“To-morrow at dawn we shall see the first minarets of Stamboul”

ConstantinopleI am reading the most delicious book written by a 19th century traveller to Constantinople. The book was printed in 1888 but the traveller is speaking to me as if he were here with me, or maybe on a train next to me. He brings alive the yearning for an exotic place and beautifully illustrates what it is that makes it exotic. Reading, savoring, this book is better than having dessert, better than a glass of wine. The author is Italian, but even translated into English his words paint such a brilliant picture of the sights and sounds and smells of this fabled city that no longer am I satisfied to visit Istanbul — I want to visit his Constantinople. Since my travels don’t include trips through time though, I’ll content myself with the 21st century Istanbul, and continue to follow Edmondo de Amici’s adventures in the Constantinople of 1878.

Here’s a taste:

Ah! reader, full of money and ennui; you, who a few years ago, when you felt a whim to visit Constantinople, replenished your purse, packed your valise, and within 24 hours quietly departed as for a short country visit uncertain up to the last moment whether you should not after all, turn your steps to Baden-Baden! If the captain had said to you, “To-morrow morning we shall see Stamboul,” you would have answered phlegmatically, “I am glad to hear it.” But you must have nursed the wish for ten years, have passed many winter evenings sadly studying the map of the East, have inflamed your imagination with the reading of a hundred books, have wandered over one half of Europe in the effort to console yourself for not being able to see the other half, have been nailed for one year to a desk with that purpose only, have made a thousand small sacrifices, and count upon count and castle upon castle and have gone through many domestic battles. You must finally have passed nine sleepless nights at sea with that immense and luminous image before your eyes, so happy as even to be conscious of a faint feeling of remorse at the thought of the dear ones left behind at home. And then you might understand what these words meant. “To-morrow at dawn we shall see the first minarets of Stamboul,” and instead of answering quietly, “I am glad to hear it,” you would have struck a formidable blow upon the parapet of the ship as I did…
…The architecture, which you had imagined to be very simple, presents instead an extraordinary variety of detail that attracts the eye one every side. Here are domes covered with lead, strangely formed roofs that rise one above the other, aerial galleries, enormous porticoes, windows with columns, arches with festoons, fluted minarets, surrounded by small terraces in open work, like lace; monumental doors and fountains covered with embroidery in stone; walls spangled with gold, and of a thousand colors; the whole chiselled, and worked in the boldest and lightest manner, and shaded by oak trees, cypresses and willows, from which comes a flock of birds that circle in slow flight around the domes, and fill with music all the recesses of those immense buildings. One is conscious of a feeling stronger and deeper than mere curiosity. Those monuments that are as it were a colossal marble affirmation of an order of sentiments and ideas diverse from those in which we have been born and grown the skeleton of a race and faith hostile to our own, which tells us in a mute language of superb lines and daring heights, the glories of a God who is not ours, and of a people before whom our ancestors trembled, inspire a respect mingled with awe that overcomes curiosity and holds it at a distance.

3 responses to ““To-morrow at dawn we shall see the first minarets of Stamboul”

  1. This somehow reminded me of the mosaic of Jesus on the dome of Chora Church in Istanbul. It’s not the peaceful Jesus we in the West know, but a stern, sober face with knitted brows looking down on us from heaven. An historian once said that he looked at the mosaic for a long time before he realized that it was not Jesus at all, but the Emperor of Constantinople. See http://e-turkey.net/v/istanbul_kariye_museum_chora_church/istanbul_kariye_museum_chora_church_00031.jpg.html

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