REVISITING ISTANBUL (February 28, 2021)
I’ve always been fascinated by border cities, straddling and linking cultures and regions. Istanbul is my prime example, clasping East to West, Anatolia to the Balkans, Asia to Europe, Islam to Christianity, the mysterious Black Sea to the bustling Mediterranean. Its name-changes keeping pace with its waves of occupiers: Byzantium for the ancient Greeks, Constantinople for the eponymous Roman Emperor, Istanbul for the Ottomans.
Nancy and I explored this beckoning metropolis in 1975, primed for a big-city experience after two years in East Africa. Her memories for detail are sharper than mine, but we both shared the enchantment of what was then still a pre-high-rise Turkish hub.
Our welcoming basecamp was a traditional Turkish hotel below Taksim Square. Box beds with feather-plumped mattresses, duvets and pillows, precious insulation for two mid-winter visitors from south of the Equator. A snug, deep bathtub with built-in seat for submerged soaking. Fresh rolls, sour goat cheese, sweet orange juice and hot chocolate to start each day.
In the Grand Bazaar, Silk Road treasures were piled high for marveling. We both recall the pungent scents and brilliant hues of mounded basins in the Spice Market. Savoring meze and glasses of hot tea in a blue-tiled alcove up steep stairs above those same displays.
The main Ottoman sites were on our itinerary: soaring Aya Sofia, the Blue and Suleyman Mosques, Topkapi Palace. Undeterred by frequent showers, we wandered for hours through ancient, vertical neighborhood lanes, refueling with high-octane Turkish coffee. One sunny morning, we hopped a local ferry up the Bosphorus, past faded yalis to linger over a fresh-fish lunch in a waterfront village café.
We were fortunate to return to Istanbul multiple times, separately and together, en route to and from development-assistance assignments in Africa, Central and South Asia. Small wonder I was tempted to revisit this destination when a potpourri of Istanbul books recently caught my eye. Let me capture some impressions, sharing the wonder and the magic.
1 Because English translations of Turkish names vary widely, in this post I’ll try to follow the spellings adopted in Professor Mikhail’s book just below. (The exceptions are names within quoted passages from the reviewed books, where I honored the authors’ spelling preferences.)
SEVEN BOOKS BY THREE AUTHORS
Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (2020)
by Alan Mikhail
Alan Mikhail is a man with a mission. From his high-visibility professional position as Chair of Yale’s History Department, he campaigns to recalibrate what he perceives to be Western distortions of the balance of power in the emergence of global modernity.
An exemplar of multidisciplinary scholarship, Professor Mikhail rose rapidly through academic ranks by publishing studies combining environmental fieldwork in Egypt with Ottoman history. In GOD’S SHADOW, he sets out his revisionist argument with unfiltered intensity in the introduction:
For half a century before 1492, and for centuries afterward, the Ottoman Empire stood as the most powerful state on earth: the largest empire in the Mediterranean since ancient Rome, and the most enduring in the history of Islam. In the decades around 1500, the Ottomans controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any other world power. It was the Ottoman monopoly of trade routes with the East, combined with their military prowess on land and on sea, that pushed Spain and Portugal out of the Mediterranean, forcing merchants and sailors from those fifteenth-century kingdoms to become global explorers as they risked treacherous voyages across oceans and around continents – all to avoid the Ottomans.
From China to Mexico, the Ottoman Empire shaped the known world at the turn of the sixteenth century. Given its hegemony, it became locked in military, ideological, and economic competition with the Spanish and Italian states, Russia, India, and China, as well as with other Muslim powers The Ottomans influenced in one way or another nearly every major event of those years, with reverberations down to our own time.…The ineluctable fact is that the Ottoman Empire made our modern world – which is, admittedly, a bitter pill for many in the West.
GOD’S SHADOW melds two narratives: the geopolitical argument and Sultan Selim’s biography. For me, both strands were equally educational. My own schooling had been emphatically (almost exclusively) Eurocentric. I knew too little about the Ottomans and much less about Selim. For my blog post revisiting Istanbul, both strands would be relevant and enriching. To better appreciate Istanbul, I needed to understand the Ottomans. To better appreciate the Ottomans, I needed to understand Selim.
I was already aware that Selim’s son and successor, Suleyman I (“the Magnificent”) is credited with presiding over the empire’s heyday as its longest-reigning monarch, from 1520-1566. A groundbreaking legal reformer, Suleyman was also an enlightened patron of the arts, literature and architecture.
