Le Fate Turche

 
 

Le Fate Turche

Istanbul

In the late afternoon a bit of wind has picked up, but the day is still quite mild. The grey clouds move fast across the sky, darkening at intervals the intense green waters of the Bosphorus.

In front of us the Galata Bridge connects two parts of the old town of Istanbul, the southern part of the Golden Horn and the district of Beyoğlu, both facing the European side of the city. Beyond the thin strip of cement crossed daily by hundreds of people, waiting for us are the Pera district, founded by the Genoese a thousand years ago, with its characteristic underground funicular, some ancient and narrow streets now dedicated to shopping and the famous Pera Palace, the Hotel built in the late nineteenth century to accommodate travelers of the luxurious Orient Express, in which several emperors, heads of state and artists stayed, including the very same Agatha Christie, who from room 411 wrote one of her most famous and compelling novels, set precisely in the exotic train service from Paris to Istanbul.

While we set out over the bridge, we eat a local desert of which I cannot remember the name. In fact, I chose it for its amber color. It has a strong taste of honey and it is covered with chopped toasted pistachio.

Ravenous seagulls circle above us. They are big, strong and a little disturbing. The smell of fish of the restaurants reach us instead from below with the shouting voices of the waiters, and most of all their aggressive manners aiming to convince the customers of the goodness of prices and dishes.

Meanwhile a boat full of numb tourists approaches, they cling to their fluttering scarves, their hair’s ruffled. While it advances fast we can distinguish some English words lost in the air, with a strong Turkish accent, shouted through a megaphone. I rummage in the bag of grey paper in my hand. I get a fig stuffed with dried fruit. It is too good to let guilt make me desist from tasting it with pleasure. It retains all the scent of the stall in the Grand Bazaar where we bought it. It seems to be filled not just with all the smells of that market bustling with people, but also with the bright and vibrant flavour of the colours surrounding it.

Shortly before the middle of the bridge we stop, I draw my camera and aim for the strait, for the strip of water that separates Europe from Asia and runs through the whole of Istanbul, the only city in the world that belongs to two different continents. I focus the lens on a large and massive ship that slowly proceeds from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Above the gray and impenetrable containers waves a drooping flag that I do not recognize. I do not know why but that load gives me a sense of unease, as if it was directed to one of the war theaters not too far from that port, but perhaps the thrill of unease is just due to the suggestion from the too many spy novels I have recently read.

I point the lens of the camera to focus back on the land, with the banks crowded with people bustling in a thousand occupations. Through the lens my eye follows a young boy in a shirt bending forward, he is busy dragging a cart with a huge white bag, bigger and probably heavier than him. I focus on a man in a suit and tie holding out his foot to a shoeshine; not far from them a wrinkled old woman dressed in black sells seeds for the pigeons, while two veiled girls laugh sitting on a bench keeping an eye on a child running after a ball. I move the camera away again and raise my eyes to the Golden Horn to fully catch the rough-edged and round features of its dark profile. I can see the Sarayburnu promontory, featuring the beautiful Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, with its reassuring domes and pointy minarets that remind me of sharp pencils and of space rockets on the launching pad ready to take off into the sky.

For a moment I try to imagine a snowy Istanbul, covered in white, cold and dark. I can see its damp and unhealthy homes and the sixteenth century school for miniaturists who used to draw for the Sultan; I use my imagination to see the Treasure room, the jewels, the decorations, the library precious books and the Harem, a set of not so faded images of how the town’s life must have been in those days, just as described in the beautiful novels of Orhan Pamuk.

Proceeding to the other side of the Golden Horn, we pass many fishermen leaning against the bridge railing, all with the same patience expression drawn on their faces and a lit cigarette between their lips. Sitting still by the long, thin rods they wait for the day to slip away and look down expecting some fish to bite the bait deep down there in the green oil.

Above their heads instead, the tram wires in the backlight draw a tidy pentagram that, unbeknownst to all, is linked to the fishing lines and the flying seagulls, just like notes stolen from a song. Maybe up there among those imaginary lines the mysterious music of Istanbul is written, the voices and sounds that seem to come from another era and that have not yet drowned in the noise of life that eats up the days.

We are now almost at the end of the bridge when we come across a group of boys and girls that look like students on vacation. One of the girls is wearing the dark veil, she is not wearing any make-up and is chatting loudly with two other girls. The tallest one is talking on her mobile phone and is wearing tight jeans; the other one is wearing a ponytail, a mid-length skirt and heels shoes. One of the boys behind them pulls out a camera and asks us to take a picture of the whole group. Stefano agrees and moves a few steps away; they look around, they choose what looks like the best spot and pose.

While they happily smile waiting for the camera flash, I look behind their profiles and notice in the distance some tall cranes at work, tirelessly and relentlessly grabbing, moving, downloading materials, to build floors of buildings and houses. Another brand new district, just like the other luxurious and council building that we have seen growing in the suburbs of Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

I take a picture of that group of kids too, hoping to work out Istanbul and the entire country’s personality through their eyes, in particular their way of keeping the everyday balance/harmony they live in. Turkey is balancing, just like the Bosphorus Bridge linking Europe to Asia, between the past and the future, tradition and innovation, secularism and Shariah; this is a community that writes with Latin characters its Oriental sounds and has lived with emperors and sultans, pushing its army almost to the heart of Europe. This is a country with a rampant GDP, that does not recognize and sentences to jail any reference to the Armenian genocide and considers itself in eternal war with the Kurdish terrorism.

In a few days I could not understand where Turkey is going, where it will head and which side it will choose. Who knows, maybe it simply will not choose .

 

 

Underground

"Don’t think about the earthquake. You do not have to think about all that rock above your  head. Do not think about anything"- I repeat like a lullaby, while curved and bent, I move forward with narrowed eyes – “It will not happen right now, do not think about it. You have got to stay calm."

