I have seen water shimmer at many places—on the Mekong, where I saw a lonely boatman wearing a conical hat sailing away into the river, his silhouette visible through the reflection of sunlight in the evening; on the Arabian Sea, turning immensely golden and bright, blinding me, off Salalah in Oman; on the Windermere lake in England, a stark, sharp glimmer of autumnal glow one afternoon.
None of that had prepared me for the magical, quivering light of the Bosphorus, the strait reminiscent of a river, blending one sea into another, keeping two continents apart, or bringing them together, depending on your point of view. Here, East meets West, but not the way Kipling intended. Here, those leaving the West feel at home in the East, and don’t turn up their noses, as Konrad Adenauer did each time he crossed the Elbe, headed for Berlin. “Hier beginnt Asien,” he’d say, much like Metternich, for whom Asia began on the Landstrasse, east of Vienna.
I am in Istanbul, one-time Constantinople, and on the horizon I see the two continents tantalizingly close, like lovers whose lips are about to meet. Istanbul exudes such passion; here, some clerics and even politicians want women to wear veils, but many men sit, their jaws dropped, mesmerized before a belly dancer. Here the East looks like the West, but behaves like the East, and the other way around. You are never sure if the Bosphorus signifies the division of continents, or their mingling.
There is something special about the water separating Istanbul, besides the light it reflects. In his melancholic and meditative reflections on his city, Orhan Pamuk wrote: “To be travelling through a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul and yet feel the freedom of the open sea—that is the thrill along a trip on the Bosphorus. Pushed along by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveller begins to feel that in spite of everything, this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and freedom… Strong currents run through the Bosphorus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark.”
Is this a European city with an Asian soul, or an Asian town with European manners? There, the haggling in the bazaar is straight out of Asia; here, the cobblestone streets, where pedestrians walk on a chilly night, are so Europe. Around the corner of the mosque, the friendly Turk who starts chatting you up, asking where you are from, and talks of football (to my Anglo-Scottish friend) and Raj Kapoor (to me), feels distinctly Asian. And the alfresco dining, with musicians serenading the diners, is European.
The church you see there—the Hagia Sofia—with Byzantine-era motifs on its walls and its uneven stone paths, was once a mosque, and is now a museum. Conquerors rename monuments, appropriating them; unlike in Ayodhya, there is no need to raze a structure to the ground. The mosque itself is huge and inspiring, making you feel so small as you walk inside; its dome hushing you into silence. The precise geometry of Islamic calligraphy on its walls, the patterns and the latticework, connect us with an aspect of the faith that’s open, inviting, spiritual and ennobling. Later that afternoon, at a corner store, I hear the chants of Sufi dervishes. It is not quite Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but the feeling is the same. From an apartment window on an island I see a church and a mosque, near enough to each other, the bell tower a wee bit smaller than the triumphant minaret. And yet, on the same island, supporters of a traditional, Islamic party, all men, dance arm in arm, ignoring the young couple wrapped within one another, their mouths sealed, as though it is the last kiss before a parting, like a clothed Rodin sculpture, frozen in time.
East meets West: The Ataturk Bridge straddles the Bosphorus, with the Ortakoy Mosque abutting the water’s edge in Istanbul. Kerem Uzel / Bloomberg
This confluence and coexistence makes Istanbul romantic like Venice, but without its picture-postcard imagery; magical like Paris, but without its intimacy; and alive with history like Delhi, but without its disregard of the ruins.
In a poem, Imtiaz Dharker had warned of borderlines becoming battlefields. Istanbul has indeed been one: In 1453, the Ottomans ended the Byzantine empire, making Constantinople Istanbul. In the new order, Christian ships could no longer navigate the waters, stopping trading routes, forcing Europeans to look for new ways to discover spice.
The burden of history does not weigh the city down; Istanbul wears its past lightly. You discover astonishingly beautiful doors and buildings emerging out of nowhere, behind bus stops, flanking the funicular, alongside the trams, mutely witnessing the city’s transformation. Women wear veils and jeans; men wear jackets without ties, but sport the unshaven look of the pious.
It is in the nature of borders to divide people. But trade is the great unifier. As I sit with a friend late evening, watching the straits, she remarks how stunning it is to see so many tankers. Here, ships sailing at night are noticed. And they are welcomed, because they connect the world. Istanbul likes being at the centre.
In his essay on the straits, Pamuk wrote: “If the city smells of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness.” It is short and sweet, but really strong, like the tiny cup of Turkish coffee. You need that baklava to forget the bitterness.
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