Thanks for the Memory

In the Western imagination, Istanbul, alias Constantinople, was once identified with decay, corruption, and imperial decline as well as with voluptuous pleasure. Flaubert longed to visit and buy himself a slave. During the nineteenth century, the city was the capital of a shrinking Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe.” After World War I, it lost its political importance and became a provincial outpost when the capital was moved to Ankara. Turks complained that very few people came to visit. In the following decades, Istanbul grew less exotic as the result of accelerated Westernization and the radical measures of the Republic of Turkey’s founder and first president, Kemal Atatürk: the banishing of the sultan, the closing of the famous harem, the introduction of Latin script, the prohibition of Islamic head coverings, the burning or deliberate demolition of many ancient wooden mansions.

After World War II the city was periodically torn by anarchy, civil strife, and brutal military coups by generals who claimed they wanted to “restore democracy.” In 1960, Adnan Menderes, an elected prime minister, and two of his ministers were put on trial and subsequently hanged on charges—later challenged—of instigating a pogrom against the city’s Greek population in 1955. The decline continued into the 1980s, a period in which there were fears of imminent economic collapse. I remember landing at Istanbul airport on a cold winter morning early in 1981, shortly before yet another brutal military coup. The terminal was unheated and unkempt. One of the great glass windows was smashed; an icy wind blew in and drove loose rubbish across the stone floor. Because of the scarcity of fuel, there were no taxis. Turkey was said to be on the verge of national bankruptcy. The headline in one of the local papers claimed that currency reserves were down to $9 million, less than the daily cost of maintaining Turkey’s scarce fuel supplies.

In the city, electricity was turned off intermittently during the day and night. That evening I met with a foreign diplomat at his home high up on a cliff overlooking the Bosphorus. From his veranda there was a magnificent panoramic view, across the straits to the Asian coast. In the west, towering over a panorama of flat roofs, Hagia Sophia and the great mosques were in full view, surrounded by pointed white minarets, slim and elegant as daggers. They were dramatically illuminated against a darkening sky. I can think of no other great city with so magnificent a setting, whether approached from the glimmering Sea of Marmara, as the armies of the Fourth Crusade did when they sacked the Byzantine city in 1204, or from the nearby Asian coast across the narrow straits, as the Turks did two centuries later. “There are places where history is inescapable, like a highway accident,” Joseph Brodsky wrote about Istanbul; its “geography provokes history.”

Dusk is often gloomy in Istanbul, especially in winter. Below us, down in the straits, thin wisps of smoke rose …

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