Part 9: Day 1 in Istanbul

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Now that we have abandoned the open road for good, I can kick the comedians off the stage and start serious blogging again. Today was another eventful one despite there being no change of location––at least, compared to previous outings. Instead, we plied our fortune in the streets of Turkey’s largest and most culturally and commercially important city, Istanbul. Beyond its great monuments, on which more later, Istanbul has a renowned tradition of street food and gnarled traffic, both motorized and foot-powered. These traits were much in evidence today, and as a group of sixteen we had some difficulty navigating through the narrow streets, which are often narrower than their original state because of stopped buses, trams, or people pushing carts on the sidewalk. Surprisingly, though, the city has a much more wholesome smell than some of the other Turkish cities we’ve visited, inescapable tobacco clouds notwithstanding.

Early in the morning, we set out for Topıkapı Palace, the opulent former residence of the sultans and their sprawling coteries of servants, eunuchs, concubines, and retainers. Like most historical sites we’ve seen in Turkey, the entire complex is capped with a triumphant Turkish republican flag, but for some reason the site seems unassimilable to a secular and republican ethos. To be sure, the sultans were no saints––not one of them ever went on hajj, for instance––but the entire palace, with its inward-looking architecture and concentric privacy walls, is resolutely private and mysterious, the hallmarks of Ottoman royal domestic life.

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Harems, meanwhile, were hardly the erotic fantasias imagined by fevered portraits by Ingres et al, but under the Orientalist myth you can find a harem flowing with power and marked by intrigue between the sultan’s sons and their mothers. Visiting them now, I’m not as much struck by the luxury of the place as its intimacy. Spaces are monumental and rooms are cold and empty, but divans and carpets line the floors and for every room dedicated to matters of state there is another for solitary pleasure. It’s a delightful spot to visit, though for my taste the museum chambers full of shiny magpie-treasures take up altogether too much space.

Returning to the secular world outside, we wound our way through Taksim Square, stopping to visit Gezi Park, the centre of the May 2013 uprisings against state plans to demolish the park and install a mosque and mall. Indeed, life in Turkey under the AK Party seems to be an intwined dance between those two influences: resolute capitalism sheathed in appeals to an obscured and idealistic vision of the Muslim Ottoman past. It would have clashed with the distinctly European and cosmopolitan feel of the square, which has no mosques in sight and sprawls out in the shadow of a monument to the first president of the republic, Mustafa Kemal.

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General Observations:

Istanbul is, as our tour guide put it, under the spell of the cult of concrete. Everywhere there are buildings under renovation or construction. It is, of course, a tremendous funnel for spare capital, and the city has a ferocity, especially on its expanding frontiers, that startled me as we approached it yesterday. I’m sure we’ll see much more of concrete’s divine blessing as we ramble on. Notably, the city has few distinct modern structures, which tend to be assembly line concrete or derivative glass box structures. A few more ridiculous/spectacular outliers do exist, but only at the edges of the city. More needs to be seen, so there will be some more insights to be had in the next four days.

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