“Mum, he doesn’t speak English?” I sent on WhatsApp with a confused 😕 emoji face. She is trying to set me up as I prepare for my visit to Turkey.
“Sorry,” she responded (#sorrynotsorry). She is desperate to see her youngest daughter marry. Both my parents live in Adana and for them, love is simple, practical. “You complicate everything!” she often says. “You look too deep and think too much!” She has never understood me when I say I am searching for love, someone that I love and respect, which is a pretty challenging feat given that my standards are almost biblical.
Maybe she is right, that maybe I think too much, but it seems like all the men I meet are liars, superficial and vain, and if not, cowardly and afraid of going against the grain of social cliches, my pessimism only deepened by those who, after being viciously sexist or violent, insincerely apologise before going on to pretend that they are feminists and congratulating themselves as though they are good people. It feels as though I will never meet a man I respect.
I switch off my phone and place it in my bag as I arrange my luggage in the overhead lockers on the plane, on my way to Istanbul. I hate flying. Short flights. Long-haul flights. I quit my job recently because it required me to regularly travel across Australia. This flight was particularly bad, as though the unpleasant and exhausted flight attendants believed that ignoring your requests with an indifferent smile was equal to customer service and I spent half the time worried I might do something wrong that would permit their wrath.
“Are you the vegan?” She almost screamed at me, disapprovingly. I am not a vegan, but I order it as a preference on flights. I smiled to agree, before she huffed and pointed her finger for me to release the tray, her sharp pink shellac nails like pretty little knives that made me immediately obey. I was going to ask for tea sometime later, but her treatment of the lady a few seats away who requested water made me sit silently and read my book, avoiding her until we finally landed.
I switch my phone back on and see that my mother had responded to my message with a rolling 🙄 eyes emoji. I said, “relationships are all about communication.” But, surely a relationship is simply about creating meaning together through conversation? The less I am able to talk, the more likely I am going to get bored, make sacrifices, feel lonely until I end up with two choices: either leave and end up on my own again, or completely disappear as a person. Or maybe I should just let her set me up and see what happens?
Getting out and into a taxi only made me realise the sheer scale of this megacity where I was stuck in traffic for well over two hours, the massive roads littered with millions of cars and where no one follows the road rules. Are there road rules? I could not see lines on the road. I wonder if people in Turkey first get their licence and then figure out how to drive afterwards, just making things up as they go.
We reached a part of the city that the taxi could no longer drive and I regretted the suitcase that I had. The wheels were dodgy and each time I told myself that I needed to purchase a new one, I procrastinated and delayed the inevitable. The cobblestone streets ahead looked like a nightmare as the taxi driver instructed me on how to get to my hotel. “Straight. Straight. Turn.”
“You can say it in Turkish,” I said. “I speak a little Turkish.”
His demeanour suddenly changed. It is as though the more foreign you are, the more respect and hospitality you receive. You are not stupid enough to give a tip if you are Turkish. He then blasted some incomprehensible instructions that completely flew over my head, so fast was his Turkish that I realised I was a foreigner.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said awkwardly as I told myself straight, straight, turn. I started walking down the cobblestone streets and past numerous shops and suddenly the chaos started to die down. I was moving closer to the Old City of Istanbul at the Eminönü district. All the frustrations that I was feeling, the flights, the taxi, the dodgy wheels on my suitcase slowly drifted away as I walked past street vendors selling corn on the cob and little cafe’s with overweight, elderly women sitting on the floor rolling out dough for cheese gözleme. It was wonderful.
I arrived at the hotel I booked overlooking the Bosphorus, the hotel porter eagerly running out to meet and greet me, grabbing my luggage with enthusiasm as he said “welcome” about five times. The room at the hotel was wonderful, although somewhat strange given that it had two double beds, but it felt clean and welcoming and the rooftop seating was incredible, overlooking the view of the sea with the Blue Mosque just behind as it echoed the deeply moving Ezan through the speakers. In a secular country like Australia, hearing the Islamic call to prayer really channels that authentic experience you are in a foreign country.
Let’s not forget the Turkish breakfast. I think ‘Continental’ should be replaced with the ‘Constantinople’ as the preferred breakfast, an entire buffet of various cheeses, breads, eggs, dips and, well, everything. My parents would always say that eating three meals a day was a myth. You only need a Turkish breakfast and a Turkish dinner with some sweets and coffee in between. I can see why.
I decided to stroll around to get to know the locale. I do this every time I stay somewhere, seeing what is nearby, whether there is a grocery store, and simply to move around after spending so long sitting on a plane. The Blue Mosque was visible from the hotel and I walked up the winding little roads and past the Obelisk of Theodosius pondering about conspiracy theories. It was near the Hippodrome of Constantinople (At Meydanı) that made me think of the film Ben Hur, although it is hard to imagine given that it is mostly flat surface now.
I reach Sultanahmet Square, a garden and seating area between the mosque and Hagia Sophia and I am taken aback at the incredible position I found myself in. Here I am, standing in one of the most incredible, historical places in the world still occupied and loved by people, the seat of the Byzantium Empire when the Roman division occurred, where Alexander the Great swept through and the Crusaders helped by the Komnenians, finally with the great battle of the Ottomans that sacked the city in 1443 when Sultan Mehmet II solidified Ottoman rule in the region.
Hagia Sophia was once a great church that the Ottomans took control of when they conquered the region, converting it to a mosque. Today, archaeologists and historians are bringing us closer to an understanding of its history as it slowly shaves back the covering to expose the Christian mosaics. It was incredible seeing so close the Byzantium art and as I walked to the corner on the higher level and viewed the large Islamic shields that has inscriptions of former Islamic religious leaders, I started to cry.
There is a great deal to see in the Eminönü district of Istanbul and it is worth spending several days there. There are numerous archaeological museums that I visited that contained some incredible historical artefacts from the Roman and Hellenistic period that were collected by the Ottomans as symbols of their power. I also came across some, well, likely false artefacts.
“The beard of Moses?”
The security guard at the Sacred Relics section smiled and nodded, but I think even he did not believe it. It was a strange feeling when I realised the authenticity of these artefacts were ambiguous, but a stay in the region cannot be completed without visiting Topkapi Palace museum, the very seat of the Ottomans and of our imagination. It is easy to get swept away in our imagination of what that world would have been like, thinking about Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and his powerful chief consort Hurrem Sultan. It astonishes me how the western world seems to ignore the power of the Ottomans in the region, but even so, the love between these two is etched into history and our hearts.
It is a love story only matched by King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and as I walk through the Harem Section (note that there is an additional fee to the entrance fee to visit this section), the part of the palace dedicated to the mysterious harem of the most beautiful women captured by the Ottomans and becoming consorts to the Sultan, I start feeling overwhelmed at the history – both bad and good – as I think about Hurrem. Taken from Ruthenia by Crimean Tatars and approved as a gift for the young Sultan by his mother Valide Sultan Hasfa Sultan, she rose to great power and became his legal wife.
The following poem was written by the Sultan:
Celîs-i halvetim varım habîbim mâh-ı tâbânım
Enîsim mahremim varım güzeller şâhı sultânım
Hayâtım hâsılım ömrüm şarâb-ı Kevser’im Adn’im
Bahârım behcetim rûzum, nigârım verd-i handânım
Neşâtım işretim bezmim çerâğım neyyirim şem´im
Turunc ü nâr ü nârencim benim şem´-i şebistânım
Nebâtım sükkerim gencim cihân içinde bî-rencim
Azîzim Yûsuf’um varım gönül Mısr’ındaki hânım
Stanbul’um Karaman’ım diyâr-ı milket-i Rûm’um
Bedahşân’ım ve Kıpçak’ım ve bağdâ’ım Horasân’ım
Saçı varım kaşı yâyım gözü pür-fitne bîmârım
Ölürsem boynuna kanım meded hey nâ-Müslümân’ım
Kapında çünki meddâhım seni medh iderim dâim
Yürek pür-gam gözüm pür-nem Muhibb’îyem ve hoş hâlim
My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved, my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautiful, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My delight, my wine, my tavern, my lamp, my light, my candle
My orange and pomegranate and sour orange, my candle of night
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my heart´s Egypt.
My İstanbul, My Karaman, my land of Rum
My Bedehşan, my Kıpchak, my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord, my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door, I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.
As I prepare for travelling around Turkey and to visit my parents living in Adana, I wonder about my reactions to the potential suitors of men I will encounter, whether there exists a man who is genuinely honest, kind and real that I can finally settle and have children. Whatever the case will be, the Old City of Istanbul is an absolute must-see if you are travelling to the region and you too will fall in love with its majesty, dance in the fields of your own imagination as you find yourself steeped in history, and fill your belly with the most amazing foods.