Friday 29 May 2020

1993 Istanbul

25.3.93 Istanbul

A strange situation in that I know next to nothing of Istanbul, and nothing of the language.  But what a name: Istanbul.  And yet one that figures so little in our consciousness.  It belongs to no one, culturally, as far as the West is concerned, and so hovers on the horizon like some strange mirage.

Jackpot.  As soon as I came out of the visa section, I knew things were going awry.  Thanks to a bunch of Italians pushing in front, this took ages.  When I arrived at the luggage carousel, the cases were off, lined up on the ground.  Mine was not there.  I knew it was not in Turkey, but dealing with the bureaucracy – as well as translating for some Italian ladies with a similar problem – took half an hour.  Then changing money – somehow I knew I'd need it – took another 15 minutes.  By the time I got out, there was nobody there to pick me up.  I waited.  Still nobody.  I spoke (in French this time) to others waiting, who said the bloke I wanted wasn't there.

So, a taxi.  Arguments outside should have told me that I had a madman, and his driving soon confirmed it: at least 100 mph, often yards away from the car in front.  We took a huge arc around the city – the signs worryingly saying to Ankara (it seemed quite possible that we'd go all the way there at 100 mph) – and finally arrived, 141K lira (about £10) later.  As I checked in, who do I find but the Herbert who was supposed to meet me.  Yeah, well, if he was there before me (and assuming he drove at less than 100 mph), he certainly left before me.  So I refused to pay all the outstanding 93K lira, and we argued long about this and that.

And then, of course, the real fun begins: being Ramadan, all the shops are shut – now, and tomorrow.  No new clothes.  So if the bag doesn't turn up tomorrow, it gets interesting.

Strange wandering the streets to here, a Pizza Hut (well, I'm not in a fit state to be more adventurous tonight).  George Michael playing in the background, even more than in Cairo, things felt alien, or rather very distant: I felt I was in Mongolia (appropriately) not Turkey.  The drive was delightfully frightening: mile after mile of concrete blocks, dusty roads, thick smog, descending darkness, ruddy sunset.

26.3.93 Istanbul

Well, here I sit in the Sultan Safrasi café, Aya Sofya to my left, the Blue Mosque just in front of me, and vaguely soporific Turkish music coming from within.  The sun is starting to break through, and things are looking up a little.  After a hearty breakfast (another benefit to the kind of package hotel I'm in), out to see what shops, if any, were open.  Luckily, I find a clothes shop soon, and bought a shirt for 99K lira.  Later, I found the address of one of the few chemists open, and bought a few necessaries.  Back to the hotel to shave and shower (for the third time – a good way to keep clothes non-pooh-y), then out by taxi (£3) to here.  According to the information man at the hotel, everything open as usual.  I hope so.

First impressions: Istanbul is pretty dirty in a "typical" middle east/far east way: dust, litter, concrete, rubble, everywhere.  Colours uniformly grey and brown, a few dull reds and greens.  Turks look, well, Turkish, deep eyes, thick hair, very different.  And how right that of all the Europeans it is the Germans who are linked to this race: the same ü and ö, the same ultra-logical grammar and syntax.

Now drinking my first çay, which puts me in mind of the Parisian tea-room I sampled less than a year ago.  Reading Libération last night; really one of my favourite papers.  Everyone smokes like a chimney here.  These mosques really soar.  Well, back in Sultan Safrasi café – I'm not that hungry, so I'm reluctant to go to a restaurant.  Çay and "tost".  Behind me, a Turk speaks fluent German to the same.

Walked to Topkapi Palace – the grounds full of picnickers – quite the most litter-strewn place I have seen on this earth.  In fact, Istanbul is fast becoming litter capital of the world, in my eyes.  The Archaeological Museum and palace open from 9.30am, closed Monday/Tuesday respectively, so I'll go later – now it's full of tourists and locals.  On the way back, I bought five pairs of sox for 25K lira – about £2.  I was done, but my need was great.  Lacoste-branded, but the alligator was stuck on – as were the labels.  But they're clean (ish).

