"Well, two thirds of the Bible happened here .... And basically we're your only real ally in the East so I'm always surprised when Americans say, 'Turkey? Why Turkey?'
It was my last day in the country. I'd asked the hotel manager if I could hire a guide, but one who was willing to make up a tour as we went along - I told him, "I have 5 things I need to do: I've got to buy some cloth from this particular store off the Divanyolu, I want to see the aqueduct, I want to see the oldest Christian mosaics in the city, I want a Besiktas scarf, and I want a real turkish coffee at the end of the day. Oh and I want to get into a Sephardic Synagogue."
He nodded, "The last one will be hard. But, I know the man."
By noon I was walking at a good clip on the crowded old town streets with a man I'll call the Turkish David Mamet. Not tall. Strongly built. Short black hair clipped for efficiency. Wearing a vest only war photographers or Hemingway buffs would wear. Smart as a whip.
"He knows more about Istanbul than anyone", the manager had nodded, "you two will have... an interesting time."
"You know that's a curse right?"
As I bought some cloth for someone's xmas gift to come, from a store I'd randomly passed three days before and whose gorgeous patterns I couldn't get out of my head, my guide, Serhat, married and father to a young son, told me stories about Roman triumphs rolling down the main drag (the Divanyolu) a block away and into the Western City.
Where Starbucks and Burger King and countless nougat stores now stood, bejeweled elephants and crowds of captive Bulgars and shining Circassians once paraded past. For a millennium, this was Main Street.
"No one here ever called themselves 'Byzantine'. You people made that up. They called themselves Romans, and mostly they spoke Greek." He tugged at some cloth samples and then outside rolled his eyes at my bargaining skill. "You paid too much for that."
"The guy started at 500 a piece, I got him down to 500 for three!"
"He started in outer space so when he got you down to 500 you felt like you'd won. He's a thief, they're worth 300 lire."
"Say something next time, huh? You're my guide, you're here to help me, right?"
"I'm here to educate you. Consider yourself educated. Someone has to pay retail, I guess."
On the way to the aqueduct we visited the largest mosque in Istanbul which sits on the highest hill - the fourth Hill - in the city- above the ruins of a 13th century school a local landlord was trying to demo for office space.
" Mimar Sinan, who built this mosque - and he built scores of them in Istanbul- tried several times to build a bigger dome than the one in Hagia Sofia which is 35 meters across...but he never could. Imagine this man, a genius, his people have preserved the knowledge of the ages, algebra and geometry, poetry and the secrets of the Roman pontifices, saved all of it from your insane Gothic hordes...but still he cannot match the work of the nameless man who built the old church 900 years before. Amazing."
We never did get to the aqueduct. We saw it about a hundred yards away as it crossed the main east west highway - Ataturk Bulvan- that bisects Istanbul. It was massive. A massive silhouette that looked like it had been drawn yesterday. I'd say 6 lanes of traffic ran beneath it but the Turks define lanes a bit more freely than we do. When I travel I like to imagine returning to the place to ride my bike through it- I never felt that in Istanbul. God save the brave few who do. Inshallah.
The oldest Christian mosaics in the city ...well it depends on who you believe or who will let you in...but it's generally agreed that the best ones are found in the Chora church or, spoken in the more beautiful Turkish "Kariye Camii", "sam ee", being the word for mosque and a word I never tired of saying out loud.
(I thought we'd have found a word for mosques that sounded something like their word for it. The way Peking sounds like Beijing or Cologne sounds a little like Koln. I thought we'd have gotten close, that we'd have chosen a term for the most important structures in their community which sounded native. Ah well. I was learning.)
There was a cafe by the front steps of the church, besieged by Germans or maybe they were Dutch, I didn't listen long enough to tell. There was a public bath where locals were trying to perform their wudu before prayer, dodging Birkestocked blonde men, and western women splayed across the stones.
The entire building was framed in scaffolding- like a ship in a yard, you could barely feel the shape of the place beneath all the gridding. But inside...inside ...I nearly fell down. I'm not much of a Christian. I went to church every Sunday as a kid and I went to a summer camp where we linked arms and sang Jacob's Ladder. "Soldiers...of the...cross..." but once I got to college, Marx, common sense, and the fact that 5 billion other people don't pray to Christ made me think "Great ideas! Sure. Resurrection? Maybe not so much."
But say what you will, what you learn is love as a child you will follow all your days. And when I walked into the delicate Kariye Camii, this old mosque built within an even older, an ancient, chapel, I felt like you do after you've been singing for an hour. Like you do when you finally tell someone you love them. I was speechless, and happily so. And happily this tough little Muslim man next to me had spent most of his adult life studying the odd obsession Christians have with the mother of their Christ, this lady called Mary. The container of the uncontainable. The living emblem of God's space in the world. Theotokos. What we moderns have made of the earth mother. Of the Goddess. He told tell me everything. Image by hovering image.
I think he did. But I don't remember the facts or even the story. I was in a kind of reverie that I'm not sure I understand. I don't know why it took me there. The place.
Images of Saints and and Prophets, apostles and angels; Gabriel looking more like Gabriela than I'd seen before....the Annunciation happening , between two women...hmm?...All placed and drawn 1000 years ago with a grace difficult to describe. As if the builders had just stepped away for a coffee and a smoke, the roaring intensity of their vision undiminished but not alien to a guy with an i-phone.
Hours later we wandered down the steep hill below the chapel, into the old Jewish and Greek neighborhoods - Fener and Balat.
I wasn't going to get into a Sephardic temple. Al Qaeda had blown up a synagogue a decade ago and the Jewish population of Istanbul -16,000 among 16 million- had hunkered down, walled itself off, or left. It was astonishing. Barbed wire, unmarked doors, defensive gates, prison security cameras.
