Witness to Revolution: Istanbul with Susy Cantwell

April 19, 2016

Turkish coffee

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— Susy Cantwell*

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For two centuries my homeland, Hungary, was a province within the sprawling Ottoman Empire.  As a child, I thrilled to tales of skirmishes between heroic Hungarian patriots and villainous Turks.

Time has a way of healing old wounds. Hungarian bitterness toward Turks would eventually be displaced by hostility toward more recent invaders.  Hence, when the opportunity arose to spend several days in Istanbul, I seized it.

Paul and I took a direct flight to Istanbul from NYC, arriving in the late afternoon — fifteen years ago.  We had reserved a room at the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel, featuring a spectacular dining room (serving traditional Turkish cuisine) on the top floor with live music and breathtaking panorama of the city.

The restaurant was indeed superb, the food excellent and music delightful.  But this is not what won my heart.  We were stirring our evening’s last cup of delicious Turkish coffee when the musicians left for a break and another trio took the stage.   Picking up their instruments, my heart stopped as the plaintive strains of a Hungarian gypsy violin filled the room.
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So began my love affair with Istanbul.

It’s one of the oldest cities in the western world.  The city’s strategic position, overlooking the Bosphorous, straddling Europe and Asia, combined with an extraordinary mix of cultures going back three thousand years, ensures its geographic significance.

Istanbul is huge, overcrowded, and noisy.  Buildings reflecting centuries of conquerors line the narrow streets, thronged by people speaking many languages and selling all manner of goods. Strange and unfamiliar smells fill the air.

We would revisit the city several years later.  Things were different this time.  There was a palpable tension in the air.  Street life was less freewheeling.  People were subdued and many of the women wore the Moslem headscarf.  Religious fundamentalism was on the rise.
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We booked into a tiny hotel close to the historic Old Town and were received  by the concierge with the warmest of welcomes.  This was a good start.

Since we had missed visiting the cisterns on our previous visit, they were the first stop on our agenda.

Istanbul began as a fortress — a fortress with a water problem. Nothing could be built at the highest point, since it’s solid rock, allowing no access to water.  This changed with the arrival of Roman engineers, famous for their aqueducts.  They did the same thing, here, collecting precious water in immense underground cisterns.  Problem solved.
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I was especially eager to see the famous Cistern of a Thousand-and-One Columns.  To build it, Roman engineers re-purposed gigantic stone columns plundered from ancient temples.

As you gaze down the row of columns, you notice that the two at the far end were installed upside down — obvious from the carved faces and inscription.  (Maybe there wasn’t enough light during the installation?)   A 2000-year-old blunder?  Or deliberate?

Istanbul is full of unanswered questions.

Around the corner from the grand bazaar near the hotel, I was delighted to find a small shop selling painted china.  (I’m partial to china.)  Paul gamely agreed  that I could pick out any dish I wanted.  “But, please, no endless haggling, okay?” I reluctantly agreed.   Bargaining, for me, is sport.  A back-and-forth repartee with mutually understood, binding rules. Much like a game of tennis.
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I enjoy it. Paul, alas, doesn’t.

I made my selection, paid for it, and was heading for the door when I spotted another piece that had caught my eye when we walked in. The owner noticed.  He walked over, picked up the plate, and handed it to me with a graceful bow. “Please, madam, accept this little gift from me!”  Such charm! He smiled broadly while wrapping it up with the other plate.  (I was amused to note that the price tag was approximately what I would have saved had we haggled.)
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That night, we switched hotels, to be closer to the airport.  The drive to the hotel seemed to take forever.  Clearly the cabbie was taking a long roundabout route.   When we remarked on it to him, he gave no response.  He seemed to know something we didn’t know.

Settling into our room, suddenly we heard loud shouting and a series of “bangs” from the street below.  From the balcony we saw a huge crowd of demonstrators confronted by police officers — the latter with guns drawn.  Scores of police cars surrounded the square.

As it turned out, we had a front-row seat to the start of a revolution. (The thoughtful cab driver had spared us intimate involvement.)

Istanbul is no stranger to revolution. Much of its history is written in blood. Even so, the city is amazing.  A sprawling multi-ethnic metropolis of gracious and warm people.

A city that plays the music of my childhood, my homeland.

A city I fell in love with.
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* Click here to read about Susy Cantwell.
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