Lesley Blanch (1904-2007), a Londoner by birth, spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote areas her books record so vividly. She was an astute observer of places and people; their quirks, habits and passions. This article about Istanbul in Turkey, which she loved, was found among her papers. It was written some time in 1954-5.
Although so many conquerors have eyed Istanbul longingly, it has, oddly enough, never really attracted that more modest stratum of humanity, the tourist, until today. Now with that inexplicable urge which makes fashion, it has suddenly become the lodestar of the adventurous, “To the walls of Constantinople!” once the Crusaders’ cry, might now be theirs.
I first went there ten years ago. I have made the journey many ways ― by the Orient Express; by lorry, at night, through the desolate frontier zones of Macedonia; by local trains that circle the crumbling walls which once encompassed Constantine’s capital. I have flown in, the plane swooping low over the bubble-domed roofs of the Great Bazaar, seeming with every swoop to risk impalement on the spear-like minarets. But the first time, I made the approach by boat, in the classic manner. Only this way can the full impact of Istanbul be obtained. The incomparable silhouette of the city, with its mosques and minarets, watch towers, cypress trees, and forest of masts, rises suddenly from the pearly distances of the Marmara. Anchored off the Seraglio Point, we were between the two shores, Europe and Asia, at the meeting point of the three legendary waters, Marmara, Bosphorus, and Golden Horn. All the tumult of modern docks and mercantile trade make the foreground of this historic panorama. Swarms of little caïques skimmed towards us, tugs blasted, loudspeakers blared, and the porters cried their strength in voices at once guttural and shrill. Yet, beneath it all, I caught, borne on the breeze, the faint quarter tones of Oriental music, issuing from the cafés along the waterfront. I thought about those Turks who stormed Vienna, accompanied by their military band, the Mehter whose curious rhythm, “Alla Turca,” of drums and bells, was to influence both Mozart and Beethoven.
Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the Turkish scene is space ― emptiness ― stillness. In spite of the teeming alleyways, the pullulating bazaars, the charging trams and uproar of Pera, (a section of Istanbul), the ramshackle houses of Stamboul are dumped about open waste ground like some transitory camp, with wild flowers, rubbish, and rough pasture ground for goats between the encampments. At Brussa, on the slopes of Bithynian Mount Olympus, while the boys spend their evenings playing football, there are still large numbers of inhabitants who just sit ― in the traditional manner of eastern contemplation. Beside the splendours of the Sublime Porte, its palaces and mosques and treasure houses, lie the plains of Asia, those limitless distances stretching to the steppes, to the north wind, and beyond.
There is, too, behind the superficially glowing near-Eastern beauty, a sombre thread, and enclosed, almost sinister note, which remains, from other days, giving a character which leaves its mark on man as well as land. Just as Turkey is not, truly (except round Izmir), that smiling landscape we see on a box of figs, so the Turk is not that supple plump Levantine merchant of clichéd legend. The first Turks swept across Asia to become a military aristocracy, and then found the Seljuk dynasty. They were a horde of lean, hawk-faced men, with narrowed black eyes: ferocious warriors. And today, those who have fought beside the magnificent Turkish brigades in Korea know the breed has remained uncorrupted.
In spite of this increasing awareness of, and interest in, Turkey, it remains singularly remote in the Western mind. Ask the man in the street what he knows of it, and he will speak vaguely of Turkish delight, carpets, baths, coffee, and trousers . . . but he won’t be very precise. Those who, like myself, enjoy collecting useless pieces of information recall it was the Turks who first imposed cafés ― coffee houses ― on besieged Vienna which subsequently became celebrated for these same cafes; know that when Britain was an obscure Roman colony it was administered from Constantinople, then the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire; that the mysterious prevalence of elastic-sided boots among the citizens of any big Turkish city is due to the fact that it enables them to be removed easily on entering a mosque for the daily sunset and sunrise prayers; that the tulip is the national flower, its shape woven into a thousand decorative motifs, and that the English word “tulip” was inspired by the form of the huge turbans we see in the early portraits of Pashas, painted by Van Loo, or Rembrandt. The more informed will tell you that modern Turkey is an agricultural country with a population of 21,000,000; that four years ago it was importing wheat, and now, due in part to American aid, it exports around 2,000,000 tons. That there are 16,000 miles of new all-weather roads, and that 40% of their budget is earmarked for the US-trained-and-equipped armed forces. That there are six hundred or more Turkish students in American universities and technical colleges, mostly studying engineering or medicine . . . These are facts and figures. I must confess to a muddle-headed preference for the legendary Turkey of my mind’s eye; to me it is still the land of Loti’s mystique impression d’Islam. To me, the cry of the muezzin still mingles with the song of bulbul, (or nightingale), in fountain courts.
In reality, it is another, more brisk, more reassuring scene. Across the Galata Bridge, bright new taxis nose through crowds; pat and present, always this counterpoint. Byzantine cupolas topped by Moslem minarets, and these, in turn, topped by the crescent of the pagan goddess Diana . . . History and myth . . . Beggars, hotel touts, peddlers, bearded Greek priests and turbaned imams; behind the Spice Bazaar, perfumes and petrol; camels unload beside jeeps. Trim typists patter along, as in any American city; bunchy, black-shawled women, the more conservative matriarchs, are returning from an agreeable day’s outing to the cemeteries of Scutari or Eyub, where they have picnicked and dallied, in the traditional Moslem manner, beside the graves of their departed loved ones. One and all seem to be clutching baggy black umbrellas, poor substitute, it must be admitted, for those plumed horsehair wands once carried by Three-Tailed Bashaws.
Umbrellas or no, Istanbul has a sharpening effect on the imagination, a way of dramatizing the everyday scene. But then, Turkey conjures so many scenes, so many characters. It is impossible for the most frivolous tourist, downing a Martini at the Park Oteli bar, to remain unaware of the texture of history all around . . . [This piece can be read in full in On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life pages 383-397.]
On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)
Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017).
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