One thing: the Turks are certainly keen to talk; but being British, I am less keen to listen.  Unfairly, probably, but there we are.  I've never been one for "mixing", for getting into these fake relationships.  Either I'm too suspicious, too shy, or, more likely, too arrogant.  Most people bore me, and if I can't talk with people I respect, and whose conversation I value, I'd rather talk with myself – which I have little enough time to do, heaven knows.  Noticeable the number of women wearing the chador – full body stuff.  And men with caps.  But against that, you can see pornography displayed pretty freely.  A country of meetings and contradictions, then.

My first monument, the incredible Basilica Cistern – looks like something out of a Peter Greenaway film.  Dripping water (Tarkovsky) and Corinthian columns.  The floor soaking, the air dank, dank, dank.  The constant sound of drip, sharp, and the distant echoing sounds of classical music.  And at the end of it all, the crazy Medusa heads: one upside down, the other on its side, squashed beneath simple columns, meeting its mirror image in the pool of water around it, green with age.  And the drops fall even heavier.  Above, the ceiling pattern recedes to infinity, like something out of Escher.  This is what I came to Istanbul for…  What a wonder of the world.  Reminds me of La Mezquita in Cordoba, but that had no mad opera singing in the background, nor the Chinese torture of drips…

At last down by the Golden Horn, waiting for the ferry boat to leave behind me.  In front, the iced water seller – fine, except I have seen the ice in a bag broken on the ground next to one of the few rubbish bins not full and used.  Overcast now, but the sun weakly peeking through.  Cool breeze. Nice.  

In the middle of the bridge, richer by two pairs of underpants (5K lira each – about 30p), I remember Harvard...except that this bridge is wobbling up and down like hell…  Fine view of Topkapi palace, Aya Sofya and several other mosques (strange to see the occasional efflorescence of Arabic here…).

Across the bridge to the Tünel – brilliant value: 2K lira for the most grinding part of the journey back.  Supposedly the oldest metro in continental Europe – nice to see the French metro trains here.  Longish, steep tunnel, then out to what turns out to be the continuation of a street I took this morning for clothes.  Everyone out promenading – thousands of them – with trams in the middle.  Back to the hotel, buying water and oranges en route.  Still no news on my bloody case.  How can they not know where it is?  Shower, then read some more Libération.

Now in Han Fast Food, near Taksim Square.  Eating baked potato – cheap, and may even be vaguely healthy.  Quite a happening sort of place.  Buses thunder outside.  Before, returning to the hotel, I went along to the main cultural centre, trying to find something.  There's Der fliegende Holländer for 40K lira, which seemed a bit ridiculous for me to see here.  There's also some kind of ballet programmed – with some Nyman...but this is elsewhere.

Very noticeable here the preponderance of same sex – and mainly male – groups.  Few mixed, and those have a distinctly racy air to them.  Also noticeable is the youth of some of the lads smoking here – 13, 14 at most, trying to act big…  It would be interesting to write – well, read at least - a history of the blue jeans, and their sociological rise: here, as everywhere, they seem ubiquitous and indispensable.  What did people wear before?  Like India, the things people sell: men with scales, selling your weight.

I have this heart-rending image of my poor case endlessly circulating on a carousel in the middle of nowhere (just where is the middle of nowhere?  Perhaps nowhere is nowhere these days).  Down by the Golden Horn – how I like writing this – a boat moored, cooking meat amidst swathes of smoke.  Reminds me of Varanasi in its waterside bustle.

27.3.93 Istanbul

In the gallery of Aya Sofya.  Here as the gates open, so I enter this huge space almost alone.  In a strange way, not at all as I expected it – lighter, perhaps less oriental than I thought. The overriding impression inside is of golden yellow and rich marbles.  Some fine shafts of light cutting through the space.  And the great shouts of Arabic – too florid for me to read, alas.  In their use of two dimensions they remind me of Tom Phillips' stuff – vaguely…  To here by train (3K lira), Tünel (2K lira), and taxi (10K lira – bastard took me the long way).  Warming up outside.  But inside, a lovely coolth.

