Visions beyond the reach of words


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Category: International 03 Jan 10

After a suicide bomber failed in his attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane, a “successful” suicide bomber’s explosion in Pakistan killed 30; after New York, London and Mumbai, the world in 2010 regards the Islamic world with suspicion and derision. But there is another reality. December, 2009. Istanbul at dusk. As the plane slopes towards this ancient trading city, our family of four has its first view of the only metropolis in the world inhabiting two continents, Europe and Asia, connected by the Bosphorus Strait. Sweeping towards the Golden Horn, its natural harbour, we see minarets, domes, tombs, towers, walls of fortresses, outlines of churches, mosques, palaces, the obelisk, glowing, lit from within. When you can’t speak a language in a faraway country, a universal language takes over. The Sufis call it going beyond language.

Accordingly, we experience Istanbul with the heart. We step into a gleaming airport, exchange gesticulations for Turkish, into the cold night air and into a taxi that speeds to the centre of the city, suburban apartment buildings characterised by enormous chandeliers, reflecting the people’s love for the baroque, giving way to our first sight of the 17th century Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmed Square, surrounded by six minarets. Tiled from floor to its high marble ceiling in blue green and turquoise, its marble columns and inner courts reflect the height of the Ottoman Empire. It is our first vision of many which in this city remains beyond the reach of words.
We wake up to the sun dance around the Golden Horn.

Spinning through the crisp winter winds blowing from the Mediterranean Sea in the south, the Aegean Sea to the west and the Black Sea to the north, like whirling dervishes, we discover that Istanbul’s haunting loveliness comes from its history, architecture created by centuries of conquerors starting as the capital city of the Romans from as early 330, the Byzantines till 1204, and the Ottoman Empire from the 1500s. Under the massive dome of the Hagia Sophia, constructed around 532, a former Byzantine Orthodox Basilica, the largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until it was made a mosque in 1453 after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans (when Islamic features, including the four minarets outside, were added), we hear a call of prayer.

Footfalls, echoes of the past resonate. This, says the Turkish guide with pride, is the only edifice anywhere where the Islamic Kalma sits in peace with an ancient painting of Jesus and Mary; the Star of David is prominent and on the walls, intricate carvings of the swastika. Fifteen hundred years old, with intricately-worked columns, stained glass windows, bold arches, oil lamps, many chambers, domes, many levels, handwritten calligraphies, marble doors and gold doors disguised as wood, it’s an assault on the senses. A short walk away is the Topkapi Palace, the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 of their 600-year reign from 1465 to1856.

After four hours, I felt we had time-travelled thousands of years into a royal household of 4,000 people, been presented at court, worn the jewels of favoured queens and mistresses, wandered through the harem with its 300 rooms and pools, past four courtyards, through gardens, mosques, said Salaam to many sultans dressed alternately for war and decadence. This is just the tip of the soul of the city. We stumble out as if drunk with excess into a pink sunset, the silhouette of the Blue Mosque swept by sea gulls, amongst little markets, women in hijabs running to show us their scarves, and stopped for hot chestnuts, and a vendors “special hot drink” of almonds and milk and honey. Istanbul, with its population of 15 million, easily surpasses every city in Europe for its history and architecture.

Despite the European Union’s resistance (mainly France, Germany and Greece) to admitting Turkey (classed as “developed”) into the EU, Istanbul has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2010. The easy mingling of smoking men and women on outdoor cafes on cobbled streets and fashionable girls on the trams wearing skinny jeans make it liberal as any country in Europe. The firm foundations of Turkey’s secularism were laid by its first reformist President Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (with the help of the army’s occasional heavy hand) when it became a republic in 1923. (it is also classified as “developed”). In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi or Covered Market) dome-shaped, with its 4,000 shops that makes you believe that you have entered Aladdin’s cave, with offerings of silver, carpets, glazed tiles and pottery, copper, brassware, alabaster bookends, silver, gold and marble, meerschaum pipes—a cavern out of which I was literally straitjacketed and marched out by my offspring, each holding down an arm and my husband behind me.

It was a miracle that they allowed me into the Egyptian Spice Market, where spices were piled high and vendors in typical eastern fashion said: “If you get cheaper price, I will kill myself,”adding, when they saw my alarm, “But I will never kill you, because you are my beoples (people).” We took the tram to the Dolmabahce Palace with its Bosphorus shore facade nearly a quarter-mile long, with its 285 rooms, 43 salons and its four-and-a-half ton Bohemian glass chandelier again, emerging speechless. But finally, it was the sight of a girl’s fresh face pressed against the window of our restaurant, holding up roses to her flushed face, a smiling vendor warming our hands of apple tea for nothing, combined with the sweep of centuries that made me realise how vital it is to see not with our eyes, but our hearts, beyond words. Happy New Year! 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur