Istanbul; a city seething with mystery and intrigue. It’s a place where each shadow has a story to tell and every man is a killer or a king.
It’s 1922 and I’m sitting on the roof of my hotel sipping strong Turkish coffee and watching the sun rise over Central Anatolia. Off in the distance the black dome of Hagia Sopiha is stark against the pre dawn sky. As shadow gives way to light, its stucco walls seem to glow red with the passion of worshippers from centuries ago.
The Blue Mosque, with its seven domes and six minarets, is a solemn counterpart to the cathedral across the street. Built on the foundation of the Byzantine Grand Palace, it’s exterior is a balance of geometric shapes that hint to the magical world inside. Light and color reflecting from every corner puts you into a kaleidoscope of circles, triangles, rectangles and squares. Together they form patterns that are repeated a thousand times across the ceiling, walls, columns and floors, and the dizzying effect will leave you spinning like one of Rumi’s dervishes.
The Whirling Dervishes—that puts me in mind of one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had traveling in Turkey. It was a moonless night in Cappadocia when we visited their temple to witness their sacred dance. Its simple ceremony was a mystical, transformative experience that I continue to study with a passionate eye to this day. The consistent whirling brought the energy of the heavens down to earth and for the first time in my life I felt physically connected to something larger and more encompassing than I’d ever known. Was it God? The Universe? I don’t know, but whatever happened in that cone-shaped room was the type of experience that you can only find when you step away from the world you live in and into unfamiliar territory.
The docks at the foot of the Golden Horn are beginning to show signs of life now. The fog has lifted and people are finding their way through the twisted streets of the Old City. A few sailing ships are tied up along the dock and every now and then the sounds of engines from the steamships echo up to my rooftop perch.
Across the strait, the Dolmabahce Palace looks out over the city from it’s stately position on the Asian shore. The balance and scale of the building hint at influences from the West but the sultans’ Asian heritage is on display as well. Pronounced rooflines and fluid, floral aesthetics allude to Eastern cultures. It’s East meets West on the building that once ruled both.
The wind shifted and the scent of the hotel chef’s fire shifted with it. It reminded me of the destructive blaze at the Pasha’s palace last night. It’s grand facade backlit by orange flames and its brittle windows bursting every so often like fragile bubbles. The black plume of smoke escaped like a dying man’s last breath. It was a sight that was becoming more common these days as the last rulers of the Ottoman Empire abandon their homes to wander off in search of new fortunes. It was the sight, sound, and smell of a decomposing empire.