1. The Evil Eye
3. The Dogs
4. Gülhane Park
6. The Ottomans
7. The Old City
1. The Evil Eye
Against the Evil Eye – the evil eye is a hybridic hermaphroditic Zwitter form – both present and absent – one assumes it is present, invisible or incognito which is not the same thing – thus on or around every doorway one can find that blue and white orb with its bottomless black pupil – the glassy facsimile of an eyeball – and also on the wooden pillar in the midst of the crowded brightly illuminated dining room of the Circassian restaurant Ficcin on Kallavi Sokak off Istiklal Caddesi. The placement of this protective amulet shows that the inhabitant, proprietor of the place anticipates and expects that the evil eye will cross his threshold or occupy his room – and because he won’t necessarily recognize the carrier of the evil eye he must insure himself against any presence. (Similar to the ways the Jews position their mezuzah on their doorposts, where it is an inconspicuous transcendental amulet against the evil eye but also a magnet for divine protection.)
Each person who enters or stays in the room for any period of time is potentially the evil eye or himself exposed to the evil eye. He is the danger and the endangered one. Can there be an unintentional evil eye? Over the doorway of our hotel in the Sirkeci district is an almost imperceptible amulet against the evil eye. From a distance one can hardly discern the concentric alternating blue and white circles. The amulet against the evil eye is hiding in the open just like the evil eye itself. The evil eye is also a nomad (a roaming eye).
The blue cyclopic eye with its abyssal black center adorns the anniversary shopping bag of one of the better supermarkets, Carrefour – quite invisible if you’re not expecting it – riding in the digit zero of the 20 years’ anniversary logo. As if the eye were itself on the jubilee committee – had granted itself its own remission from sin and is now harnessed to the good of the company, part of the grand Sabanci Holding.
Should one welcome the evil eye in the manner Rumi urges one to welcome sorrow, bad thoughts, evil intentions etc in his poem about the human as a guest house? Perhaps welcome it with tears like the Tupinambá tribe in Brazil welcomes travellers and guests– and sing its praises weeping.
Bloch is the self-confessed philosopher of hope. Montaigne says that both fears and hopes take us away from ourselves – he doesn’t consider that such a good thing. Is fear just another sort of hope – a hope against the hope – the fear that something will happen or has happened is the hope at the same time that it hasn’t or won’t. Is Bloch’s hope just a kind of disguised or muted Sorge – Heidegger’s projective Care – the fear-laden condition of Dasein? The futurity of fear? Can hope look backwards in the direction of Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’?
But what sort of hope does Bloch mean? What does it look like? Or at? Bloch’s prose is often tinged with a nasty sneering shade – especially when he speaks of the urinous odour of the delusions of the ‘little man’ or ‘average man on the street’ – alias his hopes, ambitions and malicious wishes for others. The evil eye of the little man. Bloch’s description of the shabby hopes of the little man sound themselves like the voice or throat of the evil eye – or is he only the mirror of the evil eye? When the evil eye looks in the mirror what does it see? Hope? The story of Snow White and her stepmother is a story of a magic mirror and disappointed hope. When the evil eye spoke out of the mirror to the wicked Queen it was a truth telling eye – it could not lie to the Queen and tell her only what she wanted to hear – that she was the fairest in the land.
Bloch’s hope docta spes has the form of the evil eye – full of hope for harm to befall the other – and as a result benefit the evil eye – the evil eye is brimming with hope – otherwise it would be an evil arm or hand – the eye moves by its gaze – in its gaze is its longing in other words hope – that those evil eye wishes (hope) will translate themselves into coming events and circumstances. Can the evil eye be struck by melancholy – the other side of longing? (See “Nacht der langen Messer” in Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung Kapitel 1-32, Frankfurt, 1985, pp. 32-23) The spy and the informer are professional evil eyes.
By night and by water – swimming in the deep pools of your Bosphorus eyes
On the far left corner of the reception desk – the corner closest to the entrance is a copper bowl on a pedestal with a selection of complimentary ‘boiled sweets’ – our favourites are the toffee flavoured ones with the old-fashioned name of simply milk or sütlü (milky as in milky way). These are hard flat sweets with round edges and a dip in the middle wrapped in clear paper twisted at both ends; one can imagine a whole clan from Uzbekistan or Syria in an upstairs flat of a family building, at work wrapping these fragile sweets called Miss Kent bonbon, - the names though are spaced far apart on the wrapper. The sweets have much the same shape as the glass amulets against the evil eye (the glass eye) – and they seem to be looked down upon by their glass prototype over the door – and they look back and up coyly. How sweet it is to suck on the evil eye as one goes out the door into the sunshine of the Istanbul street scene.
The gaze of the lover is also the evil eye. Nothing is so likely to attract the evil eye as the gaze of the lover. What was the story of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz besides a divine love story – than the story of the evil eye? The ransom offered in advance by Shams – for the possibility of such a love, predestined the course of their love – he offered his head – his evil eye.
In a brief note Baudelaire connected love, magic and the evil eye: “De la puissance du philtre et de la magie en amour, ainsi que du mauvais oeil. Essence divine du cercle vicieux.” Meaning the evil eye is also divine and its shape is the ‘vicious circle’.
We live in the age of the evil eye – the age of the camera – and ‘everyman’ the photographer. It is the ‘world viewed’ as Cavell paraphrasing Heidegger’s Zeitalter des Weltbildes – called his ode to the movies, or those movies he had invested with his own ‘evil eye’. But as an ‘evil eye’ he knew how to avoid another such ‘view’. Cavell admits to having seen enough of Heidegger’s essay just having heard the title: “I have half-deliberately avoided that essay; I have enough problems.” (Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Cambridge and London, 1979, p. xxiii)
The hotel is always a kind of sanatorium – the guests are the patients of the hotel and its staff. This was Thomas Mann’s grand terrain. The headquarters of this hospital is the front desk – where else besides in a hospital is someone guarding you 24 hours a day – especially at night. The night reception clerk is like the duty nurse - often they are of a philosophical turn of mind – the night casts its spell of solitary reflection. But he must also try to fulfil all the whims of the guests arising in the middle of night – for instance when an older gentleman sitting in the gilt and velvet throne in front of the desk imperiously demands body lotion and a hair brush - , besides doing his clerical work, mostly laborious accounts or filing guest registrations.
