Artefact K111 Istanbul

Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies


Istanbul: The Elements of a City

Yours truly seated at a Halki desk. I would love to work on my Greek here.

One is never far from the water here, be it the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea.  Above the water, there is a cultural exchange of seagulls that runs 24 hours a day.  I swear it is never quiet, even on Heybeliada (Halki), the island on which we spent our first few days. The seagulls have to share their space with the endless fleets of oil tankers carrying the vile black stuff our own American Gulf is now drowning in.  There are also many little ferries and fishing boats going back and forth.  The former shuttle people to and from the little islands and the City.  The latter start up at the crack of dawn to satisfy the tastes of a very fish-hungry city of twenty million people.  In between, there are yachts which represent Turkey's immense wealth (a top 15 economy).  There are fountains for Muslims to clean themselves at the mosques and even an occasional one just for the heck of it, like the one between the Agia Sophia and the equally immense Blue Mosque.
That is, of course, much of what you see on the surface.  Underneath, there are just as many things to talk about.  The cistern below the Agia Sophia is a good place to start.  A cool damp place is great for the visitor who has $6 to get out of the unshakeable stare and glare of the sun; a must-see. The upside down Medusa which serves as the base of the one of the irregular columns down there is enough to keep you down there wondering for quite a while in the eerie red light. But, this is a city that goes even deeper.  There are whole chambers underground that can be accessed only through something as simple (and kind of secret) as a bakery stairwell.  The municipal government knows about it, of course, but that kind of thing isn't advertised as that is prime real estate;  no one wants the Ministry of Culture to start digging there.
And still deeper it goes, to the sea floor. There are shipwrecks from antiquity and the bones of tens of thousands who died going to, fleeing from, fighting for the City.  A certain Patriarch (Gregory V), after being hung, was flung into the waters (only to have his floating corpse plucked from it by sailors and delivered to a proper funeral).  I do not think it possible to live in Istanbul and not drink the blood of some poor soul, long diluted by history.  (Note: People are advised to avoid drinking tap water altogether.)    
A very nice person at the Phanar took a few minutes of his time to give us a mini-tour of the Patriarchate and also had something to say on the subject of water:  National Geographic had showed up at the open door of the Patriarchate (not the one welded shut in memory of the brutal lynching of the aforementioned patriarch), and said they were doing a feature on sacred water.  It just so happened that they were there on the day he was to have his son baptized. The event made it into the April 2010 issue.  That, for the City, is water in its rarest form: holy water. It once ran through the Byzantine Empire like a raging river.  But, when a Greek population of 200,000 in 1920 became one of 1,500 over 90 years, that river was reduced to whatever word exists in the English language for a 'painfully slow drip.' (No- something weaker than 'a trickle')  The Christian population, despite its newfound freedoms, is far too jaded to do anything less than prepare their children to leave. Thus, the numbers of people will soon equal in number the few drops of holy water left in the City.
The water in and around the City keeps its secrets and hides its pain.  A Greek (from Greece now, not Turkey). told me an interesting story of a young City Greek who was preparing to leave (presumably for good).  An old Turk who remembered the old days said to him 'Kakos!' (figuratively, 'For shame!').  'How can this be Istanbul without you (Greeks) here? Spare a thought for your city and stay in it!'Indeed! Spare a thought and shed a tear.

I'm afraid the drops of water used to baptize the  baby may be among the last. This was partly what the symposium here was about: memory.  How do you remember the people who were here or in Cappadocia or Thrace?  What happens to the abandoned churches and mosques?  What about the homes, icons, relics and lives people left behind?  What's to prevent those stories and voices from disappearing altogether now that that generation of people who were forced to relocate is in its final days of life? What happens when nationalism changes the narrative?  Hearing about the 97-year old Turk who only recently felt it was time to open up and tell his story, after years of being afraid to, or, seeing the abandoned gray church with silent bells and wondering where its key might be are the form a different kind of water, tears.  So much for the water.
The stones of the City have fared much better, and probably have as much to say.  The old walls are in a bad state, but the temples scream with pride and majesty.  There is no denying the greatness of this place.  The minarets which call the city to prayer (even if few listen), the Egyptian obelisk in the Hippodrome (where 30,000 spectators were once murdered by the state in cold blood just for being rowdy sports fans), the massive domes, the cobblestone streets...they all have something to say.  However, no stones are louder than the ubiquitous busts of Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey.  His image is in every school, bank, public office and just about everywhere else.  Long dead though he is, his silent, stone face is just enough to keep Turkey on the secular side of the fence It is easily the loudest thing in the city.
As for the Turks themselves, I find many things about them overstated, and even outdated.  The people have been mostly very friendly, even - and perhaps especially - at learning that I am Greek.  What the government does is not always indicative of what people think. For example: you will have very little luck finding references to Greece where cultural heritage is concerned.  Even a brochure for a restaurant called Olympos says of the famous mountain that it was important to the ancient Lycians.(!) The state line seems to be ' if it's in Turkey, it is Turkish (and it is not Greek, in any case).'  Regular people are a bit more realistic.  I met this really nice convenience store owner named Yusuf bei.  He asked me what I was reading, and I showed him my copy of the Iliad.  He told me he also had it, but that he couldn't read the original Greek.  A souvenir shop I went into today blared music sung in Greek and Turkish.  It's not all love, I'm sure, but I specifically looked for a negative reaction to what I was and got none.  The people have been good to us here.
The shopping here is great also.  The Spice Bazaar is an all-out assault of aromas: honey, nuts, curry, cumin, coffee, tea, peppers, basil, Persian saffron and tons more.  The labyrinthine Grand Bazaar is even better.  You can find anything from rugs to bronze bugs, oil lamps to antique stamps, glass hookahs, gold crosses, copper pots, Gucci knock-offs, books, coins, vases, 'ancient artifacts,' tiles, textiles, jeans and beans.  It's essentially a five-hundred year old mall. Awesome.
We went to a silent little monastery on Prince's Island where the abbot, once a truck driver who found God in England, told us the story of Saint George of the Bells.  Turks would go to the church with mentally ill family members and put them in an iron collar (with bells on it) and manacles and let them spend the night in the chapel in the hopes that they would be cured the next day.  (There are many such stories of Turks seeking miracles at Christian shrines.)  The practice was stopped a few years ago but, even today, 70,000 Turks a year visit the monastery. 
We also went to the theological school on Halki which the Turkish government does not allow to operate as anything more than a library and research center.  We got a spirited tour there from a tiny but energetic bearded sprite of a man whose English would embarrass most native speakers.  He left us with a line of Kipling saying that efficient time management would make every single goal achievable.  For a busy guy like me, it should be a mantra and I will try hard to bear it in mind.  
I've learned, seen, eaten, drunk, heard and thought about a lot here.  I am spent.