Istanbul (Not Constantinople); or, There’s No Boat "Sailing to Byzantium"

Well, I have returned from a weeklong trip to Istanbul, Turkey. I did not bother to go in search of the aforementioned Rocky Jordan or look for his Café Tambourine in the Grand Bazaar, a shopping maze I, being slightly claustrophobic and averse to haggling, was glad to escape. A man like Jordan bey would probably be lost as well in present-day Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis whose population continues to grow at an environment and infrastructure challenging rate and may well have surpassed twelve million. And yet, you are not likely to encounter the populace in Sultanahmet, the old part of town, which, despite its ancient buildings and monuments, comes across as spurious—and thoroughly commercial—as an American pulp serial like A Man Named Jordan—a western reconception of Istanbul as a Disney theme park.

Walking from the Blue Mosque to the Haghia Sophia, the erstwhile site of the Byzantine Hippodrome, you will find yourself amid hordes of British, American, Australian, and German tourists. I rarely got an opportunity to pull out the Turkish phrase book I had purchased for the occasion. Nor did the dishes served at restaurants just off the Hippodrome strike me as authentic; then again, many of the menus were written in English or German, however ill spelled. You will have to cross the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu better to appreciate that foreign influences other than commercial tourism have been shaping the city for centuries.

Tourism might have been somewhat more discreet and less detrimental when the Orient Express first stopped in Istanbul, but the tracks for the seasonal invaders, many of whom flock to the cinematically commodified Topkapi (it having been on worldwide display since the 1964 movie of the same name), were already being laid during the late-19th century. One of the oldest hotels catering to western visitors is the Pera Palas, where, among other well-known personages including Mata Hari and her Hollywood impersonatrix Greta Garbo, the previously discussed whodunit writer Agatha Christie stayed during the journey that inspired her Murder on the Orient Express. On the anniversary of her birth (15 September 1890), an enterprising concierge took us up into her room, now itself shrouded in a mystery contrived, no doubt, by the operators of said establishment; but more about that another time.

I grew up among Turks who were lured to Germany by the thousands during the post-World War II economic boom known as the Wirtschaftswunder and stayed there despite much hostility and humiliation. I lived among Turks, but rarely got to interact with them. I cannot say from experience how the situation is nowadays; but until I left Germany in 1990, Turks were still regarded as little more than servants who cleaned our streets and tidied our houses, a cleanliness ascribed to German efficiency but actually owning to foreign guest workers desperate enough get their empty hands dirty for a people known for its ethnic cleansing, a supposedly reformed nation enjoying the US support that ought to have gone to Blitzkrieg-devastated ally Britain.

Apparently, Germans have not reformed altogether. After strolling around remnants of glorious Constantinople and Byzantine ruins such as the Medusa head that, lying upside down, adorns the cavernous 6th century Basilica Cistern (pictured above) or taking a ferryboat across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, where we enjoyed lunch talking culture and politics with a descendant of the Ottoman rulers, CNN kept us up-to-date about the return of the Nazis in Germany’s local elections and gave us the jitters when the German Pope, who is supposed to visit Turkey in November, made some inflammable remarks about Islamic faith. To avoid having to explain that I spent most of my adult life in the United States and just where my present home, Wales, is on the map and in relation to England, I often found myself replying “Germany” to the often voiced query “Where are you from?”—but I could not say it either with pride or a sense of veracity.

To be sure, as today’s news reminded me, Turkey faces its own struggle to match the ideals of Western democracy, ideals rarely met anywhere but most conveniently found wanting elsewhere. Apparently, it is still deemed a criminal offence for any Turkish citizen openly to criticize the state, past or present, so that even a fictional character’s voicing of controversial remarks may get its author-creator into serious legal trouble. Turkey might be a more dangerous place than Agatha Christie or the creators of A Man Named Jordan could have dared to imagine, lest they were prepared to divest this gateway to the Orient of its fabled and profitable enchantments.

As I have always insisted writing this journal, I am not one to be carried away by bouts of nostalgia. When poet William Butler Yeats imagined “Sailing to Byzantium,” one year before Constantinople’s name was officially changed to Istanbul, he talked of visiting antiquity by reading about an illustrious golden age so that he might dwell in the “artifice of eternity.” Arriving by plane and walking in present-day Istanbul, such reveries seem out of place. What kind of place is Istanbul now? What is its place in the West as Turkey strives to join the European Union but rejects or refuses to embrace much of what strikes us as Western (money and consumerism aside)? Having caught a couple of fragmentary chapters of the country’s history, I, for one, will stay tuned . . .

3 Replies to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople); or, There’s No Boat "Sailing to Byzantium"”

  1. The first thing I thought of when I saw the title is a gramophone record I have from the 50\’s titled \”Istanbul is Constantinople\”, by the Four Lads, I think. Found in the Netherlands which is a paradise for finding old 78\’s. In Germany you can easily find post-war Heimat music, and DDR-records, most of it embarissingly sappy. Almost never jazz. The Nazi period left its mark on the culture.

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  2. Yes, the Four Lads, anno 1953. Apparently, people still needed a reminder some quarter century after the name was changed, a reminder that \”Evr\’y gal in Constantinople /Is a Miss-stanbul, not Constantinople /So if you\’ve date in Constantinople / She\’ll be waiting in Istanbul.\”

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