A tourist is someone beset by travel sickness, the sickness of travel, the compulsion to “sightsee”, to match his brittle (mortal) eye and its pennants of evil against the ancient sights – the hotel with its hospitality (so close to hospital) will either cure him of this hubris or inject him with the incurable longing to return, the Istanbul addiction. He is pilloried in his journey – in a rigid limbo between movement and dwelling.
Derrida speaks about the l’épreuve - ordeal of hospitality (Acts of Religion).
An addiction is a desire, which is never stilled – the more you consume the more you want to consume and be consumed. Théophile Gautier begins his book on his travels to Constantinople warning the reader that each voyage makes you thirsty for the next, but the thirst is intangible, it is the thirst to see which is itself invisible – “ “Qui a bu boira,” assure le proverbe; on pourrait modifier légèrement la formule, et dire avec non moins de justesse: “Qui a voyage voyagera.” — La soif de voir, comme l’autre soif, s’irrite au lieu de s’éteindre en se satisfaisant.” (Théophile Gautier, Constantinople of Today, London, 1854, p. 1) [““Who has drunk, will drink;”— so the proverb assures us — one could modify the formula slightly, and say with certainly no less truth, “Who has travelled, will travel.” The thirst to see, like the other thirst, is irritated instead of quenched when gratified.”]
Is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) merely a realistic fable of travel sickness – the travel of the hero to the Sick City Venice – to the city where he will acquire his fatal illness – the illness of the evil eye of desire – the inward eye, his infatuation of the eye impaled on the antique beauty of a Polish boy – a fellow guest? Antiquity appears in the flesh – not just in the ancient squares and palazzos – the image of the Germanic-Greco koros ambushes him on the Venetian Lido.
Traditionally, as Benjamin discloses in his travel essay on Naples, the ‘old Germans’ associated ‘Greek love’ with Florence, not Venice – so that this kind of love was called Florenzen.
A slight disappointment – the Galata Bridge is not the old wooden bridge of the coloured postcards and of de Nerval’s exclamations when he returns to Constantinople – first to Galata. But the present Galata Bridge is covered in asphalt – and asphalt is much older than the old Galata bridge. Asphalt comes from the city of Hit on the Euphrates in what was then called Mesopotamia. Asphalt was used to build the Tower of Babel. The new Galata Bridge underneath its ancient skin of asphalt resounds in certain places with a hollow metallic sound – especially when one walks across it wearing thick heavy boots, the sound bouncing off the unseen walls of warehouses underneath the bridge, the broad industrial passageways behind the fish restaurants – where sometimes one can see a weary restaurant labourer in his ‘container lounge’ - surrounded by a gathering of large cylindrical vats and half hidden behind a cupboard eating his fish bread (balik ekmek) seated at a dining table made of a blue crate balanced on top of one of those silver coloured barrels.
The fish boats selling fish sandwiches at the end of the bridge also have barrel tables and lower barrel seats set up on the pavement in front of the boats – first you have to purchase the fish bread, a complete fish on half a baguette for 5 TL from the precariously rocking grill boat moored at the foot of the bridge. Then seated at the low table, you can douse the grilled Bosphorus fish lying on its bed of onions and lettuce strips in lemon juice, drink tea for 1 Turkish lira and eat Turkish pickles called Turşu (pronounced turshu) for 1.50 TL – pickled cabbage in a pink brine - purchased from a highly illuminated neon pillbox shaped kiosk nearby. Some people just drink the pickle juice pure as a tonic or aphrodisiac. This is a perfect fish dinner in the company of the Istanbul lights and their trembling reflections in the black waters of the Golden Horn.
The beauty of Istanbul/Constantinople works best at a distance like in a theatre. The city is laid out like an amphitheatre on its hills. Gautier describes the panorama of the Sultanahmet mosque (Blue Mosque) Ayasofya, the streets and the squares of Old Stamboul from a distance as sublimely beautiful – but up close, he says, the minaret is only a whitewashed column, the streets without character etc. How does the sublime reside in illusion even when one knows it is illusion? (Théophile Gautier, ibid., p. 90) The palaces are dilapidated barracks – this would be heaven for a Genet – even up close.
“The waters of the bay reflect and multiply these myriad of lights, and seem to pour a stream of molten jewels.” (Théophile Gautier, ibid., p. 97)
The fish boat waiters wander about clearing tables and serving tea in their traditional uniform of baggy harem pants embroidered in gold and amber à la arabesque on a background of burnt sienna – mirroring the colouring of the fish boats themselves. The fish boat chefs grill masses of palamut (bonito) for the Eminönü crowds streaming by on their way to their busses and ferries till midnight.
From two quite independent and reliable sources we received the same cryptic advice – not to drink ayran, the popular drink made of yoghurt and water and salt, with a balik ekmek. The first informant is Ömer one of the hotel waiters and the second is a young woman named Funda, an “ex-banker” whom we met at the fish boats on the shorefront. If the fish is fresh then it is safe to drink ayran, but if it is not fresh, they warn, this could have unpleasant consequences. This must be a folk wisdom. But I wonder why would one want to eat fish, which is not fresh at all?
3. The Dogs
The wild dogs domesticate the city. They live in it as if in their private rooms. The very first unforgettable image of the ancient monuments is inseparable from the silhouette of an Istanbul dog. It stands late at night in the moist haze, a heavy oblong box-like canine shape with a touch of the wolf, rooted in an otherwise empty Sultanahmet square – the bluish golden light from the fountain and the few restaurants on the square still open for diners or whose waiters are cleaning up and doing the day’s accounts, cascading off its back, tail outstretched, face pointed towards Haghia Sophia and waiting expectantly for what? The return of the Ottomans? Some say the dogs are themselves the revenants of the old Ottomans on a weary never-ending inspection of the remains of their capital city. (Okay, an Istanbullu gifted with Sufi clairvoyance, born in the old neighbourhood of Fatih (The Conqueror) told us this rumour on one of our tours of the city with him. He is a senior member of the ‘guest relations’, equivalent in our hotel to the ministry of foreign affairs.)