The stunning mosaic of Christ, Mary and the John.  Amazing detail and the expressions…  Extraordinary that the heads have survived so well (maybe because higher up?).  Also noticeable the filigree capitals.  Weird.  Down again.  After the exonarthex, sitting in the narthex, noticing the doors.  The relief and the mosaic above the door through to the nave.  But mostly from the back of the narthex you are enthralled by the sense of space through the doors: this is the essence of architecture – the articulation and definition of space.

Just reading the excellent guide to Aya Sofya gives you a sense of the architectural achievement – all those apses, conches, tympanums et al.  Walking round it is a wonderful experience in space.  Interesting contrast with San Marco – visibly part of the same world, but so dark and medieval.  Aya Sofya is part of a literally enlightened tradition – albeit the fag-end.  The builders of this church knew they were part of a glorious civilisation; San Marco's were struggling against the pull of mud and the lagoon.

After eating my illicitly-got bun and cheese in Sultan Safrasi, to the Turkish museum.  Sitting now in the courtyard, great view of the Blue Mosque, the amplified muezzin doing his stuff.  Reasonable museum, mostly Arabic script, carpets, patterns.  Reminds me of another museums: Cairo (the Gayer-Anderson House), East Berlin (Pergamon Museum), but feels insufficiently forgotten and strange.  The obelisk, but so different here from those in Karnak (ah, Karnak…)  In many ways the ethnographic section is more immediately suggestive, particularly with its real yurts and interiors.  The thought of these Turcoman nomads wandering across Asia, taking their tents with them, and ending up at the gates of Vienna (imagine: no Mozart, no Schubert…)

Inside the Blue Mosque – incredibly delicate interior with wonderful ceiling of lamps – about 10 feet off the ground – giving a vertical forest of supporting wires.  To the "little" Aya Sofya – glorious, partly because I am alone here.  This feels real.  Crumbling, cracked but very beautiful.  An old ticking clock – miles out (Mecca time?).

Along the main street Divan Yolu to the Column of Constantine, still charred black, nice group of mosques.  Then to the covered market, which, though very touristy, is nonetheless impressive.  Very gaudy, very big.  Wander through it (nice kiosk at one point), then out to the book market – a little disappointing (I can't help recalling that second-hand bookshop – warehouse? - in Guildford: I wonder if it is still there?).  Now in small, slightly grubby café in the market, trying elma çay – apple tea – though it contains neither.  Taste like a pleasanter version of Lemsip.  

Back in Pizza Hut – well, it's about the cheapest place round here.  I've just found the concert hall – spent 80K lira on a ticket for what looks appropriate: Brit-Turkish ballet programme with Nyman's music.  Surprising number of blue-eyed people here – and almost blond, too.  Perhaps that old Circassian influence… and anyway, who were these Circassians?  Strange how you remember people.  Two blokes, Turks by the look of it, in Aya Sofya, wearing "Buffalo University" t-shirts.  I saw them later in the Turkish Museum.  (Also met the Italian ladies from the airport again – but they had their cases…)

In Praise of Difference: art is difference, evolution is difference.  Imagine being trapped with someone whose every thought echoed yours, and was known to you.  Huis Clos.  We/I depend on difference to make life interesting.  And how fast humankind changes – the languages of Irian Jaya (I must go there…).  "The global is the local without walls."

Interesting this case business (I speak linguistically).

28.3.93 Istanbul

Yes, interesting this case business, but not interesting enough to stop me eating.  I was going to say that not having my case with me has taught me at least how little you need: two pairs of clothes, toothbrush, razor, etc.  In fact, I shall make this the core of my "survival kit" that I carry separately.  Interesting last night watching satellite TV: TV5 and TVE – French and Spanish respectively.  Up late-ish this morning, later than I thought, since clocks go back here too.  Walked to the Tünel, then taxi-ed the other side.

