Saturday, October 23, 2010

In the Scheme of Things ..

With the Bayram festival approaching and the summer sun still warming the earth, I couldn’t resist one more visit to this most ostentatious city of spires, a fabulously inspiring metropolis of imperial dreams; and it was only a magic carpet ride away.
Just a short, pleasant journey through gently rolling countryside and a quick trip through underground tubes landed me wide-eyed in child-like anticipation at the axis point of history, the juxtaposition of continents and cultures.
I had tired of riding in trains, buses, trams and autos, so slipping on comfortable soft-soled shoes I took to wandering through the intricate maze of the old capital on foot.

Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life's begun
Nights are warm and the days are young
There's my baby lost that's all
Once I'm begging you save her little soul
Golden years ..

Last night they loved you
Opening doors and pulling some strings
Angel ..
Come get up my baby
In walked luck and you looked in time
Never look back, walk tall, act fine
I'll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years
Golden years ..

Don't cry my sweet, don't break my heart
Doing all right, but you gotta get smart
Wish upon, wish upon, day upon day
I believe, oh Lord, I believe all the way
Run for the shadows in these golden years ..
I'll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years ..
~D Bowie~

I began my sojourn with a walk along the Golden Horn to gaze once more upon one of my favourite structures anywhere in the world, the Galata Tower. This colossal structure was built in the 6th century, though there is continuing debate about its designers, and looks out across the straits as a watchtower surveying its domain. Today its top floors contain a restaurant and nightclub with traditional entertainment – I highly recommend it for the view alone. The first time I ate there was about 18 years ago, and so renowned is it that my brother, in Istanbul last month for a conference, was ushered there for an evening’s leisure.

Eagerly anticipating the sundown celebrations centred round the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque because of the colour of the mosaic patterned tiles in the ceiling and walls of the interior (which anyone can enter provided they’re appropriately attired and leave their shoes at the door – women can borrow a shawl to cover arms or legs if necessary), I left myself time to visit some sites of personal interest, including smoking a very fruitful hookah pipe. I had time to visit the gardens of Topkapi Palace and wander among the faded psychedelic patterns of the old shopping districts before returning to the hub of activity at nightfall, when the call of the muezzin would ring out across the city in echo of ages when the faithful would fall to their knees in supplication.

This imposing and truly massive construction caused a bit of a scandal when it was first unveiled to the public some 500 years ago. With six minarets surrounding the main building it was perceived as trying to outshine the holiest site in Islam, that of the mosque in Mecca where the Ka’aba rests. So, planners were quickly despatched to Arabia to rectify the situation by adding a further two minarets to that most important hall of worship. Unfortunately, one has to be Muslim to enter Mecca during Ramadan, circle the place of pilgrimage and touch the sacred stone; a large chunk of meteorite gathered from the earth over two thousand years ago.

As Mecca was founded from a single small dwelling situated at a junction of roads between mountains in the desert where Abraham is thought to have stayed, Istanbul was intentionally established at an intersection of waterways, the crossroads of civilisation; it was a crucial historical decision. There is a legendary story of the choice to establish the capital at this juncture. Constantine sent off envoys to seek out the best location for his new city, and their first stop was the all-important oracle. The soothsayer told them they would find the place they were searching for ‘across from the village of the blind.’

When the travellers sailed up the Sea of Marmara to the Straits of Bosphorus which link to the Black Sea a few miles away, and looked out on the Golden Horn, they quickly recognised what a fabulously beautiful and distinctly strategic location they had discovered. Noticing a small community already settled on the opposite shore they said, “Why would anyone build over there when they could have claimed this site? Those people must be blind.” Realising this must be the place the visionary had described, they dropped anchor and sent word to the emperor.

When Constantine founded the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire early the 4th century, building aqueducts, villas and fortresses, he set into motion a chain of events that forced a shift in the course of history – a result that still has resonance today. This decision to divide the realm and attempt to realign the centre of the known world away from the stronghold of Rome caused a schism the crux of which, like it or not, still underlies the contemporary feudal relationship of political affairs; the need to retain power in the West and the desire in the East for recognition of their stature.

While Rome burned and semi-nomadic hordes overran the city, leaving it to dwell in the ashes of the past, the star of enlightenment rose over the East, and Istanbul became the centre of culture and capital of commerce for hundreds of years. The vacuum left by the crumbling of marble halls and rhetorical supremacy in Diocletian’s reign of terror enabled transference of control to an oriental approach in diplomacy, gradually creating an imbalance that threatened the status quo. Constantine’s own mother loved this part of the world and it was she who first went in search of places of interest such at the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus and the mineral baths of Pamukkale, where previous queens as famous as Cleopatra and Nefertiti had also spent their holidays.