The dogs have the fatigued lethargic air of bankrupt owners. The nimble cats dotted amongst the ruins are so light they seem to fly like squirrels from ledge to step to column. They are the winged guardians of the ancient sites and all other ruins.
The dogs no longer roam around in snarling packs as they did when Théophile Gautier explored the back streets of Istanbul in the 185o’s. At least not in the Old City. There they move about singularly and very slowly. You mostly see them just standing in the middle of the footpath. They even stand motionless in the middle of the broad avenues with their masses of hurtling cars. Eventually crossing from one side to the other as if awakening from a reverie. One night on the Eminönü seaside front of the Bosphorus near the ferry station to Kadiköy – on the Asian side – one of those sandy coloured heavy boned dogs is lying motionless on its side in the middle of the wide asphalted footpath. (Their appearance is not unlike the lumbering English breed of blond Labrador Retriever with perhaps some of the same inherited conditions such as obesity, hip dysplasia and tendency to collapse.) All kinds of tourists, especially Japanese, were busy photographing what looked very much like a dead dog – as if lying in an open-air morgue. The dog’s flanks and belly are covered with red bloody tracks or lacerations. He is not just lying on the tarry glistening pavement – he is melting into it. The dog seems finished. All of a sudden it shudders and wakes from some immeasurably deep stupor, some graveyard of dreams. Everyone is surprised. The dog must have an extreme inborn feeling of being safe to just flop down in the middle of the Eminönü crowd’s rush and daily stampede – supposedly 2,000,000 people go back and forth at this point every day. Or it has rather no sense of safety – as an English dog owner told me once about his own manic fluffy dog circling around us frenetically on the forest path. He was always afraid it would disembowel itself whilst running down a slope with a stick in its mouth. Some time later that night the same yellow dog is again ‘dead’ in front of the famous Hafiz Mustafa candy and confectionary shop, in between the outside tables – just a half a kilometre up the hill from its first deathbed on the waterfront. Hafiz Mustafa was founded in 1864 during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz. Right across from the shop is the Sirkeci Gar (Train Station) the cavernous ornate terminal of the Orient Express, built for the Sultan by the Prussians. The dog performs its ‘Scheintod’ (suspended animation) trick at an intersection rich in Ottoman commercial history. I know it is the same dog because I recognize those red lines across its belly.
Samuel Cox the American minister at the court of Abdulhamid II describes the dogs in their packs and even separate republics or rather tribes governed by chief dogs, how they were banished to Prinkipo island but snuck back and that every foreign writer has mentioned the dogs – that it is a tradition to do so and the dogs are actually of a far greater age than the Ottomans having always been on that piece of the world from empire to empire and dynasty to dynasty. He calls them a cross between the jackal and the wolf. (Diversions of a Diplomat in Turkey, New York, 1887, p. 421) The illustration heading the chapter on the dogs is of two such massive animals lying on their side – so the position we saw in Eminönü is also classic.
Cox also describes the squalor of the Bosphorus – the way of disposing of the corpses of horses, dogs, porpoises, calves and other animals just by pushing them into the Bosphorus and expecting the current to carry them off. But often it does not – and the bodies rise to the surface and linger in corners. (Pamuk’s visions of the hecatombs and gargantuan scrapyards lying at the bottom of the Bosphorus – his ‘city in the sea’ - probably contradict the laws of buoyancy.) The caïque boatmen would push the bodies back out into the current but then something called the caïque holes became infested ‘sinks’ of putrefaction. A house above such a hole is tainted by its rising smell. (Samuel Cox, ibid., p. 143) De Nerval’s story about seeing a decapitated human figure in the fish market of Karaköy lying there for some days until finally a Jew gives it the last rites by shoving it into the Bosphorus corresponds to this method of burial.
4. Gülhane Park
Gülhane Park if mentioned at all in the travel guides or travel literature is not considered very praiseworthy. There is nothing much to say about it except that it is there – it is the only park in that part of the old city called Sirkeci with many very tall poplar trees planted in nearly geometrical rows. Their slender trunks and peeling pale bark gives the park a muted wilted wistful air – as if performing in the wind a solemn arboreal dance. Dusty flowers form ragged lines. The empty pool and the red bridge from side to side seem forlorn – on another day when the pool is filled and the air is cooled by fountain spray – almost lush.
Enver from the front desk loves the park. When we ask if it is safe to walk there at night – he says: “At night it’s best.” We like the park at night too – entering from a hidden rear entrance at the end of our street – nearby is the police station. Just one roaming shouting Islamist preacher – he follows you menacingly for a while – but eventually drops back.
The locals like to stroll through Gülhane on the way to the waterfront and the main circular avenue called Kennedy Caddesi - an infernal motorway built on land claimed from the sea along the old Byzantine sea wall. One can lose one’s soul on Kennedy Caddesi and everything else besides.
In the park Istanbullus and tourists photograph one another in front of human sized squirrel statues, bears and other animals in an upright position offering potted plants in waist high pots made to look like tree stumps – perhaps a remnant of the zoo, which used to be in the park. A maiden with long braids holding a large flower basket with outstretched arms is an especially popular backdrop. All of the statues are whitewashed. Inside the park there is one main road paved in light grey stone – maybe marble – and a park attendant frequently drives through in a shiny green truck with big revolving brushes underneath to keep the way polished and spotless. Gülhane appears to be a lover’s park –headscarfed girls in Moslem attire and their amorous boyfriends come there to embrace. The many arbours above the main promenade hidden from direct view are ideal spots for trysts.
Gülhane is only notable as a park for being within the confines of the former Topkapi Palace – now the museum Topkapi. A high stone wall – looking quite ancient, but maybe only from the last century, surrounds the Park. The main entrance of the park is also the way to the national archaeological museums – for this reason alone it is necessary to pass through Gülhane Park. Or at least through the imposing portal. Behind the trees one can just see another fortress type wall at the shadowy top of the park’s slope – it is built on a hill, the traditional topography of a castle mount, the natural position of a fortified dwelling. But it is the backside of the fortress – or its foothills. Gülhane Park belonged to the outer gardens of the Topkapi Saray originally, perhaps a rose garden (gül means rose, hane means house or the square of a chessboard) – and long before the time of the Ottomans this land was the lower town of the Greek city of Byzantium, whose defence walls followed the same lines as the Saray.
