Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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Poor old Fatih, forever fated to be written off as too conservative and/or stuffed with wedding dresses. Yet the strange thing is that you can spend a perfectly happy few hours here without anybody bothering you about religion at all. And that’s even when you’re a woman without a headscarf, believe me.

So here I am at the Edirnekapı end of Fevzi Paşa Caddesi eyeing up the work that’s been done on the Mihrimah Sultan Cami, the mosque on the summit of İstanbul’s Sixth Hill that Sinan designed for Süleyman the Magnificent’s favourite daughter. The mosque was badly damaged by the 1999 earthquake but restoration seems to have been taking an eternity and today I’m not at all thrilled to see the exterior wall which now look rather like one of the worst repaired sections of the Land Walls. So it’s a great relief to step inside the mosque itself for the first time and find it absolutely perfect. More then perfect, in fact, with the body of the prayer hall drenched in the light filtering in through the dozens of windows. In that sense it reminds me of one of the Balyan mosques on the Bosphorus waterfront. Dolmabahçe or Ortaköy, maybe. Much of the space is filled with a gigantic but somehow delicate and graceful candlebra. A rich red carpet sweeps across the floor pulling everything together.

Immensely cheered up, I scramble up onto the walls nearby, just by the point where the Turks finally smashed their way through in 1453. I don’t know what it is about the walls though. It’s possible to get halfway up easily enough but to reach the actual ramparts requires a real climb – and when I try again a little further down the road a man rushes to advice me against continuing. Such a shame. But then at the moment someone standing on top of the walls at Edirnekapı would have a bird’s eye view of the new buildings going up in Sulukule, so it probably suits the authorities quite well to keep it tricky for the time being (those new houses, by the way, will not be the faux Ottoman ones I was anticipating, so much as wood-faced duplexes, crammed in rather tightly by the look of things).

Across from the mosque I spot one of those Greek Orthodox church-and-school pairings that can be seen all about the old city, but as ever the gates are locked and there’s no sign to indicate which church this is. Further along the road I’m in better luck. There’s a football match taking place in the open-topped cistern of Aetios. It’s not the best attended match ever but it’s the first time I’ve actually seen footballers going through their paces inside a Byzantine ruin, whether they’re aware of it or not (probably not, if past experience is anything to go by).

I stroll down the street, diverting briefly along Nişanca Caddesi to check out a mosque that looks as if it should be by Sinan but probably wasn’t. Just round the corner I find the ruins of the small Keskin Dede mescid awaiting imminent restoration. Soon there won’t be a mescid or tekke in the city that hasn’t been rebuilt, worrying for ardent secularists but probably sensible in my opinion.

Then I make another diversion to revisit the Hırka-ı Şerif Cami, a little known yet religiously important mosque that contains the pair to the cloak belonging to the Prophet Mohammed that is on display in Topkapı Palace. Much less well known, it’s only shown to the public in Ramazan when a descendant of the original donor arrives to declare the exhibit open. A new sign has gone up describing the site’s importance, but what’s this? The cloak is called the sacred cardigan! I have to bite my lip hard not to burst out laughing in a place where I know that laughter would be regarded as highly inappropriate. Those of us who live here know just how hard it is to translate Turkish into perfect English but even if a Turkish reader might pick up that “cardigan” was wrong they could hardly know the baggage that goes with the word. Aged grannies. Coalfires and slippers. Knitting. The Prophet in a cardigan? I hardly think so.

I’m so shocked by this encounter that I have to hurry into the local branch of Ziya Şark Sofrası and buy myself a comforting İskender kebab. It’s four in the afternoon, hardly peak eating time, yet the restaurant is comfortably full with families, some with young children in tow. The women are universally covered but no one gives my bare head a second look. “Where are you from?” the waiter asks, and the next thing I know a pair of flags have popped up on the table beside me. One British, one Turkish. A nice touch. I leave quite enamoured of Fatih.400 DSC07758


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