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A travel feature by Helena Mary Smith

Just down from where I stayed in modern Istanbul, along a tatty, lively street piled with sun-catching oranges, lies the Bosporus strait. The water’s edge is lined with ferries which belch great clouds of black smoke, through which I had my first glimpse of old Istanbul (Sultanahmet) – a faint fairy-tale silhouette above the Bosporus.

I took a wooden ferry to Sultanahmet, whose silhouette resolved itself into the swollen domes of ancient churches, spiked with minarets. My first stop was the great sixth-century church of Aya Sofya: for centuries the largest enclosed space in the world. In the dim spaciousness, its grave Byzantine mosaics were luminous in the low winter light.

Aya Sofya is the heart of Sultanahmet, a triangle of land comprising an extraordinary cultural jumble of buildings and sights. Sultanahmet has been called a palimpsest: a parchment text over-written by succeeding authors. The text of this city is the waxing and waning of two great empires, Byzantine and Ottoman. But the metaphor doesn’t quite hold; while a palimpsest is all overlayed surface, one of Sultanahmet’s greatest treasures lies – quite literally – below its surface.

In the nineteenth century, a Frenchman, seeing people pull fish from gaps in the pavement, discovered a fifth-century cistern, the Yerebatan Saray. The cistern is now accessible down a steep flight of steps, and you can walk on raised platforms through its graceful forest of mis-matching columns. Forming the base of two columns are beautiful marble Medusa heads of unknown origin, one inverted and one on its side, which smiled enigmatically beneath the shifting city for 1500 years, submerged in water and darkness.

The cistern supplied water to the Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmed the Conqueror and embellished over four centuries. The Topkapi is encircled by a high wall, inside which is a series of courtyards ringed with low buildings, which elegantly unfold their treasures. An obsession with physical beauty is evident throughout, from the smallest inlaid pen holder to the arching tiled buildings themselves. The Topkapi still possesses a physical, spatial perfection, but this, combined with its history of debauchery and violence, seemed quite oppressive.

The ambiguity I felt about the city’s violent, glorious history was echoed in my feelings about its current state. I was in Istanbul just before turbulent elections, and political insecurity was reflected in a rocketing inflation rate, and in visible poverty.

It was bitterly cold in Sultanahmet, with sharp winds blowing up from the Bosporus, and a small boy ran alongside me, bundled in a rust-coloured jumper; he carried a patterned tin box with shoe cleaning materials. I crossed over to avoid the small boy, and later saw him crouched down, crying: he had dropped his tin box and broken his jars of shoe polish. Some notes were pushed into his hand but the boy kept crying into his jumper, and was left, rocking in the street.

I walked back down to the ferry, which carried us away from Sultanahmet, drawing just my journey round the unsettled ancient city.

Copyright © Helena Mary Smith 1997

Helena Mary Smith works for a noted travel guide publisher. Her travel writing has won her numerous press awards.

Rights: The author by email to <[email protected]>


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