Europe

Time Travel in Istanbul

En-route from Singapore to Poland this last week, I found myself with twelve hours in transit in Istanbul. Ordinarily a long layover like this would be a complete pain, but in this case it was good news, largely because I love Istanbul.

The city of Istanbul is one of the world’s largest – both in terms of population (over 13 million people call it home) and area (it occupies over 5,000 square kilometres, sprawling out on both sides of the Bosphorus, the narrow channel of water that separates Europe from Asia).

In Istanbul every stone in the place has been thoroughly marinated in almost 2,000 years of history, first as ancient Byzantium, then as Constantinople during which time it served as capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires, and finally as capital of modern-day Turkey. The city’s strategic location (it is the only city on the planet that straddles two continents) means Istanbul has always been a crossroads – a point of exchange for transport, trade, culture and ideas. For centuries Istanbul has been a place where a fabulous mosaic of peoples, religions and ideologies have come together, sometimes blending harmoniously, and sometimes clashing violently.

As a result, Istanbul offers the visitor a unique fusion of old and new, of Europe and the Middle East, bringing together two millennia of accumulated Islamic and Christian influences. A sensory overload is all but 100% guaranteed walking the streets of this amazing place. In short, I think that Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world, and so I am always very happy to have the chance to visit there, even if just for a day.

I hopped in a cab at the airport, and less than thirty minutes later, I was back in time, deep in the heart of the Middle East as I passed through one of the arched entry gates into Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The Kapalıçarşı, or “covered market”, is apparently one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, in continuous operation for at least the last six hundred years.

Nowadays, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar has largely become a tourist attraction, with almost half a million visitors pouring in each day. Still, it is a fabulous place to wander around. The streets of the market are old and cobbled, and in them you will find stalls selling textiles, souvenirs, cushion covers and rugs, hanging lights, gold and silver jewellery, furs and antiques. It is all a riot of colour and sound, but yet, step into one of the random covered courtyards just off a main street, and it suddenly becomes quiet, and you will find market scenes that I imagine look exactly as they did hundreds of years ago, when intrepid European explorers visited the souks of old Istanbul for the first time.

As a general rule, I judge the quality of a market experience by whether it throws up something truly weird and wonderful, and the Kapalıçarşı did not disappoint me on this occasion. First, there was the antique store where, buried amongst piles of Muslim and Christian ornamental silverware I saw some amazing Jewish artefacts – old wine cups and candle sticks that belong in a museum, instead of being tossed in a pile of assorted religious paraphernalia, like so much unloved junk. Then, I stepped into a small courtyard in which a young man was making bundles of cotton on a machine so old that it’s last appearance in Europe was probably in the 18th century. Which was in sharp contrast to the blaring pop music playing on the young man’s sound-system. He sang along at the top of his voice, so that the sound of Madonna competed with the loud click-clack threshing noise of his antiquated cotton binding machine.

And then, to cap off the weird and wonderful market experience, I came across a tiny little store in the corner of the antique section of the market. It was little bigger than the size of a cupboard, and squeezed inside it was a rather fat older man, bare-chested and reading a morning newspaper. I paused to look at the contents arrayed in the single dusty window that comprised his store. There was an old vase, some Christian iconography type paintings, a few old silverware items in need of a good polish, and a boomerang.

Come again? Yes, lying there amongst centuries old Turkish antiquities was a hand-painted, twenty centimetres long Australian aboriginal boomerang, of the type so readily available in every souvenir shop in Sydney. I tried to ask the shop-owner how on earth this had happened, but he spoke no English and so no explanation was forthcoming. Instead he thought I was trying to buy the boomerang in question, and he kept repeating “authentic Australia, authentic Australia”, and he looked rather disappointed when I left without purchasing.