We think about the park so much because we live next to it – on the other side of the flesh coloured crenellated wall – the view over the wall is what we see from the narrow balcony of our room – a flattering ‘deceptive’ excerpt of the park – as if it were the grounds of a stately home, the flowerbeds and herbaceous borders, people passing alongside the red rose bushes, the tops of the trees and their bird life, the marble walk. One might expect a flamingo to cross the path.
On the left of the entrance but not so readily visible if one tends to walk and look straight ahead – is a structure described as the audience pavilion of the sultan. Its name is Alay Köskü or Alay Pavilion. It is a round turret topped by a helmet-like Ottoman dome tucked into the corner of the palace wall. The sultan used this round building as a platform to review military parades or the epic ostentatious procession of the 1001 guilds of Constantinople (every fifty years from dawn to sunset) without being seen himself, sometimes in the company of foreign dignitaries. The procession of the guilds was actually a 3-day riotous carnival with much flouting of the Moslem laws against alcohol. The tavern keepers themselves were an enormous guild as were the “thieves and footpads” who were less a danger to the local population, because they paid tribute to the two chiefs of police and were permitted to ply their trade on foreigners. The climax of the procession was a feigned sea battle performed by real ships with pearl encrusted oars and masts on floats and cannon fire between the Ottoman fleet and the infidels – delicious ‘Frankish’ cabin boys would be carried off to man the Sultan’s fleets and bearded infidels would be laid in irons, their crosses smashed and desecrated, accompanied by music, shouts of Allah! Allah! and much drinking. The burlesque victory of the Moslems over the infidels took place in 1638, almost 70 years after the defeat of the Ottoman Navy by the Venetians at the Battle of Lepanto – considered by some Western historians like Fernand Braudel as the end of Turkish sea supremacy.
All revelries took place under the eye of the Emperor at that corner of Gülhane Park.
In later times from behind the grilles of Alay Köskü the Sultan would discreetly observe the comings and goings at the Sublime Porte – the palace of the Grand Vizier. The sultans habitually excluded-included themselves from state occasions. It was their naïve form of surveillance and paranoia. Similarly the Sultan would observe the proceedings of the Divan in the second court of Topkapi palace, listening and watching his viziers debating the affairs of the empire from behind a golden grille in an adjoining elevated chambre séparée. Especially in the case of the Divan, couldn’t a vizier merely postpone any controversial or treacherous consultations to other times and places?
The audience chamber was not so innocent – the fountains inside and outside the pavilion were turned on to make overhearing impossible – if a vizier’s report displeased the sultan he might be strangled with a silken cord by a deaf mute before he left the building.
The Sultans were not always just passive observers – Sultan Ibrahim known as the Mad Ibrahim (1640-1648) – stood at the windows of the Alay Köskü taking shots at passersby with his crossbow. A Vizier could have easily been among the crowd thronging at the Sublime Porte (Bâbiâli) directly across from the parade tower.
The Palace obviously extended its reach to the park in its days of glory. Before it was a park, that corner of Gülhane was simply the furthermost corner of the first court, an outpost, a fancy guardhouse. The existing pavilion is rather old, almost 200 years old, but there had already been a parade pavilion at this strategic point on Alemdar Caddesi. The Topkapi Palace was the residence of the sultan and his family and entire administration for the first 400 years. After that – they moved in the 19th century to the more glamorous Dolmabahçe Palace on the waterfront of the Bosphorus – in Besiktaş.
Almost directly on the outer enclosing wall inside the park is a steep ramp, a cobblestone gangway – rather sinister looking – one could imagine it bearing the last steps of a condemned prisoner on his way to the gallows or the gibbet.
It was this arduous path that foreign dignitaries had to tread when the Sultan in his magnanimity deigned to receive them in his pavilion or kiosk. The Sultans were ever mindful of impressing the foreign emissary with the proper mood of humility before they were allowed to address him – the architecture of the ramp was one of its concrete forms. When they were received in the audience chamber ambassadors were not allowed to look at the Sultan, they had to keep their arms folded across their immobile bodies, heads lowered and eyes focussed on the floor.
Next to the ramp made of crumbling mossy jagged stones or bricks is a narrow flight of shallow concrete stairs of a pale grey white colour. They look easier to climb. The narrow concrete stairs must have been added much later to smooth the approach to the pavilion on top – for tourists and all those wanting to inspect the old sites of the Ottomans. The ramp side of the Alay Kösku is plain, dark and inconspicuous – hardly a service entrance – the street side of the ten-sided tower with its yellow painted wooden grills over arched windows, white and domineering in the sunshine seems to belong to another era.
A dim yellowish light just barely illuminates the interior of the former audience pavilion. A single figure is moving around – in the glass-enclosed foyer. We assume that he works for the palace – or for the palace museum. His appearance there is enough to awaken the spirit of the place – when it was a scene of high diplomacy and subtle humiliations. Ambassadors were accredited to the Sublime Porte, seat of the administration of the Grand Viziers – a compound just outside of the Park gate – on the other side of the tramline. The name suits the wavy seashell like grey coloured canopy with ivory decorated ceiling jutting perilously far over the entrance, on the brink of flying away or crashing down. The Sublime Porte was in Ottoman times synonymous with the government – just as for a diplomat in England St James still stands today for the English court and its government. The American minister or ambassador to Turkey in the 1870s - Samuel Cox referred to himself simply as the “American Minister at the Porte”.
Ambassadors had to physically request their accreditation standing at this gate – the large roof was meant to protect them in inclement weather. Perhaps it was the Grand Vizier and not the Sultan who presided over the obsequiousness of the ambassadors.
