Thursday, 27 January 2011

İstanbul

The Hagia Sofya
Given the amount of time I spent there and how I felt about it, it's only right that I devote an entire post to this city.

I arrived on the night train from Plovdiv in Bulgaria having had very little sleep. The train seems to have been timed so as to wake you at precisely the point at which you fall asleep, like a kind of torture designed to filter out those who don't really want to be there. The same goes for the 'visa': a stamp issued by a man asleep in an unlit, unsigned office around the back of the border station.

Despite these attempts at thwarting my passage towards Asia, I stepped blinking out into the daylight reflected from a thousand mosques. As I stumbled around looking for a hostel, the sun glistening off the nearby Bosphorous, people bustled past me as they have for thousands of years. The owners of the hostels are Kurdish but nevertheless proud of İstanbul (despite perhaps being a bit confused over its age: when a fellow tourist asked the age of a nearby Egyptian obelisk, one of the employees replied, 'Well, it was there last year...' Very helpful.

I visit the obligatory sights of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofya. It is often said that the former is the more impressive from the outside, the Hagia Sofya having become an amalgamation of Christian and Islamic architecture plastered over by countless marauders. But it is this fascinating mishmash, the bubbling domes atop angular walls, the dazzlıng spires guarding its exterior, that makes it for me the more intriguing of the two. The insides are vice-versa - yes the sheer space of the Hagia Sofya is amazing, but there is something about the interior of the Blue Mosque that reaches into your soul. Or perhaps it's just the plush carpet rubbing on my socks.

The Blue Mosque
And this is where my tour of the major sights finished, preferring instead to wander the myriad streets and bazaars, getting lost in the atmosphere, the smells and colours, the eerie sound of the call to prayer, happening upon hidden courtyards and mosques. One doesn't just see the history here, one is drenched in it. A young carpet salesmen makes a short attempt at selling me one. When I politely refuse, he invites me for coffee anyway, introducing me to his entire family (comprising an unnervingly high number of cousins.) He talks of his life here, his ancestors' lives. He asks for nothing, just a promise to return for more tea. And thıs behaviour is repeated everywhere: no pushiness; just smiles and a genuine interest.

I stay one night with a young local man on the Asian side, a mere two-lira ferry ride across the Bosphorous. He welcomes me into his home, refusing all offers of financial reimbursement for the food and drink he lavishes upon me. We spend many hours comparing cultures, music and traditions. He's not that different to me, but worryingly convinced of a western conspiracy to break up Turkey. I glimpse an insight into the fragile nature of the country, of the way history has created an insecurity within the nationhood. In the morning he has to work, but leaves the house to me without an ounce of worry. I'm humbled.

Soaking up İstanbul life
I meet a like-minded companion, similarly absorbed, and İstanbul engulfs us, whirling us away within its dreams and hopes. We sail up the Bosphorous like so many millennia before, silenced by the organic nature of the city living, breathing on either shore. The west and east, Europe and Asia, seem to push from both sides, mingling the countless tribes, invaders, crusaders who have settled, inhabited and conquered this city for aeons.

I see Asia beckoning me, but İstanbul has this hold over me... I will return.

5 comments:

  1. Wow, it sounds amazing. I want to go there, too! Someday... XXX Esther & family

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beautiful description. Istanbul truly is a doorstep and doorstop...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sounds amazing especially the Europe / Asia combo. I know a few other people that have visited recently and loved it too. Looking forward to the next TEO instalment!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sounds awesome man! You've peaked my interest in going there now!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Have people really been bustling past you for a thousand years?

    ReplyDelete