Istanbul in Winter

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body. . . .
—W. B. YEATS, A Vision

The stamps in my passport tell me I have visited Istanbul nine times since 2001. Usually I come in spring when the acacias and quinces are in bloom, or in summer when you look for shade under the plane trees and catch the astringent perfume of fig trees as you walk along the dusty streets. Or else in autumn when you are disappointed to learn that the mosquitoes haven’t died off yet. At first I used to stay in Sultanahmet, because that was where most of the things I wanted to see were to be found. That’s where the ancient church of Haghia Sophia stands, with the Blue Mosque directly across the park from it, and the Covered Bazaar just a few blocks up the Divan Yolu, which has been a main street here for two thousand years. But I soon tired of the postcard sellers, tourist touts and rug salesmen around the Covered Bazaar and the Blue Mosque. So when I came to town I would take lodgings in affluent Bebek or Arnavutköy, where I could stroll undisturbed beside the Bosphorus in the mornings and evenings, eat fish in restaurants along the coast road, and take the ferry across to the quiet waterside villages on the Asian side.

This morning I am writing in my daughter’s apartment in Mecidiyeköy, wrapped in a duvet on the seventh floor, overlooking the maze of streets that wander through this neighborhood, which is home to some of the more than ten million people who have crowded into Istanbul in the last half century. None of the buildings I see outside my daughter’s window even existed in the years when I first came to the city in the early 1960s. Grass once grew on these steep hills that are now lined with ugly six- and seven-story poured-concrete apartment blocks. Sheep grazed here, and vegetable plots flourished, producing food for the city’s markets. The precipitous slopes, calledyokus in Turkish, though paved, look as though someone simply dumped a truckload of hot asphalt at the top and let it run downhill.

A man in my sixties now, I am awake early. A baby tries out its first syllables in the flat below, and my grown daughter and son sleep in their rooms. From down in the canyon-like streets you can hear an automobile horn, tires spinning in the snow, and men shouting instructions to a driver who is trying to get his car unstuck: Gel! Gel! Gel! (“C’mon back! C’mon back! C’mon back!”). A black and white cat picks its way one paw at a time through the snow on the red-tiled roof of the building next door to get a better view of what’s going on in the street below. Later, after people have gone off to work, quiet will return, the midmorning silence broken only by the repetitive cries of street vendors making their rounds: the man who calls out simit!, the hard chewy delicious sesame roll available everywhere in Istanbul; or the junk man with his pushcart, calling Eskici, Eskicii!; or the scrap-metal man, the hurdaci.

Mecidiyeköy is nobody’s slum. It’s rather a working- and middle-class enclave crowded with people doing whatever it takes to put food on the table. People work really hard in Istanbul to make ends meet. Staying in an apartment where the hot water supply is not always reliable and the radiators are often not very warm contributes to one’s sense of what life must be like for most Istanbulites. Our apartment is equipped with its own gas-burning heating unit, but on the balconies of the building I see outside my bedroom window, the occupants have stacked firewood and bags of coal to burn. Every now and then a woman wearing a colorful headscarf comes out to rummage in a burlap bag for a few bricks of coal.

A time or two during the recent snowstorm I have found myself fantasizing about breaking up the furniture and burning it for warmth, as in a Russian novel, or tearing out the wainscoting as they did in nineteenth-century Dublin where a townhouse built a century earlier for one rich merchant’s family could become a tenement building occupied by a hundred people, with a family in every room, hanging up laundry to dry on the ornate Italianate plasterwork, cooking their tea and rashers in the Adam fireplaces.

But that’s fantasy. I have translated the heating unit’s service manual from Turkish into English, and my son Andrew and I fiddle with its water-intake valve, its pressure gauge, and temperature settings. To venture out into the storm, trudging through the snow in the streets, past plastic bags of discarded garbage, is to see the city not as a tourist destination, a place of charm and exotica, or even as the postimperial metropolis Istanbul has been since the last sultans threw in their lot with the losing side in the first world war. An entire sociology of defeated hauteur may be read in the sight of a woman wearing high spike-heeled boots inching her way sideways up an icy yokus in Mecidiyeköy.

Why do we live where we live, go where we go, settle where we settle? In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop muses:

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there. . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

At first one goes somewhere by chance, guided by inclination or reading or having heard about the place from friends—to drink in the beauty of the place, see the sights, listen to its music, smell its smells, sample its cuisine. But as we spend more days of our lives in a place we come to love, friendships are made, connections are formed, lives become linked. On this trip I am here to assist in some transitions. Julia and her husband Sehmuz are moving back to the States for a while to have their baby there, while Andrew is coming here to live for a few months, supporting himself by teaching English as Julia has done, and finishing out Julia and Sehmuz’s lease on the apartment. My son-in-law is away on a brief visit to his family, who live in the South of Turkey.

I first brought Julia to Istanbul for two weeks in May two years ago as a graduation present. She had just got her degree from Sarah Lawrence College, Istanbul appealed to her, and so she decided to move here. In those days I was her guide to the city, her interpreter, the Virgil to her Dante in the Inferno of Istanbul. Now she is my guide. I bask in the luxury of listening to her discuss the menu with a Turkish waiter or guide the cab driver through the labyrinthine streets on our way home at night, appreciating how good and how colloquial her Turkish has become, knowing how rusty and bookish mine is. One generation replaces the next.

*   *   *

It starts to become possible to see the course of my life in relation to the bits of it I have spent in particular places. If I slice through forty years, the days I have spent in Istanbul appear, like a cross-section of the whole, as an accumulation of selected moments. My memories and half-memories of Istanbul start to form a waking dream that says as much about me as it does about the city.

I first saw Istanbul in 1964. I was editor-in-chief of a travel guide called Let’s Go, and I was island-hopping around Greece checking hotel and restaurant listings when some traveling companions invited me to join them on a trip here. It wasn’t even clear to me where Istanbul was. Everything about it—its location, language, nationality even—was hazy. I didn’t even know the difference between Turks and Arabs. We were to sail from Piraeus, the port of Athens. That trip is as fresh in my memory as though it had happened only yesterday.

As someone who likes to get to the airport or train station or boat dock early, I took a cab to the waterfront in Piraeus with time to spare that summer night. My friends and I had booked deck passage on a boat to Istanbul that was to sail at midnight. Along the waterfront, souvlaki stands and lemonade vendors were doing a brisk business. Women in black dresses, shawls, and broken shoes were roasting ears of corn over smoky braziers. Ancient Mercedes trucks overloaded with five-gallon olive oil containers and burlap bags stuffed with I-knew-not-what rumbled over the cobblestones, mixing their diesel exhaust with the fragrance of roasting lamb and corn on the cob. Along the quay, ferries and tugs maneuvered in and out among white cruise ships, which loomed sleek and enormous above the fleet of lesser vehicles. The noise of clanking metal, conversational Greek, boat whistles and horns and internal-combustion engines mounted high on the decibel count.

I located a bookstore on a quiet street off the quay that night, deeper than it was wide, no larger or better lit than a cobbler’s or locksmith’s shop. It was in business to supply the needs of travelers like myself, in search of something in English to read on the beach, on trains, on a hotel terrace, in a cafe with little zinc tables and rough chairs set out under a plane tree, where an old man would pull a white handkerchief out of his back pocket and ceremoniously dust off the chair seat before sitting down, then clap his hands imperiously until the waiter appeared with cold water and ouzo.

Poorly stacked, in no kind of order, were orange- and blue-covered Penguin paperbacks—Graham Greenes, Iris Murdochs, and Lawrence Durrells, somebody’s dog-eared college text of Plato’s Republic with a dorm address at Wellesley College written on the inside flyleaf, a copy of Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea (1962) with a lurid cover. I bought a copy of Prospero’s Cell (1945) by Durrell, which I still own, and a book of poems by C. P. Cavafy with Greek on one side and English translation on the other. Friends tell me no such edition exists, but am I to believe them or my memory?

Thus it was in a taverna along the quay in Piraeus that I got my first exposure to Cavafy’s poetry—Cavafy the Alexandrian, the Constantinopolitan, the patron saint of poets who love the demotic civilization of the eastern Mediterranean. Setting my backpack down in a corner, I walked through to the kitchen as one does both in Greece and in Turkey, and pointed to one or two dishes that were simmering in copper pots on the stove. Achilles, Menelaos, Mark Antony, early Christians and late Pagans, the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor John Kantakuzinos—the sprawl of Mediterranean history from the Trojan War to the poet’s own afternoons in thetavernas of fin de siècle Alexandria—filled the little room as I ate lamb and eggplant, sopping up the juices with thick chunks of bread, chasing it down with retsina. All that human drama was contemporary in Cavafy’s eyes (heavy-lidded with ennui, one imagines). Or more precisely, it was contemporaneous, encompassed by the same long continuous moment in time.

