(Revised, 13 December 2019)
At a busy intersection in the heart of old Istanbul there’s an unremarkable stone pillar tucked between the sidewalk and back wall of the 6th century Basilica Cistern. It could easily be missed by the casual passer-by, but a closer look reveals a small plaque that reads: “This stone pillar is all that remains of a Byzantine triumphal arch from which road distances to all corners of the empire were measured. Date IV Century A.D.” A moment’s reflection for that to seep in must surely fire the imagination and give pause for thought – this barely noticeable stub in what is now an obscure corner of a busy modern city was once the very hub of the most widespread empire that the world had known until then. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed. (*)
When anyone asks “If I could only visit one city, which should it be?” my answer is easy – Istanbul. For more than two thousand years it was a crossroads of civilizations and an imperial capital: first Roman (when it was called Byzantium), then Byzantine, and finally Ottoman (as Constantinople) before reverting to its vernacular name when the Turkish republic moved its capital to Ankara in the 1920s. It’s a feast for the imagination and senses, even in some of the most mundanely modern spots.
It was late afternoon by the time the airport taxi had deposited me at the Kalyon Hotel on the shore of the storied Bosporus, the narrow waterway separating Europe from Asia. After a quick shower I strolled up the hill to Sultanahmet park at the heart of old Istanbul, settling into the shaded outdoor comfort of the Derviş café just before sunset. Behind was the magnificent Hagia Sofia, originally a Christian cathedral built in the 530s by the emperor Justinian, repurposed as a mosque when the city was captured by Sultan Mehmed II (“the Conqueror”) in 1453, and now designated a museum by the Turkish state. In front of the café, the magnificent Sultan Ahmet (or “Blue”) Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616. I was sipping on a Turkish coffee (“strong as hell, black as death and sweet as love”) and savouring the sound of a muezzin’s passionate call to evening prayer when a beautiful woman walked behind me. I say “beautiful” although I have no idea what she looked like – I never turned to see – but simply let my imagination paint the picture evoked by the subtle wafting of a delicate perfume. How sad that such sensory pleasures must now give way to consideration for allergies, and the olfactory delights of such places as Istanbul’s fabulous Spice Bazaar be precluded in the West by our antiseptic and plastic-wrapped regulation.
When I first posted this essay I had observed that “after evening prayers the lovely mosque was suddenly dominated by a huge illuminated message strung between two of the minarets which, according to the waiter, said something like “The Foundation is the Bridge to the Future” (whatever that means)” and concluded that “tackiness trumping taste seems to be a human foible that transcends borders and cultures unfortunately.” Well, it turns out that although the translation may have been strictly correct, it was misleading. By “foundation” he meant “non-profit organization” and those, a Turkish friend tells me, have been an important part of community life since the Ottoman era. And furthermore, such illuminated signs between minarets, called “mahya”, are a well-established Turkish custom, as an image search online will show. An excellent lesson to me about always keeping an open mind and being cautious about unofficial translations.
Some days later, on my last evening walk around Istanbul, I stopped for supper at the busy Altim Balik restaurant, tucked underneath the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn, the historic estuary that constitutes the northern boundary of the old city’s peninsula. The view of the Topkapi Palace and great mosques complemented an excellent meal of freshly caught bass, which offered several good recipe ideas to bring home: an oil and balsamic dip with finely ground black olives and a touch of mint, a delicious yoghurt cheese labneh, also with a touch of mint, and a wonderful dessert of a creamy baked quince purée with a strong peanut flavour. After a leisurely two-hour meal I strolled back to Sultanhamet and simply sat on a park bench watching children play, and a kitten get itself in trouble by climbing too high up a tree.
Forget the “clash of civilizations” theory – kittens and kids are the same the world over.
(*) Latin expression meaning “Thus passes the glory of the world”.