If at times, as Heidegger remarked, one forgets to be astonished at the very existence of the world, the the pulsating energy and sensory richness — to the point of overload — of Istanbul on the Bosphorus prompts one to remember to be astonished anew. Ten days in Istanbul, too much of it spent at two conferences, is just enough to whet one’s appetite for exploring what this simultaneously ancient and modern city can yield to someone with the stamina to go beyond mere tourist rubbernecking.
Since the time when I first read Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium (the ancient name for Istanbul) during my undergraduate English years, this city has beckoned, an invitation strengthened by the knowledge that the Hagia Sophia — one of the architectural wonders of the world — has been resisting the onslaught of time in the old city since the early middle ages.
Entering this, according to our guidebook biggest cathedral (later to be appropriated as a mosque, before finally being proclaimed a museum) ever built, has not been a disappointment. Karsten Harries’s claim, that architecture has, above all, an ethical function, is vividly given life, as it were, by the sense of place or ethos that overwhelms one when you look up at the massive central dome, surrounded by smaller, genuflecting half-domes. The expression, that one’s “spirit soars” in some exceptional situations (especially spatial, but also when listening to certain musical pieces), involuntarily comes to mind as we stood, awe-struck, in that massively extended, electrifying space. The complexity of its design — as well as that of the nearby Blue Mosque — makes a mockery of the belief that an architect cannot design without sophisticated computer-software.
Not far from the Hagia Sophia the subterranean Basilica Cistern — where a memorable scene-sequence of the classic James Bond movie, From Russia with Love, was shot — is a powerful reminder that Byzantine engineering was capable of constructing a kilometres-long system of aqueducts and this colossal reservoir fed by them.
Apart from the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, where shopaholics can get lost for days, if not weeks, the Museum of Archaeology as well as the Topkapi Palace, both wıth virtually inexhaustible collections of a large variety of artifacts (more than a million in the museum alone), are in the same vicinity of the Old City. The vast collections of Byzantine, Macedonian, Phrygian, Trojan and other artifacts in the Archaeological Museum are truly mind-boggling. Fortunately the Turks had the good sense to pass legislation in the 19th century — the era of Western plundering of precious ancient artifacts from their original sites — that prevented foreigners from removing anything from the country. As a result, many beautifully preserved, relief-sculpted marble sarcophagi, statues, daggers, swords, and reconstructed architectural environments are preserved ın these museums, some with such amazing sculptural detail that one can hardly believe many of them to be more than 2 000 years old.
And when one’s ability to absorb it all reaches saturation point, it ıs easy to recoup your energy, sipping delicious Turkish apple tea, at one of the numerous restaurants or tea-houses lining the streets. Not even the rude incursions of globalising capital, in the guise of McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks, can suppress the sheer culinary exuberance of Istanbul’s food culture. Turkish delights of every imaginable flavour are ubiquitous, of course, but so are the Turkish counterparts of gyros and kebabs, not to menion the varieties of fruits (my favourite being dried figs).
And how incongruously exotic is it to sit among about 6 000 people in an amphitheatre under a half-moon, listening to a tribute to Miles Davis at the Istanbul Jazz (spelled Caz) Festival, courtesy of one of my colleagues in psychoanalytıc theory! It all feels a bit unreal, but on reflection one realises that it is this kind of thing that makes life worth living.