Naturally it is difficult to know how well informed the general populace was about such events and upheavals in the great scheme of things, for day to day life was not dominated by the media and change was not so immediately apparent. Custom was slow in evolving a sense of difference, except of course when the ‘barbarians’ were banging on the gates and battering the walls of the city – a trial the Eastern throne managed to avoid for another thousand years, when the Ottomans arrived on their doorstep.

There were many reasons for the eventual split which divided the empire. When Rome was sacked (circa 456) and the West fell into the ‘Dark Ages’ the East was the pre-eminent force in politics, art and religion under the banner of the Byzantine Empire. This ‘Orthodox Christian’ realm persisted for a millennia, becoming the bastion of philosophical endeavours as well as a deeply complicated political and some would say superstitiously religious social order. The emergent Islamic society of the Persian caliphates and provinces of the Moors developed mathematics and painting and architecture as well as advances in science, such as the telescope, that we still find invaluable today. Over the years less people in the East spoke Latin and those in the West lost the Greek philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plato – not reintroduced until the Scholastic age of Abelard and Anselm.

The dome on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was the world's largest for ten centuries (until St Peter’s in Rome was built), while the monks Cyril and Methodius, in the late 10th century created the possibility of a future history when they travelled north from Istanbul to organise the languages of the Russian steppes into a written script today called Cyrillic. This singular act enabled diverse people to communicate and led to the founding of Moscow and St Petersburg as eventual symbolic capitals of the Orthodox Empire centuries later when at the height of 19th century modernism these cities were at the forefront of art and design.

However, Istanbul was still a centre of culture and everything civilisation represented even after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453. The Sultanahmet was built facing the Aya (Hagia) Sophia, which was rededicated as a mosque complete with four minarets, the Dolmabache and Topkapi Palaces expanded and the politics developed a further layer of inner secrecy cloaked in mystery as the Sultan’s dwelling became a hotbed of infighting between wives and concubines, viziers and eunuchs and clerics.

Strolling around these vast sanctuaries today one cannot help but sense the intrigue of power struggles that accompanied the rise and fall of each empire in turn. History remains in the past, but the present is filled with the contributions that enabled us to advance in thinking and technology. When the sun is shining across the Bosphorus and so many sit casually sipping tea beside the seemingly infinite seas that geographically divide and psychologically unite the city, all of time seems to stand still in acceptance of the age and this interconnected, intricate global society wherein we all play a minor role.

Ramadan connects Muslims from around the world in fasting and thoughtful reflection and urges participants to remember their place in the grand scheme of the universal plan, and at the end of the month to come together in commemoration and subdued revelry. Istanbul is one of the most revered centres of the celebrations and makes a significant show of its remarkable place in the history of Islam and the culture of the modern world.

The Bayram festivities had been gathering momentum for days and as the sun set on the final day the merrymaking began in earnest. Mostly it consisted of traditional folk music played outdoors and lots of specialty foods and sweet delights consumed in the parks, although along the streets and in the arcades there was a general carnival atmosphere of friendship and joyful pageantry. So many people were crammed into Gulhane Park and the historic tourist district around the old town that even grabbing a seat in one of the open-air cafes along the main thoroughfares proved difficult.

The affluent in their designer clothes from upmarket fashion boutiques were mingling with pilgrims in full burkhas arriving from destinations across the world to pray in the majestic mosques and admire the awesome museums. There were youngsters kicking balls and blowing bubbles from guns and shooting off fireworks in the streets, and the elderly who had seen it all before parked on benches soaking up the sights.

The scent of cooking and baking was everywhere in the humid night; an irresistible and overwhelming mix of spices and sugars and savoury snacks all floating through the heat and making the mouth water in anticipation of devouring the scrumptious food on offer. Restaurants and market stalls competed for the attention of the senses and called out their wares to potential customers.

Ataturk Bridge was a magical display of kaleidoscopic colours changing every few minutes through a pantone display of the spectrum.

The shrines were alight with hundreds of tinted bulbs and lasers of green, blue and red were being blasted into the cloudless sky. The Grand Bazaar was lively with trade and every underpass was jam-packed with salespeople flogging merchandise to the bustling crowds. Brilliantly lit boats rocked and buffeted along the waterfront as they fried fresh fish on griddles installed on the decks for the hungry masses waiting at quayside tables for their supper, and everywhere people were laughing and talking and even occasionally dancing under the glow of the crescent moon.