But Mikhail emphasizes that it was Selim who laid the foundations for that apogee. As conqueror and consolidator, he tripled Ottoman territory, stretching the borders from Persia in the east to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt in the south and Algeria in the west. No mere warrior, he excelled at public administration of his conquered territories, emphasizing retention of local authorities. In fact, he ruled over more Christian subjects than Muslim, until his domain absorbed populous Egypt. By acquiring jurisdiction over Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Selim became Caliph as well as Sultan, the region’s chief religious steward as well as its political hegemon.
All this is a few hyperkinetic years, only eight of them on the imperial throne. A remarkable ascent for a fourth-in-line son, raised and trained in a remote Black Sea frontier post by his originally Christian mother, an Albanian concubine. Selim launched a fratricidal competition in 1512 and died, probably from the plague, in 1520. Most of his adult life was spent waging brilliant strategic campaigns against the Persian Safavids and Egyptian Mamluks.
Commander Selim had only brief time to spend in Istanbul. But it was the center of his expansionist enterprise, “the navel of the world.” Crowned and buried there, he nurtured his capital by attracting scholars and artists to the royal court, Europeans as well as Asians. (Eight hundred scholars were relocated from Cairo alone.) Thousands of “Moors” and Sephardic Jews hounded out of Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand, starting in 1492, were given safe haven and positions of influence in Istanbul and the eastern Mediterranean. On Selim’s death just shy of his fiftieth birthday, the imperial capital was in the ascendant.
The scope and sweep of Mikhail’s research are impressive. Probing the Selimname chronicles and other Ottoman archives as his core resources, he also tapped Spanish, Venetian and Egyptian contemporary materials. The results include dramatic “you are there” reporting. For me, his topics were mostly new and his analysis refreshing. I didn’t wholly buy into his argument placing the Ottomans at the center of every world development at the dawn of the modern period: especially not Spanish exploration of the New World and Martin Luther’s doctrinal battles with the Papacy. But his evidence-based insistence that we should shift our geopolitical focus eastward was always provocative and often persuasive. Just studying maps and pronouncing unfamiliar place-names was a treat. How I wished I could board a slow boat around the Black Sea!
THE INVESTIGATOR YASHIM SERIES:
The Janissary Tree (2006)
The Snake Stone (2007)
The Bellini Card (2008)
An Evil Eye (2011)
The Baklava Club (2014)
By Jason Goodwin
Yashim the Investigator is nearly invisible. Nondescript in a plain brown cloak and scuffed shoes, he passes unnoticed, but all-noticing, through Istanbul’s alleys and bazaars. For his elevated clients, the Ottoman sultan and his vizier, Yashim solves sensitive, sinister crimes. A graduate of the elite Palace School, he is master of diplomatic nuances, a half-dozen languages and the lethality of hand-to-hand combat. As a eunuch, he has access to the Topkapi harem, where he’s won the confidence of the sultan’s worldly-wise mother, the valide.
Yashim’s exploits span the 1830s and ‘40s. Ottoman power is declining. Russians, French, British and Austrians are vying for Sublime Porte intelligence and influence. Orthodox Greeks, émigré Jews and Balkan laborers all have their secretive networks. A simmering soup of heritage, atmosphere, factions and intrigue. What better setting for a mystery series?
Jason Goodwin accrued his Istanbul credentials over 40 years. After studying Byzantine history at Cambridge, he walked from Poland to Istanbul and wrote the prize-winning travel journal, On Foot to the Golden Horn. Goodwin’s Ottoman history, Lords of the Horizon, was equally well-received. But his worldwide popularity was established by the Yashim series – five sequential thrillers turned out in eight years.
Each episode is crafted as a theatrical production with back-story, staging, characters (some principals, some extras), conflict and suspense. What most holds my interest and makes the productions zing is setting – location, location, location, as they say in real estate. Goodwin’s Istanbul is presented in several planes. It is geographical, of course, with steep hills and rain-slippery streets, and always water, to be rowed across in tippable caiques. But the space is also historical: major landmarks figure prominently, reminding the reader of past eras’ and occupiers’ lingering impact. The ancient Greeks’ surviving cistern system; terrifying, noxious tanneries; the Byzantines’ soaring cathedral; the Genoese Galata Tower; the Ottoman palace complex. (For a fabulous, detailed color map of Istanbul in 1840, take a look at https://www.themaphouse.com/Zoom.aspx?id=102465&ref=TKY761 .)