Midnight came. By this time my friends had showed up and we boarded, provisioned for the night with a half liter of ouzo and some bottles of cold water. I found a deck chair amidships on the starboard side and wrapped my legs in a rough blanket. Light from the saloon window made it just possible to read Cavafy’s poems. The first that caught my fancy that night was “Ithaka”: ”As you set out for Ithaka / Hope the voyage is a long one. . . .” In my sojournings I had come to see the Mediterranean as a cat’s cradle of connecting threads, space and time fused through trade, conquest, the seepage of ideas. The robust bronze horses flanking the door to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice had been plundered from Constantinople. The most perfect Greek temples were to be found at Paestum in southern Italy, and at Agrigentum in Sicily, site of a famous battle in 261 BC during the First Punic War. In the cathedral at Siracusa, built in the shell of the ancient temple of Diana, I had joined in the gasps and smiles andChe bella! of the church-goers on Santa Lucia’s Day who crowded the darkened sanctuary holding up candles when they saw what seemed like an apparition: a swarthy man with Arabic features carrying on his shoulders a blond angelic child, radiant bearer of Norman genes from the medieval rulers of Sicily.

The prison camp I had seen on the other side of the island of Leros, where enemies of the regime were hidden away, spoke of a brutality that would not have shocked the Byzantines, one of whose favorite punishments was to cut off an offender’s nose and split his tongue. Cavafy’s Hellenism reflected something new to me: not the morning of civilization we associate with classical Greek culture but its late afternoon, when human nature had worn thin and become compromised and debased. These were latitudes that Cavafy’s book, with its orange stain the shape of a butterfly from thetaverna‘s stew, was taking me to. No doubt it says something about me that while I can’t picture my traveling companions or remember their names, what I read remains vividly in my mind. I dozed in my deck chair, feeling the ship roll, hearing the engines strain as the old craft pushed north and east toward Byzantium.

At dawn we docked at some island whose name I have forgotten or probably didn’t catch at the time, these lines from “Ithaka” fresh in my mind:

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
With what pleasure, what joy,
You come into harbors seen for the first time.

I stumbled over to the rail, not unpleasantly hungover, and saw on the quay a marble bas-relief of the winged Venetian lion of St. Mark, his stone paw propping up the gospel. Overhead the blue-and-white Greek flag snapped in the sea breeze like the square sail of a Phoenician sloop. I ordered a cup of strong coffee from the ship’s bar, and inhaled from the harborfront a potpourri of scents that blew offshore: pepper and cloves, sunbeaten Greek oregano and thyme and lavender, and the obliterating salt of the sea. If Ithaka was home and all that was familiar, I wondered if I should ever go back. Cavafy’s verse kept the two realms—the exotic and the homely—in uneasy balance for me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey.
Better if it lasts for years. . .

As we steamed up through the Dardanelles, W. B. Yeats’s lines came to me: “And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” Yeats never visited Istanbul in his waking life, but from his reading and his exposure to Byzantine art he made Byzantium his emblem of the Holy City. His introduction to its art came through the mosaics he saw in Palermo and Ravenna. He was moved by this hieratic mosaic art, and his invocation of the ecclesiastical figures that are depicted there marries impressions of the shimmering, rippled surface made by thousands of tiny squares of color, with the spiritual import of what is depicted.

Byzantine art, and the early Italian religious art of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that imitated it, appeals to us for its hieratic and artificial qualities rather than for the kinetic imitations of life that would later come to typify European art before Modernism. The last stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” boldly captures that sublime artificiality:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The great palace of Byzantium has for centuries been but a memory, its marble perhaps used first in the construction of the Hippodrome and later incorporated in the pavement of the Sultanahmet mosque. It was quarried on the island of Marmara, visible from terraces in this neighborhood when the smog abates. For the traveler who reads history, Byzantium remains a palpable presence. I often think, while crossing the big open space in front of Haghia Sophia at night, of lines from “Byzantium,” the second of Yeats’s sublime poems on the city:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Two empires have come and gone from this stage. Yet there remains a sense of grandeur about the setting—a grandeur not wholly effaced by tourism or the passage of time.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

We docked, that day in 1964, at the foot of Galata, home in Byzantine days to Genoese sailors. I remember the metallic surfaces, the monotone gray, the harshness of the arrival hall where we disembarked and cleared customs. Istanbul does not present a welcoming face to newcomers—perhaps no great city does. It was immediately clear that we were no longer in the Mediterranean, but had entered a climate more Balkan than Aegean, a city that seemed outwardly to have more in common with Sofia or Belgrade—which were also once part of the Ottoman Empire—than with those sunny former seats of empire, Rome or Venice.

I would have been twenty-three then. Among my fellow travelers were two Scotsmen as well as an American girl whom I was trying, with little success, to coax into bed with me. I don’t remember her name, but certain erotic details from the hours we spent in the dormitory at the dingy hostel where we stayed stick with me, mixed with vague images of dusty old kilims rolled up out in the hall, which was paved with marble.

Istanbul in those days was still more like the postwar city described by Orhan Pamuk in his Istanbul, Hatiralar ve Sehir, still more like the old black-and-white photographs taken by Ara Güler than what it has become since. Its population still hovered around one million, and it still conveyed the mood of kasvet or melancholy that Pamuk dwells on. My bones retain a tactile memory of the old rattletrap buses, and I remember the old tickets made of flimsy paper you would buy from a man who hovered around the bus queue. When the conductor had accumulated a pile of these tickets, he would strike a match and, in a tin tray by the driver’s seat, burn them.

Those were the days of black-market currency exchange. The official rate ran to something like seven or eight Turkish lira to the dollar, but you could get twelve or thirteen if you knew where to change your money. I remember the frisson from slipping into a back room behind a shop in the Covered Bazaar and signing over a few travelers’ cheques to a haggard-looking man in a shiny black double-breasted suit, who would then hand over a sheaf of Turkish lira that had clearly passed through many hands. The black market for money is a thing of the past now. You insert your bank card into an ATM machine just like you do anywhere else in the world, and out come crisp Yeni Türk Lirasi. One new lira equals one million of the old, eliminating the confusion of many zeros, the absurdity of paying a man behind a little window 250,000 lira to use the public toilet—a hole in the floor with a place on either side to plant your feet.

Without having heard the word, I had already become aflâneur in Istanbul, wandering endlessly around the city. For a few kurus I would lunch on bread, a plate of pilaki—white beans with onions and hot green peppers—and a bottle of cold water. No one drinks tap water in Istanbul; you don’t even brush your teeth with it. Julia tells me it will give you a headache. Wandering the streets at night I would enter a muhallebici or pastaneand order up a little plate of sticky sweet baklava and a tiny cup of bitter Turkish coffee. On my own I would climb the steep cobbled streets of Pera and Galata, or stroll beside the Sea of Marmara, where rusting Soviet tankers steamed past over the glittering surface of the sea and families with a day off work would spread out a blanket or kilim alongside the crumbling masonry of the Byzantine walls. There these descendants of Central Asian nomads would set up their charcoal braziers, slice up tomatoes, bread, and cucumbers, and grill lamb on skewers just as their nomadic ancestors did on the Asian steppes.

It becomes impossible now to separate the memories of my different visits here. I remember taking the old Orient Express, which by the time I started riding it had little glamour about it beyond its name and the names of the places it passed through. Little flashes of memory come back, impressions of sleeping on the floor of a train with wooden compartments and narrow corridors, a glimpse of the Stalinist state as we passed through Bulgaria. Soldiers came on board and stayed there from the border of Yugoslavia to the border of Turkey, waking the sleepers and intimidating the passengers with their loud voices. Early in the morning on one of these trips a brass band was playing on the platform of the first station inside Turkey.

When my first wife and I came here in 1967, did we drive overland or bring our Volkswagen by ship, its fenders dented from the thick ropes that were used to lift the car on board when we sailed from Piraeus to Crete, to Mykonos, to Rhodes? From this distance in time I can’t remember. I do recall bathing in the Black Sea at Kilyos and then smoking hashish on the roof of the Pudding Shop in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s way station on the hippie trail to India in the sixties and early seventies. Late one night I remember going to the john in a building in Çemberlitas, standing over the toilet, when suddenly the light bulb hanging down on its cord began to swing rapidly back and forth. At first I thought it was just that I was very stoned, and then I realized that an earthquake was occurring.

In my student days I learned to get around the city by bus, on the wheezing old boneshakers that used to run before the fleet was modernized. Then somehow I became middle-aged, with money in my pockets, and like the Turks whom I knew, I got into the habit of taking taxis everywhere. Now on this trip, under my daughter’s tutelage, I am taking buses again, finding that the slow journeys give me leisure time to relish sights glimpsed out the window of a bus, noticing street signs I have seen before, like Peri Çikmaz, “the cul-de-sac of the Fairy,” which you pass on your left as you travel north on the coast road just beyond the Besiktas ferry landing.

