Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

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The delightful doors of Topkapi

We bought our tickets to the Topkapi palace inside the first courtyard, and entered the second courtyard through an imposing gateway (featured photo) called Orta Kapi. This is Turkish for a very prosaic name: middle gate. The gate is as impressive as it looks here, with the two Byzantine-looking towers standing over it. The calligraphy on either side of the doorway is the ornate calligraphic seal (tughra) of sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1452 CE and started building the Topkapi palace in 1459.

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Topkapi is not a single palace, but a complex of palaces built over the next three centuries. I found it slow going, because it is so ornate that you pause to take in the details of various rooms and pavilions you pass through. Like most Islamic art, the colourful tiles, the beautiful geometric designs of inlaid wood or lattice work, and the variations on domes and arches, are what catch the eye. But here one can see a succession of building materials, and discoveries in geometry. One example was the use of a fivefold symmetry on some doors. It seemed to have been invented in the mid-17th century, and retro-fitted into several doors. The more common three, four, and six-fold symmetries can be seen everywhere.

I end with a view of the Bosphorus from the fourth courtyard of the palace. This was my first view of the doorway between the Mediterranean and Black seas, and between Europe and Asia. The overcast sky was very dramatic. As I took photos, the mournful bass hoots of ferries was counterpointed by the mewing of gulls as they flew over us. This must be the most memorable part of the soundscape of Istanbul.