…and in books I read. The city turns up strangely enough in W.G Sebald’s hauntingly sad The Emigrants. The name ‘Eyüp’ leapt out at me as I was flipping through the book to reach the page I was at and immediately I thought ‘Istanbul!’ And after that of course Istanbul was in my thoughts all day.
Calm voyage. Resting for hours under the awning on deck. Never seen water as blue. Truly ultramarine… In the early afternoon, far ahead the capital of the Orient appeared, like a mirage at first, then the green of trees and the colourful jostling of houses gradually becoming more distinct.
It is said that ideally one should approach the city by sea to truly appreciate it. Nowadays I think you have to be rich enough to afford a cruise for that, I am not. I took a fifteen hour train from Greece and that in itself was pretty special. An hour after I had been told that we were officially in Istanbul we still hadn't reached. I knew the landmarks to look out for though and as the train crossed the city walls at Yedikule, I knew we were truly in Istanbul. As the train pulled into Sirkeci and I caught my first glimpse of the haliç, the Galata Kulesi on one side and the minarets of the Süleymaniye Camii on the other, I couldn’t help but scream out in delight. Istanbul!
Evening falls. We watch the dark descending from the outlying hills upon the low roofs, rising from the depths of the city atop the lead-grey cupolas of the mosques till at length it reaches to the tips of the minarets which gleam especially brightly one last time before the light goes.
No one could conceive of such a city. So many different types of buildings, so many different greens… Every walk full of surprises, and indeed of alarm. The prospects change like scenes in a play. One street lined with palatial buildings ends at a ravine. You go to a theatre and a door in the foyer opens into a copse; another time you turn down a gloomy back street that narrows and narrows till you think you are trapped whereupon you take one last desperate turn round a corner and find yourself suddenly gazing from a vantage point across the vastest of panoramas.
There is no skyline that is more beautiful than Istanbul. None. I love the minarets. Not just those that dominate the skyline but even the more obscure ones. I love how the poke out of the jungle of newly built structures, just beating the modern buildings in height. I love how when you reach a clearing after having climbed up one of the narrow, steep lanes that so characterize the city and spot the six minarets of the Sultanahmet Camii or those of the Süleymaniye Camii, you suddenly know exactly where you are. I never felt lost in Istanbul. Those minarets gave me a sense of direction.
In the middle of the hall a husbandman was saying his afternoon prayers. Again and again he touched his forehead to the floor and remained bowed down for what seemed to me an eternity. The soles of his feet gleamed in the straggling light that entered through the doorway. At length he stood up, first casting a deferential glance to right and left, over his shoulders – to greet his guardian angels, who stand behind him…
There are some seven thousand plus mosques in Istanbul. They are everywhere. And each of them has a distinct call to prayer. I am convinced if I stayed in Istanbul long enough I would be able to pinpoint each muezzin's call. My favorite was at the Sultanahmet Camii. It was simply one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard – I had goose bumps all over. There was also a mosque somewhere near where I was staying as was a night club. I couldn’t see either but it was the muezzin’s call that would wake me up in the morning and when the call to prayer would ring out at night it would be in accompaniment to the latest Turkish pop number that was blaring out. I would invariably smile.
Text in Italics from W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants.