When I was eight or nine years old, my mother found a chest full of old cloths in the ruined mansion next to our house in Kadikoy, an ancient neighborhood of Istanbul, once called Chalcedon. She sewed the dresses for me and my sister. These were caftans made with golden filaments, silk dresses, red fesses from the exotic days of the Ottoman Empire. They were hundreds of years old. There was a time when pearls and gemstones were placed between their strands, but probably with the arrival of the first world war, the owners of these caftans ripped them out and sold them. There were old letters, handkerchiefs, paintings, photos, rose perfumes, carpets and even a silver crown. My sister and I used to shake the dust and put them on us, weave our hair, and imagine that even though our bare feet were covered in mud, we were secretly princesses.
This was our favorite play.
The wooden floors of the house were covered with dead flies and the mirrors were golden leaf. There was a small pond with an angel statue in the garden where we take our afternoon teas. On the upper floors, a secret door hidden in a closet would go up to the attic above. That mansion was the most mysterious place in the whole world for us.
Every grain of dust we breathed attracted us a little bit more into that magical world. Dust with a smell of roses.
We would drink a sour cherry liqueur in a crystal mug that we found in the forgotten cupboards and talk with the old Ottoman dialect that we heard from the elderly. We would read letters from the drawers full of spider web. We’d light candles on candlesticks, because the sky was gray, and the light was gloomy all the time. Then we would sit in one of the big columned beds in unused rooms and tell each other about our dreams for hours.
Sometimes my sister would put the silver crown onto her curly hair and tell tales like a primitive storyteller.
“Once there was a Sultan, and he was the ruler of a city of dreams surrounded by the sea. He ,” she said.
Ottoman emperors and palaces were our favorite subjects. For us, the history of Istanbul was built not with the reality, but with dreams. That’s why we believed fairies lived among us, and the houses of the Greek gods from the Iliad, were lined up on both sides of the tranquil waters called The Bosporus, a narrow and natural strait in Istanbul. Sometimes I dreamed of being a lost goddess child. In my dreams Hekate was the chief goddess of Istanbul and she was my long-lost mother. According to this mystical belief, Hekate was the Goddess of the East and she protected the city from the ambush of Alexander’s father Philip in the 300 BC. She did it by lighting her lamp and awaking the city. That’s why the people of Istanbul called her Hekate Phosphorus and built a statue in Seraglio Point after her name.
I could have had a heated argument that Bosporus was actually called Phosphorus. It had nothing to do with that stupid cow of the legends. Anyone looking at the phosphorous waters of the Marmara Sea, such as fish scales, could understand this.
Constantinople, Mon Amour
Another thing I understood in those days was that Istanbul is a city of dust. It was a dust that smells like roses. Sometimes a bit poetical, sometimes brutal. Or more accurately, it is a dust in its perfect form that shows us the unimaginably large universe is made up. It’s like whole city is on the verge of collapsing and destined to live forever at the same time, like the house we were playing with my sister, or the Italian boarding school that I went when I was 12 years old.
The boarding school used to be an Italian orphanage at the end of 19. Century, in the district of Galata. They said the hilly area was belonged the famous Celtic warriors called Gauls (Galat in Turkish). It was a neighborhood located on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the inlet which separates it from the historic peninsula of old Constantinople. The medieval citadel of Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa and the Galata Tower was the highest point of the citadel. Besides that, I believed there was a sacred cave under the hill that once belonged to the druids of the Gauls. It had to be somewhere. I’m still looking for it, sometimes while I’m writing a story, sometimes stepping in to the oldest, abandoned apartment buildings that once belonged to a charming Venetian family called Testa, or Draperis.
Istanbul is amphibian and obscure in nature. If you’re living in Istanbul you have to take ferry every day from one coast to another. From the sunrises to sunsets. From the past to future. Like a master sewer with a fine needle you go back and forth. All you can do in that ferry is to stand back in awe, blinded and choking on the dust, with a surge of gratitude. You can listen to the lyrics of Sezen Aksu on your headphones or get drunk in a meyhane (or taverna like tavern) with the music of Zeki Muren. With the music and the raki I’ve always felt like an accident in Istanbul; like a cloud of dust between the petals of a rose.
Scanning the panorama of the city, I cannot escape the impression that the buildings scattered across the three seas, the palaces, seaside mansions, apartments that once belonged to the Levantine merchants and bankers can be combined to form an ancient riddle and reveal something essential about how a city layout works to unlocking the secrets of the universe. I feel just as an alchemist concludes that dust particles swirling in the air reveal something essential about creation and destruction at the same time.
The city has many names. From the Byzantion of the Greek colony to the Constantinopolis of the Eastern Roman Empire, from Sublime Porte of Venice to the Miklegard of the Vikings. And Istanbul at last. Whenever the rays of the sun enter and pour their light through the dark places of the narrow streets in the ancient districts of Greeks, Gauls and Phoenicians, it is possible to see many minute bodies that gives life to the very city they settle, as if in an unending struggle, giving rise to battles, struggling squadrons and never taking rest, granting access to something extraordinary and immortal.
And the air is full of the smell of roses of the sunsets. It is something utterly mysterious, allowing us to think about the first beginnings of things. That’s why Istanbul is the most alchemical city of all. There is something primordial in it. Gazing Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque I recall the words of the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s words: “I saw the monuments, the great, ancient remains. From every ruin I learned, from every building I absorbed something.”
“The Bowl of Roses,” Rilke describes how “a petal comes open like an eyelid and underneath are just more eyelids, nothing else, closed, as though they had to be asleep.”
The rose of nothingness.
If I was living in a fantastical universe, I know I would be the priestess of Istanbul. From every dust I learned, from every story I became something. If she is a rose, I’m a rose too.
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