I love the poem Sailing To Byzantium by W.B. Yeats, and it was on my mind this spring break as my husband John and I traveled to Turkey, first to Istanbul and then to Cappadocia. John lived in Istanbul many years ago, and I wondered if this would be one of those a la recherché du temps perdu trips, as he looked back nostalgically to his younger days in a city he had loved as it was then. Our trip turned out to be as timeless as the city itself, and we were steeped in of what is past, of passing, or to come.
Istanbul is a vibrant, exciting city, with strong links to its past but firmly rooted in its present. Driving in from the airport, along the Sea of Marmara full of ships and bustle, into Sultanahmed, the old city, we could see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, those monuments of unageing intellect. We were at once in Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.
Traffic, trams, technology, Starbucks and other encroachments of the West, all live cheek by jowl throughout Istanbul, with the magnificence of mosques and palaces and former churches dominating the sky line. The interior of the Blue Mosque–cool, airy, and tiled with those particular shades of cobalt blue and turquoise in geometric design coupled with beautiful Ottoman curves and flowers, resplendent across domes and walls–is enough to keep a drowsy Emperor awake.
The Museums of Chora and Hagia Sophia began their lives as Byzantine churches; then became mosques and now museums. Covered with frescoes and mosaics of hammered gold and gold enameling, they are achingly beautiful and create the calm serenity of those spaces. These church/mosques show perhaps better than anything the history of conquest and rulers that constitute the history of the city.
In sharp and visually stunning contrast to that holy city of Byzantium, the landscape in Cappadoccia is hard, bleak and almost lunar with rock formations called “fairy towers” that were thrown up during volcanic upheavals thousands of years ago. The caves throughout the region housed, as recently as the 1960s, whole towns, monasteries and nunneries, with tiny chapels covered in beautiful frescos–underground cites where thousands of people lived during invasions, complete with storage spaces and wine making areas.
We ate fish sandwiches with fish just caught in the Bosphorus, cooked on a boat and then served hot and fresh. We ate kebabs from glistening stands of meat displayed at the front of restaurants, mese, (Turkish hors d’oeuvres) creamy yogurt and rice puddings.
The architecture, contrasts, history, food and people make Turkey a unique and beautiful place to visit and to be. Yeats made this journey in his imagination, but we were fortunate to make the literal journey, and found it one of renewal.
Two books, both memoirs, I highly recommend are Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga and Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk.
Creative commons image by Pet_R