Here in the Archaeological Museum – looks wonderful. I am sitting with the Alexander Sarcophagus in front of me – what a work.  The detail of the carving is stunning – especially the naked men's bodies (Greek sculpture really does make the human – male – body beautiful).  The folds of the skin on the horses and deer.  The horses remind me of the Elgin Marbles.  In one of the pediments, crouching in the left-hand corner, a figure straight out of Michelangelo.  Traces of paint still.  The sarcophagus of the Mourning Women – less varied, but beautiful.  I have these masterpieces to myself.  Back towards the entrance, the biggest sarcophagus, with the barrel-vaulted top: interesting 3D effects of overlapping horses and riders.  Nice diagonals.

Fascinating "usurped" sarcophagus – Egyptian, re-used for king Tabnit Sidon. On it, what looks like Phoenician script.  In the entrance, fine old Hercules, very crude, very vigorous.  [One thing: the first sight to greet me outside my hotel this morning were two bears, great big light-brown things, led by two men.  Are we talking medieval or what?] Face to face with Alexander.  Fine Ephebe – reminds me of Rodin's Balzac.  Bust of Sappho.  Later, upstairs to the sections on Anatolia in general.  Great stuff on Hittites et al. (another language I must learn).  And places like Palmyra, Ephesus, Pergamon

Then out, leaving the Turkish Pavilion – I am cold, and it is starting to rain.  After a cheap but filling lunch – shish kebab and baklava – back to the Tiled Pavilion.  Nice, but I find it hard to get worked up over pottery.  Attracted by the medieval sounds I have returned to the park below.  Brilliant sunshine now.  An ad hoc band is vaguely practising – I love the shawm-like lead and percussion.  Below, a puppet show.

Back across the Galata Bridge, a fine view after the rain, Tünel, and then to here, a very untouristy, untacky tea-room for çay, and rich honey-soaked shredded wheat – well, ish.  This is merenda – no dinner tonight.

Out now in the concert hall found so laboriously.  Functional, vaguely Turkish inside, good sightlines, seats a little deep. Turns out the Nyman is Zed and Two Noughts – I haven't heard it for a while.  There's also some Turkish music which is nice – one İlhan Usmanbaş – other than this, I can read barely a word of the 15K lira programme.  The most god-awful cod-pop/classical stuff in the interval.  WHY? And a lousy amplifier system – Nyman was painful.  Dancing quite good though – emphasises Turkey's bridge between West and East – these female bodies wobbling away.

29.3.93 Istanbul

I was forced to leave the concert early: the second part had music so loud I had my fingers in the ears for most of it.  So unnecessary.  The Brits flew the flag, and I'd seen and heard the concert hall.  Back and watched the French elections in French and Spanish (the latter rather embarrassing). Amazing result.  In an odd way, I'm glad old Lang got back in – a fine paragon of French culture…

To Topkapi – 'orrible weather.  After tram and Tünel, I decide to avoid the rain and take a taxi on Galata bridge.  Which then proceeded to go the wrong way, then dump me by the side of the road.  I didn't pay, and at least I'm over the bridge.  Another taxi to here – one I am able to catch out as he nearly doesn't take the right turn to the palace after the lighthouse.

Here too early, but first to get a ticket.  Up to the harem, and buy another for 10 o'clock start.  A quick wander – glorious views over the sea and the great ships out there.  Into the harem – with a big group alas, and snapping away like mad to show people back home.  A fine warren inside – for a minute, I catch a glimpse of a vanished world of caravans, 1001 nights.  Strange melange of cultures in parts, barely digested ideas – like the diminutive capitals on columns.  The Koran everywhere.

Now wandering through the capacious collections – porcelain et al.  Many people here – perhaps not surprising given that practically everything else is closed today.  Seeing the Japanese and Chinese stuff here reminds me that they represent now the last great unknown for me.  The palace overall reminds me greatly of the kraton in Java – perhaps there is some distant relationship, mediated by the Arab traders.  