I was suddenly feeling hungry, and I thought that a good, healthy Turkish breakfast was in order. Perhaps, therefore, walking into a place known as a baclavaleri was not the best choice I could have made. On offer was a mind-blowing array of boreka and baklava – the former, layers of baked and oily dough, stuffed with either cheese, or minced meat, or spinach; the latter, layers of baked and oily filo pastry, stuffed with either walnuts or pistachios, and soaked in honey. To the amusement of the waiter, I scoffed down a mixed assortment of just about everything, accompanied by never-ending thimblefuls of Turkish coffee, sweet and thick and black.

If the Kapalıçarşı is for the tourists, the open air markets that surround it, cascading down the hillside, are where Istanbul’s locals do their shopping, and it was here I went exploring after breakfast, fueled up as I was on caffeine, sugar and dough.

The local markets comprise the most bewildering assortment of “stuff” imaginable – everything and anything you could ever want is for sale: piles of spices and nougat and mixed candy, literally side-by-side with garden equipment and chef clothing, olives, wedding dresses, cheeses and nuts, tea pots, drums, and backgammon boards.

The textile market in particular seemed to stretch on forever. On one corner, I was greeted by the slightly odd site of a naked female mannequin, her upper half modelling a raunchy red bustier a-la Moulin Rouge, her knees, however, modelling more sober orthopedic knee braces. On another corner, I looked around and realised I was standing in the centre of an ocean of underpants – it seemed as if crammed into one small alleyway were more undies and bikini briefs than there are people in Turkey to wear them.

I found the assortment of people in and around the markets to be fascinating. The men all looked familiar to me – swarthy, Mediterranean types, some with moustaches and many with pot-bellies – they looked just like my uncles and cousins down the road in Israel. And the women doing their morning shopping left no doubt that I was in the Middle Eastern part of Istanbul. Almost all were wearing head coverings of some sort, some had their entire faces veiled, and occasionally a woman in a full black abaya (robe) would saunter by.

Men with carts offered their services on every corner – for a few lira, they loaded heavy shopping bags onto their carts and pulled them up the steep hill, backbreaking work in the heat and dust. There were groups of young boys spinning tops on the side of the roads, and slightly older teenage boys delivering steaming cups of apple tea to the storekeepers up and down the market. They boys carried the small, clear-glass tea cups on round trays, the trays in turn suspended inside of metal frames with a handle on the top, so that the boys could swing the trays quite sharply as they walked. Miraculously, or so it seemed to me, not a single cup fell, and not a drop of tea was spilt.

It was by now almost noon, and it was a stifling 35 degrees in the shade. My last shower had been before boarding the plane in Singapore the night before, and I was sweaty and sticky (and possibly quite smelly) after three hours of wandering through the markets. I needed a bath.

Fortunately for me, Istanbul is the home-city of the world-famous Turkish bath (or hamam), and so I made a bee-line for the gorgeous Çemberlitaş Hamam, about a ten minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. This particular hamam was built in 1584 by the renowned Islamic architect Sinan, and is considered one of the finest examples of Turkish bath architecture anywhere in the world.

A Turkish hamam is a public bathhouse for cleansing and relaxation, similar to a sauna or a spa. Turkish baths have been in use since Roman times, and structurally, they consist of three basic rooms  – the warm-room, for preparation; the hot-room, where the hard-core bathing activity takes place; and the cold room, for relaxation, refreshment and recovery at the end of the bathing experience.

The three rooms of a hamam utilize an amazing system of water pools and channels that move steam and heat around the building, and allow the temperature in each room to be accurately controlled. As bathers move from room to room they are systematically scrubbed, massaged, soaped, and doused repeatedly with alternating buckets of scalding-hot and ice-cold water.

Men and women are usually segregated, so a Turkish bath is, often, actually two identical bath structures built side-by-side. And in an adjacent building there are normally change-rooms, a cafe, rooms for lounging around, and other facilities that make the hamam more than just a place to wash, but a community gathering spot where for centuries the people of Istanbul have come to talk, relax and socialize.

Turkish baths were a common feature across the Ottoman Empire, and were found from Hungary to India and across the Middle East. It seems that wherever they went, one of the first priorities of the Ottoman Turks was to build their distinctive bathhouses, just like those they knew in Istanbul.

Then, in 1856, the first Turkish bathhouse was constructed in the United Kingdom (in Ireland, of all places) and over the next century, the concept caught on like wildfire. More than 600 hamams opened across Britain, and Turkish baths spread out across the British Empire as well.

I was particularly pleased to learn that in 1859, even before there was a hamam in London, a Turkish bath was built in Sydney, presumably so that the largely convict population of Australia at that time could improve their standards of personal hygiene. And, equally fascinating (to me at least) was the fact that six of the earliest Turkish bathhouses in London were found in London’s East End, constructed supposedly in response to the demands of the influx of Eastern European Jews to the area, who were familiar with the Turkish hamam concept from back home (see my previous post Jellied Eels and Afternoon Prayers).

Anyway, I arrived at the Çemberlitaş Hamam and was shown into a small timber changing room, where I stripped completely before wrapping around my waist a thin cotton cloth that looked very similar to an Indian lungi. I was led into the warm-room, where I sat for about ten minutes, gently perspiring as my body adjusted to the elevated temperature. Then without ceremony or fanfare I was ushered through a massive, thick wooden door into the central hot-room of the hamam, and as I entered, I almost gasped. Not just because of the heat: the hot-room of the Çemberlitaş Hamam is an absolutely stunning thing to see.

Dominating the centre of the hot-room is a massive polished marble slab, elevated and warmed from underneath. It is called the göbek taşı, or tummy stone, evidently because you are meant to stretch out on its heated surface, to steam and sweat. Off to the sides of the hot-room were a series of little marble ante-chambers and cubicles, and between them were various niches housing bronze fountains with hot and cold water faucets for spouts.

But what really took my breath away was the dome above – a massive arched structure rising about twenty metres up above the floor, which had the immediate effect of making me feel very small, and humble. The dome is punctured strategically with a series of small glass globes – romantically called the “elephant eyes” – that allowed light from outside to enter the hamam in focused beams, but in a way where the light was wonderfully diffused and refracted softly through the steam.

The thick walls of the hamam seemed to blocked out all external sound, so inside the hot-room it was remarkably silent, and the slightest of sounds – a cough, a drip of water, a footstep – cut through the silence like a knife, before being picked up and bounced around the room, reverberating in increasingly sonorous echoes as it rose higher and higher inside of the dome.

The light, the silence, the echoes, the sense of awe and reflection: it made the whole scene ethereal, a warm and smoky fantasy dreamscape, infused with a sense of peace and solitude. All in all, I felt like I was inside a cathedral, only in this particular cathedral, I was naked and sweating.

I stretched out on the hot marble centre-stone. I looked up at the canopy of the dome, and at the shards of light pouring in through the Elephant Eyes, and time seemed to simply stop. I drifted in and out of a half-sleep for what seemed like hours, but was probably only about ten minutes, before being woken by a light tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes, and saw a friendly, mustachioed face of a Turkish man hovering above me. The man was, like me, naked except for a cloth wrapped around his waist. He said only one word to me – “massage” – and from this I deduced that my masseur had arrived. Ah, bliss.

Without any warning, the man grabbed my arms, crossed them across my chest, and pushed down on me with the full force of his entire bodyweight. It all happened in a split-second, and I felt like I was a bagpipe, having the wind squeezed out of me. I couldn’t breathe. Every bone in my back cracked simultaneously, and I never thought I would be able to report from first-hand experience that the echo created by the sound of cracking bones is, contrary to what one might think, actually quite pleasant on the ear.

My moustached assailant then produced a cotton pad that he strapped onto his right hand, all the while smiling at me in the cold, maniacal way that an executioner might smile at the condemned. Without any further ado, he then proceeded to scrub my skin all over with the pad, which much to my horror I now discovered had the texture of fine-grained sandpaper.  Nowhere was safe from his grasping reach – he scraped the pad over my head, my chest, my arms, feet, leg and back, and even deep into the crevice of my butt. He scrubbed with such vigour that I could hear him panting from the exertion.

When he finished the scrubbing, he reached into a bucket and pulled out what looked like a hessian sack of sorts. He proceeded to wave it over me, and as he did so large, soapy bubbles seemed to form out of thin air, so that within a few seconds I was almost fully immersed in an envelope of soft comforting bubbles. It was like being a kid in a bubble bath, only without the bath.

Thinking the worst was over, I began to relax, which, it appears, was a big mistake. Mr Muscles reached his arms into the cocoon of bubbles, grabbed me by the limbs, and proceeded to give me what must rank as the most painful massage I have ever experienced. He dug his strong fingers deep into my muscles and joints, pressing directly onto bones and tendons in a way that frankly, I don’t think is legal. From time to time he would pause just long enough to flip me over like a chicken on a rotisserie. When he set to work on my hamstrings I screamed out loud, and then, when that didn’t bring an end to the torture, I lay there whimpering like a small, beaten animal.

Finally, the massage ended, and once more thinking the worst was over I began to relax, which, it appears, was big mistake number two. In the few seconds between the end of the massage and being able to open my eyes, the masseur had somehow got hold of a massive bucket of water, which he threw over me to wash away the bubbles, followed in quick succession by another three bucketfuls. Only the water was colder than ice-cold, and as the first bucket of water hit my skin (recall, skin that had most recently been rubbed completely raw and then violently tenderised) it was like a bolt of electricity had been fired right through my body. I almost passed out from the shock.

From there on, the rest of my hamam experience is something of a blur. I have a vague recollection of having other parts of me cracked (neck, shoulders, fingers and toes), more bone crushing massage, and more dousing with both near-boiling and ice-cold buckets of water, before being led into the next room for a vigorous soaping and rinse, and then finally being wrapped up in thick towels from head to toe.

Eventually I was dumped, a freshly pulverised human carcass, onto the bed in my changing cubicle where I somehow managed to reattach my limbs before painfully dressing myself. I left the hamam about twenty minutes later, and despite the trauma, I must admit that for the rest of the day it felt like I was walking on air. I literally felt like I was glowing. Mind you, given how red my skin was from the abusive scrubbing, I probably was.

I continued my walk, and eventually came to the Galata Bridge, which spans a thin waterway known as the Golden Horn. The bridge connects the historic Islamic city of Istanbul on the one side of the Golden Horn with the traditionally non-Muslim districts of Istanbul on the other.

I walked across the bridge, which is lined almost continuously on both sides by men casting massive fishing rods into the murky waters below. The air smelled of fish and brine, and occasionally, a fisherman would pull out a very sad, very small sardine-looking creature. Given the constant stream of ferries below the bridge and the polluted state of the waterway, I was amazed that they were able to catch anything at all.

About halfway across the bridge, I paused and looked back towards imperial Istanbul, the skyline dominated by the domes of countless mosques and the surrounding pencil-thin minarets. As if on cue, the chant of “Allahu Akhbar” began ringing out from the loudspeakers of the nearest mosque.

Then I turned and looked in front of me, to the steep hill of the Galata district rising up from the waterfront. And here, on the other side of the Golden Horn, the skyline was dominated by the Galata Tower (also known in Latin as Christea Turris, or the Tower of Christ) – a picture perfect, single stone turret that looks like it was airlifted in from a medieval castle.

Walking across the Galata Bridge takes about ten minutes, and is not more than about three hundred metres in length, but it a much bigger journey than that – it is like you are moving directly from the Middle East into Europe, travelling through time from centuries past into the present day.

Just over the Galata Bridge, I ascended up some steep cobbled streets and even steeper flights of stairs, and came to the start of Isttiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian shopping thoroughfare of modern-day Istanbul that runs for more than three kilometres along the top of a series of hills.

As I walked along, the sense of having left the Middle East behind and quite literally having walked into Europe could not have been any more palpable. Suddenly, the architecture around me was European – building facades that would be entirely at home in Paris, or Brussels, or Copenhagen. A very quaint, very European, tram was winding its way along the avenue, which was lined on both sides with shops and boutiques, many being familiar brands like Nike and Starbucks and Burger King.

University students in blue Unicef t-shirts competed for my donation with other university students in bright green Greenpeace t-shirts. Couples strolled hand in hand. Looking at the women, there was barely a head-covering in sight, and girls everywhere were in revealing summer wear: short-shorts and mini-skirts and strappy singlet t-shirts. A good number of younger folk – girls and boys alike – flashed enough skin so that their tattoos were on display for all to see.

In the late afternoon I wandered down the hill from the main pedestrian thoroughfare, and quite by accident stumbled onto the Istanbul Modern, a museum dedicated to modern Turkish art. The museum is located right on the Bosphorus waterfront, in a converted industrial building.

On the perfectly manicured green lawn leading up to the museum’s entrance are some modern works of art – tubes of shiny metal twisted into strange, unrecognisable shapes. Lift your eyes up from that, however, and your line of sight is immediately interrupted by the imposing shape of the two hundred year old Nusretiya Mosque, literally not more than thirty metres away. It was all quite surreal, really, and it occurred to me that ȕber-futuristic steel sculptures in the shadow of a mosque’s heavy black-stone dome was a pretty good example of the contrast between old and new that Istanbul seems to do so well.

Inside, I thought the museum was excellent, and the works on display were cool and edgy. Two pieces in particular caught my eye. The first was a painting by a modern Turkish artist, Ergan Inan. The painting itself was nothing special, but I noticed on the little plaque providing details on the artist that he was a law school graduate, who had chucked it all in to become a painter. No prizes for guessing the train of thought that set off in me…..

The second was an installation piece called False Ceiling, by Richard Wentworth, who although British was listed as being a Samoan artist, on account of his having been born there (there being nothing at all unusual about a Samoan artist in a museum of modern Turkish art, of course). The work consists of hundreds of books hung from the roof of the gallery by strings, creating a ceiling of books about a metre above your head. It covers a big space as well, so as you look up you find yourself standing underneath a horizontal, airborne library. The effect is amazing – transfixing, really – and I stood there alone (for some reason there was hardly anyone else about) for a long time.

Beneath the canopy of books it was so quiet I could hear my own heart beating. Bright sunlight was coming in from windows high above, but the sea of hanging books acted as a light filter, so that individual beams of light came down between the books, casting wonderful soft shadows across the floor.

It was all quite magical, and was one of those rare occasions where a work of art – not much more than a clever idea, well executed – seemed to effortlessly move me in a way that is hard to describe.

And of course the similarity to my experience in the hamam earlier in the day could not have been any more obvious. They may have been separated by more than a millennium in time, but now, co-existing side-by-side in the Istanbul of 2012, both of these “temples” played to the same human emotions in exactly the same way. The same quiet and solitude and sense of peace; the same physical, breath-taking beauty of the structure; the same mesmerising, almost spiritual mood created by filtered rays of soft light, pouring down from above.

In a very odd and unexpected kind of way, then, the False Ceiling at the Istanbul Modern completed my day in the city. It created a closed loop from the bazaars of the Middle-East to the pedestrian thoroughfares of Europe; from the Islamic city of imperial Istanbul to the modern city just over the Galata Bridge. Istanbul is a real-life showcase not just of the clash of Islam and Christianity in medieval times, but of the clash of Modernism and Fundamentalism being played out in our own time.

In Istanbul you move rapidly from all that is old to all that is new, and then back again. You quickly come to understand that the measurement of time and human history happens not in days or months, but in decades and centuries. And with that comes the realisation that sometimes, in the end, nothing really changes.

5 replies »

  1. Hi. Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the feedback. Sometimes, like in Istanbul, a place can be so interesting and packed with experiences that the story kind of writes itself…..

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