‘The city will pursue you,’ wrote the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy of his native Alexandria in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. I know how he felt. For long stretches of my adult life, Istanbul has haunted me, though only in the most pleasant of ways.
I first went there after university to visit a friend and spent two long summers in and out of Istanbul, doing a little English teaching, travelling and loitering and reading. I earned almost nothing but living was cheap and time plentiful. There was enough of it to sink into this most enriching of cities, to sit in mosque courtyards and teashops, on steamers and benches, and watch and walk.
Alone or in the company of friends, I quartered Istanbul on foot – its spice markets, its metal bashing workshops, its forgotten quarters of collapsing wooden houses, its ancient walls; I went into mosques and museums and Armenian church services. I attended circumcision parties where I drank raki and fell down. (More than one pair of glasses was lost to Turkish spirits.) At the old bus station outside the walls, I watched men in patched shalvar trousers dance in the hot sun to pipes and drums. I witnessed daily the desperate comedy of the lives of street vendors: the single cigarette salesmen, the underwear merchants and the managers of fortune telling rabbits. I sweated on hamam slabs and ate brain salads in the middle of the night in subterranean eateries. And when the racket became too much, I took boats to the islands in the Sea of Marmara and strolled in the ringing silence of the pinewoods that smelled of horse dung.
It was like living with a camera shutter jammed open, taking in thousands of images: hawks circling minarets, the crackling sound of heavy rain, faces, calligraphy, tombs, piles of aubergines, the apricot and lilac in carpets, turquoise tiles, street calls and old shoes – everything jumbled and vivid. And for years afterwards I carried a sensory map of Istanbul in my head. I could instantly summon up the rattle of shop fronts being lowered at the day’s end – for some reason this always reminded me of Latin verbs – the sight of the Marmara glittering down a long street, the melancholy hooting of tankers sliding up the Bosphorus on winter nights, and the first pre-dawn call to prayer, rising and falling in the blackness, a single spatial reference point at the bottom of sleep.
What seeped into me during this pause before real life struck was the presence everywhere of history lying in deep layers one on another – the Roman column by the bus stop; the ancient water cistern under the busy street; the Ottoman mosque built on the Byzantine church – a dark and smoky antiquity. And there always seemed to be two abiding images from Turkish history pinned to teashop walls. In pride of place Kemal Attaturk – the man who broke the Ottoman Istanbul, its sultans, fezzes and harems – then Sultan Mehmet II, the man who had made it. He is riding into Constantinople through the Edirne Gate over a carpet of dead crusaders.
Nearly thirty years after my first visit, I recalled this picture and decided to investigate.