Sultan Ahmet and the squandered remnants of empire

Cherchez La Ghost.  Hortlağı araştır.  I have just returned from Istanbul  

  

A delight, my familiars, here to be inter-spliced with excerpts from Surreal Istanbul, a pamphlet I found sitting on the piano at the London Action Resource Centre.  And La Tristessa Durera (scream to a sigh).  Acid Rain thoughts-as-poetic-streaming, papercut manifesto the keyboard will simply not entertain the Turkish.  Here 

the voices run along the streets 

past the buried lives 

to the crowded hillsides 

to the clouds.” 

 

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to this most interesting city.  We stayed in a comfortable hotel in the Sultanahmet area of central Istanbul, a very historical zone.  

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Fresh pleasant breakfasting on a terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque, the only Mosque outside of Saudi Arabia to have 6 minarets.  I was told that the leaders in Mecca were not pleased.  

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Istanbul is divided by the river Bosphorous.  Go too far north and then the military control the river, and don’t let anyone further upstream, to the Black Sea.  We stared out: all day, big ships in a big harbour.  And a working dockside in the centre of the city.  We just don’t see this kind of thing since the London docks moved out to Tilbury.  

Istanbul spreads as far as the eye can see, wreathed in milky polution and a sense of itself.  

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Perhaps there is a tendency to still place London at the centre of things; like this is a rightful frame of reference for News 24 Sky News fodder…  

A temptation to forget the annums of progress and development in other cultures, further East of Europe.  Beyond Paris, Berlin or perhaps Rome.  Or perhaps that’s just me.

 “In the underground caverns of the city’s old quarter the young men come 

bringing objects to sell.  Ancient maps, frozen cobwebs, dictionaries for the blind, indexes of the impossible. 

They sink here and they know they are forgotten.” 

I found Istanbul self-evident, beautifully so.  In today’s world, 2010, a city of upwards of 12 million souls simply does things its own way.  Goes about its business self-assured.  

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Like Rome and Sheffield, it was built on 7 hills.  Beyond the old city, there are vast millions boxed into damp primary colour soviet-style high rises which go on and on and on.  Creep up and over the 7 hills.  

Walked up steep street levels with fam.  And stacked was the urban streetscene, sat upon the foundations of a very different empire.  Here is still Ottoman.  

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A word rarely encountered on the pages of British publications, the periodicals or dry talking academic heads of late nite BBC 4.  

I found a postmodern Turkish culture grown up on a different foothold, evidenced to the tabloid snapshotty tourist surface appraisal of a Brit, by the manifold minarets, rising above every community in town.  By being woken up at an hour close to 5 as the Imam sings boldly into his mic.  Indeed, awoken suddenly, Ms. O was under the impression that the hotel must have its own internal tannoy.  

Lets talk about empire.  The Ottoman Empire lasted over 6 hundred years, ending only in 1922, at the heights of the modern age.   At its height, this was an empire – a system – which spanned three continents and presided over much of Western Asia, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus and North Africa.  Here was a movement, a conquesting culture of state, society and economics which fucking well worked.  Worked to its own laws and logic – empires do.  No apologist, oh no…  

An empire with Istanbul at is epicentre, the far-flung badlands all ruled from here.  Of course this is ingrained upon the city scape.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose à Sultanahmet.  Daha fazla o farklılaşır daha fazla o aynı Sultanahmet içinde erteler…

Hagia Sophia, built as a Byzantine Orthodox Patriachal basilica in 537, was but a walk away two days away.  

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Before it was Istanbul, it was called Constantinople.  Constatius II tried to promote the name Nova Roma (New Rome) but this never caught on.  It was captured by the Ottomans and thereafter, the city became Muslim.  And Hagia Sophia became a Mosque.  Of course.  From 1453 to 1935.  

I have never seen Diwani calligraphy before my stay.  It is something quite exquisitely beautiful.  Real historical script, I witnessed a transaction between dealers in antique parchment in a darkened back room in a market.  

  

What was Mehmet saying?!!?  How do you buy things?  

I have never encountered commerce like I saw in the Grand Bazaar.  Westfield, a new-fangled attempt.  

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You can buy a lot of different things in the markets and shops of Central Istanbul.  

Food.  Carpets.  Tea shirts.  

Football Strips.  Trainers.  Teas.  

Spices.  

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Antiques.  Fabrics.  Watches.  

Hats.  Household appliances.  

Calligraphic reproductions.  

Objets d’art.  Washed up detritus of Empire, for sale as product.  

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I sold my medal It paid a bill 

 It sells at market stalls 

Parades Milan catwalks.  The Sadness will never go 

Will never go away…” 

  

Shopkeepers, all local.  Friends, brothers, family, partners, all the time guys gliding through throngs of shoppers with trays of Turkish Tea for the traders.  I’ve never seen traders so adept.  People who can suss your nationality from a distance.  “Excuse me!” – good at grabbing the Englishman’s attention.  

Where are you from?”  –  What polite English bloke on holiday could refuse?!!?!  “We’re from London” he replies  

Ahh I know London.  Do you want jeans??” they say:  One guy shouted “Lookin’ buff ting blood!”  Can U imagin?!?!!?  

(Yarns of Ragga Killahmuffins on my knee as the plane touched down, at Luton.  The Dead Yard by Ian Thompson.  (“In many ways, youth culture in London is Jamaican culture.” (Thomson, 2009)).  

 

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But the ghost was inside the Grand Bazaar when I noticed it…  

I had a sneaking suspicion throughout my stay that the aesthetic paucity of modern Turkey marked a recent decline in imperial fortunes.  The mind reeled like a fruit machine as to what it is that is lost, as an empire becomes a modern nation state.  

A very English lady at the Bazaar, husband in tow, stutters and bumbles as she tries to barter.  She can’t.  The seller allows her to be awkward before kindly accepting a not-to-awful settlement near to his initial asking price.  Only two generations ago, an English lady of her standing and accent would have strutted most markets of foreign shore, with a deep seated yet well-concealed disdain for local people and place.  She would have addressed the Turk, the Negro or Indian with an innate confidence which comes from owning empire, from imagining oneself as important, at the epicentre of something global that matters: a map of the world, most of it coloured-in red.  But this is gone now, and thus, the English tourist becomes as vague, blank and gullible as the rest of the world.  Spineless also.  With the loss of the British empire, gone too is the strength of the British backbone.   

Turkey is wonderful.  Turkey is glorious.  But Turkey has been built on the foundations of a rejected past, a history which is concluded and no matter how much soul-searching, how much material wealth and new villas – lined in faux marble – something has been lost.  

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No-one’s fault.  I didn’t visit that place to find or lay blame.  But I took a few days off the practice of Mizong Quan: encountered Istanbul, labyrinthine.  Hot, rainy, cold, sometimes stinking, as an ornate mirror held up to us in Britain, a fine crack running down the glass.  Never seen a city so full of cats…  Are both of us not just picking at the bones of empires which existed in these same places – London and Istanbul.  And now we build Barratt Homes over England’s green fields.  I saw people re-paving a 15th century mosque with cheap and nasty tiling.  Got up close, the marble effect was digitalised.  

Empires rise and fall.  Good riddance, end of story.  Leaving Istanbul, we drove for hours through its high rise suburbs, crossed the Bosphorous and passed from Europe to Asia.  Such is the city. 

  

Three witnesses walked out of the fire 

past, present and future 

like angels  

who shone in the white garden 

like angels  

amid burning coals, the streets 

turn aside,  

putting out their own light 

beyond the tracks in the snow, 

unknown, 

before we walk beside the sea, 

before we sleep faraway, in another city” 

  

 

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