In his evocative book on his home city, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk defines the predominant mood of Istanbul and its inhabitants: hüzün, a particular form of melancholy. Istanbullus are only too painfully aware that their city was once, and for many centuries, the very centre of the world, a great global capital city to which millions looked and where real power resided. The slow decline and subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire led to a period of stagnation and isolation; the capital of the new Turkish nation was moved to Ankara; Istanbul faded from view and slid into disrepair and virtual oblivion.
These days, the tourist trade has vastly improved the city’s fortunes, and its architectural splendours are slowly being restored and rebuilt. Even at first glance, the sheer beauty of the place is overwhelming: straddling two continents, blessed with some of the finest buildings in the world, great domes and elegant minarets rising from the hills which form its foundation, and surrounded by sparkling blue sea, it packs quite a punch.
Still, the melancholy remains. Istanbul’s buildings reflect its long and turbulent history. For eleven centuries it was the capital of the Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor. In the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, built in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian, the emperors were crowned in great pomp at a spot halfway along the nave called the ‘omphalion’: literally, the ‘navel’, the centre, so it was thought, of the world’s power, where God’s heavenly authority came to rest on human but imperial shoulders.
The Church, often called Hagia Sophia, a transliteration of its Greek name, is still an awe-inspiring architectural marvel, whose construction seems almost unimaginable in the twenty first century, let alone the sixth. The building you visit now has been internally re-ordered, reflecting its conversion in the fifteenth century to a mosque. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II overthrew Emperor Constantine XI in 1453, and with him the last vestiges of a once proud Christian Empire. Changing churches to mosques was naturally the means to symbolize the arrival of a new world – and religious – order.
Much of Istanbul of course reflects the Islamic faith and culture that arrived with Mehmed’s forces. But it also reflects how his Empire lasted even less long than that of the Byzantines. Successive sultans established their power here too; the sprawling Topkapı Palace became the nerve centre of their vast Empire, and massive mosques were built to symbolize their dominance and the new hegemony of Islam. They, like their Christian predecessors, acted as though their temporal power was of divine origin and meant to be eternal. Like those predecessors, they too were wrong. The Turkish state that emerged from the wreckage of World War One was secular in nature. Even if the vast majority of the Turkish people are still Muslim, their nation is not, officially. (Though there is tension here of course: perhaps best left for a future entry!)
The world turned its back on Istanbul after that, for a while. Today, it is indeed permeated with a sense of deep melancholy, a poignant yet arrestingly beautiful reminder of the ultimate transience and irrelevance of human rule. It asks deep and troubling questions about religion’s proper role in the exercise of power. It reminds us not to place too much confidence in our own importance, nor to assume that our names will forever live in glory. It gives a stern corrective to any sense of ourselves as God’s special elect people, the eternal channel of God’s power to a waiting world.
Beneath the melancholy, however, Istanbul may offer us a sense of what is really of lasting value, what really does live forever, above the clash of empires and our foolish claims that we are, exclusively and uniquely, right. The tombs of Sultan Suleiman, the ‘Magnificent’ (1494 – 1566), and his wife Roxelana, behind his massive mosque conceal one such glimpse. She was a Eastern European slave, Christian by upbringing, whose beauty captivated him but whose wisdom, wit and intelligence led him to break with generations of Ottoman tradition and marry her officially, keeping her with him as his friend, advisor and companion instead of following the custom of banishing her and her offspring to a distant province. ‘My very existence, my Sultan’, he wrote to her, in some dazzling love poetry. There is something more moving in this to me than the huge mosque, larger than Hagia Sophia, which he intended as his legacy.
Or, take the Sultan’s son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha, twice the Grand Vizier of the Empire. He too built a mosque, down by the Golden Horn. It isn’t massive, but it is for my money the city’s most exquisite, lavishly decorated in Isnik tiles inside and out. To enter its cool, quiet serenity is to be transported instantly into a place of spiritual as well as physical beauty. Built literally above the jostling hubbub of a street market, without ostentation, it touches the heart in a way that great monuments of Empire do not. Doubtless Rüstem Pasha played the games of politics with all the cunning and guile required: but he was also a man who cherished beauty, and sought to reflect his deep love for his city and his God in a place of quiet but surpassing beauty.
Istanbul’s very lifeblood is this melancholy, for several lost empires and a dramatic fall from importance. But I came away thinking that it perhaps also echoed a suggestion made by Philip Larkin, that it might prove ‘Our almost instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’