Turkish Onions

Sunday’s outing found me on the local bus tooling up the European shore of the Bosporus. The road, tracing the coves and bays and peninsulas, passes an upscale suburb or a fishing village at every curve. I should have accounted for the Sunday let’s-take-a-drive traffic, a mass of SUVs, BMWs, and Audis that turned a thirty minute drive into an almost two hour slog. At least, as we inched along, I could watch the freighters amble by while the smaller pleasure craft and ferries gave them wide berth. An occasional cormorant balanced atop a swaying buoy waiting for one of the shore-bound fishermen to lose a catch the bird could swoop in on. On the other side of the road, the more opulent towns lined the coast with seafood restaurants complete with wide patios and white umbrellas.

I arrived in Sariyer, the last town on the bus route. Across the water I could see the Asian-side castle I visited last month, and the opening to the Black Sea. I wondered how many travelers to Odessa relive, as I did, their visits whenever they see the Bosporus waters widen, change color, and give way to the dark sea.

On the way home, I jumped the first bus that appeared, a 555 whose destination was Besiktas, a lively area I know well. It lies just beyond my village of Arnavutkoy.  The 555 chugged along the shoreline for half the journey home, but suddenly it swerved into the long ascent of the hill that rises so precipitously from the Bosporus. Not to worry: wherever we went, we would end up in Besiktas, and I would be able to find my way home.

Atop the hill, the bus ran some distance along a narrow ridge. To the left, I could see the old city far below, the water, the mosques, the bridges to the Asian side, the Asian hills. To the right, I looked down on a landscape that was thoroughly contemporary: sparkling glass and steel office towers, apartment blocks, hotels, shopping malls, car dealerships, amusement centers—all of it new, none of it redolent of old Istanbul, most of it international in style. That is to say, it was elegantly faceless, at home anywhere, offensive in its pure inoffensiveness.

This was the view I’ve been missing—the layered civilization. Museums, no matter how well laid out, propose history as a great lump of simultaneity. You may have the Byzantine Room  followed by the Ottoman Room. You may be led around by your chronological nose, but everything you see is in the Now, in the veritable Present. Your camera records shot 7043 followed by 7044. It doesn’t matter than 1500 years passed between these images. Just click and shoot.

But now, atop the ridge, confronted by the New Istanbul in the process of enfolding Older Istanbul within, I saw freshly. The 20th century Republic surrounds the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire which, in its turn, encases the centuries of the Seljuks who fell first to the Crusaders and then to the Mongols; that era encircles the thousand year Byzantine empire, and so we proceed through the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, my God! the Hittites of 7500 years ago. The Turkey I’ve been living in is now bound inside this latest civilization of steel and reflective glass, the latest skin of the Turkish onion.

And so, finally, my trip has a perspectival tool, a means of grappling with the city, the hinterland, the archeology, the eons, the trade routes, the Mediterranean, the islands, the urge to easternize Christianity and to westernize the marauders from Asia. That metaphoric tool is the onion that we can peel or, on lucky days, drill into and extract a sample of the core the way the geologist studies prehistoric ice to date long-gone life.

With this tool in place, it is no longer a surprise to drive along a modern highway, as I did last week, and see off to the side, isolated and neglected, the remains of an ancient theatre. It might be Greek; more probably it’s Roman. As a historic artifact it serves the same function as the ghostly, abandoned, white clapboard Mobil station on the outskirts of a deserted copper mining village in northern Wisconsin. It’s a tie to the past, to a culture imperfectly remembered and probably debased in and by memory. After all, that red Mobil sign also displays Pegasus. We remember the winged horse, to be sure, but few will care that his hooves created the Hippocrene, the sacred fountain of the Muses and the inspiration for poetry. Half the historical myth is remembered. The rest is debased no matter how important it once was. Happily, it is precisely the function of the perspectival onion to help us see and remember more deeply. Thus, as I drove on through the mountains from Marmaris to Izmir, I traveled easily from the ruined theatre to the done-for gas station, from retired dean to most junior professor, from the last survivor of a 1910—20?? nuclear family to the youngest boy in a household of Siamese cats and Bud, the wise English Setter who knew every inch of my desires. Not for nothing was I driving a Renault Symbol towards Istanbul, whose name is cognate with my surname.

When I began these posting these letters, I took the nom de plume of Orestes. I was interested not in the Orestes who murdered his mother, but in the man who traveled the ancient world and must have seen astonishing sights long before Herodotus invented history. No one in the ancient literary world allows him to write about his travels, his encounters, his hotels or strange foods. He sends no postcards, writes no journal, has no blog. So I decided that I’d give the ancient traveler speech, to try to see Ephesus as the silversmiths saw it when they jeered Paul, to stand at the Zeus altar at Pergamon before it was carted off to Berlin, to look at the tall cliff at Hasenkeyf where hundreds of dwellings were being carved–this instant being carved–in the rock face by men and women who then clambered down the irregular stairways to fish in the Tigris or to greet the traders from the Silk Road who brought saffron that so improved the grilled Tigris fish, served with onions and thyme.

Such an exercise is hard, even with the onion tool. It makes your eyes tear up and burn with ignorance.

Atop the Besiktas ridge, the modern city and its most ancient days dock, like a  shuttle to a space station, without violence or recrimination. Only some people believe that you can tell a recidivist Ottoman by the shape of his moustache. Only some Americans, as they vote today, really believe that this election will set an unalterable path for the next thousand years. But they trim their moustaches anyway, and Orestes watches them from the high seat in his mountain theatre, casually chewing his onion.

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