Equally engaging are the glimpses of domestic architecture: apartments and salons, neighborhood hammams and market stalls. Yasmin patronizes favorite butchers, bakers and produce vendors in pursuit of the freshest ingredients. (As an aside for fans of Turkish cuisine, Goodwin’s Ottoman cookbook, Yashim Cooks Istanbul, was lauded by NPR as one of its Great Reads of 2016.)
The landscape is also cultural. Ethnic communities cluster in distinctive quarters. As more Europeans take up residence and commerce in the metropolis, Istanbul’s map transitions in time as well as space. On one investigation in An Evil Eye, Yashim walks from a modernizing boulevard into an adjacent but worlds-apart oriental enclave:
The Grande Rue was lined with European shops, behind whose bright windows people came with money and left with packages wrapped in paper. Preen led Yashim across and plunged into the network of alleys that lay in a tangled skein above the Bosphorus. Here, by a dimmer light, matters were decided by superstitious gestures, by almanacs and eggs broken in a bowl of oil, by imprecations and talismans. Here people sought out propitious days, avoided dark corners, waggled their fingers behind their backs, resorted to nostrums, prayers, and the prognostications of wise women. These were the ordinary calculations of the everyday world, in which every moment held its weight, every movement was a portent, each word and gesture held a meaning.
And the landscape changes with the hour and the light, as in The Baklava Club:
He had shown her the sights, in daylight – Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque, the Egyptian bazaar – and she had accepted them like a list of indisputable facts set out in a child’s copybook…. But daylight was a ruthless pedagogue.
At dusk, the muezzin’s call sounded the half-plaintive, half-triumphant note of man crying in the void, while all around his handiwork was blurring into insubstantial shadows. Then the Bosporus, almost still, became a silver gleam; the bats swooped out from the archways and the domes; the minarets grew long enough to touch the stars. The hills of Asia, across the water, beetled closer for protection. The markets emptied out, the coins lay stacked, the merchandise slumbered in piles, and – somewhere out there, Yasmin reflected, Prince Czartoryski lay hidden, or dead.
The cast of supporting characters is a delight. Every detective must have a sidey. Yashim’s is Stanislaw Palewski, proud but impoverished Ambassador from dismantled Poland. Preen, mentioned just above, is a transvestite kocek dancer. Imams, concubines, cadets, constables and archivists all have walk-on parts. Gruff street vendors and water-taxi operators sound credible. Istanbul visitors from a dozen foreign countries pop in and out, most flying under false colors. Stealthy assassins are never far off-stage.
Probably reading all volumes of any mystery series back-to-back is not a fair exposure. As I raced through this quintet, I began to find Yashim’s adventures a tad formulaic. The hero’s hair’s-breadth escapes and romantic encounters became less original with each iteration. The claustrophobic investigator seemed invariably to get himself caught in tight squeezes. Similar quibbles, of course, could be levelled at Conan Doyle and Holmes, Christie and Poirot. And with Goodwin’s series translated into 40 languages thus far, who’d deny that his brand is universally appealing? For me, the sleuthing remained highly entertaining and the re-imagination of Ottoman Istanbul, irresistible.
10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World (2019)
By Elif Shafak
Fast-forward 190 years, from 1840 to the present day. Same city, different take. Slum-dwellers in place of palace functionaries. A woman’s life related by a female author. 10 Minutes’ stark contrasts with Yasmin’s Istanbul give this modern novel special poignancy and power. The neighborhood names remain the same. The waterways still have to be crossed, though now by bridge. But this is a saga of cruel oppression and gutsy survival.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer who has published 11 novels in Turkish and English. 10 Minutes’ author profile describes her as the most widely read female author in Turkey. An activist, essayist and public speaker, Shafak “needles her country’s historical amnesia” by addressing hot-button topics like the Armenian genocide, honor killings and LGBT persecution.
Istanbul is central to her writing. Two quotes from Wikipedia illustrate her artistic, cross-cultural perspective: “Istanbul makes one comprehend, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that East and West are ultimately imaginary concepts, and can thereby be de-imagined and re-imagined.” And “Istanbul is a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. One should be cautious when using categories to talk about Istanbul. If there is one thing this city doesn’t like, it is clichés.”
As a writer, I was interested to see how this experienced author and this heralded novel would portray outcasts, empathetically and respectfully, without condescension, voyeurism or sentimentality. How do these characters experience and endure their predicaments? What do they think and dream? Shafak’s approach is unadorned, letting her characters speak for themselves. Her compassion seems genuine, never pitying.