I didn't know why we stopped, mid block, in a block like any other in this tougher, poorer part of the city. My head was still reeling, the Mother of God, Christ Pantocrator, and then the children we'd passed on the streets above, filthy, playing in puddles, literally huddling in ruined doorways, unaware of course that they were objects of pity. "Gypsies?" I'd asked.
"Oh no,....don't you see? Syrians. Europe in an uproar over 200,000 immigrants...we have one and half million in the country. They suffer terribly."
I stood still.
"And do you know where we are?" He asked me.
"Next to an espresso shop that could be in Portland Oregon?"
"The wall behind you is the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It's been a house of worship since the 1450s."
"That wall?" It looked like a place you'd store trucks behind.
"See the wooden building- two stories- that was their schul and where the baths were.....all done now since the bombings."
"You're Muslim. You're a Turk. You live in a gigantic modern city. How does this make you feel?" It was unfair. It was so very American, but I couldn't help but ask.
"Your Christ is a prophet, one of many yes, but a prophet, to me. To all Islam. These Jews, they are the sons of Abraham, as am I. We're people of the book. It's a disgrace they fear for their lives being here in their home."
I learned you have to petition to visit a Synagogue in Istanbul. They need your passport number, your itinerary, and a letter from the US consulate. It takes two weeks or more. The few remaining temples are literally walled compounds, hidden in back streets, the size of a two bedroom two story home. One was now a museum, and that museum was closing at the end of the month. There'd been 500,000 jews in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. They'd been there since the Spanish expulsion and even earlier. They'd thrived. All this was coming to an end.
To enter a mosque all I needed to do was remove my shoes, and show some respect. We went in together, into five of them, some massive, some the size of a Greek hilltop chapel, women draped in fabric, the men engaged in the rhythmic prayer of Islam, the westerners asked to remain in the rear of the space, and oddly enough the children let to run free. I was touched that the most intense prayer, truly men abasing themselves before their God, took place as infants and kids ran and played and danced in the Mosque.
"It's a short quote from Muhammed, that we let them do this, it's common." And I thought of the countless times I'd been hushed in Church or wanted to hush some recalcitrant tween as I grew older, the rod and the staff you internalize as a Western Christian....it made me laugh. I liked them both, these ways, theirs and mine. Maybe I'd found some wisdom- two contradictory ideas in happy habitation.
I never did get the soccer scarf. The craziest of the crazy Turkish football fans follow Besiktas. They're like a cult. Turks I'd met in America warned me not to get anything bearing the team colors, I might meet one of their sworn enemies somewhere across the globe and catch a beating. Which of course made me like Besiktas all the more.
An example. One of the team's better players, but one who'd shown little affection for Turkey- an international star brought to Istanbul - had been racially harassed during a game with a rival. The next week the entire home stand showed up wearing his number and waving massive signs that said, "We are all black."
The rival player who now was the focus of legal attention said, "I didn't harass him because he's black, I did it because he's a fairy."
The next game the entire Besiktas home stand arrived again wearing the player's number and huge banners which said "We are all gay."
To paraphrase General Patton, "Men that eloquent have to be saved."
We ended the day in a college bar packed with twenty somethings you could have met in Berlin, overlooking the giant bay of the Bosphorus which of course isn't a bay but is so massive you want to lend it higher praise- Istanbul, a place that screams destiny, a location fated by geography, it could have been nothing else but one of the centers of human history. You grasp that all in a moment when you stand by the shoreline. It's humbling. Jaw dropping. One of the great narratives of the species made into a place.
We had two coffees each, I think Serhat would only have had one but he thought as an American accustomed to "venti" portions, I wanted more.
It was good stuff but no different than I'd had at the old Lebanese restaurant at Yale, or at the Greek food fairs of Pittsburgh. I smiled. Somehow the disappointment was not disappointing. It was just a coffee. This place was a place like any other, frustrating to its natives, limited, normal- the bizarre gestalt switch of being a traveler happening to me, to stand among what to you is miraculous but to a local is part of the commute.
On the way back to my hotel we stopped at one more mosque, just slipping in before the 4th call to prayer began. He let me linger as the faithful arrived, heads lowered, hip to shoulder, gesturing that curious way with their hands behind the ears as if to say "The day's troubles are behind me, I'm here now Lord."
I asked Serhat was there a major in Istanbul Studies, was that how he'd come to know the place so well...and he said no.....I simply do a lot of walking....and then he told me, when I asked him to be my guest whenever he might come to New York or Pittsburgh, that he had never left Turkey, and in fact had only left Istanbul a handful of times in his 40 some years.
He was terrified of planes, of water or of heights, and the rhythm of trains made him ill. His wife drove the family car.
He was, I realized, quite brave to even let me disturb the usual schedule of his touring but that he'd been asked by the concierge he said this time, and because I'd enquired about the mosaics, he would.
I was with a man probably not too many steps from a hermitage but someone who'd made it his life's work to learn and love his home, his city, and share it with foreigners. He was its living map. I envied him.
"I do want desperately to come to one place....San Francisco. There's something about that city I must see. So I will try. The bridge is beautiful. The light."
I told him he was right.
I paid him in Lire, not American Dollars and I wondered if that was a slight but he didn't let it show as he tucked the money into one of his many pockets. I watched him walk home, up past the Topkapi Palace, seat of the Sultans for 500 years, built over the capital of Western Rome, an empire which but for electricity mirrored and or dwarfed what we call our own great powers, and beneath that the fortress of Constantine himself - the illiterate warrior who decreed Christianity will help hold the ground which the survivors of Troy must have thought, centuries before him, this will keep, this no one will take in a thousand years.