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Friday 25th Nov 2005
In "Istanbul", Orhan Pamuk's introspective semi-autobiography, he says "For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I've spent my life either battling with this melancholy, or (like all Istanbulllus) making it my own." At first I thought his outlook was a little too bleak but I too came to feel his 'huzun' for Istanbul, a Turkish word that means something like 'melancholy'.
I went to Istanbul with high expectations on a five day trip from my home in the heart of Europe, Prague. Prague is a lively and beautiful city with its own long history and I set out from there with faint notions of dipping into the 'exotic east' and the history of the Ottoman Empire, Byzantium and Constantinople. The history remains but sadly the exoticism has all but been obliterated by Turkey's ruthlessly organised tourist trade. Touches of the exotic still linger however and you are woken from your sleep at dawn every morning by the mingled cries of seagulls and the wailing of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
The trip from Prague was easy and uneventful, reminding me how well organised Europe is and how far from everywhere Australia feels in comparison. Upon arrival I immediately sought out a book which would give me some insight into the city and a little historical context for my sightseeing. I rejected a number of ancient and modern chronicles written by foreign authors and instead opted for Orhan's "Istanbul", his newly published "Memories of a City".
Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952, has lived in the wealthy suburbs of Nisantasi his whole life and rarely leaves the city. Initially a painter and almost an architect he turned to writing at the age of 23 and he is arguably Turkey's most important author. His books such as "The Silent House" and "My Name is Red" have won him international awards but critics refer to him as self-absorbed and at home he faces prosecution for his stance on Turkey's Kurdish and Armenian history.
Istanbul is a beautiful city - from a distance. It clusters around the shores of the Golden Horn and the minarets pierce the sky while seagulls wheel around them in white constellations. Ferries chug their smoky way back and forth across the foaming waves of the Bosphorus and old men hawk fish sandwiches and simit, a circular Turkish sesame bun, on the wharves. From a distance you could be forigven for thinking the Ottoman empire was still at the height of its glory. Closer up, more of the dirt and decay is evident and the city looks a little threadbare and worn. Leprous concrete drips from neglected houses, trash piles up on the pavements and even the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia squat rather than gleam in the sunlight.
But Istanbul is a conveniently organised city for the tourist with a phenomenal wealth of history crowded into Sultanahmet, a tiny triangle of land wedged between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. In this one suburb you can find : the Blue Mosque, the only six-minaretted mosque outside of Mecca, completed in 1616; the Aya Sofia, built as a Byzantine church in 537AD, then converted to a mosque and now a museum; the Topkapi Palace and Harem, a sprawling complex of palaces that was home to the Ottoman sultans for four hundred years; the Basilica Cistern, a subterranean water chamber that fed Istanbul from its 80,000 cubic metres of water; the Suleymaniye Mosque finished in 1557 and possibly the best work of the imperial Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan; and many others.
In our five days we barely scratched the surface of the wealth of treasures jam-packed into Sultanahmet and the rest of the city. But for all the historic buildings crammed into this little corner of the globe, the mosques and the palaces felt like lonely, empty shells without their worshippers or their harems. Even the Aya Sofia with its long and intriguing history and its newly restored and glowing mosaics left me feeling hollow.
The people of Istanbul were more impressive than their monumnets.
In the Grand Bazaar we haggled with good natured merchants over jewellery or trinkets and then succumbed at a price less than half of their original bid but double their profit margin. In the Akseri Museum near Taksim, north of the city, we sat in on a raucous and lively performance of the Mehter, the oldest military band in the world. The marching soldiers filled the air with thudding drum beats and wailing zurna (a wooden oboe-like instrument) that reminded me of the muezzin's ululating call to prayer. Later we caught a ferry up the Bosphorus to look at ruined castles and then, when we got caught in a freak snow storm, staggered into a local coffee shop that was packed with students. We spent a couple of hours drinking thick black Turkish coffee and apple tea and waiting for the storm to pass.
It didn't help that we were visiting Istanbul in the dead of winter, when the tourist crowds are long gone and the restaurant owners stare forlornly at you over ranks of empty tables. In summer the city must ring with the cries of touts and the feeble protestation of tourists as they try to fend them off. The streets must be bursting with jostling throngs of people and the trams and buses stuffed with guidebook toting strangers.
But this was Orhan's favourite time of year too. He despised the summer and sought out the misty half-light of winter, preferring to see the city in "black and white" and "breathe in the melancholy". His downbeat view didn't match the gushing praise my Lonely Planet lavished on every nook and cranny of Istanbul, but somehow I have to think he has the better measure of the place. Although the Turks are pushing hard towards a bright future they are dragging along the baggage of a vanquished empire, constantly reminded of it by the crumbling monuments of Istanbul.
As I told my taxi driver on the way back to the airport, most Australians come to Turkey looking for a bit of our own history at Lone Pine, Gallipoli. We don't often stop to take in the vast breadth of Turkish history and when we do we are slightly puzzled by the Turkish apathy.
They are so close to their history where we are so far from ours. Their country is their own monument and now, they prefer to reinvent themselves and their nation, seeking a brighter future instead of lingering on the mistakes of the past. Perhaps we should too.