Istanbul, City of the
An unconventional travel guide to the city which stradles two continents, because it combines literature with locations.
Having happened upon the books of Pierre Loti, Barbara Nadel and Orhan Pamuk, I got hooked by their descriptions of extraordinary and often off beat places in Istanbul and decided to follow their footsteps.
Have a sneak peek at the introduction to the book:
Squish, squish went my shoes as I hurried along Divanyolu, the thoroughfare of Istanbul’s historical Sultanahmed district. I was trying to escape a sudden downpour on a November afternoon, so I looked for refuge. The shower would soon be over, because behind the dark clouds, the sun was already peeking out and reflecting off the golden spire crowning the Blue Mosque’s roof.
Suddenly, the door to the Kayseri bookshop swung open, and a Turkish lady emerged. She wore a white and gold headscarf that covered the lower half of her face. She clutched a carrier bag full of books. Careful not to drop her heavy load, she smiled at me and held the door open with her foot. Taking this as a silent invitation, I slipped inside, having found my shelter from the rain and, as it turned out, the starting point for a very different approach to Istanbul.
I wiped a few remaining raindrops off my glasses and looked around. A book cover caught my eye. It bore a striking resemblance to the woman who had just left. The title read Aziyadé by Pierre Loti.
Intrigued, I opened the book and started to read. On the second page after the introduction, I came to this description:
I thought that I was completely alone, when I suddenly noticed a strange sensation behind me. There, behind a heavily barred window, I saw the top of a human head and two big green eyes which were fixed on mine. The eyebrows were dark and nearly met, the expression of the eyes was a mixture of curiosity and naivety, one could almost say that of a child, full of youth and freshness.
The young woman to whom the eyes belonged, got up and revealed her figure just to the waist. She was clad in a richly embroidered green silk kaftan and her head was swathed in a tightly wound white veil which only revealed her forehead and those big eyes. The iris was very green, of this particular hue of sea green which has been praised by the poets of the Orient. This woman was Aziyadé.
The words promised mystery, romance and, due to the barred windows, adventure and danger. All of it playing out in Istanbul, the city which held me in her ban with her never-ending surprises. Like the weather, rain followed by sun, covered women walk the streets next to those in miniskirts and high heels. Ancient mosques and wooden houses stand next to modern high rises. Dark and crowded bazaars invite browsers as much as 21st century, award-winning shopping malls.
I bought the book, intrigued to learn the rest of the story and curious to know who Pierre Loti was. Up until that moment, he was an unknown writer to me. A biography by Lesley Blanch, which sat right next to copies of Aziyadé and other novels by Loti, shed light on his extraordinary life that included a distinguished military career, acrobat training, world travels as a French naval officer and a love for opium, as well as a life-long infatuation with all things Turkish.
Loti described life in Istanbul in the late 19th century. He wrote about the Golden Horn and the sacred district of Eyüp, from the narguile (water pipe) salons frequented by men dressed in traditional Turkish baggy pants, embroidered waist coat and fez, to the carved wooden houses along the Bosporus, the long straight which separates Europe from Asia and connects The Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.
All of this prompted me to follow his footsteps and discover an Istanbul off the beaten track. I wanted to look at the city through the eyes of his “green-eyed beauty” and to find out what was left of his descriptions. The purpose of this book is to take the reader on a journey of hills covered with the purple blossoms of Judas trees, mosques glittering with a dusting of snow and a church made of cast iron, to name but a few sites.
Then I found a second writer, who evoked the murder and mayhem of the Istanbul underworld, again thanks to the Kayseri bookshop. A London-trained actress, Barbara Nadel came to Turkey over 20 years ago and created the chain-smoking and hard-drinking Turkish police inspector Cetin Ikmen. He and his aristocratic sidekick, Mehmet Süleyman, became the stars of 13 crime novels that won Nadel several awards, among them the CWA Silver Dagger and London Borough of Redbridge, Big Red Read crime fiction of the year. She also worked as a public relations officer for the National Schizophrenia Fellowship’s Good Companions Project and as a mental advocate in a psychiatric hospital.
The idea of a ”literary guidebook” to Istanbul was already forming in my head and Nadel’s views of the city were an obvious addition. Luckily, she is very much alive, and to give authenticity to my enterprise, I asked for an interview. Much to my surprise, and literally by return to my request, she agreed.
I grabbed my tape recorder, camera and notebook and was on the next flight to London . Nadel is after all an award winning novelist, so I expected some formality and reserve. As it turned out, from the word go, we started to chat as if we had known each other all our lives. The conversation turned to every subject under the sun, including fashion (I kid you not) and, of course, her books and background. We were two chic middle-aged ladies having a spot of lunch in a lovely pub near London’s Victoria station.
Like me, Nadel loves the many ferries in Istanbul, which she often uses to concoct her riddles and to explore the places the ferries go to as venues for new books. Otherwise, it’s walking around and getting carried away by the spirit and the sights of the city of the green-eyed beauty for Nadel. And, yes, she loves Pierre Loti too.
Pierre Loti and Barbara Nadel are foreigners who have fallen under the spell of Istanbul and explored the facets of the city to serve as background for their work. What I needed to round out the picture was the perspective of a local. I couldn’t have found a more suitable personality than Orhan Pamuk.
As a pampered upper-middle class boy, Pamuk roamed Istanbul from end to end. He couldn’t decide whether his vocation was to be a painter, architect or writer. He chose the latter, embarking on a distinguished literary career culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006.
The gripping and melancholic book Istanbul, Memories and the City reveals Beyoglu and Nisantasi. In Pamuk’s youth, as well as today, both sections of Istanbul are quite upscale districts with a wealth of neoclassical buildings, as opposed to the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of Old Istanbul around Sultanahmed., Eminönü and Pera. For many years, Pamuk lived in his family’s home in Nisantasi and observed social life, as well as explored every nook and cranny.
I asked Pamuk’s publishers for an interview, but although they kindly wrote back that they had given my request to Pamuk, I haven’t heard from him yet.
I have visited Istanbul many times and live part of the year on Turkey’s Aegean coast. After devouring the literature of ”my” three writers , I was eager to discover the “out of the way places” of Istanbul and research their history. The idea was born to share these lesser known places in an unconventional guidebook, which is not of the “what to see, do and where to eat” kind, but combines locations with works of literature
Lastly, the title is a reference to Aziyadé, because it was a pair of green eyes that first seduced Pierre Loti into a life-long love affair, not only with a woman, but also with the magical city on the Bosporus.
Follow me to the sacred mosuqes of Eyüp with breath taking views over the Golden Horn, to the Jewish quarters of Balat and a church made from cast iron. Learn about the mysteries of Sufism and the whirling dervishes and become a child again in the toy museum in Göztepe.
Glide along the Bosporus on one of Istanbul’s many ferries to the Princes’ Islands and to the pictoresque village of Sariyer. Roam the seedy streets of Karaköy and window shop in the designer boutiques in Nasantasi. Not to forget to ‘converse’ with the spirits of Agatha Christie and ErnestH emingway in the fabled Pera Palace Hotel, all the while indulging in the best cream tea outside England.
A roller coster ride through many districts of thiscompleeing city of many faces and cultures, divided and at the same time united by the influences of east and west.
Enjoy a few pictures to fire your imagination: