Saturday, February 27, 2010


"Sunset on Eminönü – Istanbul" by Belthelem.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out when my fascination with
Istanbul began. It certainly had been established by the time I first watched Ferzan Ozpetek’s beautiful 1996 film Hamam: The Turkish Bath. Perhaps it was in the mid-1980s, when the city was briefly yet beautifully depicted in the comic strip that chronicled the adventures of my teenage hero, Prince Valiant.

It was a depiction that referred to the city as Constantinople; and which first introduced me to the intriguing historical figures of
Justinian and Theodora.

Regardless of the genesis of my interest in Istanbul, it has been recently renewed by my reading of Jason Goodwin’s wonderful novel The Janissary Tree. It’s actually the first in a series of books – all of which center on Yashim Togalu - investigator, confident of sultans, linguist, chef . . . oh, and eunuch.

Here’s how the novel is described on the jacket flap of my copy of it – a copy I picked up in Benson, MN, on Halloween last year! (It was part of the Benson Country Inn’s “Read It and Return” lending library. The book’s been with me to Australia and back since then. I’m determined to return it one day, however, to a Country Inn!)

The year is 1836. Europe is modernizing, and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire feels he has no choice but to follow suit. But just as he’s poised to announce sweeping political change, a wave of murders threatens the fragile balance of power in his court. Who is behind the killings? Deep in the Abode of Felicity, the most forbidden district of Topkapi Palace, the sultan announces, “Send for Yashim.”

Leading us through the palace’s luxurious seraglios and Istanbul’s teeming streets, Yashim pieces together the clues. He is not alone. He depends on the wisdom of a dyspeptic Polish ambassador, a transsexual dancer, and the Creole-born queen mother. He manages to find sweet salvation in the arms of another man’s wife (this is not your everyday eunuch!). And he introduces us to the Janissaries. For four hundred years they were the empire’s elite soldiers. But they grew too powerful, and ten years earlier the sultan had then crushed. Are the Janissaries staging a brutal comeback? And if they are, how can they be stopped without throwing Istanbul into political chaos?

Yes, it’s a great book! And one that makes me all the more determined to one day (relatively soon, I hope) visit Turkey, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire, and, in particular, Istanbul, its ancient capital.

Anyway, I’d like to start a new series at The Wild Reed – one that focuses on Istanbul. I’ll be sharing images and writings, beginning this evening with an except from Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree. Enjoy!


Yashim arrived early at the little restaurant beneath Galata Point and chose a quiet alcove that overlooked the channel of the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus had made Istanbul what it was: the junction of Europe and Asia, the pathway from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, the great entepôt of world trade from ancient times to the present day. From where he sat he could watch the waterway he loved so much, the narrow sheet of gunmetal that reflected back the city it had built.

The water was as ever thick with shipping. A mountain of white sail rose above the deck of an Ottoman frigate tacking up the straits. A shoal of fishing smacks, broad beamed and single masted, held out under an easterly wind for the Sea of Marmara. A customs boat swept past on its long red oars like a scurrying water beetle. There were ferries, and skiffs, and over-laden barges; lateen-rigged cutters from the Black Sea coast, houseboats moored by the crowded entrance to the Golden Horn. Across the jostling waterways, Yashim could just make out Scutari on the opposite shore, the beginning of Asia.

The Greeks had called Scutari Chalcedon, the city of the blind. In founding the city, the colonists had ignored the perfect natural setting across the water, where centuries later Constantine was to turn the small town of Byzantium into a great imperial city that bore his name. For a thousand years, Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire in the east, until that empire shrunk to a sliver of land around the city. Ever since the Conquest in 1453, the city had been the capital of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. It was still officially called Constantinople, though most ordinary Turks referred to it as Istanbul. It remained the biggest city in the world.

Fifteen hundred years of grandeur. Fifteen hundred years of power. Fifteen centuries of corruption, coups, and compromises. A city of mosques, churches, and synagogues; of markets and emporia; of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars. The city to beat all cities, overcrowded and greedy.

Perhaps, Yashim sometimes reflected, the Chalcedonians hadn’t been so blind after all.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Authentic Catholicism: An Antidote to Clericalism
“This Light Breeze that Loves Me”

Recommended Off-Site Links:
The Janissary Tree - A Review
Istanbul Daily Photo


Jayden Cameron said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. I love the film, The Turkish Bath, have seen it a number of times. And I'm a great fan of Barbara Nadel's crime novels set in Istanbul with the inimitable Inpsector Çetin Ikmen. There are about twelve in the series.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Jayden,

Thanks for alerting me to Nadel's series of books. I'll definitely check them out.

Also, I have a friend (a priest in the Old Catholic tradition) who will be in Prague sometime in March/April. He has a place to stay but I thought it would be good if he could meet a "local" - not to mention a great guy like yourself - while in the city. Let me know if this is something you'd be interested in and I'll pass on your e-mail address to him so that he can contact you.



Mareczku said...

Greetings Michael: My best friend from Australia was in Istanbul in September last year and he said that it was absolutely amazing. Thanks for another interesting post.