Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 7 January 2007


After a late night and lots of rakı New Year’s Eve, Nur and I caught the 7AM bus to Istanbul to meet Ali and Ayla who were coming to visit for a fortnight. As their arrival coincided with Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha), some of the sightseeing destinations were closed, but we got to Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque and the ancient cistern.

On Tuesday, we caught the ferry to Büyükada ‘Big Island’, also known as Prinkipo Island, where Trotsky lived for four years immediately after his expulsion from Russia in 1929. We took the horse and buggy ride, but didn’t bother visiting Trotsky’s house. He actually lived in two different houses, but one burnt down. I think that’s why he moved to the second. When we were there in 2004, we met a guy who told us this story: When he was a little kid, he was sick and the doctor came around. The doctor had just come from a house call to Trotsky. He told them that when he reached into his pocket to get out his stethoscope, Trotsky drew a gun on him. Which only goes to show, just because they’re really out to get you, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid. Anyway, we managed to locate the place where Trotsky had lived. I was half expecting some kind of shrine, like Marx’s tomb in Hampstead Heath. But no, the place is rather hard to find. It’s kind of behind another place. It’s completely overgrown with weeds and prickles and has no roof or windows. It came as a bit of a relief that the Trots weren’t into that kind of fetish.

On Wednesday, they reopened Topkapı Sarayı ‘Artillery-Gate Palace’. I had never been there before. There was quite a forbidding queue to get in to the Harem section, so we just wandered around the less crowded galleries of the Treasury. It’s quite amazing how they get all those little pieces of diamonds and rubies and emeralds and stuff to fit together into patterns to decorate the sultan’s water bottle. What’s even more amazing is that people would spend their brief, miserable lives destroying their eyesight doing that kind of stuff for their oppressors. I can hardly imagine what kind of conditions the sultan’s jewelers must have worked under.

I once read this novel, My name is red, by Orhan Pamuk – he got the Nobel Prize for it. It’s quite a strange novel, in my limited experience of reading fiction. It’s kind of a mystery about the murder of some of the sultan’s manuscript illuminators, all narrated in the first person by a wide range of characters, including a sketch of a tree and the colour red, whence the title. There’s a lot of deliberation over whether an illuminator should allow any trace of individuality to creep into his (yes, always his) work. A difference of opinion over this momentous question appears to have been the motive. Anyway, Pamuk describes how he imagines life must have been like for those guys, and I’m sure he comes a lot closer than I could. Now doubtless paper and ink and the gold leaf and stuff they used for the illumination were real precious and all, but I expect those actually working in gold and jewels would have been outright prisoners.

I guess jeweled water bottles and ornate ceilings don’t quite fit into my aesthetic.

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