19.8.09

Istanbul

You see, I have this theory. It runs a little something like this. Cities that have been the capitals of large empires are likely to be more interesting architecturally, culturally, historically, gastronomically... The concentration of people, patronage and loose money would create an explosive cocktail of new ideas, which will leave behind a mountain of monuments to ponder and ponce over.

Now. Istanbul has been a capital of empire for a millennia and a half (give or take). That’s a mind-blowing amount of time. It actually takes my mind and blows it up. I love Rome and London to bits, but Istanbul (according to my little theory) promises to be something else. This summer I took a break from stewing aimlessly in Bulgaria to go visit.

The little sister was the organizational force behind the expedition, and she had brought a friend of hers called Charlie. For some reason, people think such a party traveling together is weird. What can I say? I’m one of those people who likes his sister and her friends. They shall henceforth be referred to as ‘sis and Chaz’, because I find it funny and they’ll find it annoying. I am an older brother, after all.

Sis and Chaz decided to do all the historical stuff on the first day. I had thought that I would have to drag them around the things I found interesting while they sulked behind me, but that was totally not the case. Which was really great. So we began. Istanbul’s blockbuster historical attractions are all in a row: the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya Mosque (former church), and the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans. The guidebook bought in London was (of course) forgotten in Bulgaria. But this didn’t really matter, because it’s obvious what these gigantic feats of architecture and engineering were about: shock and awe. Look on my works, y’all, and get with how amazing I am. Regular people can’t do this sort of thing. Now, down on your knees and worship me like good little poor people.

Istanbul, as I expected, has a lot of this going on. It’s stuffed fit to burst with mosques, built by the rich and powerful to exhibit how rich and powerful (and pious) they are. This is a timeless practice. To illustrate, let’s start with the Hippodrome. This used to be a race track (for chariots, dumb-ass), but is now a Hippodrome-shaped garden, with little but the three obelisks at the centre remaining. The first celebrates the Roman Emperor Theodosius. On all four sides of the base, a crowd of the great and the good appear to acknowledge the Emperor. Look at all the people who do what I want, he silently says. You are gonna do the same. On top of this layer rises a brown obelisk with Egyptian hieroglyphs running down the four sides. I’ve subsequently learned that this bit was originally built outside Luxor some 3500 years ago. Why is it here? The kingdom of Egypt was the first great civilization, and look! the Romans have swallowed it up. Surely this civilization is even greater still. Doesn’t Cleopatra’s Needle in London communicate exactly the same idea about the British Empire?

The other two spires are less interesting, so lets move on to the Blue Mosque on the left. Boy is it a big un! It’s a fully functional place of worship, and so free, a fact that will become significant later. Sis, Chaz and I queued up, took off our footwear, and sis donned a blue poncho thing that covered her shoulders, helpfully provided by an attendant. Because shoulders equals sex, apparently. And a mosque is no place for sex. You got that, Mr. Rushdie?

We walk in. Intricate patterns on the carpet. Golden calligraphy everywhere. A mass of lights hanging from the ceiling. What is immediately striking is the emptiness of the place. No pews, no alter, no nothing. You sit on the carpet and you bow towards Mecca, the direction indicated by a simple golden arch on one of the walls.

From my half-forgotten school lessons, I knew that Islam forbids any visual representations of animals and people, to ward against the worship of idols. No icons of saints or grimacing gargoyles here. Instead, Muslims are encouraged to focus on the words of Allah, exclusively recorded in the Qur'an in the divine language of Arabic.

Thus, Arabic calligraphy is a huge part of the way Islamic culture expresses itself artistically. And the calligraphy is beautiful, much more so than the blocky Latin script we are lumbered with. But if you can’t read it (a huge limitation) it is at the end a rather abstract thing to look at.

The same can be said of the other visual elements in the Mosque. The very tops of the domes suggest the sun/Allah shining down on the world. The calligraphy around the domes and on the tops of the pillars show how Allah’s presence in the world can be understood through the words in the Qur’an. From the floor, minutely detailed plant-like patterns creep upwards towards the sky, seeking Allah’s luminescence. In this way, the Mosque offers a simple life/humanity/Allah structure of the universe, where everything is working its way to the most high.

But this is pretty much the only story being told. The sanction against animal and human images seems part of a more general aversion against images carrying any kind of meaning. Every shape -- be it doorway, sun disc, or flower -- is stylized into abstraction. The decorations I encountered, not just in the Blue Mosque but in all the buildings I saw that day, was always impressively intricate, and sometimes very beautiful, but they never made me feel or think very deeply. It’s almost as if Islamic artists held back their ideas, because they felt that more arresting images would distract away from the purity of thought present in the Qur’an. I can’t help but feel this attitude to be a severe limitation. Angels, saints and cloven-footed devils may be profane imaginings, but at least they provide the tools for European artists to express and convey every human emotion under the sun. And for me, when it comes to the visual arts, people are far more interesting than the metaphysical shape of the universe.

So I was left slightly put out on the artistic side of things. Now as we make our way over to the Aya Sofya, I’m going to address a slightly more mundane issue, namely, how Istanbul treats its tourists. The Aya Sofya was originally a church, built around the time the Roman Empire was starting to crumble. This makes the building more than 1400 years old, a fact immediately apparent as you approach it. It doesn’t look Medieval. It looks Ancient. With the fall of the Byzantine empire to the Turks 600 years ago, it was converted into a mosque. Now, it’s a museum, which means you pay to get in. 20 lira to be exact (about £8). This, to people used to Bulgarian prices (and free museums in London) was kinda steep. What they didn’t tell us at the door was that the building was being retouched. All the mosaics in the gallery had been taken out and replaced with photographs. More upsettingly, a quarter of the giant nave was obscured by scaffolding, meaning you couldn’t appreciate the full effect of being inside this massive space.

I understand that closing the entire museum would be even worse. But being informed about the restoration, and being given a discount, would have mitigated some of the disappointment I felt as I wandered inside. As it was, the thing that struck me most about the building was the eight giant wooden shields hung up around the nave, all bearing different calligraphic inscriptions, gold on black. Standing underneath them all, you could imagine how those words bored into the skulls of the faithful at prayer. Again, I was hit by the repercussions of being unable to worship idols. You end up worshipping words instead. I learned later that the shields bore the names of Allah, Muhammad and the founding fathers of Islam. Sometimes the simplest brands are the best.

The final thing on the list was the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans. Another museum, and another 20 lira to enter. And again, another disappointment lurked inside. To enter the harem section of the complex -- the Sultan’s personal rooms (not just a brothel, you bunch of perverts) -- another 15 lira (£6) had to be shelled out. I dutifully paid up, having come all the way and not wanting to miss out, but sis and Chaz had had enough and decided to sit it out. They chose wisely. Having become acquainted with the intricate abstract patterns of the Turkish style, both in the mosques and the rest of the Palace, I was left underwhelmed by more of the same. Instead, by far the most interesting part of the museum was the treasury (no extra charge for entry), which is both extensive and magnificent. As much gold and precious stones as you could ever want to see. In particular, your eye will be grabbed by a giant 85+ carat diamond shaped like a droplet. Jewels don’t really hold much of a mystique for me, but staring at that, I could understand why some people get all worked up about them.

As you can see, from our adventures on the first day we three explorers were often confronted with the sensation of paying too much for stuff and being cheated out of our money. Such feelings recurred for the remainder of our stay. Istanbul is an expensive city. We paid London prices for food and drink everywhere we went. Going out is actually more expensive than in London. We were forewarned about this, and so abstained from partying. But two (achingly beautiful) Danish girls staying at our hostel did go to a nightclub, supposedly the biggest in Europe, where they had to pay 50 lira (£20) to enter, and a further 20 lira (£8) for a drink. Prices in Denmark are similar, they told me, so for them the cost was bearable. The old lecherous sugar daddies found inside weren’t, however. Sucks to be good looking, it seems.

High prices infuriate me, but I’m a cheerless miser. What would depress anyone is the accompanying feeling of being constantly ripped off. Prices in restaurants are written down, but you don’t get any price tags in shops. Instead, the shopkeeper takes a look at you, listens to the language you speak, and then decides how much to charge you. I think you are expected to bargain, as you are in the bazaars, but none of the tourists in the incredibly touristy centre of the city do, so it’s awkward trying.

Another thing. Restaurants and bars usually have one, sometimes a couple, of waiters outside attempting to rope in customers. These can become very annoying as you’re walking through the city. We ended up actively trying to avoid certain streets in order to not have to deal with the hassle of rejecting the salesmen. The only real way of luring customers they have is to offer reductions on an individual basis, meaning that every time you sit down somewhere you are conscious of the fact that others around you will be getting a different percentage, or that you could have found a better deal somewhere else.

Then there’s the outright trickery. On the first day, after all the cultural stuff, we sat down at a cafe and ordered up a nargile bubble pipe, without being aware of the price they charged for it (it wasn’t written down in the menu). When the bill came, we found that they had charged us 20 lira. The next day we found a lovely place between the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque that offered one nargile for 12 lira, with unlimited coal top-ups. We had been played.

On the third day we took a taxi to the Bus Station in order to see Chaz off (his part in our adventures had come to a close). During the journey, the driver occasionally inquired about our stay: where we were from, whether this was our first visit and so on. He was sizing us up, and not in a particularly subtle manner, either. When we arrived, the meter spat out a bill for 50 lira, even though we were aware that the average cost for that journey was around 30 lira less. Uncomplaining, my sister handed a 50 over, which the driver whipped away. He immediately handed back a 20, and pretended that we had given the wrong amount. In the subsequent confusion, we ended up paying another 20 lira before we left him, still shouting at us.

All of these encounters soured my experience of the city. Services are always provided with a smile, but you cannot escape the nagging awareness of duplicity and deceit running underneath all the friendliness. Rather strangely I ended up missing the brusk, uncaring service you often find in Bulgarian restaurants and shops, because at least it’s honest. They’re not constantly trying to fleece you. Bulgarians are paid shit, they need a cigarette and would prefer you to be on your way as quick as possible. I’m comfortable with that. It’s a lot simpler than the palaver you go through in Istanbul.

So where does that leave my little theory? I walk away from Istanbul -- imperial capital of imperial capitals -- rather disappointed. A massive city clogged up with traffic, few green spaces to sit and chill in, prices inflated at the merest whiff of a tourist, and streets stuffed with salesmen who harass you as you’re walking by. And this was just the centre. The suburbs we passed on the way looked like the worst kind of hellhole -- high-rises, hypermarkets and desolate, littered beaches. The only pleasant architecture we encountered on the trip was in the Galata area -- the Genoese quarter of old -- where a certain Mediterranean flavour remained.

In all, the mosques were impressive, and the Bosphorus is beautiful (we took a ferry down it on the second day), but these things weren’t enough to really inspire a sense of the majesty and incredible age of the place. It didn’t act on my imagination in the way Rome or London does. I didn’t feel like I got a true sense of the Constantinople of the Byzantine Empire, or the Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire. Every historical monument I encountered had the air of a tourist trap. The city felt dirty, guileful and mendacious. But not even in an alluringly grotesque Dickensian way, as London (also pretty grimy and mean) can feel.

Perhaps I just had a particularly bad time of it all. I certainly didn’t see everything, and there may have been many amazing things I missed. That said, I’m not particularly keen on going back. I would rather face the shame of having my little theory on imperial cities thoroughly buried than risk further attempts at salvaging it.

So don’t go there. Go to Bulgaria instead! The beer is good and the women are beautiful. There are beaches and shitty euro-house nightclubs. Everything is cheap as chips. And you can go hiking in the Balkans. And there are gorgeous tomatoes with feta cheese to eat, with apricot brandy on the side. And did I mention how the women were beautiful? And that the beer was good? All that sure beats a 1600-year-old imperial capital from where I'm standing. Not that I’m biased or anything...

1 comment:

  1. welcome back!

    ps.: I'm afraid your remark came too late for Mr. Rushdie...

    ReplyDelete