To the café – thank god they built galleries around the courts – it is bucketing down now.  Strange how all sodden cities take on a similar aspect.  I remember Vienna, Paris (Palais de Tokyo), etc.  Perhaps it is just that you become very introspective, conscious only of being cold and wet.  Nice in a masochistic sort of way.  Ridiculous prices here – 10K lira for tea, but obviously, I ain't going walkies in this weather.

Up to the Galata Tower – blowy but brilliant sunshine.  Stunning view south across the Golden Horn and Bosphorus.  From here you see clearly how massive Aya Sofya is, particularly compared with the Blue Mosque, for example.  Beyond the city, hazy mountains – very Greek-like, unsurprisingly.  Which reminds me: I was conscious last night of how this trip is filling in a whole region hitherto rather mysterious.  Travel is like that: a gradual infilling of space and time.

From Galata back to the hotel – where I carry out my daily ritual of a call to the lost luggage office – and miraculously they have found my case.  But I have to go myself – customs, not unreasonably.  Still, a chance to find the Havaş Airport Bus. I try it on, asking for a free trip – refused, quite rightly.  I miss my stop, going on to the domestic terminal – and am kindly taken back by the driver (who was also dropping people off hither and thither).  To the Arrivals, back to the desk I was at before.  I then follow the man deep into the bowels of the airport – finally, at the end of a corridor behind double padlocked doors, there is my beloved case.

The man gives me a form to sign: which I nearly do.  But I read it, and notice that I am signing away all claims.  Er, no, thank you; I'd like some dosh.  So back upstairs, where I try it on further, bringing out the receipts for shirts, medicaments, travel etc. - which, mirabile dictu, they agree to, finally.  We settle on 300K lira – about £20.  Hardly a king's ransom, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  Just goes to show.  Back the way I came.  I note, as before, how orderly Turks are, forming queues for things (rather like Mexicans) – and spontaneously giving up seats in buses for women and elderly men.  Puts us to shame.  Coming back from the airport, we passed the old city walls, now rather brazenly but impressively restored.  Past amazing spaghetti junction – but it works – then to the Tünel. 

Am now drinking sahlep for the first time – totally inappropriate, being hot and sweet, but very nice – great for this chillish weather. Back in Han's, cheap and near – one disadvantage of Taksim is that it is a real haul to the Golden Horn (interesting that the Greeks called it that, for unknown reasons).  I did, however, see it this evening on the way back, a sheet of golden foil (etc.) - very nice.  Well, sahlep is powdered orchid root, and I note that Bill Gates is getting married.

30.3.93  Istanbul

Suleiman mosque very impressive – so light and airy inside – almost recreating the open-air mosques I've seen in India.  Filthy weather – wet, cold – but with my suitcase it seems less of a problem.  Very noticeable sharpness in the air – lots of poor coal and wood being burnt today.  I had this place nearly to myself – now a couple of coachloads of tourists have arrived...pity, it was very peaceful here.

I have just read the Blue Guide's description of this place: a masterpiece of factual analysis, informed comments and judicious enthusiasm.  I see the building with new eyes, and understand its dynamics far better.  The comparisons with Aya Sofya are illuminating.  Once again, you can see how far ahead the imperial architect Mimar Sinan was compared to West Europeans.

Across to the Museum of the Ancient Orient – small but lots to see, especially of Hittite stuff.  The Kadesh treaty – hi, Ramses – but also the early Arabic inscriptions – before Islam.  This tremendous sense of ferment – peoples, kings, empires coming and going in this relatively small area.  Writing, laws, poems, epics – I feel a book coming on – "The Book", in fact.  All I've got to do is learn Arabic, Hebrew, Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic...etc. Perhaps I'll wait a few years.

One problem being out of season – no boats leaving regularly.  So I am forced to hire one – just for myself. 100K lira to Eyüp and back – hope it's worth it.  Well, up the Golden Horn is not exactly beautiful – though the great bowl of Eyüp's hill is – but interesting.  Obviously, the Bosphorous would have been better – I should have thought to do this over the weekend.  Next time…  Vague feeling of Venice – the shipyards, the thudding engine, the smells, the constant buffeting of the wind.  Also of Paris, on the Seine.  But with the differences compared to these.  Strange UFOs on the horizon, rockets pointed Allah-wards.  

But cold.  My head is freezing, so back to the hotel for a rest, then out again to the Tünel – to check the bus times.  Then past a possible fish restaurant, to the old Pizza Hut again, usual reasons.  A week here is enough: I'd have liked to get out – Troy beckons, as do numerous other sites.  It'd be great to drive down the coast.  One day, perhaps…  At least Turkish looks doable: one irregular verb, one irregular noun ("to be"and "water").  But what really fascinates me is this sense of reaching into this whole region – where civilisation was born (pace the Chinese).  Also of Turkish stretching across into the other Turkic languages: Azerbaijani, Turkmen, Uzbek (hi, Samarkand) – a great swathe across the steppes of Central Asia, the heart of the world (good title…).

Jolly busy this place, I must say, where all the young folk "hang out", as they say.  In some ways, it sums up Turkey's integration into the West – something it claims for itself, but that the West has always rather patronisingly pooh-poohed.  You would be hard-pushed to identify any specifics here, and yet it is no mere anonymous, soulless clone.

31.3.93 Istanbul

Up by the great mosaic in Aya Sofya's gallery again.  The tourists (well, other tourists) are awful – especially the Spaniards, for some reason – lots of school parties here, it seems.  Up late, lazy breakfast.  Not doing much today – I need a holiday from this holiday, which has been pretty exhausting.  But as I like it – walking and looking a lot.  Hotel room really quite good – especially with French and Spanish satellite TV – very useful, particularly for improving my understanding of French Canadian sounds – very odd… Very cold today – as ever in Aya Sofya.  Up to the usual restaurant in Sultanahmet.  Ate döner the right way, and then followed with muhallebi (tavukgöğsü).  Very sweet, slightly rubbery, not unpleasant.

By the Blue Mosque: muezzins in stereo – one from here, the other behind me somewhere. Weird.  After buying some cassettes (including what sounds rather groovy Sufi stuff), along to the baths.  Opt for the 195K lira job.  Into cubicle – rather cold, it has to be said.  There are about 30 of these, in two tiers, in the entrance hall, old and domed.  Strip, wrap tablecloth around middle, clogs on feet, then through towel room and main hall (double door) to steam room.  There for 5 to 10 minutes, working up mild sweat.  The through to the central hall – without spectacles, not so wonderful: small openings in the ceiling, water dripping down (hi, Andrei again), steam, vague smells of soap, male bodies.

My masseur, a reasonable, apparently non-gay bloke, works me over mildly – I was expecting much more.  But it was worth it for the sense of imperial coddling, of being some lord attended to.  Lying on the warm marble, vaguely naked, relaxing, sweating, stretched etc – I felt 2000 years ago.  To one of the alcoves, where I sit and then have tepid water poured over me.  Then soaped on the head, and scrubbed rather vigorously with what looked like an oven mitt – I hope it was clean given the depth it went into my skin.

Then the haggling began: did I want a super-soapy massage? All this "assisted washing" lark was vaguely embarrassing, it has to be said, although no improprieties were committed beyond some use of body contact – on the arm, I hasten to add – by the bloke.  Poor sod: I suppose he has to make a living.  So instead of 100K lira, we agree on 50K lira, and no tips.  This service consists of lying on the floor and being massaged when soapy.  Ho-hum.  But quite relaxing, though a work-out and reflexology knocks the spots off it.  The thing about this place is its atmosphere.  Hidden away in dusty concrete Istanbul is this living fossil.  Altogether, 250K lira to experience it – rather a rip-off in retrospect.  But worth doing once, the old Cağaloğlu Hamam.

To my left, a barber (inside) snips away; the masseurs wait, dressed in their Italian-red-and-white tablecloths.  Unfree drinks are on offer (declined).  Turkish music plays in the background.  Wonderful dome above, flaking and stained plaster.  Life is...pretty good.

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