If you take the bus up the steep slope from Besiktas you get a fleeting glimpse of how beautiful parts of the city must have been before the age of concrete. You glimpse the lime-sherbet green of a mosque beside a ruined Ottoman mansion whose plaster walls are still painted a lovely unripe plum color though all its windows are missing their panes—and beside these two a gateway with a pointed arch, leading who knows where? When I take a bus or taxi up the Bosphorus on the European side, I like to stop and have a look at the old Egyptian Embassy’s summer quarters by the harbor at Bebek. It is an Art Nouveau mansion, now going seedy and weedy.

Going by bus down the slope that swings around from Taksim to the Atatürk Bridge, you see the downhill fringes of Beyoglu streets that descend from Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street of what was once called Pera, where Greek, Jewish, Armenian, and European merchants once lived in smart Art Nouveau apartment buildings. Dilapidated and down-at-heel, paint blistering off old walls, an old wooden mansion survives in the Ottoman style, and you wonder whether it will be torn down or bought up and restored. Many of these now derelict apartment buildings are fantasias fronted with classical pilasters, round arches, projecting bays that imitate the old Turkish houses that set rooms out over the street. Levantine architecture in the early twentieth century was eager to Europeanize, yet kept Orientalist fantasies alive. With old buildings left to fall into ruin, just as in earlier days whole neighborhoods of the city’s wooden houses burned or were cleared to make way for wide boulevards, the city is a theater of rot and renewal.

I like to wander over to the Beyazit Mosque, the first imperial mosque complex to be built in the city, near the Grand Bazaar but on the far side of it. Not many tourists go there. Today I have taken a bus and a tram and come to spend a couple of hours here. Beyazit II, son of Mehmet the Conqueror, was the most spiritual and ascetic of the sultans, and there is a story about him that I shall give in a moment. His father amassed a large collection of Christian icons, books and artifacts which, after his death, Beyazit reportedly sold in the Bazaar. Mehmet’s ecumenical spirit may have been too latitudinarian for his more devout son. But he also established the Galata Mevlevihanesi, where you can watch the dervishes do their turning, and he welcomed Sephardic Jewish refugees after their 1492 expulsion from Spain and Portugal. He was forced to abdicate and was probably poisoned by his son Selim (the Grim).

It can be tricky translating key words from any language into any other. Turks would normally use the word ruh to identify what we call the soul. A related word is nefis—defined by the Redhouse dictionary as “real self, essence, essential nature (of a person)” and also, “bodily desires, cravings of the flesh.” In Islam nefis is usually thought of as an appetite or desire that would lead men to evil, but not as a separate creature or substance, as Evliya Çelebi uses the word in his seventeenth-century chronicle of Ottoman life. Here is the story of Beyazit’s struggle with his nefis as told by Çelebi:

The last seven years of his life he ate nothing which had blood and life in it. One day, longing much to eat calves or sheep’s feet, he struggled long in this glorious contest with his soul [nefis]; and as at last a well-seasoned dish of the feet was put before him, he said unto his soul, “See, my soul, the feet are before thee; if thou wishest to enjoy them, leave the body and feed on them.” At the same moment a living creature was seen to come out of his mouth, which drank of the juice in the dish; and after having satisfied its appetite endeavoured to return from whence it came. But Beyazit having prevented it with his hand from re-entering his mouth, it fell on the ground, and the sultan ordered it to be beaten. The pages kicked it to death on the ground. The mufti of that time decided that, as the soul was an essential part of a man, this dead soul should be buried; prayers were performed over it, and the dead soul was interred in a small tomb near Beyazit’s türbe. This is the truth of the famous story of Beyazit II having died twice and twice been buried.

The courtyard of the Beyazit Mosque offers a few square meters of sanctuary in the midst of the city. While a little girl dressed all in pink prattles away to her mother, who is draped from head to foot in a black çarsaf, a young man performs his ablutions at the fountain that dominates the center of the courtyard. The arches of the arcade on four sides of this interior space are supported by stout columns of verd antique and porphyry the color of arterial blood, all of them in need of a good scrubbing to cleanse them of the effects of air pollution. In one corner a gray-bearded man sits reading a newspaper.

Passing from one portal to another, north to east, west to north, people come and go on their daily journeys. I sit and quietly contemplate the characters and life-paths of the two young people I have come to Istanbul to spend time with. I am proud that both of them have grown up to be tolerant and open to ways of living that have little in common, on the surface, with their own. Any parent should be humble about whatever influences he or she might have passed on to the next generation. But in Julia at the age of twenty-seven I recognize my own interest in religion and spirituality, and in Andrew at the age of twenty-five I see reflected my scholarly side, interest in architecture and history, attention to detail. Soon I will have a grandson, Hamza. In him the blood of farmers and professional people from Tennessee and Massachusetts will be mixed with that of a family of similar background from Tarsus.

There is a solemnity, a heaviness here that typifies a certain aspect of Ottoman taste. One sees a nineteenth-century version of this quality in rococo palaces like the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi that were built in the twilight of the dynasty. The ablutions fountain is as pompous, overbearing, and likable as a Gladstone bag or your old Aunt Bertha. Part of the effect comes from the proportions of the courtyard it occupies: It is less spacious than those of the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Suleymaniye. Still it has fanciful touches such as the wavy voussoirs of the arches in the arcade. Gray marble alternates with ornamentation of emerald green and ruby red stone, almost maroon—or does that color come from decades of the city’s petrochemical smog?

After sitting here for half an hour, looking up at the way the main dome is supported by subsidiary domes, in a clustering effect that is part of the beauty of Turkey’s sacred architecture, I go out and walk across the space between the mosque and itsmedrese, shaded by huge çinars, the big plane trees that thrive in Istanbul as they do in other cities built on the water. I want to look at the mosque from a distance. It’s pleasant to see how the afternoon sunlight, still wintry but with a breath of spring, brings out the slate blue panels with which the exterior of the mosque is faced, and to appreciate the brick and stone fancy-work that decorates the larger of the two minarets. The stone of the mosque is a warm, brownish gray, almost buff, topped by the gray leaded domes that look almost blue in today’s mild sunshine. If I were better informed I could identify this type of marble for you. Throughout, the exterior of the mosque is complemented by little decorative touches of burnt red.

I’ve had a good long look at the Beyazit now, so I pay for my tea and move once again, to yet another tea garden in another corner of this huge square—my new coign of vantage is situated under plane trees that are as large as any in Istanbul, alongside one entrance to the mosque, just outside the gates of the booksellers’ bazaar. Every lover of this city will have his or her favorite çay bahçeler, places to sit outside and take one’s keyif, one’s pleasure. If I had to pick three, one would surely be the tea garden outside the Archaeological Museum uphill from Gülhane Park, where one drinks one’s tea among fragments of classical statuary. Another would be theÇinaralti tea garden alongside the Bosphorus on the Asian side in Çengelköy. The third is here, between the Beyazit Mosque and the booksellers’ market.

Most of the tea drinkers here are men. No one seems to be in a hurry. Conversation proceeds at a leisurely pace. At one table a young man has a suitcase full of clothes he is offering for sale. Another man has a small screwdriver out, trying to repair a mobile phone. At a little folding table an older gentleman—around my own age—has prayer beads for sale, some of them wooden, some amber, some made from plastic that looks like amber. You could tell whether the amber is real by lighting a match underneath the beads and seeing whether they burn. Amber doesn’t burn. A cleric in a white turban and a long camel-hair coat joins the clump of men who are examining the prayer beads. I know without counting that each string of beads should have ninety-nine, for the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah—the many different faces of God.

People smoke cigarettes and talk aimlessly. These conversations under the plane trees will continue, long after all of us here today are dead and gone. My eye is drawn high overhead to a jet plane, glistening, silvery in the rinsed late-winter sky, like the plane that will take me home to Ireland in two days’ time. But I’ll be back. In this crowd of ruminative, grandfatherly men I don’t stand out—or if I do, no one makes me feel I do. And why should they? I am not a stranger.


Richard Tillinghast (USA, 1940)


About the Author 
Richard Tillinghast is the author of seven books of poetry. His eighth, The New Life, is due out next year from Copper Beech. Also in 2008 a collection of his literary essays called Finding Ireland will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press. He lives in the country in Ireland.



The Southern Review
Louisiana State University


The cover image is: Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Eton, The Provost and Fellows of Eton College
By permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College. The work is on show at ‘Aldo Manuzio. Il Rinascimento di Venezia’, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice (IT), until June 19, 2016

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