Saturday, 18 June 2016

Return to Istanbul

Over the course of the last year I have finally paid off the loans I took out to do my M.Sc., so for my birthday last week I took my first holiday in ages. When I was choosing where to go it was between three places I wanted to go back to: in order of difficulty, North Italy; Istanbul; and Jerusalem. I chose Istanbul as a bit more of stretch than Bologna and Venice, but more feasible than Jerusalem, especially given that I wanted to travel alone.

Istanbul has changed since I went last time, in 2008. I think Turkey has been hard hit by the political events in its south-west. Istiklal Caddesi, which Daesh bombed earlier this year, wasn't quite the street of high-end fashion designers and upmarket consumerism that I remembered; and I read today that Islamist extremists have forced the cancellation of the Gay Pride march which was due to take place there next week. Also everything was cheaper than I remembered. I spent a total of £250 over four full days and two half days in the city, eating out at least once a day and often twice, buying books and other souvenirs in museum gift shops, and taking taxis to the more out-of-the-way sights. And my hotel was way nicer than I was expecting for what I'd paid -- it's the first hotel I've ever stayed at which had a boutique feel, like someone had deliberately designed it to be in magazines, and it's the first where I've ever ordered room service (£2.50 for a freshly-made cheese and tomato sandwich).

I wasn't totally sure about going during Ramadan, but guide books suggested it would be fine, and they were more than right. I was staying in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city, near the Blue Mosque, and when I first arrived I stumbled upon the huge iftar celebrations for the end of the day. There's a massive plaza in front of the Blue Mosque, where the people assemble in large numbers every evening, covering all the lawns and benches and laying out neat little picnics. They open their bottles of water, and shake their pots of ayran, and carefully unwrap their food and lay it out: then when the muezzin sings there's a great sigh and they all tuck in immediately. There's a big party atmosphere with tons of over-excited kids running around. I went to the Ashill beer festival the night before I left, and there was a similar vibe going on, except that iftar in Istanbul had a) no alcohol and b) racial diversity. The Blue Mosque had a big sign between two of its minarets saying "Dost istersen Allah yeter", which google translate says means 'If you want friendly God enough'.

The Empress Theodora's throne sat here
Being in an Islamic country reminds me of that humane gentleman Thomas Browne, who said "I could never hear the Ave Marie Bell without an elevation". On my birthday I sat ouside Hagia Sophia, where the minarets are still in use although it is now officially a secular museum, and the muezzins of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque seemed to be singing a coordinated duet for the noon prayers. Hagia Sophia is pretty stunning even in its knocked-about state. The selfie stick wasn't a thing when I went before. There are two ways to look at the constant taking of photographs in which most tourists engage (and I'm not much different). On the one hand you could say that it's a shame not to look at things directly in the present, but only to experience them as a future anticipated moment in which you'll look back into this past. Sometimes it might be better to let things happen, and then let them stop happening. On the other hand, when you're composing a photograph you look very carefully and pay direct attention. Also we officially cannot bear very much reality, and maybe interposing some glass between ourselves and the things in front of us is a sort of defence mechanism. But I saw a thing in Hagia Sophia which was new to me: some people were walking around with selfie sticks out in front of them, videoing themselves as they went, and watching everything through their camera as a backdrop to themselves. This seemed pretty extreme. Do people ever actually watch these videos later? How do they feel if they do?

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