It is deepening twilight – we are hesitant but more curious than afraid – we walk up the old ramp and feel its slippery unevenness underneath us. It feels even steeper than it looks. But the other stairs are too narrow and right on the edge of the ramp – so one would be more likely to fall into the weedy chasm below – next to the empty fountain pool – than to slip on the jagged points of the ramp. At the top we can see the inside of the pavilion quite clearly. It looks empty – but somewhere in the dark recesses is a larger room streaked by light from an unseen source. The guard or caretaker is moving close to the door. He notices us staring inside and opens the door a crack. We have few words of Turkish – and he speaks no other language. Somehow he is able to enlighten us about the building and its life today – using a few words we both could understand. He mimes ‘escalier’ – climbing to see the Sultan. But the place has nothing to do with the palace any more – not even with the museum of the palace. The pavilion has shed its connections to the Ottomans or to the preservation of their memory.
The former audience pavilion has been turned over to literature – it is a museum and cultural centre dedicated to a modern Turkish writer of the 20th century - Tanpinar – considered the James Joyce of Istanbul. By the light of a torch we can decipher the name Tanpinar on the sign at the foot of the ramp, but there is no mention of this museum in any of the usual travel guides. The only museum located in Gülhane Park to appear in the guides is the Museum of Islamic Technology – a long yellow two story barrack type building (formerly the stables) in the middle of the park backing onto the surrounding wall. The nobility of literature disappears in the ‘neglected’ park.
Pamuk lists Gülhane Park amongst many other manifestations of hüzün,– not mentioning the Tanpinar museum … “(…) that corner of Gülhane Park that calls itself a zoo but houses only two goats and three bored cats languishing in cages (…)” (Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul Memories and the City, London, 2006, p. 88) Perhaps he wrote that line before the Alay Köskü changed its identity into the Tanpinar museum – but that shift away from the Empire might have awakened in him even more hüzün than the soi-disant zoo. I didn’t see the cages with languishing cats either – the cats were congregated in what might have been a 4th century Roman cistern where they had the ‘droit de cité’. I did see a dog or two chained to a post near some red clapboard structures at the back entrance to the park.
The cistern or whatever other kind of ancient structure it is – stands in the middle of the park – but much deeper than the surrounding terrain. It is a weedy ruin inhabited by cats. Part of its enclosing wall looks ancient – the other part is a simple thin concrete fence. On bumpy sloping ground between haphazardly lying fragments of steps or columns of grey tiles pressed together are weeds, cataracts of ferns, dry leaves and some sleeping cats in the depths. Another cat balances on a very narrow bottom ledge of a crumbling stone balustrade. In the center on a two-tiered ancient pedestal stands a phallic cement structure which looks rather new – under its round cap resting on cement bars it is open at the sides. There is no identifying plaque but the sheer drop from the level of the park to the bottom of this walled area gives one the sense of its antiquity. Even the weeds, which grow there – as if at the bottom of a sunken pool, look older from those in the rest of the park. Just around the corner from the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet Square ,the ‘Milion’, a fragment of a marble stele, the only remains of a triumphal gateway from the time of Constantine (4th century A.D.), stands deep underneath the level of the pavement – many cubits deeper than one would bury a coffin. It is on the corner – next to the street, one could mistake the large trench for road works. The distances to all the cities of the Byzantine Empire were measured from this archway. Sunken ruins demonstrate that the past is truly underneath - below us, we stand on it – that its direction like Hades is downward, just as Benjamin observed of those scarped downhill streets in Berlin – they always seem to be racing off towards the past, to those domains of the hags of the underworld that Goethe calls in Faust II – the Mothers.
Hüzün in Pamuk’s rendering is a peculiar sort of communal melancholy he attributes to the incurable feeling of loss and mourning afflicting the people of Istanbul since the “destruction of the Ottoman Empire”. But wouldn’t ‘languishing in cages’ be the precise description of life further up the hill during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, within the confines of the Topkapi Saray – especially in the Harem – where the misfortunate brothers of the reigning Sultan were also said to have languished in their cage or ‘kafes’ until they left through the Gate of Death. They lived in many small and dark rooms above a colonnade called “The Council Place of the Jinns”. The American Orientalist and Istanbulist, John Freely, speculates that the origin of this name derives from the Sultan’s fear, that his incarcerated brothers were plotting his overthrow with supernatural forces. But from all reports one gathers that the brothers were so addled by their life of confinement that the Sultan could have rested easy on their account. The colonnade leads directly to the terrace of the favourites – showing how close the extremities of fate in the Harem lived to one another.
One guidebook claims the Sultan’s brothers lived completely isolated – except for the company of a few sterilised concubines and the deaf mutes, whose eardrums had been pierced and tongues slit, who guarded them.
In the türbe inside the külliye of Sultanahmet – lie the remains of another ‘autoimmune’ episode in the turbulent history of the Ottoman dynasty, confined forever in a common sepulchre. “Here are buried, besides Ahmet I, his wife Kösem and three of his sons, Murat IV, Osman II and Prince Beyazit. Prince Beyazit, the Bajazet of Racine’s great tragedy, was killed by his brother, the terrible Murat IV, who now shares the türbe with him. Osman II, as Evliya Çelebi tells us, was “put to death in the Castle of the Seven Towers by the compression of his testicles, a mode of execution reserved by custom to the Ottoman Emperors.” And Kösem, as we know, was strangled to death in the Harem.” (Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, Strolling Through Istanbul, London and New York, 2011, p. 111)
The drive to extinguish the dynasty – the Ottoman dynasty’s own apparent death drive – seems at least as mysterious as hüzün – maybe hüzün is a malaise of the soul inherited from the Ottoman dynasty itself, just as one has the feeling the English population suffers from an endemic depression and lovelessness perpetually communicated by their own present dynastic rulers. Not too long ago the English monarch spoke of her annus horribilis.
I asked two venerable Istanbullus if they thought it was true that an innate melancholy clouded the soul and hampered the will of the population. They both affirmed the existence of this condition – but could not easily explain what it is. Emre Bey, who is a clinical psychologist, trauma expert, author and marriage counsellor connects hüzün to the Sufi cult of remembrance or zik’r. One longs for one’s past life – likened to a dead ancestor. (Zik’r is one of numerous Turkish words, which seem to share a common origin with Hebrew – perhaps via the language of the Koran? Zikaron means memory in Hebrew, va’yizkor is the prayer for remembering the dead. Similarly the Turkish word for time – zaman – a profoundly metaphysical category related to memory – is z’man in Hebrew. A most striking common Semitic root nourishes the Hebrew word shilton meaning government and the Arab-Turkish word Sultan – the ruler.)