Paralleling Goodwin and even Mikhail, Shafak animates her broad canvas by honing in on individual stories. Shafak introduces and tracks a protagonist and her informal network of trusted friends. Leila, the heroine, works as a prostitute on a street of 14 brothels. Her childhood boyfriend from the provinces, Sinan, followed her to Istanbul. Nalan is a transgender woman. Jameelah, daughter of a Muslim father and Christian mother, was trafficked from Mogadishu. Humeyra, a Mesopotamian nightclub singer, fled to the metropolis to escape a sadistic husband. Zaynab, a Lebanese dwarf, is a fortune-teller and an optimist. In this shorthand format, this roster sounds exaggerated, even grotesque. But all these individuals, although they have suffered terribly, have street-smarts and resilient humor.
The novel’s title and narrative structure are ingenious but a bit of a stretch. The 10 minutes in question are the interval between murdered Leila’s final heartbeat (on page one!) and her final flashback 183 pages later:
….she now realized with a sinking feeling that her heart had just stopped beating, and her breathing had abruptly ceased, and whichever way she looked at her situation there was no denying that she was dead….
In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away. One last reserve of energy activated countless neurons, connecting them as though for the first time. Although her heart had stopped beating, her brain was resisting, a fighter till the end. It entered into a state of heightened awareness, observing the demise of the body but not ready to accept its own end. Her memory surged forth, eager and diligent, collecting pieces of a life that was speeding to a close. She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she had believed to be lost forever. Time became fluid, a fast flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and the present inseparable….
Now, as her brain came to a standstill, and all memories dissolved into a wall of fog, thick as sorrow, the very last thing she saw in her mind was the bright pink birthday cake….
My own neurological guru dismissed this time-line as “bunkum.” In his professional experience, brain death generally follows heart/respiratory death in four to five minutes. Besides, “with loss of blood flow, the cortex and hippocampus – the machinery of memory – shut down immediately.” Science aside, Shafak’s brain-lingering conceit lets us retrace Leila’s life journey from the inside looking out.
The book’s second half is more rollicking. The deceased’s ragtag pals refuse to allow her shunning family and the indifferent authorities to ignore or degrade Leila’s death. The Cemetery of the Unforgotten, which the author insists is an actual facility, is, in this melodrama, creepy but credible, surreal but all too real. Loving loyalty drives this madcap raid, and in fact is a fitting motto for the entire novel.
I found this disparate collection of books an appetizing buffet. Divergent periods and social classes were all anchored to a common space. Metropolitan landmarks, historical references and cultural assumptions became less alien as I progressed through the selection. GOD’S SHADOW is much the most challenging volume in the set. But all are engaging and educational. The books share fresh thinking and skillful writing. Well worth your while to give one or more of them a taste.
These works, each in its own way, also serve as a reminder of how, in Istanbul as elsewhere, the past informs the present. For a better grasp of current Turkish perceptions and priorities, look no further than the Ottomans. Listen to Professor Mikhail’s coda:
Nearly five centuries after Suleyman interred his father in the mosque complex that has been his home ever since, another head of state has become a frequent visitor to Selim’s tomb: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current president and former prime minister. The Turkish leader has displayed a keen interest in Selim – far more than in any other figure from the Ottoman past – and has expended enormous resources and energy in promoting the sultan’s legacy.
The historian shares what reads like an eye-witness account of the 2013 celebration breaking ground for the Bosphorus-spanning bridge named “Sultan Selim the Grim.” (I much prefer Selim’s alternative sobriquet, “Selim the Resolute,” but Erdogan had his own agenda.) Mikhail underlines that May 29, the date chosen for this ceremony, was highly symbolic. It commemorated the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Labeling himself and his political party “grandchildren of the Ottomans,” on this and other trumpeted occasions Erdogan was deliberately severing ties with Turkey’s 20th Century priorities: republican, secular, parliamentary and Western-emulating. Hurdling 100 years of modernizing earmarks of Turkish nationalism, the president embraced and manipulated cherry-picked features of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. Re-energizing orthodox Sunnism. Aspiring to regional military and militaristic primacy. Pivoting eastward, contesting and rebuffing Western influence.
The media-savvy president drove home this asserted personal inheritance and affinity at the Selim Bridge’s 2016 inauguration, declaring that when a man dies he leaves behind a monument. Mikhail concludes his commentary, “As combative, narcissistically grandiose and historically selective as he is, Erdogan is not wrong to single out Selim as a world-changing, world-connecting figure.”
The point is not necessarily to praise or condemn. Legacies are lasting links, for better and for worse.