Habituation

From my room, half a block from the Bosporus shore, I can hear the throaty, penetrating horn of a giant freighter, newly loaded with Ukrainian wheat and so heavy, so long, so implacable, so unwieldy that no ferry, pleasure craft, or fishing vessel dare cross its path. The water at Arnavutkoy is as wide as the Hudson. Lore or experience teaches that, at this point, the Bosporus has two currents. A warmer one rises close to the surface; the deeper one runs colder and in the opposite direction. Fishermen determine what species to hunt according to how deep they drop their nets. Swimmers can never know when one current or the other will betray them and drown them in the Marmara or Black Sea. Still, despite these currents and the constant traffic of fishing, pleasure, and ferry craft, the strait accommodates them all, and the water rests easily, lapping between the Asian and European shores. Then a big freighter lumbers round the bend up by the new bridge, its basso horns blast, and even though it passes at so elegant a measure you can almost keep pace walking on the bank, the wake shoulders aside the yachts lying at anchor, and the cruise boats turn their prows into the onrushing crests.

During my first week here, the freighters’ horns woke me by night and startled me by day. I noticed the change in myself the other day while I was walking around a dog sleeping on the sun-warmed pavement. I amused myself by watching how flat the dog could make himself so that every cell pressed against the hot concrete. At just that moment, the blast intruded on us, so loud and so proximate that a rookie would have felt his heart leap. I casually turned to see the immense ship not a hundred yards away. The dog didn’t move, not even to lift an eyebrow.

Both of us are habituated, and neither of us is wakened.

Is there a progression here: disturbed, surprised, habituated, analytical, critical, dismissive? Or perhaps a circle that that continues: analytical, critical, nostalgic, sentimental, newly disturbed, freshly surprised?

Dolmabache Palace sits on the European shore of the Bosporus. It was built between 1843 and 1856 by the Sultan Abdulmecid. The building represented part of his effort to reform Turkey, to lead it into the modern era defined by the western European powers, particularly France and England, allies he needed for support against Russia. So be banned the turban, reformed the legal system and the army, and built this palace, a thoroughly Baroque building, somewhat smaller perhaps than Versailles, but at least as ornate.

Someone should write (or perhaps has already written) a book comparing the architectural intentions and accomplishments at Topkapi and Dolambache. In Jason Goodwin’s quartet of novels and Jenny White’s The Sultan’s Seal, the women of Topkapi complain about the miseries of the move. Sitting on chairs! Those horrid European inventions replacing the comforts of our divans, carpets, pillows, indoor fountains, our secret access to our gardens, the view from atop the hills of Sultanahmet!

I took the tour of Dolambache and I completely agree with the harem. Perhaps the curators (the palace has been a museum since Ataturk died here in 1938) are just tedious in their ideas of interior design. Every major hall, all 45 of them, arranges a row of chairs at the edge of a broad carpet facing a row of chairs at the opposite edge. There is hardly occasion for conversation; certainly no intimate conversation. Formality in its most extreme form dictates everything both in the official rooms and in the domestic quarters. An exception: the grand hall of the ambassadors concedes one nod to intimacy. Women, of course, were not allowed to participate in affairs of state, but provision was made for them to look on. The large rectangular room sports small alcoves among its rococo decorations. In these curving niches, far above the floor, some trompe d’oeil painted panels obscure the second story listening and watching galleries for the female powers of the empire.

The guide fusses about the crystal balustrades on the grand staircase (they are rather spectacular) and the four and a half ton chandelier presented by the English throne. But there’s no getting past the regularity of the furniture and doodad arrangement in a building that should be festooned with inventiveness. Habituated after two rooms. No wonder the Valide wanted to move back to Topkapi.

Which brings us to the Blue Mosque. Domes surmounting domes, minarets, white marble courtyards blazing in the sunlight, lovely carpets covering the entire floor, the long staircase up to the pulpit, the niche indicating the direction of Mecca. Check, check, and check. After visiting so many mosques, you might well be habituated to a kind of beauty, however exotic, that depends on an architectural formula that barely changes over the course of eight hundred years. Then you slip off your sandals, duck under the chains that compel you to adopt a posture of respect, and enter the Blue Mosque.

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