Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turkey | Istanbul | Silk Road

Over the years I have wandered to many of the more famous stops on the eastern stretch of the old Silk Road, including its eastern terminus Xian, in Shaanxi Province, China. Continuing westward on the Silk Road I drifted through Lanzhou on the Yellow River, Jiayuguan, the western limit of China during the Ming Dynasty and the end of the Great Wall, and made an obligatory stop at the famous 1000 Buddha Caves at Dunhuang. On the Northern Silk Road, south of the Tian Shan but north of the Taklamakan Desert, I visited the now-tiny oasis town of Toyuk, the famous grape-growing town of Turpan, the nearby Buddhist Caves of Bezeklik and the now-ruined cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, also known as Khocho), both of which were destroyed during the internecine wars at the beginning of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, and the old Uighur capital of Beshbaliq, on the north side of the Tian Shan. On the Southern Silk Road, south of the Taklamakan Desert, I swung by Khotan, the ancient Buddhist stronghold, nominal location of the historical Shambhala, and center of the Silk, Carpet, and Jade trades, and also Kashgar, in eastern Xinjiang, at the confluence of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads. I also spent a night at the Tash Rabat Caravanserai in Kyrgyzstan, on the old Silk Road from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley, and much later checked into a Russian caravanserai in the ancient trading port of Astrakhan, a Silk Road terminus on the Volga River at the northern end of the Caspian Sea.

Having visited much of the eastern Silk Road, I naturally wanted to visit Istanbul, arguably the most illustrious of the Silk Road’s western termini. Over the years I had received several invitations to visit Istanbul, the latest from our very own Girl from the Golden Horn, the internationally renowned adventuress, temptress, and provocateur-auteur Gunj, with whom I once did a horse trip to Khargiin Khar Nuur in Mongolia. I had received several dispatches from Gunj over the summer in which Bukhara, Samarkhand, Cholpan Ata, Osh, and several other Central Asia cities and towns were mentioned as recent ports of call. Then came one email that mentioned she was going on some ill-defined mission into the Pamir Mountains. I accused her of searching for the notorious Sarmoung Monastery, which she adamantly denied. She did allow that George Gurdieff’s hangouts in Istanbul still existed, however.

In addition to the city’s status as a Silk Road terminous, I was also intrigued by the suggestion I have heard from several lamas in Ulaan Baatar, including Lama Gombo, that a portal to Shambhala can be found in Istanbul. These current-day assertions may be echos of certain enigmatic passages in The Crystal Mirror, a nineteenth century text by the ethnically Mongolian but Tibetan-named lama Nyima Chokyi Thuken. As you know, Khamariin Khiid in Mongolia is also reputed to be a Portal to Shambhala. (A recently surfaced rumor that yet another Portal to Shambhala can be found in the basement of the Rubin Museum in New York City should be discounted due to the dubious source of the information.)

Then came word that Gunj would be back in Istanbul for the last two weeks of October before returning to her pied รก terre in Manhattan, not far from the Strand Book Store. If I wanted to visited Istanbul, I should do so while she was there.

So I booked a flight Ulaan Baatar–Beijing–Hong Kong–Dubai–Istanbul and return. Normally I would have stopped in Beijing and stocked up on Puerh Tea from my favorite tea dealer, the estimable Ms. Na, but now the peckerwoods in the Chinese Embassy here in UB have made it so difficult to get Chinese visas that I no longer bother; I just winged straight on through to Hong Kong. Since I had to transfer to Dragon Air for the flight down to Hong Kong I did get to see for the first time Beijing’s spectacular Terminal #3, opened for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Mongolian Airlines still flies to old Terminal #2, so I had to take a shuttle bus to Terminal #3. To paraphrase Richard Nixon standing in front of the Great Wall, the “the terminal is really, really great.” Or at least really, really huge. A terminal of a city which has every intention to be the world leader by the middle of this century. And yes, there are Starbucks. More importantly there are “charging stations” for topping off laptops, cell phones, and Kindles, and small free wi-fi islands around at least some of the charging stations, although there does not seem to be free wi-fi terminal wide.

I had an eight-hour layover in Hong Kong, so I took the train to Kowloon, thinking I would spend a few hours just strolling around the city with one eye open for any Puerh Tea buying possibilities. Unfortunately my body had already accustomed itself to late-fall temperatures in Ulaan Baatar—we had had a nice little blizzard a couple of days before I left and there was still a few inches of snow on the ground on the morning of my departure—and I was totally unacclimated to Kowloon’s near tropical temperatures. Within ten minutes of walking I was drenched in sweat. Then a slow drizzle turned into a near deluge. So I caught the subway over to Hong Kong Island and spent a few hours in my favorite bookstore right near the Center Metro Station. Although I had already downloaded fifteen or twenty books onto my Kindle for reading on this trip I could not resist buying hard copies of Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Entanglement in Afghanistan, a rip-roaring account of how Afghanistan has become known as The Graveyard of Empires. The English Empire suffered if not its greatest defeat in Afghanistan then certainly its most ignominious; the Soviet Empire likewise got its butt kicked, and now it is the turn of the USA. And I could not resist picking up a copy of The Blue Manuscript by Sabiha Al Kemir. I am a sucker for books about manuscripts.

Thus fortified with reading material I took the train back out to the airport and caught the 0:35 AM Red-Eye Special to Dubai. I was flying on Emirates Airlines, which has wonderfully new and clean planes with fairly roomy, plushly appointed seats, and exuberantly friendly flight attendants. They announced that among the attendants there were speakers of Arabic, English, Turkish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. When they turn out the regular cabin lights there are tiny little light bulbs embedded in the roof which twinkle like stars, so you can imagine you are sleeping out in the desert, in the “Big Tent,” as they say in Mongolia.

Arrived in Dubai’s mammoth but then deserted airport at four in the morning local time. The only place I could find open was a Burger King, so I sat and drank lamentable coffee while reading Lars Brownworth’s Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire on my Kindle. As soon as the sun came up I took a cab down to the Old Town, where I hoped to stock up on Arabian scents in the Perfume Souk. The souks do not open until 9:00 am, but the covered walkways of the Gold Souk were open so I took a bench and sat for two hours watching the passersby. There were no tourists or travelers at this time of the morning. All the people were locals who work in the souks—mostly Pakistanis—and an assortment of local loiterers. I was struck by the number of Chinese who appear to be working here. Are they colonizing Dubai now?

As soon as my favorite scent store opened I bought frankincense and an assortment of essential oils, including musk, rose, jasmine, araic, nooria, amber, and a smattering of others, plus several kinds of aromatic woods which can be burned as incense and some Iranian saffron for culinary purposes. Then I went back to the airport and sipped immense lattes—the cauldron-like cups have handles on either side so you can pick them up with both hands—until my 2:30 PM departure for Istanbul, also on Emirates Airlines.

Planes were stacked up over Istanbul so I was an hour late in arriving. By eight in the evening I was ensconced in a hotel within fifteen minutes walk of the Hagia Sofia, arguably the center of old Istanbul. At nine at the next morning I entered the precincts of the old Church/Mosque.
Hagia Sofia
As you know, Hagia Sofia was built between 532 and 537 A.D. on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. For almost a thousand years, until the the completion of the cathedral in Seville, Spain, in 1520, it was the largest church in the world.
Hagia Sofia
In late June, 1203, members of the 4th Crusade, ostensibly bound for the Holy Land, where they hoped to retake Jerusalem from the Moslems, decided to swing by Istanbul—then known as Constantinople—for a little free-lance looting and plunder, this despite the fact that Constantinople was at the time a Christian city, albeit Orthodox and not Catholic, like the western European Crusaders. According to the historian Speros Vryonis:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sofia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church's holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.
Hagia Sofia
In 1453 the Ottoman Turks, after a lengthy siege described in intriguing detail in the book 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, captured Constantinople. On Tuesday, May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II entered the city and carrying the sword of the Prophet Mohammed rode his mule straight into Hafia Sofia. Dismounting, he kneeled on the floor and after sprinkling a handful of dust on his head as a sign of humility, announced the victory of Islam over the city and declared that henceforth Hagai Sofia would serve as a mosque. In 1935 Hagia Sofia was turned into a museum and is now visited by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people a day.
Second Floor Hallway in the Hagia SofiaInterior of the Hagia Sofia
Interior of the Hagia Sofia