30, 2003-> BOMBS AND HOSPITALITY IN ISTANBUL
Every evening at five, a loud firecracker signaled
end of the Ramadan fast. It always made us jump. We
were skittish, and with good reason. Two days after
we left Istanbul for the countryside, bombs ripped
through two synagogues, killing dozens. A week later,
another pair of bombs demolished one of the main
buildings of the British Consulate and tore the facade
off HSBC's Turkey office; close to 30 were killed,
more than 450 were injured.
Al-Qaeda was suspected but several extremist
groups claimed responsibility. Turks were outraged.
How could anyone call himself a Muslim and slaughter
innocent people (mostly Turks) during the holy month
of Ramadan? Outrage turned to shock when it became
evident that instead of Lebanese (as first suspected),
the attacks were carried out by Turks.
Istanbul is modern Turkey. It is the Turkey
politicians want the EU to see and acknowledge. The
gleaming Ataturk International Airport, the
sophisticated shops of Galatsaray, and the cafes of
Sultanahmet could be anywhere in Europe. But like
Turkey itself, Istanbul retains an essentially Asian
character: clogged bazaars, the howl of the muezzin,
fishermen on every bridge and quay, the quavering
voices of famous singers, the sweet smell of nargile
Graceful domes and soaring minarets dominate
Istanbul's skyline, adding beauty and symmetry to the
dark jumble of buildings stacked upon its many hills.
The most famous of Istanbul's historical and religious
sites are on the European side of the Bosporus,
particularly on the Golden Horn - a thumb of land with
water on three sides, once the redoubt of Byzantine
The Blue Mosque stunned us with its cavernous
interior. A high central dome dropped down to four
encircling semi-domes, and a profusion of arches and
columns - all elaborately decorated - gave an amazing
lightness to the building. A near mirror-image across
the square, the Aya (Saint) Sophia Mosque struck me in
a powerful and peculiar way. Large black discs with
Koranic script hung on great columns beneath a fresco
of the Virgin and Child. Aya Sophia remained the most
glorious of Orthodox churches, but it had for many
centuries now been filled with Islamic furniture: the
skewed niche in the apse, designed to face Mecca; the
imam's platform, atop a steep wooden stairwell; the
stained glass windows replaced with geometric designs.
My Christian upbringing railed against the defilement
of such a beautiful church, but I respected the
Ottomans and the Turks for not defacing the many
obviously Christian frescos and mosaics.
The Ottoman Empire, which endured more than
and spread from north Africa to the Balkans, is most
popularly known for its excesses: gluttonous sultans,
the harems, and acts of barbarism in warfare.
However, the final throes of the Empire in the 20th
century - when it was dubbed "the sick man of Europe"
- were nothing like the glorious Empire of the 15th
and 16th centuries. All-conquering, but amazingly
tolerant of religion, the Ottoman Empire grew rapidly
- from very humble beginnings in central Anatolia - on
the back of sultans like Osman the Great, Yildirim
("Lightning'), Selim the Grim, and Suleyman the
Magnificent. Reading Jason Goodwin's "Lords of the
Horizon" - a compartmentalized history of the Ottomans
- gave me a new appreciation of the Empire.
Istanbul's (and Turkey's) history is so rich
that layers of it disappear from sight and memory -
like the subterranean vaulted cisterns built by the
Byzantines, forgotten by the Ottomans, and
rediscovered centuries later when a visitor found
locals catching freshwater fish from deep holes
beneath their homes. A taxi ride through the city
reveals remnants of the ancient city walls. In the
Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultans, amazing
(and apocryphal) artifacts have been dusted off from
the Royal Treasury and put on display: Moses' rod,
Joseph's turban, the hair and footprint of Mohammed,
parts of the old door of the Kaaba.
There is Istanbul, a tourist fringe along the
and a few industrial cities, but Turkey's heart
remains agricultural, pastoral. Tractors outnumber
cars in many villages, and modern metropolises seen
glimmering in the distance turn out to be hamlets
surrounded by tomato greenhouses. Shepherds urge
their flocks over ancient bridges beneath cave-riddled
cliffs. Women sell peanuts and bananas from slapdash
stalls. Men still wear the baggy trousers of Ottoman
times (the crotch at ankle level), and women are
wrapped in clothes so shapeless that they resemble
laundry bags with heads.
Between Istanbul and the hinterland, there is
tension. But some things, thankfully, don't appear to
have changed with modernity and progress. Hospitality
to travelers is an Islamic, and Ottoman tradition.
Visitors to the Empire were given three nights' room
and board at roadside 'hans.' Throughout Turkey we
experienced many acts of kindness to strangers, but
none were as touching as the hospitality extended to
us by the first Turk we encountered.
We met Ozden Minisker on the flight from London.
was returning home to Istanbul after several weeks in
London visiting her daughter. I asked her for help
with my pronunciation of Turkish words. We began to
talk. Soon she had invited us to her home for tea.
(How many doors swing open by simply trying to learn a
A few days later we arrived at her modern flat
and met her ebullient husband, Ergin. We drank tea, ate freshly-baked
cake, and Ergin and I traded at playing classics on the piano.
Unbeknownst to us, tonight was the weekly family dinner -
even more special during Ramadan - and we had been invited.
We walked to the next block of apartments and met their extended
family. They were a joy and the meal was fantastic. Everyone
who could spoke English for our benefit. After dinner we walked
back to their flat and Ergin gave us a slide show of his photos
of Turkey - he is a professional photographer. On our return
to Istanbul, we visited the Minisker's again (this time armed
with a bottle of fiery raki - the Turkish tipple of choice)
and enjoyed yet another huge, Turkish meal.
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