Water Works

You could look it up if you like. There’s doubtless a good geological reason why the hills rise so immediately from the Bosporus shores. How steeply? Ankles don’t have sufficient play to achieve the necessary angles on the upward or the downward paths. Lean into the upward climb, lean back till your calves meet the pavement on the downward rush: your joints will complain for the rest of the day. Can this be the result of the patient persuasion of a billion years of trickling water? Or the cataclysmic twenty seconds of an earthquake that wrenched two continents apart  and connected two seas with a ribbon of water with, in fact, a salinity unknown in either the Mediterranean or the Black Sea. You have time to think these questions through because no uphill walk takes less than half an hour.

Istanbul compels you by the way water works. Gigantic cruise vessels parallel park along the piers at Karakoy. The stacks of cabins, deck upon deck, loom above the waterfront like self-indulgent office towers. The harbor is chockablock  with yachts, fishing boats, Bosporus cruise vessels large and small, dinner cruisers, private motorboats, yawls, marine college two and three masted sailing vessels, barges, tugs, freighters filled with natural gas, petroleum, wheat, the hidden cargoes in the blue, red, green, black, and yellow containers. The Bosporus runs north and south, a blue-black stripe neatly dividing Europe from Asia. The traffic is determinedly helter-skelter. The ferry service runs east to the Asian shore; the fishing boats decide on a Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, or Bosporus catch and trundle off every which way; the freighters lumber south and take a hard right into the Marmara; they pass the armada of freighters awaiting their turn to enter the deep central channels that receive traffic north for twelve hours and then reverse course and allow ships to sail southwards. Vacationers and weekenders take a ferry 10 kilometers south to the Princes’ Island where a small permanent population (with no cars allowed) awaits them. The ferry stops at five islands, reverses course, and makes its way back to Eminonu. Boats depart every hour or so, all day long. North from the conjunction of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, the private pleasure boats registered in Wilmington, Delaware are docked right at the sea wall where the fishermen gather to teach their boys the trade, and the old men dry in the sun with their newspapers after their midday plunge into the dangerous currents. Lovers sit on the benches pretending to watch the fishermen, or the boats, or the moon rising over the Asian hills, or the lovers sitting on other benches. Everyone has turned the water to some purpose, or has been turned to a purpose by the water. Whole symbiotic schemes emerge. For instance, people wish to ferry from Karakoy to Uskudar on the Asian side. The harbor, therefore, must be free of fishing boats with their nets and long lines. The fishing boats depart for the Marmara or the Bosporus, the ferries arrive, the unthreatened local fish emerge from hiding, the passengers toss bread and cheese and bits of lamb and chicken kabobs over the railing, the fish swarm to the feast, and the order of nature is altered. Ultimately, despite their wiles, the fish, or their cousins, find their way to the restaurant tables of Uskudar, the very reason people wished to ferry to Asia in the first place.

Salt water here provides transportation, food, amusement, trade, leisure. Fresh water, however, is the stuff of life, both physical and spiritual. The sultans built elaborate kiosks around wells to provide for their citizens. Spigots spaced around the circumference allow a comfortable space for pouring water for home use, for ablutions, for foot washing, for soaking your sun hat, for dipping your handkerchief and wrapping it around your sunburned neck. There is just such a kiosk just outside the gates to the Topkapi Palace. Nearby, there’s another outside the Hagia Sophia. Others pop up in the middle of busy streets, in pocket parks, in the courtyard of almost every mosque. Some are elaborate and beautiful as they are thirst quenching.

I discovered my favorite on the long walk from Kadikoy to Uskudar on the Asian side. The sun was merciless, and the walk may have been as much as six or seven hilly miles. Almost to Uskudar, I walked along the exterior wall of a vast cemetery.. The cemetery is an old and crowded one, but the ancient cedars provide shade and, as always, a pleasing breeze rises from the Bosporus. I entered the park for a bit of shade, for the green light shed by the cedars, for a moment’s quiet. Near the entrance is the tomb of Fatma Atam 1324 (sic)—1987 and Edib Atam 1901-1999. A marble pavement smooths the way between the path and the tomb. Along the side of this platform, perpendicular to the tomb, is a padded bench, an invitation to sit and rest or reflect or pray or doze. How thoughtful and generous. Once you sit, you may notice that, just in front of the tomb, there are two faucets, and that fresh, cool, crystalline water is available for the weary traveler. Such a modest and generous gesture.

Welcome, stranger. Here is water.

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