The art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.
Rebecca Solnit, The field guide to getting lost.
This is my last post on Istanbul, written from the other side of the world at my desk in Hobart, Tasmania. But it may not be the last post for the entire blog, which has recorded my journey from San Francisco across America to New York, then to London and to Latvia and finally to Venice, Greece and Turkey – I think there will also be a post script. As I gaze at the view across Constitution Dock it is difficult to accept that the adventures are over but, at the same time, I admit that the last month of travelling was marked by a level of exhaustion that I knew could only be remedied by a return to familiar surroundings.
Despite my waning energy when I was there, Istanbul completely won my heart. I wish I could have spend a few more weeks exploring the city and visiting some of Turkey’s many other richly historic locations. I cling to the moodiness that Istanbul has generated within me, a strange mixture of restlessness and calm, of melancholy and happiness, a paradoxical wavering between opposite states of being that has given me a nervous energy I am not sure how to expend. I hang on to the feeling by reading Orhan Pamuk.
But back to Istanbul and the adventures I have not yet shared…
On the night of our arrival, Gerard and I wander up to the Hippodrome, which under Byzantine rule, was the sporting and social centre of the city. It is now a vast park and a gathering place for tourists making their way to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia and other historic sites such as Topkapi Palace. We wander along narrow, steeply inclined streets lined with wooden houses, ancient brickwork and small shops and cafes. The street lights are sulphurous and there are not many people about, but when we arrive at the vast open area of the hippodrome we join hundreds of others taking in the balmy evening air. There is a huge international festival at one end with craft and food stalls from many different Asian and middle Eastern countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Mongolia, Korea, Thailand, Japan. There is a stage show with an exotic dance performance, street vendors selling pomegranate juice and watermelon, lots of women wearing headscarves – some in full burkas – people milling everywhere – it feels like we have arrived on another planet. We watch the dance performance for a while, then stroll between the Blue mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Everything feels exciting, unfamiliar and international in a way that is completely un-western.
And then we turn a corner and find ourselves amongst a group of people demonstrating about the Syrian crisis. It is a small and peaceful gathering and we stop and talk to some of the protestors. They are holding banners, waving the Syrian flag and showing a harrowing video that features Syrian refugees, mothers, children… I become completely overwhelmed by the images and find myself fighting back tears. It is hard to accept that we are unable to do anything to resolve this horrific situation, that there are now 2 million refugees and half of them are children… The joy of discovering the international festival is replaced by a sense of complete powerlessness.
During our stay, we regularly walk to the Hippodrome to visit the historic sites in the area or to catch the tram at the Sultanhamet stop. So on our way, we often walk through the long stretch of international festival stalls to see what is on offer. Some stall holders demonstrate craft skills unique to their culture such as calligraphy or glass painting, and others sell samples of food. We buy Turkish delight, which is nothing like what we get in Australia – here it is crammed with pistachios and hazelnuts and comes in long sausage like rolls that are coloured dark green, rich red or nougat white. We both become addicted and carry a little bag of Turkish delight with us on most days. We also check out the daily performances which include Thai, Japanese and Korean dancing.
One of Istnabul’s most magical historic sites is just off the Hippodrome – the Basilica Cistern, an extraordinary underground water storage chamber that was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532AD. As we line up to get our tickets, Gerard questions why we are going to pay good money to see what to him looks like the entrance to a public toilet, but once we have descended into the depths of the cistern itself, he immediately sees why. It is like entering a sacred underground temple. The atmosphere is dark and damp, the echo of water dripping punctuates the air, and the low lighting dramatically highlights the 336 columns that hold up the roof, all arranged in perfectly symmetrical rows. Spots of reddish light also reveal schools of carp swimming in what seems to be rather shallow water. We walk along pathways down the length of the cistern, searching for the two columns that are perched on top of Medusa’s heads, one upside down, the other turned sideways. No-one really knows why the heads were used in this way. We take lots of photos and linger along the pathways, feeling a little reluctant to leave the otherworldly yet peaceful atmosphere of the Cistern. We drink tea and pomegranate juice in the café before moving on.
Our visit to the Grand Bazaar is a little hurried and happens towards the end of the day, but it does give us a taste of what is considered to be one of the world’s greatest markets. The buildings that make up the Bazaar were constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries and feature 5,000 shops as well as 2 hammams and 2 mosques. It is a vast labyrinthine shopping paradise but we only get to see a small section of it. I am actually so overwhelmed by the richness and multiplicity of everything that I can’t face the thought of buying anything, but I have set myself a challenge – I want to leave with a small Turkish mosaic lamp. It is not an easy task. There are endless stalls selling all kinds of Turkish mosaic lamps and while all the ones I am drawn to look very similar, I go from one stall to another, agonizing over which one to buy. I am almost ready to leave without buying anything because I am completely confused, but Gerard insists that we go back to one of the stalls and make a decision. He haggles with the stall holder, something I have a lot of trouble doing, and we finally leave the Bazaar with a small amber coloured mosaic lamp. It now sits on a side board at home, casting a magical light in the living room. I particularly wanted a lamp like this to remind me of one my grandfather gave me for Christmas when I was about three years old. It was evening, and he took me by the hand and led me into the old farm house where we lived, into one of the front rooms, where a small oil lamp was casting a magical light in the corner. I remember the moment so well, gasping with amazement and delight when I saw the multi-coloured lights illuminating the walls – it was a gift from another world. I had that little lamp for a long time but then it vanished, along with lots of other toys I had as a child. So now I have this little lamp from Istanbul.