The highly successful proprietor of a large hotel group in the Old City, Faruk Bey acknowledges the existence of hüzün – although his own temperament shows no signs of any disease of the will. On the contrary, he is a perpetuum mobile of energy. He is popular with guests and revered by his staff as their ‘father’ – almost in the same manner that Turkish people see Atatürk as the father of the Republic. Faruk Bey is a classic modernizer or Westerniser – but also a connoisseur of Turkish culture, cuisine and a collector of Turkish art. He was educated in Austria, his older son is studying economics at the LSE in London and his younger son is studying sociology of food at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul with intentions of becoming a chef. Faruk Bey explains hüzün, a species of the proverbial Oriental fatalism, in the same way as Pamuk – as the indwelling collective feeling of mournful loss after the Ottoman Empire and its glory came to its end - the void in which the Turkish Republic was founded.
When Okay, our metaphysical friend, polymath of Istanbul history says of himself, the smartly tailored major domo of the front desk – he feels adrift, like a kite, so uncertain of who he is and where he is going – is that hüzün speaking through him? Or when Errol, the Epicurean night receptionist and ex-barman, drinks White Horse Whiskey during the daytime, alone, at home on his day off – is he being moved by hüzün, the certainty that it will all turn out for the worst? Although he seems to be the most melancholic of the staff, he is decidedly anti-religious – not a Sufi adept, he rejects the doctrine that this life is fake or counterfeit, worthless, a mere preparation for the real life to come. “This is the only life”, he tells me.
6. The Ottomans
But why are the Turkish people still so attached to the Ottomans? Besides murdering or imprisoning many members of their own family – an exceptional demonstration of self-hatred, the Ottomans drew the main administrators of the empire from non-Muslim minorities of the realm or talented boys captured in the wars – some of them became the so-called white Eunuchs. What chance did an autochthonous Muslim inhabitant of Anatolia have for advancement during the Ottoman rule? Even the women of the harem were non-Muslim slaves – captured or bought from Circassian families in the northern Caucasus or Georgians from the Black Sea, from Armenia, Greece or from any other non-Turkish provenance. The Sultans especially favoured women with golden tresses, fair skin and blue eyes. In The Museum of Innocence Pamuk speculates about the fashion amongst young Turkish women to dye their hair blond, including Füsun the woman the hero loves obsessively. Is this penchant for blond hair a relic of the tastes of the Harem? Many Istanbul girls seem to prefer a red blond shade – sometimes tending toward orange.
But it is not a new fashion. A writer who calls herself a Consul’s Daughter and Wife (awakening all kinds of incestuous associations) recalls in her memoirs of Turkey of the second half of the 19th century, that in those days many women ruined their health by using a very strong dye sold in a small vial. (see The People of Turkey, Twenty Years’ Residence among Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Turks and Armenians, London, 1878) In Istanbul of our time I saw many natural looking blonds and redheads – mostly women though, seldom children. The same author describes the miserable plight of an aging harem of a deceased Sultan parked in one of the older palaces. Eventually the inmates burn the place down.
The elite guard of janissaries were also from non-Turkish stock and not surprisingly they became a deadly inner foe who Mahmut II eventually crushed. Ironically the reason for preferring a military composed of Christian converts rather than native Muslims had been to counteract the power of Turkic nobles.
The greatest architect of the Ottomans, Mimar Sinan was a Christian either of Armenian or Albanian origins, conscripted into Ottoman service through the devshirme system, the official system of scouting the empire for the able sons of the minorities – often from the Balkans - and forcing them to convert to Islam. Sinan’s talent was discovered when he was a page in the Enderun Courtyard of Topkapi Palace – the palace school.
One is tempted to see in this excess of cruelty of the Ottomans to their own kind – some other kind of ‘kismet’ regarding the perpetuity of their rule. The American Minister to Turkey Samuel Cox notes a curious fact – which he noticed when he presented the Sultan of that time Abdul Hamid II with official gifts from the American president – enormous tomes of the United States Census, which porters called ‘hamals’ carried on their backs over the Galata Bridge to the palace. The ‘hamals’ moved around the city like human donkeys. The Sultan, a modernizer, was very impressed by the whole idea and process of census taking – but he was particularly aroused by the details of the “Red Man”, showing little interest in the “settler American”. Cox surmises that the Sultan felt a deep kinship for the Red Man – seeing in him a New World version of himself and his origins in the Seljuk Turk nomadic tribes. He carefully studied the photographs of the Indian’s tribal ceremonial costumes and headdresses. He asked Cox repeatedly about the condition of the Red Man and if the Red Man is well treated in the United States. Perhaps the murderous paranoia of the clan has its roots in the uncertainty and insecurity of the nomadic parvenu – did the Sultans perhaps see themselves despite their semblance of infinite worldly power still as nomads – as only temporary nomadic rulers – commuting between here and nowhere? As emperors with nomadic sensibilities – were the Ottoman rulers the first post-colonialists? Was the Sultan a ‘subaltern voice’?
When I asked the renowned sociologist Faruk Birtek, of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, if he thought the population of Turkey were descendants of the wild nomadic peoples of Asia – he quickly dispelled my romantic fancy. According to genetic and blood type studies – only 3 % of the population come from the land of the nomads in Central Asia. Was it perhaps only the Osmanic dynasty itself and their tribal entourage of ‘noble savages’ who created the nomadic city in their image?
The nomadic spirit persists inside Topkapi, the major palatial residence of the Ottomans for their first 400 years – in the layout of the palace itself. The Twin Kiosks of the princes resemble yurts, the big round tents made of animal skins, habitat of Mongolian, Siberian and Turkic nomads. The eating habits of the Harem were more suited to tent dwellings than to permanent houses – sitting on the floor, eating with a spoon from a communal bowl – one can see such a feast in a miniature included in the official palace guide. High-ranking turbaned officers sit on cushions around a low table in the middle of which is one Chinese porcelain bowl filled to the brim. All they have before them on the circular table is one spoon each. The opulence of the feast resides in the tapestries, carpets, the carved leg of the table and the Chinese bowl. The Sultan and imperial family adopted European ways such as eating with knives and forks from separate plates only after the court decamped to the new palaces of Yildiz and Dolmabahçe in the mid 19th century. Gautier comments on the lack of knives and forks in the cafés – spoons were only for kaymak (cream) and yoghurt.
