I clearly recall my first visit to Istanbul. I had stopped at Ephesus a few times with my groups as part of an Eastern Mediterranean cruise but that was the sum of my experience of Turkey, so when a trip came my way which included a few days in Istanbul I was thrilled. At that time groups were accompanied by a local expert who took care of the guiding and co-ordinated logistics and scheduling with the Tour Manager, greatly reducing our workload and level of responsibility. So an assignment like this one was something of a privilege, a fact of which I was keenly aware. I was determined to make the most of the experience.
I was tremendously excited to connect the Constantinople of my studies with today’s Istanbul.
Echoes of Byzantium and Constantinople resonate throughout Western culture and they have always fascinated me. I love the mysterious interiors of Greek orthodox churches with their Byzantine iconography and décor. I am amused by the glittering mosaics in the apses of some early churches in Rome which depict the apostles as saintly sheep, in accordance with Orthodox symbolism and in stubborn defiance of the Catholic Pope, who ruled such representations unseemly.
I had been impressed by the displays of opulent Ottoman tents and weaponry in the museums of Vienna, captured at the routing of the Turkish siege of 1683 and much struck by the roof of the Belvedere palace, designed (rather childishly, I think) to resemble these tents, the copper domes finished off with a symbolic rendering of Turkish carpets, signifying Western supremacy over the ‘infidels’.
There are echoes too in food. Apparently it was Viennese bakers, preparing their dough in the early hours, who heard sappers tunnelling under the city walls and raised the alarm. At all events the croissant was invented to celebrate the victory, their shape and name being a reference to the Ottoman crescent.
Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered roasting in the burned out mess tents of the fleeing army, and the drink quickly became a craze in the newly liberated city, with milk and sugar being added to the original bitter Turkish brew.
In Greece, the tiny cup of sludgy coffee which the locals firmly refer to as Greek coffee (now almost entirely supplanted by the ubiquitous cappuccino) undoubtedly took root during the hated 400-year Turkish occupation of their country.
Then there are the superb horses on the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Probably created in the 4th C BC by the Greek sculptor Lysippos (although this, disappointingly, is now disputed), stolen by the Romans to adorn the Hippodrome in Constantinople, stolen again by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade, stolen by Napoleon and taken to Paris before being returned to Venice after 1815, at which time their bridles were symbolically removed to prevent them from being forcibly ridden away again.
I relished the opportunity to visit the source of all these echoes and finally to experience the unique magnetic pull of the city astride the Bosphorus. I was not disappointed. I remember standing in the ruins of the Hippodrome on a boiling summer day, traffic streaming all around me, imagining the gilded copper horses set above the Emperor’s loggia and marvelling at the Egyptian obelisks and the remains of the Serpent column from Delphi – all the result of merry looting.
Istanbul enchanted me with its bustle and the very distinct feeling of being at the meeting point of so many cultural influences which were, then at least, all melting into each other without conflict.
Most of all I was struck by the extraordinary site on which the city stands. From its heights, as it looks over the Bosphorus, gateway to the Black Sea, with one foot in Europe in the other in Asia it is abundantly obvious why it has been prized and coveted for centuries.
The founder of the first city in the 7th C BC was the canny Greek Byzas who had been instructed by the oracle of Delphi to found a new settlement opposite the “Land of the Blind”. Prospecting along the northern shore of the sea of Marmara he discovered the natural harbour formed by the Golden Horn, opposite the city of Chalcedon on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. This was obviously a perfect strategic spot and he decided that the Chaldeans must be blind not to have seen its advantages. He duly proceeded to build his city and fulfill the oracle’s instruction, later conquering the Chaldeans and securing for himself the best of both worlds.
I was longing to visit Hagia Sophia, for centuries the largest cathedral in the Christian world, later a mosque after the “Fall” of Constantinople in 1453, when the city came under Ottoman control and the command of the 21 year old Mehmet II. After three days of unbridled looting, rape and pillage by his troops Mehmet entered the city and rode immediately to Hagia Sophia. There he commanded his soldiers to stop hacking at the marbles, announcing that booty and captives were legitimate spoil for them but that all the buildings belonged to him alone. He summoned an imam to perform the ritual recitation which would transform the Christian church into a Muslim mosque, incidentally saving it from further damage.
There is no pretending that one is standing in Justinian’s 6th C church, since the building has undergone successive modifications throughout its existence, most notably in the mid 19th C and again when it was declared a Museum under Atatürk in 1935. But the sheer scale of the place, and the sense of history blew me away completely and I spent as long as possible climbing around the galleries, peering at mosaics and inscriptions, enchanted by this complex building and its equally complex history.
The mixture of Christian iconography and Islamic decorative elements fascinated me and it was probably here that I first became aware of the patterns which occur and recur all over Istanbul. Some of the most beautiful and intricate are made by the endlessly repeating designs of the ceramic wall tiles to be found in palaces, mosques and public buildings everywhere. But there are endless patterns to be found in everyday objects and items of merchandise.
On a later visit with Markus his photographic eye immediately picked out this quality and he made a great series of photos on the theme.
So where does Istanbul figure at les Sarziers, you are probably wondering?
On that first visit, awed and somewhat intimidated in the Grand Bazaar I did pluck up the courage to stop at a stall selling ceramic tiles. Although not antique, they were nevertheless hand made and decorated with the traditional motifs that I had seen at Topkapi palace and other historic buildings. I loved the vibrant colours and pictured them perhaps as a future surround in a future kitchen or bathroom (we were still at the concrete and wiring stage, but I was mostly optimistic that eventually we would move onward towards a semblance of civilized living).
I purchased half a dozen or so and undoubtedly disappointed the merchant by not even attempting to bargain down an already reasonable price. But there you are, it’s really not my thing and I was very happy with my purchase.
The progress towards civilization at les Sarziers was inevitably much slower than we could have imagined, since we did almost all the work ourselves whilst travelling for a good part of the year in order to finance the project. The tiles, wrapped in Turkish newspaper, had to bide their time. Meanwhile, whilst accompanying a group to Ephesus, Markus happened upon a dingy hut tucked away behind the more obvious tourist stores, where he acquired some additional tiles, which perfectly matched mine and gave us the theme for what we call the Turkish bathroom.
In actual fact this bathroom has come out as a melting pot of many influences, which is very pleasing. The basin, as you know, came from Communist East Germany, the tiles from Turkey, the framed photos are Greek and the colour scheme on the walls was inspired by a villa where we stayed in Umbria, whose décor was itself influenced by the owner’s visits to India. Small world indeed!
In case all this was a bit heavy, do click on this for a delightfully silly song which always makes me smile and sing along.