Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues

A Moment in Istanbul

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I recently saw Istanbul. Well I say saw, more like Istanbul blew me away. As a bit of a gamer, I expected it to be amazing, after all, had I not already played Assassins Creed? I’d already seen the pictures and planned out the trip. But what is a picture compared to our own experience? I’d always been comfortable in the assumption that my undying love for the city of Florence would never be challenged, but Istanbul has now challenged that. At first, it was a bit underwhelming, flying in to wet weather, Istanbul resembled Los Santos from Grand Theft Auto more than anything. Yet then we got to the old city where we were staying, I was disappointed. The place was run down. A dump even!  There were incomplete buildings, huge gaping holes in others, some were even in a state of collapse. I woke up to a different scene entirely. A clear blue sky for presented itself for miles and miles around, the Mediterranean stretching far into the distance, the looming Galata tower, proudly, stubbornly overlooking the Golden Horn and the Bosporous, narrowly dividing Asia and Europe. This was a small, yet imposing barrier to the mind’s eye. That’s what I’d assumed anyway. In truth, if there’s one place a barrier counts for nothing, it is Istanbul. We walked up a flight of stairs from our little place on the hill with our thighs screaming in protest. We ambled our ways through streets littered with buildings old and new in all manner of being until we came out to a blaze of sunlight into the place of the old Hippodrome. As disappointed as I already was to see it, little of it remained standing. Then my attention was captured by the imposing SultanAhmet mosque, also known by the popular ephihet “the blue mosque.” I immediately moved on, I was looking for what I considered the superior building near it, the beautiful Hagia Sophia, the very name captured what I loved about the old city. ‘Holy Wisdom.’ A celebration of knowledge over ignorance, of the guiding light of innovative ideas over old assumptions. It’s ancient dome had weathered for almost two thousand years through turmoil in this historic place. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for almost a thousand years. It was and still is, in every way a remarkable structure and a testament to the ingenuity of those who dare to dream. Yet we didn’t go in. We went back to the SultanAhmet for prayers, inside I really was astounded. Architecturally, I’m not much of a fan of open plans, but here, just like nearly everyone else who was present, I was totally overtaken by a sense of ‘awe’ standing beneath that dome and lifting my neck upwards to get a view of this marvellously created building. See, I always appreciated Churches for their imbibing of grand architecture into places of worship to create that sense of divine awe. I’d never felt it in relation to my own religion until I stepped into the SultanAhmet. There they even had under floor heating! I’d like to say after that I got over the architecture, but truth be told I never did, I still haven’t, but after a while when I finally stopped staring and figuring out all the different innovations, style changes and just at the sheer beauty of it I noticed the people. If there’s anything I want to say about Istanbul it’s about the people. I’ve always fancied my little corner of Yorkshire to be a multicultural place, I’m quite proud of it actually, after all, immigrants, descendents of immigrants and old English people mix quite well here, we get on well and if there’s tension, I haven’t seen any. Istanbul however blew that out of the water, the accommodating atmosphere, the peace, the tolerance, the openness was something I hadn’t quite experienced before. Tourists frequently walked into the SultanAhmet, except during prayer times, and all that was asked was for some respect to an active house of worship. Beyond that, the attendants were friendly and all mixed well. All skin colours, all nationalities and all religions. I even saw an Orthodox Jewish man marvelling at the structure. All were welcome; it’s how in my romanticized mind I’d imagined what a house of worship should look and feel like. Outside, back in the blazing sun we walked around the city, following the coast to Galata from Topkapi palace, people were friendly without any hesitation, this group of foreigners wondering outside of touristy areas seemed totally unremarkable to the locals, through backstreets and little alleyways, not even a hint that any of it might be unsafe. As we slowly walked our way to Galata to try and get up the tower before sunset we weren’t guided by a map, all we did was walk in the general direction of Galata and relied on the friendly locals to help us when we were confused about which way to turn. We ended up eventually, after another hard slog up some really long stairs and winding streets, streets that reminded me a lot of Renaissance Italy, we finally made it up to the tower. Only to despair at the enormous queue stretching out and around the tower. We steadily made our way back down and back across the bridge through to the spice market, which was just closing up. This spice market, looks nothing like the Grand Bazaar. It’s in an old area, in fact, you see some of the Theodosian walls built into some of the structures, an open