No, You Can’t Go Back to Hadrianopolis

The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

The Pre-Adventure: Boarding the morning’s 25E in Arnavutkoy at 6:45 is easier than at most other times of the day, a deliciously promising way to start a journey to Edirne, the former capital of the Ottoman empire. Alongside the roadway, the Bosporus froths as tour boats begin their run down to Eminonu to collect the day’s tourists. For us veterans, of course, the itinerary is different. The 25E drops you at the Kabatas tram station where you and the driver of that Audi 6 gunning his engine wonder which of you will give way as you try to reach the tram platform helpfully placed on the far side of the four-lane thoroughfare. Because a 45T has launched itself from the bus terminal halfway into the Audi’s lane, you take your leap and clear the bumper by some inches.

Kabatas is the tram’s home base so, at 7:03, there are still two seats to be divvied up among you, Ms. Chic Turkey Sunglasses, and a six year old with a backpack larger than your suitcase. You stand all the way to Yusuf Pasha where, according to the helpful tram map on the wall above the sliding doors, you make the easy transfer to the M1 line of the Metro for the short ride to the Otogar, the main Istanbul bus station.

In the history of transportation was never a transfer point like this: dumped on a platform with a six-lane highway on either side. No one dares hop the fence. You make for the staircase that rises to a pedestrian bridge, but you can’t read the sign because the rising sun rests immediately behind it. But there’s nowhere else to go. The stairs are steep and angle downward. You wonder if anyone truly uses this route to get to the M1’s final destination: the Ataturk Airport, home of the departing carpets, leather jackets, Cappadocian earthenware, and bedraggled vacationers. You think about this climbing the stairs and descending back to the street level where no sign directs you east or west or north into that unassuming alley of cell phone hawkers. The newsagent, who has been through this before, nods towards the alley. Obligingly, the alley opens up and leads, after two hundred yards, to a pedestrian underpass, down 30 stairs, under the highway, and up 40 stairs. Ten minutes later you arrive at the M1, drag yourself down to the platform, ride six stops to the Otogar, and arrive on Mars.

The Otogar must be the largest bus station on the planet. Some airports are smaller. Buses arrive on the lower level; the elevated departure level covers, I’d venture, several city blocks. Each company, and there are scores of them, has an office and ticket counter serving only its client destinations. And Istanbul buses go everywhere: all cities in Turkey, major cities in Bulgaria and eastern Europe, longer hauls into Teheran and Damascus, the mighty adventures of Frankfurt and Paris. Yet the atmosphere is that of a Hong Kong wet market or the Grand Bazaar here in Istanbul. Touts stationed at the door of each company call out, yell, intone, wheedle the names of their destinations: “Bucharest! Budapest! Damascus! Beirut!” as if they were hawking “Celery! Bok choi! Turkish Delight,” as if you, wandering past with nothing better to do, suddenly decided that a quick dash to Addis Ababa would be a nice divertissement for the afternoon.

Opposite Journeys Meet: I expected to cruise west along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, the morning sun glinting gold off the water and the flotilla of red and black freighters waiting their turn to enter the Bosporus for the run up to the Black Sea ports at Odessa and Sevastopol. The highway was broad and smooth, only lightly traveled, and the Mercedes Benz coach zipped along with purpose while a purser in formal collar and black tie bestrode the aisle with complimentary colas and cupcakes. We veered north from the sea, so the landscape turned suburban, then open.

I opened my Kindle book to the Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu. In 1716, she set out in the opposite direction, leaving London to accompany her husband who had been appointed King George’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte, the court of Ahmed III. Both Lady Mary and I approached Edirne by way of Vienna. I visited the Schonbrunn Palace; Mary had an audience there with the Empress Elisabeth Christine, mother of the redoubtable Maria Theresa and grandmama to Marie Antoinette. In her cattier moments, Lady Mary describes the social scene of the Viennese upper crust: every wife has her lover, and quite publicly, too. It would be bad form to invite a couple to dinner without also inviting the lover. At table, the wife sits between the two men and makes small talk where she will.

That same summer, Prince Eugene roundly defeated the Sultan’s troops at Petrovaradin. When Lady Mary passed the battlefield that winter, the extent of the carnage was still evident. Bodies lay unburied, strewn everywhere.

Edirne sits near the borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Mehmet II, The Conqueror, established his headquarters here as he planned the conquest of Constantinople, which he accomplished in 1453. Three quite wonderful mosques adorn the town, two of them pre-dating Mehmet’s reign, one a hundred years later. Sinan’s Selimiye Mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the sports ground on the outskirts of town where the oil wrestlers have combatted since the 14th century. Only the Olympic games have so long a sporting history.