Our favourite restaurant is a short walk from our little apartment. It’s called Cesme and not only is the food delicious and very reasonably priced, but the staff are wonderfully friendly and the atmosphere simply charming. We sit outside, beneath a canopy covered in vine leaves decorated with mosaic lights. Two cats glide past our legs and clamber up the vine to hide on the canopy roof. We eat here at least four times, once with our good friends from Tasmania, Peta and Patrick, who also happen to be in Istanbul when we are. We also have dinner with the former head of the Tasmanian College of the Arts, Noel Frankham and his Australian friends one evening, and on another day, run into an Honours’ student and her family at the Sultanahmet tram stop, so Tasmania feel both very far and very near.
We visit the Museum of Science and Technology, not far from Topkapi Palace and set in a peaceful walled-in rose garden. Built within a former Sultan’s stables, the museum is long and narrow, with two floors of beautifully exhibited displays of early Arabic and Islamic scientific developments in astronomy, geography, time measurement, geometry, optics, medicine, chemistry, physics and much more. It is quiet in the museum, and we almost have the place to ourselves. I spend most of my time gazing at the cabinets of perfectly crafted medical instruments, trying to work out what they would be used for. Afterwards, we eat lunch in a very palatial café within the grounds and then stroll back through towards the hippodrome. Just inside the garden gate, we hear the sound of shots and become a little alarmed. There is an amusement stall to the right of the exit where you can shoot balloons with what certainly look like real guns. I am rather horrified.
One of the most unusual and compelling places we visit is the Museum of Innocence, created by Orhan Pamuk to in tandem with his novel of the same title. We go with Andris Aukmanis, Director of the Soros Foundation in Latvia, after visiting the Istanbul Modern and the Biennial, which are close by. We walk up a narrow street filled with interesting cafes, galleries and design stores, and then turn right down a cobbled residential street. The museum itself is on a corner, set up in a house several stories high that is painted a deep rusty red. On each floor of the house, the walls are covered with meticulously designed cabinets filled with items Pamuk collected while writing the book –photographs, clocks, watches, hair combs, dresses, shoes, maps, advertisements, cigarette butts, crockery, knick-knacks… All of these objects represent and illustrate the lives of the different characters in the novel. They are displayed within each cabinet with great care and tenderness and bring to mind the wonderful boxes of surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. Even though I have not read the Museum of Innocence, it does detract from the experience of engaging with the displays. All three of us are enthralled.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without taking a boat trip up the Bosphorus and that is just what we do on our second last day. We share a fish sandwich that we buy from a stall at the start of the Galata Bridge and then board a ferry for a one and a half hour journey up the sea-strait, the European side of Istanbul on one side, the Asian on the other. It’s a wonderfully relaxing trip. We drink tea as we gaze at the view – beautiful houses, palaces and official buildings, crumbling ruins, outdoor cafes, the Turkish flag in abundance, and every now and then, people fishing along the banks of the strait.
On our last night, we go to a hamami for a traditional Turkish bath. Gaye Reeves, the manager of our hotel, suggests Cimberlitas because it caters well for tourists. Gerard is not too keen but agrees to walk with me and as I’m paying for my session, the woman behind the window encourages him to also go in and he tentatively agrees. I set off to the women’s section on the right, and Gerard heads off to the land of men down the stairs.
Cimberlitas was built in 1584 and is considered one of the best Turkish baths in Istanbul. My closest experience to a hamami has been via Ingres’ circular painting which features a tangle of voluptuous naked women. I am not sure what to expect but as a newcomer I am instructed through the routine by the burly female hammam staff. After changing into a pair of black underpants and wrapping a small cotton town around myself, I head into the big circular domed steam room. There are women everywhere, walking back and forth, lying on the big marble slab in the middle of the room or relaxing in a series of small alcoves with hot and cold water pools. The women who wash you are dressed in black bras and underpants and each wears a numbered disc. One of them instructs me to lie in the middle of the slab, which I do. The routine is that you spend about 15 to 20 minutes on the slab, then get washed by one of the staff, then spend time in a spa pool and lounging about in the alcoves, and finally, go into another room where you wait for an oil massage.
I lie in the middle of the slab and watch the procedure as the woman on the edges are washed and scrubbed. It is getting harder to breath because the air is so hot, and I wonder how long it will be before it is my turn. The minutes tick by and then one of the hammam staff orders me to lie along the outer edge of the marble slab. I do as I am told. Bowls of hot water are poured over me and I am scrubbed all over with a little mitt that almost feels like sandpaper but is actually quite invigorating. More bowls of hot water follow and then I am covered with mountains of soap suds as my whole body is washed clean. It is an extraordinarily relaxing experience. Afterward, I spend some time in the spa bath but the heat is overwhelming and I soon head for the massage room which has about 6 tables lined up in a long row. I have the best massage I have ever had and then head for the showers. By the time I have dried and dressed and put myself back together again, I feel like a completely new person. I walk into the communal area where I see Gerard, all shiny with rosy cheeks – he is so relaxed he can barely speak!
And on the following day we reluctantly say goodbye to wonderful Istanbul. Rebecca Solnit, in Wanderlust: a history of walking says ‘A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.” That’s just what Istanbul does to me.