drain and some really old buildings roofed over with plastic and corrugated iron. We ambled our way up some more hill to the Suleymaniye which was in every way breathtaking. If I thought the SultenAhmet was awesome, not in the frivolous way it’s thrown about, but truly awesome in the original sense of the word, the Suleymaniye was magnificent, like the Sultan it was named after. The gardens were peaceful, and yes I know it’s an odd thing to notice, but it wasn’t like many of the parks or other such areas I’ve walked around. The place had this sense of calming peace, the hustle and bustle of the city seemed to die down, the busy nature of the SultanAhmet just wasn’t present. It just made you feel calm and want to sit under a tree and ponder the mysteries of life. Now back to the building, it wasn’t just bigger then the SultanAhmet, it seemed to materialise even better, the pink stones around the dome, the golden lamp hanging at dead centre. Even better it was totally deserted when we arrived. I confess, I laid down right under the dome and took a picture. It reminded me of the sense of awe I felt when I watched the ascent to Xibalba in the Fountain, it felt like what I’d imagine heaven would look like. I had to remind myself that all the mosques I’d seen were all variations of Hagia Sophia and all were still smaller then that old lady dominating the Istanbul skyline still.  I tried to imagine it. I couldn’t. We went to Hagia Sophia the next morning, I was practically bouncing with excitement. So imagine my disappointment when I realized much of it was undergoing restoration. Even then, with all the scaffolding, you realize just what an achievement Isidore of Miletus and Antheius of Tralles had accomplished. As I walked under those old doors, through that marble, so worn was the step it had a permanent groove. Along to the central hall and I felt that pure feeling of total and utter awe. This was something worth celebrating, so like millions before me and probably billions after me, I stood under that dome and took a picture. The scaffolding, though I was first displeased with just seemed to emphasize the gargantuan nature of the structure.  It just kept running through my head that this was build in 500 AD. 500 AD! When in my part of the world we were still trying to figure out how to put roofs on homes. The Byzantines had built this. Yes this amazing and beautiful structure that still stands today. From there eyes were drawn to the huge hanging signs, if that’s the right word, of Islamic calligraphy. Here was multi-faith at it’s finest, Islamic and Christians alike sat side by side, on the upper balcony, a mosaic of Jesus and John the Baptist is preserved, darkened, by age but preserved. It is quite gorgeous and directly opposite is the hanging signs of calligraphic Islam. For me it was quite a poignant moment. As we left, I regretted that I couldn’t stay here. Sure, it was imposing, not in the tranquil way of Suleymaniye but what a piece of architecture, what a piece of history, what a testament to wisdom. We made our way outside and all of us in our own little bubbles went up to Topkapi palace. I wasn’t too enthusiastic to be honest. Palaces have never quite been of much attraction to me, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palace of Versailles withstanding. Inside I was overwhelmed by the flowers. Yes, of all the things to overwhelm me in the Imperial Palace of the Ottoman Empire were the flowers.  It wasn’t that they were just beautiful, they smelt like my own personal garden of Eden. I kept having to stop myself stealing one. My forever lasting good luck dropped on straight into my path later on. The architecture at Topkapi, unlike the Imperial mosques, unlike Hagia Sophia is totally understated in an elegant smooth way. A style that radiates confidence. It wasn’t there to bowl you over with awe or fear, it didn’t feel the need to remind you at every turn that here lives the Sultan. It felt confident that this was the palace, this is where things happen. There’s no need to remind you, you’ll know soon enough. I did find out soon enough that even though there’s no Sultan anymore, there’s still plenty to see. As we made out way through the gate and into the courtyard, a spark of recognition went through us. We realized with much mirth that this was the very courtyard that we’d seen in Assassins Creed, almost identical, every little detail faithfully reproduced. It provoked much bemusement in my parents. We joined a long queue, we didn’t quite know what we were queuing for to be honest, but we joined the queue anyhow. It turned out we had entered part of the old treasury, and there were treasures. These here were diplomatic gifts sent to the Sublime Porte, from Jade pots from China to jewel encrusted daggers from Persia to the order of the Garter from the British Empire, the room was full of priceless history but also priceless gems and stones, but there was only one guard, that subtle confidence seemed to transform into huge arrogance. All these precious items seemed to be worth very little of a guards attention. The next room held a gigantic diamond, sparkling in magnificence, yet again, only a single guard. Admittedly posted at the side of the diamond but just the one.  It had a side door and that let to an enclosed balcony. What. A. View.  