The town was originally called Hadrianopolis after the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Since that name does not trip off the tongue so lightly, the name was shortened to Adrianople. That’s the name Lady Mary knew. Myself, I prefer Hadrianopolils because

Digression Begins Here: in 1965 my father suffered a heart attack. It was Easter season, and Bernie’s hospital roommate entertained himself by watching all the Easter epic movies—Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, The Robe, and, making its premier that very year, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Bernie was not a patient man, and religion mattered to him only because he studied Dante. But bad art did matter; being a librettist, he thought forbidding bad dialogue should have been on Moses’ tablets. So when one Roman centurion summoned his commander, “Hey, Hadrian, com’ ‘ere!” nurses were also summoned and the offending television was moved to another room. For years afterward, “Hey, Hadrian, com’ ere” was how all Stamblers called each other, to dinner, to see something interesting, to get in the car. Generations of family cats all thought their name was Hadrian since they were called in the same way. End of Digression.

I could hardly believe my luck, going to Hadrian’s own city, and in the company of the wife of the English ambassador.

The ambassador, by the way, is something of a non-entity in Lady Mary’s writing. His one moment, so far, is his chastising her for using a Turkish beauty cream that makes her swell and break out for three days. Meanwhile, she corresponds with Alexander Pope who became such an enemy that they both wrote horrid little satires belittling the other, asks after her good friend Congreve, commiserates with the Empress Elisabeth on the death of her son, learns Turkish, goes out without secret service protection dressed as a Turkish noble women, learns the dirt on everyone. I rather wish she had learned in time to tell me that that tomato puree delivered with chunks of fresh white bread was, truth to tell, a puree of red chili replete with potent seeds. She would point out that my steaming mouth was entirely my own fault lost, as I was, in the sound track at the Patio Restaurant: Hey Paula, Hey Paul (waiting for the high school year to end so they can marry. Right? Remember that?); Do You Remember the Day We Met, That’s the Day I Knew You Were My Pet; Sealed with a Kiss. Who knows what they play across the border in Bulgaria.

Lady Mary is a most shrewd observer. She sees everything, she fits all she sees into patterns, she laughs at the lies travel writers (except Mary and me) tell. No western male writer ever had access to a harem or even, in private, with a noble woman in Turkey. The imagined lives of Muslim women in the Empire became, later, the stuff of Orientalism, a brand of thought and art tinged with Western paternalistic imperialism, romantic images, and erotic fantasies of the Unknown East. Lady Mary laughs at all this. But, though I’m only halfway through her divine letters, there are moments when her Enlightenment ideas and fixations, her English Upper Crustiness, her blossoming Wollstonecraft-isms may lead her astray. For instance, she learns about the sects that have occasioned division in Islam. Who follows which grandson, who can have how many wives. All this, Lady Mary opines, is nothing more than the futile distinctions people try to draw between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics. Once you get past the foolishness—is the wafer truly the body of Christ or merely symbolically so?—“when boiled down to prevailing opinion, it’s plain Deism.” 1716 may be the only year in history one could say that, but only in a letter to a friend, and only if that friend is a Franklinesque Deist himself.

And once you go down that road, who’s to gainsay her conviction that the Muslim upper class ladies have even more lovers than the Viennese grand dames she so cheerfully skewered the previous summer? Her case is this: ladies of the top rank have a built-in disguise given their veils and robes. They are not sacrificed to modesty or doctrine. Rather, the dress is like the costumes at a London masked ball. Women, then, not men initiate affairs. They write anonymously to a man and nominate a place and time of meeting. They have their affair without ever revealing their faces. They cannot be betrayed by lovers who do not recognize them. Thus, the brazen Muslim women can carry on as many affairs as they wish, and no one can ever know.

I’m not sure how to verify this story.

I had an hour to kill before making my way to the Edirne Otogar, so I walked once more through the center of the city, past the three mosques and the long pedestrian shopping street which was, doubtless, once a Roman road to somewhere. I passed the ruin of the Roman watchtower that protected one corner of the city. I thought that the collapsed hulk that was once the imperial hamam was too ugly and decrepit to photograph. I stopped at the outdoor coffee shop, big as a soccer field, shady, cooled by breezes Lady Mary would approve of. Cappucino and one last letter before my bus.

Ah, Mary visited this very hamam to see what no western writer had ever seen—Turkish women in their baths, groups of women without their men, all of them naked. The Turkish women, all souls of good will and generosity, want her to join them. She refuses. No need to be modest with us. Join us. Sorry, I must not. Oh, please.

At last, to explain herself, she unbuttons her bodice and reveals the constraining contraption of her stays, the whalebone and laces. The Turkish women were aghast. This is how your husband enforces chastity? He makes you wear this machine!?

Maybe Lady Mary, with no one on earth to contradict her, is telling her own traveler’s lie. We can’t know. What shall we do with her account?

We’ll call it truth in wending.

{This morning’s post, The Domes of Edirne, represents the artistic and monumental side of Edirne. The gallery here reflects daily life. We have much occasion to imagine how and why empires pass–a river fills with silt, a trade route to China migrates north, a harbor in a nearby city can accommodate larger ships. And so it was in Edirne, capital of the Ottoman empire for more than 90 years.}

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