“Allaaahuu Akbaarr.” The muezzin paused, drew breath. I held out a public phone’s plastic receiver, stretching the wire, and hoped my father on the other end could hear Istanbul being called to prayer. “Allaaahuu Akbaarr. Allaaahuu Akbaarr, Ash-hadu alla ilaha illallah.” The muezzin stopped, inhaled. Traffic snarled and casual banter dominated the city again. I bent my knees, bowed my head, and squeezed back into the small phone booth.
“And the beds? Do you fit into the beds?” asked Dad, also six foot eight, laughing at the image I had just conjured: me hunched awkwardly over a telephone, head touching the roof.
“I curl up, or stretch diagonally, like anywhere. The beds aren’t any different.” But so much was different. I felt amidst the truly exotic for the first time and, because his reactions were so animated, enjoyed describing this unfamiliar land to my father.
“Sultan Ahmed Jail – the prison in Midnight Express – is just up the road.” It had been filmed dirty and crumbling, inhabited by rotten-toothed murderers and inhuman guards. In 2004, Oliver Stone visited Istanbul and apologised for portraying the Turkish people as brutish and sadistic.
“But it’s been converted into a Four Seasons.” A thick layer of yellow paint had been applied to the perimeter wall and large, black suited doormen now patrolled the exit.
“Ja my boy, watch out for those Turks,” said Dad, still laughing.
After travelling overnight, we had chugged into Istanbul’s Sirkeci Railway Station, the Orient Express’s last stop, pulled by a squat, boxy engine. Our Eurail Passes had expired in Athens, when we boarded our last European train.
A few hundred metres of well kept garden separates the Hagia Sophia from Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Despite being built more than a thousand years apart, the buildings, two of religious architecture’s most spectacular achievements, are nearly identical. They define an exceptional urban space and hold, to each other, an unusual historical mirror, reflecting their own construction and the past of the only city that straddles two continents.
The Hagia Sophia was built a church in the declining Roman Empire’s new capital, Constantinople. Justinian, amongst the Empire’s first Christians rulers, ordered the construction of its grey-blue dome and red, sun bleached walls in 532 CE. He claimed afterwards to have “surpassed Solomon,” because the row of windows clustered at the dome’s base filled it with light, making the roof seem separate: a hovering entity held there by divine grace.
In 1453, almost a thousand years later, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople. He changed its name to Istanbul, made the city his capital and the Hagia Sophia his mosque. Minarets – long towers from which the muezzin issues his call – were erected hastily outside. Delicate gold mosaics were plastered over – Islam prohibits representations of human form – and then painted elaborately, with intricate patterns that easily move the eye.
In 1935, the mosque was declared a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of Turkey: a new, secular nation. He had already moved his capital away from the Bosphorus, to Ankara.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, sits, spiderlike, opposite the Hagia Sophia. It was constructed so that its entrance faces, and directly challenges, the Roman achievement. Crowned with six controversial minarets, a number equal only (at the time) to the Mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca, it had neither more floor space nor a larger dome than the Hagia Sophia. Ahmed paid for a seventh minaret to be erected in Mecca, and, angered by the mosque’s otherwise modest proportions, considered having his architect executed.
Ramazan, called Ramadan outside Turkey, is the ninth month of Islam’s lunar calendar. It is the holiest month, when the Koran was revealed to Mohammed, and is observed by abstinence: food, drink, tobacco and sex are forbidden between sunrise and sunset. Not even water may pass a good Muslim’s lips.
Claire and I had arrived in its midst. Every day, before sunset, people gathered in the space between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, not far from our hostel. Grey haired men emerged behind corn laden carts and women wearing colourful headscarves laid neat rows of paper plates along the grass. Fat started to bubble and drip from long lines of rotating kebab meat, watched by stall holders waiting greedily for customers at the nearby Hippodrome. Steam billowed from enormous urns of çay (black tea) and bright lights were flicked on, to warm and illuminate sticky pieces of baklava.
Long, imposing shadows grew beneath minarets as the sun crept lower. Restaurants splayed extra tables across the pavement, shared by ravenous customers: impatient men in front of full plates, women restraining too eager children. A loudspeaker crackled, the muezzin announced the sun’s departure, and the hungry ate.
After eating, the devout prayed on quickly spread mats or fought through thick queues to enter the Blue Mosque and kneel on its soft carpet. Cay, made on small gas stoves, was drunk from fine crockery carried in shabby bags. Children ran past in sticky packs, wielding damp sweets, and lights strung between two minarets spelt “Sevelim Sevilelim” (Love and be Loved) against the night sky.
Waiting for the Syrian Embassy to issue our visas one afternoon, Claire and I stumbled, on a whim, into a large neoclassical mosque. Inside, a crystal chandelier hung low over beige carpets. Its warm yellow light stopped at the Bosphorus, gloomy beyond big windows. A man tramped past us, leaning right. He stopped, muttered incomprehensibly through a thick beard, and continued, walking in close, dizzy circles.
Another man approached, wearing corduroy trousers, an open cardigan, and loose fitting socks. He was younger, almost my age. “Don’t worry,” he said, gesturing towards the bearded man, who tramped past us again, still muttering. “He is crazy.” The young man extended his hand, “My name is Oğuzhan, I am the Imam’s son. Would you like to know something about this mosque?”
Oğuzhan’s father, the Islamic equivalent of a parish priest, was responsible for this elegant mosque which adjoined Dolmabahçe Palace. The palace was built between 1842 and 1853, because Sultan Abdülmecid felt he had outgrown Topkapı Palace’s much older charms.
Oğuzhan and his family lived in a home attached to the mosque. The tables and chairs in their garden were public property, to be used by passersby, and their shoes mingled with neat pairs left at the door of the mosque by strangers. Oğuzhan, studying International Relations, looked as though he might stalk the building regularly, waiting for tourists to stumble in and speak English.