The mood was stimulating and sedate, a real paradox of emotion that ranged from sheer excitement to the mellow relaxation of contented pleasure. It was a dignified presentation of the people and city itself, a shufti into the true spirit of Istanbul.

Oh, it’s such perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on

Oh, just a perfect day, problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own, it’s such fun
Just a perfect day
You make me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good

Oh, it’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on ..
You’re going to reap just what you sew
You’re going to reap just what you sew
~Lou Reed~

The presence of so many ghosts, like a pantheon of great figures who stand proudly among the monuments bind us all to a shared past, reminding the attentive how insignificant we are as individuals – regardless of accomplishment, and yet how important a singular character can be in the evolution of our collective enterprise.

The enduring spectre of the ancients is to be found in the art and architecture, the philosophical and literary writings, and the scientific discoveries of many people who populated this region over the centuries, and exists today as a mutual record of achievements and glory of cultural evolution that makes us the people we are in this era and at this moment in time.

I hope to return to this magnificent metropolis soon; perhaps to teach, or write and paint amongst the historical and contemporary milieu that is this cosmopolitan city. Although a new path beckons for me now and I have other roads to travel, I know that a part of me will always remain here; as a part of me resides in the other interesting and culturally unique places I have lived or visited frequently.

I consider a certain region of the USA to be a spiritual home for me, having learned much about myself and others when studying the cultures of Native Americans, and of course Scotland will always feel like a home, yet I know a significant part of my spirit will always be connected to Istanbul, for I have had so many wonderful experiences here.

I first visited this magical metropolis almost 18 years ago with two beautiful women friends, and I will always recall those days fondly, but my recent excursions have filled me with a renewed hope for the future and I look forward to the possibilities of a continued love affair with this enigmatic and ironically contrary eternal city of dreams.

Living in Turkey these past six months has provided me a wealth of experience and changed me in so many ways, yet inside I am and always will be the same person I have always been. I am a seeker, an adventurous soul who wants only to grow in knowledge and wisdom while retaining that innocent quality of starry-eyed wonder at every new encounter ..

I hope that this transitory existence continues to provide me opportunities to discover the truth and the light and the way of devotion to this quest, and that the people I’ve met along the road, those I loved in my heart, will bless me with their friendship if we ever meet again, and remember the times we spent together as special moments from a life made of instants to create the continuity of being and becoming.

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Teşekkür Ederim

I’d like to thank those of you who have continued to read about my journey over the past six months. That has meant everything in writing these ‘commentaries and essays’. This Blog has been and may yet be many things, but under the guise of Edge of the Map, was intended to be a travelogue, the experience of one person finding his way through an adventure into a foreign and exotic land where the drawn map of the Western world, literally, ends. Quite a few of you have written asking me to make it more personally revealing – to talk more about my feelings – well, for me it has been exhilarating, therapeutic, poignant and revelatory in so many ways and I often tried to get my impressions across without being specifically drawn to explanatory heartfelt sentiments or dwelling on the maudlin aspects. I sincerely hope I haven’t embarrassed anyone who didn’t deserve it, including myself. If you want a more personal glimpse, try reading my poetry – some of my poems can be read free on-line at Kevin Wallace Poet

I have learned so very much during the time I have been in this amazing country, including some of the Turkish language, and after a few formal lessons have just begun to understand the construction of the grammar. I have seen amazing things and visited incredible places, memories of which will remain with me forever. From flamingos in the wild to the marble edifices of Ephesus, from the majestic minarets of Istanbul to the undersea world of the Aegean I have been lucky enough to travel into places some only dream about – and even deeper, I travelled into my heart and mind, finding a semblance of the peace I hadn’t had for a couple of years.

I met some genuinely honest people who have been at times helpful and generous in their assistance, and I have formed close bonds with quite a few Turkish men and women whom I now consider friends, not least my students and colleagues – gracious and accepting of my eccentricities, extremely respectful of my education, enthusiasm and enterprise which prepared me for the roles I had to play. They were a huge part of this experience and will stay in my heart wherever life might lead. I haven’t been so happy in a job in many years; I will always be grateful for being enabled to earn my daily bread while living in a beautiful place. Also, I made many acquaintances with people from all walks of life who have mostly been friendly and accommodating – musicians, waiters, estate agents, farmers, journalists, sculptors, engineers, doctors, mechanics, office workers and of course teachers. Everyone that contributed to my expedition in one way or another is deserving of thanks.

So, thanks for reading and being part of my life. Cheers! KW

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