for a melody to accompany the flowing water, to blow cool air on our perspiring faces, and to relieve our wandering feet.

But the hypnotizing babble of the fountain – as it sings its lonely song in lamentation for the absence of its Ottoman accompaniment lost somewhere in the Turkish past – suffices for now as a therapeutic medium for travelers and locals alike.

Fatih, Fetih and Faith

The sounds of the city are knocking at my window, so I pull the latch to let them in. At this time of day, Halâskârgazi Caddesi is a symphony of urbanity: the dissonant harmony of honking taxis as their drivers instinctively urge on traffic with their brass horns; the percussive regularity of clanging glass bottles as beggars rummage for treasures in the trash heap; the rhythmic progression of resonating voices as pedestrians all talk at once.

The muezzin sings the melody – the elongated vowels and undulating pitch entering my window with astounding volume – five times a day in the city of Istanbul since 1 June 1453.

On that day, Sultan Mehmet II – referred to as Fatih, or the Conqueror – entered the newly converted Aya Sofya Camii Kabis, the Great Mosque of Haghia Sophia, for noon prayer. Seventeenth-century Turkish chronicler Evilya Çelebi in his Selyahatname describes Fatih’s ascension to the mimber of the Great Mosque, when he “cried out with a voice as loud as David’s, ‘Praise be to God, the Lord of all the world,’ on which the victorious Muslims lifted up their hands and uttered a shout of joy.”

Only days early, Fatih rode to the Great Church of Haghia Sophia in the center of the city he had just conquered and showed his humility by sprinkling a handful of earth over his turban. He then surveyed the church and ordered its conversion to a mosque. John Freely provides a description of the conversion process: “This required the erection of a minaret for the muezzin to give the call to prayer, and also some internal constructions, including the mimber, or pulpit, and the mihrab, the niche that indicates the kible, the direction of Mecca.” 

I recently visited the Haghia Sophia and observed the conspicuous indications of conversion. On the entrance leading to the basilica, the short arm of the crosses are removed, leaving a meaningless straight beam down the center of the door. The mosaics of John the Baptist, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other venerated figures of the Christian church reflect the damage ensued by years behind Ottoman whitewash. The mihrab stands terribly off-center from the rest of the basilica, as the Byzantines obviously neglected the direction of Mecca in their original construction.

The conversion of the Haghia Sophia epitomizes the transformation of the city after the siege of Constantinople.  The city was now in control of an Islamic empire, and many of the Byzantine churches would follow suit. I do not know enough to say whether Fatih intended to defile the church by instituting another religion in its place or to honor its past by recognizing the structure as the religious and political center of the city. Whatever way one views it, the matter remains that with the conquest of Constantinople came the expansion of the Islamic world to what is today the city of Istanbul.