Yalis

The after shocks of the 1509 earthquake lasted for 45 days. Every minaret in the city was destroyed. The Sultan, Bayezid II employed 80,000 people to rebuild the city, a task completed within a year. Thus, when we think of monumental Istanbul, we are generally picturing the work done in 1609-1610.
There’s a separate Istanbul, a kind of New Orleans version, a wooden city of high gables, balconies, and frilly decoration. The best of these houses, the yalis built along the seawalls of the Bosporus by the pashas, the foreign ambassadors, even the Sultan himself, are long gone, but their imitative offspring crowd the Bosporus shore just north of the city in the chic suburban towns of Arnavutkoy, Ortakoy, and Bebek. They rise three and four stories; they look as if they should adorn the coast at Watch Hill, Rhode Island or Mystic.
One of the social and cultural functions of the yalis, according to Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, was to burn down during his youth, lending a resident aroma to the city. Pamuk’s book might as well be subtitled “A History of Melancholy” and the pervasive redolence of burning wood, burning history, burning empire, burning childhood, contributes mightily to the melancholia Pamuk feels as a sensuous rather than a psychological presence.
The weathered clapboard houses of Watch Hill played a similar part in my life as a boy and again as an undergraduate when I drove a milk truck for the Westerly Dairy—the year I spied my political science professor coming ashore with Robert MacNamara from one of the Ford’s yachts, and I sold them all chocolate milk but didn’t raise the question of Vietnam—and I first began to appreciate the plaintive yearnings of the widow’s walks on the sea captains’ mansions atop Watch Hill.
Curious, then, that Pamuk’s sense of the melancholy of architecture arises from the smell of its burning down while my sense of architectural melancholy stems from a profession—whaling—that has vanished from the American scene, leaving the widow’s walk nothing to watch for. Wordsworth has it right, then: we don’t sing praises for the pleasures and happiness of childhood. Rather, we are subsumed by

. . . those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realized. . . .

I see the occupant of the widow’s walk. She knows the day, or week, or month of her husband’s ship’s return. Every day, she climbs to the glassed-in hutch atop the four-story house; she knows the creaking of each stair, the distance to the horizon, the sun’s heat moving from one windowpane to the next. This is how I try to invent my Istanbul, or come to terms with my Rhode Island, peopling the history of these would-be yalis, some beautiful, some so ramshackle, so combustible that it seems criminal to let them stand.
And then a beautiful, wide-eyed cat stares at my camera from the windowsill of such a house.
Shocking.

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