Wednesday, 14 November 2007

STEPH Istanbul 12-14/11/07

Much as I loved my first night at the Pierre Loti Hotel, where my backpack and pilgrim's purpose were welcomed with open smiles and a bright orange cocktail, I have moved to a sunnier (sunshine!) less expensive and fabulously blue room at the Side Hotel, still in the heart of the Sultanahmet district.

Istanbul is magnificent.

On my first day, three times I walked in a big ranging circle, making my way blindly between the same two points - only to discover late in the afternoon that the two destinations were about 300m apart in a straight line! The beauty of this is that all of my immediate world is contained within the circle, now unhesitatingly familiar.

Since leaving Rome on September 22, only twice have I researched those places we rolled through on our pilgrimage - once in Pescara, when I was drawn to look online to understand the blandness of the city's architecture; and then again in Albania, when I quizzed the American scholars about the unrelenting poverty of this European nation.

There was a reason for this: I wanted to meet my own ignorance.

I needed to see for myself the stories I tell, the prejudices I hold in my heart and the tensions that hide in my bones.

Not so in Istanbul.

Here I have read all I can, playing catch-up with a bland and ordinary modern education (yes, yes thank you for the privilege). How I admired the learning of the Americans, their minds alive with languages, history and literature! And how I am dazzled by the city we call Istanbul, a city that bridges two continents!

(It's amazing how many Australians don't know this - just like we don't know that green and black olives come from the same tree. True story - we'll deny it, but every Australian has this particular moment of awakening.)

As I roam around Istanbul I am daunted by the carpet hawkers that stand on the street. Yet I am comfortable wandering past them too, familiarising myself the culture of commerce, knowing that I have all the time in the world to sink slowly into the hum of the city.

I am helped along by new-found friends I meet at the hotel, with whom I explore the Spice Bazaar on a rainy yesterday. Today I find the Grand Bazaar, which is like every other commercial tourist market on Earth, booth after booth full of the same stuff, some of it lovely, most of it . . . not.

I am seeking the backgammon board that, mantra of my life: 'when I go to Istanbul, I will buy . . .' and here I am! Fancy that! It wasn't an empty promise after all.

I stroll through the Ayasofya - the Hagia Sofia, 1500 years of magnificence, circling her great inner chamber. There is a dip in the steps where I - like thousands the world over before me - place my foot on the stone, worn from the ages. That dip is engraved in my mind. It is the point where, quite naturally, I and much of humanity have merged to take the same step. And I wonder, daughter of a new world, in whose footsteps am I treading?

There are many people in the stone chamber, though it is not crowded. And even if it were, I cannot imagine, with her great height, that Sophia could be crowded; perhaps by a coronation crowd . . . or a riot and ensuing massacre. A crowd in another age, certainly not ours.

For ours are the crowds of the observers, not the witnesses; tourists peering into time rather than those belonging to their time and, lucky them, place.

I feel the emptiness of grandeur, the disconnection of the building from her purpose. I wonder if there are those whose vision includes reclaiming her for this or that religion, the obvious ones for whom she was created, and stolen, and the invisible ones we cannot remember, the ones for whom the land itself was temple enough.

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