The fifteen meters of narrow small tunnel seem much longer. When I reach the other side I can finally breathe, although, once I am back in a vertical position, my head brushes against the cold wet stone.

We are about eighteen meters deep, in what our guide calls the warehouse, not far from the so-called kitchens. A little further on, the torch lights up another gorge, also dug into the soft tuff." In here used to live a family of five – he explains bored - over that tunnel, you will find many holes – effect-pause to give us the time to guess – those are the bathrooms of that time, while in the case of danger this very heavy stone with the shape of a millstone, would be moved, stopping the  enemy from entering and blocking them in that bottleneck. From up there – the guide continues to explain with a little more animation in his voice, indicating a long and narrow slit in the ceiling - the inhabitants would kill the invaders piercing them with spears or pouring boiling hot oil."

Instinctively I move from below the hole, as if at any moment a spear would appear to pierce me.

As the guide pauses on more gruesome details -obviously the highlight of his show- I observe those dark and a bit spooky caves, the twisted tunnels, carved like a giant anteater/anthill and I try to imagine the lives of thousands of people down here, for months and months, with little air, no light or space. I step in front of the slit over which that family had lived several centuries ago and I just cannot understand how they could be there. Using all of my imagination I am not able to fit them in these few square meters. To do it you might need a child’s creativity, when during the afternoons games the kitchen table becomes a roof and the space under the tablecloth is a whole house.

Slowly, a little squeezed, bowed and silent, we walk back that maze of bottlenecks, tunnels and caves, more scattered than a maze, and step by step we approach the exit.

It is amazing what man can endure just to survive. The Hittites first and then the Christians dug with patience and ingenuity the soft tuff of Cappadocia, creating huge hidden cities, able to protect thousands of people for long periods of time, to escape their persecutors, Romans, Arabs or simply marauders.

Once we conquer the surface, the outside light is blinding me, even if the day is pretty cloudy. The short time spent in the bowels is making me shiver; I am now thankful for the dry air I can breathe again and I enjoy the soft colours of the stony and barren plateau that surrounds us.

Lost in thought I walk to the bus and while I wait for my turn to get on board I take a look back. Far away, above us, in the gray sky a colorful hot air balloon is peacefully sailing. I turn my eyes to the hill that has just spewed us from its belly and I try to identify the precise point from which we came out.

I cannot find it anymore. The entrance to the underground city has completely disappeared among the rocks’ intricate work. Without knowing the exact position, it is impossible to imagine the existence of a fortress under there. And for a split second, I almost feel like I have only dreamed of it.

 

 

Göreme and the Fairy Chimneys

The typical rock formations of volcanic origin made of tuff and surmounted by a basalt cone - I read from the guidebook with interest - are referred to by the local population with "the fairy chimneys" as, according to the legend, the rocks on the summit were laid by the heavenly gods.

I look up at the giant stone mushrooms dominating us and, looking at them for the first time, I am not at all surprised that the locals attributed to imaginary entities the creation of such original and fantastic scenery.

As we move into the petrified forest, we feel small as if we do not fit in the fairy-tale moon landscape that surrounds us. It is like being in the heart of a film set, halfway between Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland. I am not sure if I expect a coloured papier-mâché Papa Smurf to come out from the sharp rocks or maybe some anorexic ET extra-terrestrial.

In reality it was the wind that, with the patience in time, eroded the soft friable tuff, at the same time attacking the basalt, more durable and compact, creating the current clear and bright pyramid-shaped base and the wide dark capello/cappello?? on top.

After a short walk and the usual photos, we travel a few kilometers and venture into the valley of Göreme. It is a sort of cave painting "hive" dating back to the Eastern Roman Empire, consisting of a collection of churches, chapels, monasteries, all carved into the rock and inhabited for centuries by monks and hermits.

On the off-white limestone walls, eroded by wind and carved by man, many oval and round blacks holes and dark crevices appear all around like thousands of suspicious eyes staring at us foreigners. Following the paths of this stone, smooth from the passage of many generations, we climb along the milky walls to look inside the shady ravines, and as soon as the eye gets used to the dim light coming from the outside, wonder and surprise hit us.

Without any warning we feel thrown into the past, into those high school history books pictures, between images of the beautiful Byzantine churches, the ones with Jesus and the saints crowned by huge golden halos and with flat but expressive faces. These humid and unhealthy caves, thanks to man’s tenacity, have become precious paintings telling through the blue, the ocher, the yellow the most important episodes of the Gospel.

Still with that unexpected triumph of colour in our eyes, we move the bus to face once again the curves that surround the valley. We calmly pass between the sharp rocks that remind me of the castles made of sand dripping from children's fingers on the shore or the melted wax of burning candles on empty bottles. Other boulders are angular and irregular instead. I notice their shape similarity with some post-modern sculptures, those that portray mythological creatures petrified in the moment of a sinister cry, with dilated and threatening mouths, wrinkles, noses, teeth, ears.

I stare with curiosity at the shapes of the rocks and I think amused that it was certainly the Fairies to shape with imagination and irreverence the rocks of Cappadocia. They were probably like our Fairies, the Janas who live in the forests of Sardinia and, just like their Turkish sisters, live in houses carved into the stone. Small, beautiful, with skin so delicate that they can come out only at night. I see them under the moonlight busy molding the landscape of this area of Anatolia, with all their grace, precision, imagination and wonder.

And my mind brings me back to the image of the beautiful hands of the girls from the villages weaving threads of wool and silk, embroidering on the beautiful carpets tales and stories lost in the memory of their ancestors.

These carpets made with love and wisdom will be used for prayers, to decorate homes, flats or mosques, or maybe just like in a fairy tale, someone will used them one day to fly away.