Turkish Bazaar

Absorbing the Essence of Istanbul Through a Quick Saturation of Visual ecstasy

I had no previous visual knowledge of Istanbul, no a priori idea of what to expect, not even a plan of what I would see in the less-than-48 -hours I had there,

I didn’t want to know anything beforehand; I was as stubborn as an expectant mother who doesn’t want to know the sex of her child.

But the rush at the first encounter was worth the wait.

As the plane prepared to land in Atatürk Airport, my eyes where already savoring the landscape: The mist seemed to swallow the black silhouette of the mountains afar, while the sea sparkled in the sun. The shiny Bosphorus Strait at midday was specked with rectangles; ships and freighters seemed to be frozen in time, while evoking the strong military tradition in Turkey.

The plane landed, and I headed out to get my luggage. I was startled by the tumble of cloth and color. A group of men and women in creamy cottons and headscarves had arrived from Saudi Arabia. Cultural theorists may criticize me calling them “exotic,” but I am sure some Saudis would feel the same in Mexico, my home-country. The ties between the Middle East and Latin America have been historically weak – except for a few larger scale migrations from Lebanon. But here I knew I was no longer in the so-called “West.” At most, this was a port of call.

On my way to the hotel, the ancient walls of Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire from 330 to about 1204, popped out of the coastline highway. On this trip, the past would assert its power at every turn.

I left the hotel as soon as I arrived: time was ticking, and I transformed into the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.  A taxi to the historic peninsula was a parade of churches and minarets of mosques in all sizes, peeking out from the modern urban landscape, asserting their way into the present from the rubble of mankind’s conflicts.

Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul – all these seem accidental names for the multiple identities, religions, and cultures that have made a home here. As some passed away, the city has witnessed the rise and fall of the Byzantine, Roman, Latin and Ottoman empires, and in our days, Turkey has become one source for current debates about European identity. The opponents to its accession, such as the recently elected president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, argue that Turkey does not share Europe’s cultural heritage.

They are right up to a point. Turkey is not a part; but it has been both gateway and a source of Europe’s cultural evolution. Its geography, straddling Europe and Asia, confirms the inability to impose a simple identity on its people. Turks share the same Greek, Roman and Christian ancestors of Europeans, and a cultural exchange that continued in the 20th century, as the postwar economies of Germany or Austria got a push from the 1960’s Turkish immigration.

Thus Europe and Turkey are interwoven, which becomes abundantly clear from the moment of arriving in Istanbul, and to argue that they are radically different on the basis of religion, is an attempt to build a political wall on top of the constructions of history, in the same way the Spanish conquerors constructed churches over the Aztec pyramids.

The sight of Istanbul’s clashing eras is dazzling, still visible through their architectural vestiges, beginning with the Grand Bazaar, built by Sultan Mehmed II, the first Ottoman emperor who conquered the eclipsed Constantinople in 1453. Mehmed wanted to bring back the glitter to Istanbul, so he invited Christians and Jews to come back to the city, and re-establish their commercial activities. The Grand Bazaar grew over the centuries, and it became a labyrinth of about 4,000 shops selling pots, jewelry, spices, coffee, local artistry, touristy kitsch and fake Gucci bags. Bottlenecks form in the corridors closest to the several entrances, while the deeper one walks into the maze, the hand-painted details painted on the wall seem to come into life, as the small windows by the ceiling play with the lights and shadows over them.

Then, suddenly, I am in an oasis of solitude, where the only sound is of water lapping down from the faucet of a public bath in the middle of a crossroad of corridors.

The moment was fleeting, as I was dragged into the shops by the persistent salesmen undeterred by my tactic of speaking only in Spanish. No such luck; one seller talked me into buying a turquoise glass candle lamp, and a few family handicrafts. Market vendors are skillful: They flirt, they tell a woman how beautiful she is, and even if you see through the tactic, it softens you up. He even told me he has a son in Mexico City; but he himself hadn’t been able to stay because of his immigration status. Was it just another move to close the deal? Maybe, but his story seemed credible, particularly with the clean accent he had acquired from the center of Mexico.

With four more hours left to see as much as my eyes could handle, and my purse drastically lightened in just a couple of hours, I walked out of the market tunnel. Oh no, more street vendors. Run.

To escape from the banality of earthly treasures, I headed in the opposite direction, around the mosque and paused at the spear-shaped tombs. Unlike the heavy rectangular Christian tombstones that seem to close the door to the living, the Ottoman tombs seem to float over the ground. A broad top and a slim base, like a disfigured pyramid standing over its head. Others are long white-stoned cylinders reaching towards the sky.

At Bezayit square, I retreated from the glaring sun to cool down inside the courtyard of the mosque. In Mexico, churches are overwhelmed with gold-colored round-shaped decorations attuned with the baroque period. Here in Istanbul, I saw the same excess, but in sleek marble lines, squares and rectangles. Still, similarities stood out as much as the differences. The Ottoman expansion towards Spain exported its architectural style, and the Spanish conquest brought it into Latin America. This cultural inflows and outflows coming from the gateway of the Bosphorous seem to confirm Napoleon’s observation that “if the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”

It was getting chilly as I walked down the hill, soaking in the street corners decorated by tiny French-style cafés and American fast food restaurants. Finally, I arrived at the meticulously well-kept garden by Sultanahmet’s Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque because of the tiles that cover every inch of its inner walls. Depending on the sun’s whims, over 20,000 tiles with turquoise motifs start to play along with the 260 windows flooding the mosque, a concert of color.

A few more minutes left. I crossed the gardens toward the Haghia Sophia, the rich orange colored Byzantine church commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, which was later converted into a mosque, and is now a museum. It all felt surprisingly comfortable: Families were walking around a garden, children running towards the fountain, newspaper vendors selling postcards to tourists.

Where was I? Istanbul seemed to me the place where the so-called “clash of civilizations” was dispelled by the reality of the blending worlds, as it has been since the beginning of human history.

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