||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
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
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!