“I want to go to England and become a master,” he later explained. We had left, collected our visas, and returned, to sip hot black tea at the water’s edge. Oğuzhan now clutched two props: his English-Turkish dictionary and a grammar book. I held my own: Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, and hoped to find some sensible questions in its pages.
“I think the three most important languages in the world are English, Spanish and… Arabic,” Oğuzhan continued. Turks once used the Arabic script. Ataturk adopted the Latin alphabet in 1928, further separating the country from its neighbours to the South and East. The new alphabet was diligently taught – Ataturk assumed personal responsibility, lecturing large groups across the country – and adult literacy shot from twenty to eighty percent in a few short years. “But it is better to read the Koran in Arabic,” said Oğuzhan, though neither he nor his father could.
A strong wind whipped the Bosphorus, and flapped through our books. It brought a light rain, which wet the open pages. “If you like, you can come and sit in my room,” offered Oğuzhan. We hesitated, not wanting to impose on our perhaps too polite host, but accepted.
Between a mosque in a snow globe and his plastic dervish figurine, Oğuzhan had stuck a poster of the Ka’aba, Islam’s central shrine. White robed hajjis prostrated themselves before the large black cube: part granite, part marble, part meteorite. Backs bent, foreheads touching the floor, they echoed the prayers good Muslims must complete five times daily, facing Mecca and, ultimately, the Ka’aba.
Oğuzhan had been to Mecca, but on the Hajj. He left disappointed. Too many people begged in Mecca’s filthy streets, deprived of Saudi Arabia’s ludicrous oil wealth. The charity and cleanliness preached by Mohammed were largely absent. “The real Muslims are in the ground,” Oğuzhan said, smiling. “Now I must pray. I can go downstairs, to mosque, but if you don’t mind, I will do it here.”
“No no no, please, it’s your room,” Claire replied quickly, standing up. “Would you like us to wait outside?”
“No, you are my guests.” Oğuzhan waved us back to our seats. “I will be only five minutes. Would you like me to switch on the television?”
“Uhh, no thanks, we’re happy reading,” I said, surveying his bookshelf.
Unabashed, Oğuzhan performed a brief, robotic prayer. Once finished, he rolled up his mat and casually invited us to dinner. Again we felt awkward. Oğuzhan was obviously very, very hungry. He had bought us tea, but had none himself. And he would feel rude asking us to leave so abruptly.
“We don’t want to impose,” said Claire.
“Impose? What does this mean?”
“Umm… We’d like to,” Claire stammered, “but we don’t want to… to cause a fuss… to make things difficult for you.”
“There is no difficulty. Please stay. Only, because my father is the Imam, the community cook for him during Ramazan, and I don’t know what we will eat. It is, we say, what God has provided.”
Oğuzhan left, leaving us to imagine platefuls of strange, inedible vegetables, stewed offal, or worse. But God provided a feast: delicious barbequed chicken, soft pidas, baked only during Ramazan, a fresh salad and lentil soup, followed by syrupy, deep fried dough balls and the family’s finest Turkish Delights, a gift from one of the city’s most prestigious hotels.
Claire and I danced lethargically to another dull reggae beat, sipping from small bottles of the ubiquitous Efes, Turkey’s national beer, bottled by Turkey’s nationalised brewery. Ataturk founded the brewery after toppling the Ottoman’s Islamic state. He died years later, from alcohol induced liver cirrhosis.
Beside me, Nemo, a tiny waiter from our hostel’s restaurant, bounced with nauseating enthusiasm. Nemo greeted me, at every breakfast, with a smoky “Good Morning Brother!”
“Morning,” I would croak, still puffy eyed. “How are you?”
“Great Brother! I went Taksim last night. Big Party, five this morning I was home!”
And we were now in Taksim, his promised land, where espresso bars, loud all-night clubs, Burger King and Body Shop mingled comfortably with calls to prayer and men selling roast chestnuts.
Nearby, Nemo’s swarthy friend, the hostel’s barman and self appointed DJ, had cornered a large blonde from Australia. I’d witnessed him making other highly motivated attempts to seduce Western girls, because, I imagine, they were more sexually relaxed than his countrywomen. Beauty certainly wasn’t a factor.
“My friend is real lover boy,” Nemo had confessed to me late one night, stumbling in from an obviously punishing evening. “But me, I don’t like this one night, one night love.”
At our table, Nick, an Englishman, showed his pictures of the Khyber Pass to two hard drinking Glaswegians. “WHEN WERE YOU THERE?” I asked, fighting the music.
“WHAT?” Nick leant towards me, tilting his head.
“WHEN WERE YOU THERE?”
“OH, A FEW MONTHS AGO. IN AUGUST.”
The younger of the two Glaswegians pointed at my empty beer. “DE YE WUNT ANOTHER DREENK?” He nodded towards the door, the sway of his head followed by a gold hoop in his left ear. “OR SHOOD WE GO SOMEWAR WAR WE KIN HEER OORSELVES THEENK?”
I heard complicated lilts and an occasional rolled ‘R’ above wailing Rastafarians. I pieced the sentence together after some thought, and agreed. “JA! ARE THERE ANY GOOD PUBS NEARBY?”
Outside, a flower seller was ignored by tourists photographing his blue roses. He lifted a bucket of water, threw it in their direction, and started to shout incomprehensibly. Nick led us to the James Joyce, an Irish Pub, past dark, fetid alleys and prostitutes hanging plainly from second floor windows. Drinks were bought and we settled into the familiar surroundings, to emerge hours later: when conscientious Muslim families were squeezing a last meal in before sunrise and the muezzin was about to issue his call.
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