“Çok yaşayan değil çok gezen bilir”
“Not he who lived long knows, but he who travelled much”
– Turkish proverb
Istanbul, 28 June-4 July 2014
In Istanbul, two Italians, a Greek, a Chilean, a Colombian and a Costa Rican all coming from Sweden and jumping in the same cab is definitely not an extraordinary or in any other way noteworthy fact. One might argue that in our mobile world we surely were not the first, nor will we be the last, or that it is not an uncommon thing to see elsewhere either. But different from many other cities, it feels like Istanbul has long ago given up taking stock of who walks her streets. Having embraced its millennia-old role as crossroads for thousands of people from everywhere in the known world, keeping track of what language they speak, where they are from, where they are headed and with whom, is just pointless.
Coming from Sweden, the impact with Istanbul is huge. Not that anyone of us was unaware of how vibrant a metropolis further south than Scandinavia can be. It’s the reference point that is really quick in shifting, and what was familiar up to just a handful of months earlier ends up coming a bit as a surprise. The half empty northern streets were somewhat suddenly replaced by a tremendous amount of vehicles streaming from all sides and directions, out of and into the arteries leading to and from the innermost depths of the vast city. No matter what vantage point you’d observe it from, it stretched out as far as the eye could see. Later that week, looking out across the Bosphorus, the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn from on top of the Galata Tower, gave us all a somewhat dizzying feeling. The vast stretches of the Asian continent extended limitless before us, and just behind us the Balkan hills and beyond them the old mitteleuropäische countrysides. Bridging and keeping the two together, as if preventing them from drifting inexorably apart, Istanbul: an endless sprawl of buildings chasing each other in all directions all the way to the horizon. It felt as if the city had been as large as the Asian continent itself, reaching endlessly all the way to the farthest shore on the other side.
Down below, in the city, people were coming and people were going; everywhere, at any time of the day and of the night. Everyone seemed to find excuses to turn every inch of it into a meeting point, as if out of a hard-to-die habit that had been passed on for countless generations. From the heart of Europe, from the Middle East and from across the Mediterranean, people had been meeting in this very same place for centuries. Coming and going, different languages, skin colours, religions, they all met here to trade their goods, do politics, to be on their way or to stay (and to quarrel, too, ofttimes). Layer upon layer, the roll of the centuries piled up traces of all those who remained here long enough to leave something behind. These sediments are now fused together in a city where dervishes end up whirling their skirts against the backdrop of the roman Basilica Cistern, and Islamic prayer is heard among the byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sofia.
It was the height of Ramadan and of the Islamic year: a month of celebration and family gatherings. The festive atmosphere permeated everything. The lights decorating the streets with snowflakes and gift bags contrasted oddly with the warm weather and long summer days for anyone who spent their lives in predominantly Christian societies. During Ramadan, from daybreak to sunset, all activities become a pastime to bridge those hours remaining before the evening prayer and the Iftar, the fast-breaking meal. In Istanbul, that is the eagerly anticipated moment parcels and wrappings are dug out of lunchboxes, picnic baskets and paper bags by families and friends sitting together and sharing their food in parks and open public spaces. It was an incredibly pleasant moment: even not being Muslim, and having had dinner already, you could not avoid being pervaded by that feeling of comfort, tranquillity and partnership permeating the cool air of the evening. It was at dusk, in fact, that the charm of the streets was at its best.
In full daylight, we spent the best part of our time indoors, escaping the heat in the shade of the covered marketplaces and in the hushed silence of the mosques.
Spices of different provenance and purpose have been traded for centuries by merchants roaming the Silk Route. They can still be found in the Mısır Çarşısı (the Spice Market) by the mouth of the Golden Horn, bought and sold in the very same fashion. Supermarkets all over the world nowadays sell cumin, clovers, saffron and cinnamon, but for centuries the low-lit markets of Istanbul have been the trading hubs for most of the spices reaching European kitchens. It was not difficult to imagine how the market itself would have looked like back then, having always been that very same melting-pot of different colours, perfumes, and languages it is today.
The markets’ sounds and the chatter died out in the soft tranquillity of the mosques. And the heat of the streets, too. Within, their walls kept both out, creating a private space for the faithful to forget about the confusion of daily businesses. The colours alone remained as the only reminiscence of the world outside. The blues were the shades of the sky and the sea, the yellows were as bright as the Sun, the greens were those of the trees and the reds and ochres were those of the spices sold in the market’s narrow low-lit alleys. Different from the market, though, the violent sunlight did pour in from the outside, but filtered and diluted in the mosques’ quiet vastness, filling up its secluded spaces and its domes with an ivory brilliance.
It was while thinking back at the time we all spent together in Sweden that this trip came to mind. Just like many have met in Istanbul over dozens of centuries, we’ve all come from different directions and met at our own crossroads. By now, most of us have left for good or will do so shortly. At any crossroads, most people leave soon after arriving and having taken a look around. And so did we, though our time together lasted five years. But crossroads are places where people often return, crossing each others’ path again, once or more. It needn’t be the same place. Any crossroads works. They have the quality of being both the same and different: meeting points of roads connecting places and people; some are remote, barely a lamp post in the countryside, others are as large as a metropolis, but they all serve the same purpose: bringing people together in a specific place and time, over and over again. Some crossroads will surely connect our distant worlds once more. What remains to figure out is where, and when.