In the Pages’ Dormitory of Topkapi Palace is sequestered a collection of rare paintings by an anonymous central Asian master known as Mohammed Siyah Qalem entitled “Demons and Monsters in the Life of Nomads” – unfortunately closed for renovations on the day we were there.
We chance to visit another erstwhile headquarters of the Empire – the former Imperial Ottoman Bank now the art foundation Salt Galata in Karaköy on the Pera side of the Galata Bridge. The street is called Bankalar Caddesi – simply street of the banks. It used to be the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire. Pera is the old name for Beyoğlu. Odd how banks seem to naturally mutate into art places! The building could be described as mountainous Gothic. How permanent it must have seemed then as a citadel of imperial finances, completed in 1892, in a feverish gold rush era, despite (or because of) the ominous magnitude of sovereign debt. One can still view the subterranean vaults at the bottom of narrow black iron stairs – the whole cellar is a patented money dungeon, an oubliette or rather morgue. Outside, a semi-circular stone staircase undulating from the higher street to the lower one – the quiet sedate street of the bank - faces the entrance. These are the Camondo stairs built in a style somewhere between neo-baroque and early art nouveau by Abraham Salomon Camondo, patriarch of the Camondo family, a famous Jewish Venetian Ottoman family of financiers, art collectors and scholars. The Camondos were the favored bankers of the Sultan until 1863 when the Imperial Ottoman Bank assumed this role.
Béatrice de Camondo, described as a French socialite, of the Camondo family in Paris, her divorced husband Léon Reinach, their two children Fanny and Bertrand were deported from France and murdered in Auschwitz. The House of Camondo ended there. The Camondo staircase is the unforgettable backdrop for a photograph taken by Cartier-Bresson of a stocky man in dark European dress, sparkling white shirt, Rudolf Valentino hair if not the looks, discreet black moustache, standing in profile with a cigarette almost hidden in his hand, one foot resting on the next step above, lost in a reverie of arrested motion – had he just been to the bank – or was he on his way to it?
Thinking that it was the Sultan's own bank, how surprising it was to see a photo of Queen Victoria in the first exhibition room in the vault. I learned that the Imperial Ottoman Bank had really been a British bank - just a startup of those days of two enterprising British bankers with the backing of the Queen - to financialize the sagging Ottoman Empire. Perhaps it was even worse in those days - when empires were liaising with other empires so as to prop up their monstrous joint world hegemony. The deep involvement of British capital (a euphemism then for world capital) in the Ottoman Empire casts another lurid light on the adventures of 'Lawrence of Arabia' who in turn was loading the sacks of British gold onto the caravans of the Bedouins revolting against the Sultan. Maybe the gold itself came from the Ottoman Bank?
T.E. Lawrence was no friend of the Turks – in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom he creates a false opposition between the nomadic Bedouins and the imperial Turks. A kind of distraction from his true identity as the agent of the competing Imperial power – Britain – he disguises himself in the robes of a nomad. Lawrence the fake nomad pours scorn on the decrepit imperial army – itself the decayed war machine of a nomadic power. But Lawrence paid the ultimate price for underestimating the sting of that old machine – in the outpost at Deraa, sneaking around the train station of the Hejaz Railway, on a spy mission, Lawrence is caught by Ottoman soldiers and summarily conscripted into the army. He poses as a Circassian. They take him to meet the Bey, the Circassian Ottoman governor, in his bedroom. In Lawrence’s telling the Bey wanted to have sex with him (“love him”) – Lawrence endured his pawing “till he got too beastly” at which moment Lawrence jerked his knee into the Bey’s groin. The governor’s revenge is long and drawn-out. Before sending Lawrence off to be beaten to a pulp and presumably sodomised by the troops – he toys with him, biting his neck, kissing him whilst three soldiers and the corporal pinion him, drawing blood from under his rib with a bayonet point. When Lawrence somehow betrays himself “in his despair”, the Bey shocks him by saying: “You must understand that I know: and it will be easier if you do as I wish.” Later as the good looking corporal stands over the prostrate Lawrence kicking him with his nailed boot to make him stand up, Lawrence remembers how he smiled idly at his torturer, “(…) for a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me (…)”. Apparently this was Lawrence’s late Victorian way of describing his erection – because the corporal reacts by flinging up his arm and hacking “with the full length of his whip into my groin.” Lawrence bemoans his maimed will, feels something break in him in Deraa; “Deraa felt inhuman with vice and cruelty (…)” and on “that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.” (see T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, New York, 1991, Chapter LXXX, pp. 441 - 447)
The nomadic is that which unites rather than separates the Ottoman from the Bedouin Arab. Both the Arab conquests of Spain and the Turkic conquests of Anatolia and finally Constantinople were the result of territorial expansion of nomadic cavalries and infantry – under the banner of Islam. In the latter periods of the cycle of empire, (following the fatal parabola of Ibn Khaldun), when nomadic hordes come to a halt in their great capital cities and turn into vast bureaucracies, all sorts of subject people man their armies. For example the ‘Arab officer in the Ottoman army’ Genet interviews in Prisoner of Love - of Palestinian stock.
The nomadic cavalry is the military wing of the caravan. The külliyes centred around the mosques contained caravanserais (the oasis of the city for the caravans from the desert) – the revelation of the trade route, and an inlet of the desert across which the routes of the nomads move - flowing into the city – the city as station on the trade route from the east – the silk road.
Epilogue: In Tate Modern in London we saw a late testimony to one of Abdul Hamid’s modernising projects, perhaps financed by the Ottoman Bank - a photograph of the remains of the Hejaz Railway in the Saudi Arabian desert. The tracks were barely visible in the sand. Except for a glint of metal and a few bleached out wooden tracks all one could see was a raised bank of sand and gravel stretching indefinitely in the desert. Another photograph is of the empty shell of a railway station in the wasteland. It would be a good location for a spaghetti western.
7. The Old City
Gülhane Park is the first place outside of the cocoon of the hotel where we venture to walk. But only after two or three days. The hotel is so perfect it lures you to remain pleasantly sequestered. The view from the balcony onto the street – and from the roof terrace toward the blue infinity of the Bosphorus sky, the operatic eruptions of the call to prayer is all our organism can withstand initially of the wonders of the magical city. How ‘cruise people’ can rush off their ships in their allotted 24 hours or so and immediately traverse a foreign city is as strange and incomprehensible to me as space travel. Besides the hotel is itself a microcosm of the city and the transient universe of the travellers in one – I overheard an obese English couple from Norwich conversing with an ascetic looking Japanese couple in the hotel lobby at tea time. The couple from Norwich were from a cruise – Istanbul was one stop among many – one had the feeling they were on a never-ending cruise, perhaps already condemned like the Flying Dutchman to never stop cruising.
“As a child he was already a corpse…
The dancer longs to be beaten on the happy island.”
You can see the monstrous many decked ships with names like Princess Esmeralda and the like parked in the Bosphorus at the Karaköy end of the Galata bridge – or glimpse their upper decks through the trees in the direction the statue of Atatürk faces at the rear of Gülhane Park, the hill above Seraglio Point.
The Japanese lady spoke with an American accent – the Grand Bazaar had not impressed her. “Everyone is selling the same stuff. It’s too complicated. I wanted to buy a wallet, but there was so much preliminary ceremony I gave up.” The Norwich couple listened sympathetically – they had seen too much already. The couple, habitual cruise people, have measured up to those enormities of ship size. The man from Norwich was far too big for the elegant gold striped upholstered chairs of the lobby; he hung over the chair on both sides. One could imagine needing a ‘block and tackle’ to lift him out of it. He is quite nonchalant about his hulk – seems to take no notice of it or that of his wife. His voice is deep and booming – cutting through the traffic around the samovar like a ship’s horn. He: I was most impressed by Kotor in Montenegro. That was on his cruise of the Adriatic. He must be very well organized not to miss his boat – he probably can’t rush at the last minute. It’s a discipline all its own. The cruise administration is very strict, they don’t hold up the cruise for anyone. You’ll be left on the quay – as the English cruise addict M. told me – he does 4 cruises a year, but he’s very thin. Just skin and bones. He’s a Thames Water engineer – 27 years of service for the water board. He books 4 cruises at a time for the 20% discount and he always manages to have a balcony twin, otherwise usually sold out. The man from Norwich and his wife probably need two balcony twins. The Japanese husband of the disdainful Japanese lady informed the cruise man from Norwich – “I was educated in England.” The Japanese lady then withdrew announcing: “Now I’m ready for a Turkish bath.” She did not have far to go – the Turkish bath was downstairs in the hotel basement.
The streets around the palace swirl off one another like hair growing out of a mole – or like the rings of a tree – a topological vortex in reverse – rather than cutting through one another on a grid. If in doubt follow the tramlines. To continue walking straight ahead, one often has to turn a corner. Leaving Gülhane Park in the blackness full of indistinct shapes, resisting the natural urge to follow the wide illuminated street swerving upwards – Alemdar Caddesi – lined with glass-fronted restaurants (mostly empty) with gilt decor, shops selling leather goods and harem pants for tourists, we turn a sharper left up a shadowy steep cobblestone street. Along this street are nargileh cafés – looking more like square wooden tabernacles decked out with carpets – the smokers sit on low benches or cushions with just enough head room to sit upright but not to stand. The café is on a ledge somewhat above the street, so that the smokers look like they’re sitting on the edge of a cliff. Opposite the café are some crumbling caved in and intricately decomposing wooden houses. Perhaps the house of a palace official in olden days. Other wooden houses with secluded balconies further up the hill are refurbished and painted bright pastel green – they are now hotels. Stone buildings behind high walls appear as the street ascends. They are so immense as to dwarf the narrow street – without knowing it, we are walking along the back of Ayasofya – a petrified forest of fortifications and domes – with deep chasms of night between them.
The narrow street ends at the top at a wide nearly empty square – with no possibility of continuing straight ahead. A massive gate with huge bronze doors and inscriptions to the left – in the square a temple like structure with a low iron fence surrounding it. The dome gleams in the dark. Below to the right are the lights of another square. The stark geography of this mount is an archetypical dreamscape, a de Chirico panorama – a bewildering metropolis with empty steep streets that break off suddenly or open into cavernous chambers or bottomless pits like in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”. The whole scene in the dark is awe inspiring and claustrophobic. Ayasofya is a building supposed physically to have encompassed the cosmos – domicile of the Pantocrator – its dome and semi dome was the ‘endless sphere’ of the Byzantine Emperor – whose coronation throne was placed on a specially marked square in the Basilica called omphalon – centre of the world. (Our omphalon in Istanbul is the hotel.)
The first Byzantine Emperor, Constantine I had relocated the centre of the world – it was no longer in Rome – in the West. The ‘new’ centre of the Roman Emperor was in the East, in Constantinople. Fuseli’s sketch called ‘The artist moved by the grandeur of antique fragments’ – shows him seated, head in hand, next to a broken off marble foot many times his size and a giant hand pointing upwards. They were the remnants of a colossus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Oddly these statuary remains are of the same first Constantine – before he moved his capital to Constantinople. His marble effigy in Rome was already obsolete in ancient times.
Just seeing the vast outline of Ayasofya from the rear lit up gloomily by mere streetlights and haze is enough to instil a sense of metaphysical terror.
Two fierce looking soldiers with raised machine guns guard the gate with the bronze doors to the left. An Istanbul dog lies exhausted at their feet. I approach the soldiers to ask the obvious – “Is this the entrance to the palace?”.
“Yes”, he said with the voice of someone who had spent many years in or around Des Moines, Iowa. “But better come when it isn’t raining. The palace is like a bunch of tents spread out in a big camp. You wander from tent to tent.” The Turkish soldier educated in the Midwest revealed to me the secret of the palace of the nomads.