In that moment, you understood why the Ottoman Sultans stayed there for so long, it wasn’t just practical, it was beautiful. The view over the Bosporus was just amazing, the cooling breeze of the sea air lapping over the remnants of the Theodosian walls meeting you on the wall of this balcony where you longingly dream of owning a view such as this. On our way out, we saw a queue that was guarded, yes, there were guards frequently patrolling the queue. We jumped in, aware that we hadn’t much time left before closing.  Eventually we got inside and yet more guards, what could possibly be so precious that it required such a heavy armed prescence? It turned out that the Turkish government hadn’t valued all those gems, all those ceremonial daggers or Calligraphic artworks. They’d valued their religious history. I saw one of the original keys and locks to the Kaa’bah in Makkah, the casing of the Blackstone. Swords that were from the time of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and even what were supposed to be hairs of his beard, there were even clothes on display that were supposed to be from his family. The guards, though strict (picture taking was forbidden, though I did sneak a few in) were very accommodating to all those who wanted to visit, helping, guiding. Muslim and non-Muslim alike it did not matter. As we left, I realized just how much the Ottomans and the Turks had placed into preserving history. Not just their own, but others as well. Byzantine, Ottoman, Arabian, even Persian and some British mixed in. A multicultural mix. Our visit to Taksim square was again a totally different experience, after a gruelling climb that seemed to go on forever, we finally sat down to eat in a Burger King. There was an old man cleaning tables, when I thanked him after he cleaned ours his eyes lit up like he had never been thanked before, I mentioned this at the time. But this is one memory that I’ll carry around forever, like that feeling of awe under the dome of Hagia Sophia or Suleymaniye, seeing this old man with a shock of white hair cleaning tables will stick with me for life. I’ll tell you why. It infuriated me, you can go on holiday and relax, but you can never take the desire for social justice out of a person. It infuriated me because I expected that Turkey, amidst an economic boom would not need the old to work, especially not cleaning tables after people. But they do. Hundreds, if not thousands of Syrian refugees also call Istanbul home, begging on the streets. Though we walked through as much of the side streets as possible and though we didn’t get through it all, something else became obvious. Though for some time I’d moved to Socialism, it was brought home in front of my eyes that contrary to what we are told by economists, what we are told by politicians, economic growth does not translate to a better life for all unless the central government engages in some level of redistribution. I saw it in India but was too young to appreciate it, yet is there a more perfect case of the failings of this ideology then India?  To quote Keynes, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” Why do we assume that the profit motive is the very best motivator for humans to do better, to be better? Why is assumed that giving a helping hand, not just voluntarily, but as a society is some great evil?  Why is it assumed that making sure everyone has a home, has food on the table and has access to good education will make people lazy and aspire to naught but a life of ‘luxury’ on benefits? Do we really think that the quest for dignified work ends because our most pressing needs are met? Much of my time in Istanbul was filled with wonder, stoking my burning wanderlust to see the sights, the sounds, the tastes of the world. It is a truly wonderful city in every way. The old stones that have witnessed thousands of years of human history, from the brilliance of Alexander the Great to the vision of Constantine, the greatness of Justinian to the magnificence of Suleiman to the eminent wisdom of Atatürk. But it also seen the worst excesses of mankind, from the devastation brought by the Macedonians of Alexander to the Imperial politics of the Roman world to the violence of the Ottoman conquest to the horrors of WW1. Even today, these marvellous legacies sit side by side with the callousness of human spirit. Though we devote endless amounts of money to the restoration of our human story (quite rightly). We also ignore the capacity for each and every human who has ever lived and who will ever live to be better, to dream of more and to achieve higher then ever before. Our policies of attempting to divine some moral argument from the distribution of wealth as it is, is nothing more then trying to justify some with figures so astronomical the ordinary mind struggles to comprehend whilst others starve on the streets. I will forever love this city for its history, its elegance, its atmosphere but ultimately, Istanbul gets a lot right, multiculturalism and religious pluralism with special mentions, but like the rest of us across this earth, it’s still trying to get to grips with inequity of means and no amount of magnificent buildings and cultural history will change that. Faizal Patel, (2015)

One comment on “A Moment in Istanbul

  1. roamingpursuits
    April 26, 2015

    Great shot.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2015 by in Travel and tagged , , , , .
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