When I started writing about Turkey, it was with the idea of sharing my thoughts and experiences. When I moved to Istanbul, I hope to give people an idea of what everyday life is like for an expat here. Many of my posts have made people laugh, and a few have made them think, leading a lot of people to buy one or both of my books. After reading my essays, some of them want to meet me because my words strike a cord with something in their lives. Often women, these readers are at a crossroads, and want to know whether to play it safe or dive into the deep end. As a person who doesn’t see packing up all their worldly goods and moving to the other side of the world as a risk, I’m probably not the best person to ask. Nonetheless, living in such a foreign culture has made me reflect on my own life, and really question who I am. I now know what values I hold dear and those on which I won’t compromise. Maybe, for people who don’t really know where they are in their own lives, that’s why meeting someone like me appeals.
I recently met up with one such reader in Sultanahmet. I had ‘talked’ with ‘Grubana”* a few times on Facebook, and we’d agreed to meet outside the Istanbul Sultanahmet Vakfı. Before going I checked out the vakfı website and discovered it was located in the Little Haghia Sophia neighbourhood, a few streets behind the Hippodrome. I arrived to find the foundation is actually in the Şehit Mehmed Sokullu Paşa Camii complex. Comprising a mosque and medrese (a theological school where Koran courses are now taught), this Sinan designed establishment was built at the request of Sultana Esma, the daughter of Sultan Selin II, for her husband Sokullu Mehmed, a Grand Vizier of Serbian origin.
I discovered there were two entryways, and chose to wait at the lower one. As I waited I noted the shabbiness of the street and the insalubrious nature of the air. Across from where I was standing, two unshaven men were hanging around outside a barber shop. I covertly watched them as they tried not to let on they were watching me. Further down the hill the cries of neighbourhood kids playing football reassured me I wasn’t completely alone, but as the minutes ticked by I had to wonder if my reader was going to turn up. As I pondered the surprisingly village feel of the area with its small row of local shops selling bread, meat and vegetables, I noticed the street across from me was called Özbekler Sokak (Uzbek Street in English). Given that street names in Istanbul almost always reflect the origins of the inhabitants or their trade, I have to assume it used to be home to an Uzbek population. Even though the cold was beginning to seep up from the old worn stones and into my feet, I wondered what other discoveries the rest of the day would bring.
After fifteen minutes the cold called for action so I walked back up the slope and went into a design school housed in an Ottoman building opposite the mosque, to ask if anyone there knew about another branch of the foundation.
“Maalesef”, they said, unfortunately they didn’t know, so I wandered into the small rain washed marble courtyard of the mosque to see what I could learn there. According to an inscription dating to 1571, the mosque was built on the site of a former church but there is no sign of that now. All I saw were five or six tourists, armed with long lens cameras, waiting in the bleak winter sun for prayers to end. Once inside they would marvel at the majestic architectural lines of Sinan’s design, and look for pieces of the Ka’aba interred in the minber, the ornate pulpit mainly used for Friday prayers.
Along the wall facing the entry to the mosque I noticed the condensation covered glass windows of the medrese. Peering through them I saw cushions on the ground in front of a number of rahle (low bookrests for holding the Koran) and spied a computer monitor in the distance. The young man watching it responded to my insistent tapping on the glass, quickly jumping up and coming over to see what I wanted. I soon learned that although their website listed no other location (at least as far as I could tell), there was in fact another branch at its namesake, the Sultanahmet Mosque.
If you haven’t been to the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, it’s huge, and sits in an even larger courtyard. As soon as I reached the external wall I asked about the whereabouts of the vakfı again. Even though I had already been told there was another branch here, this being Turkey, I needed to checked the information at least three times to be sure. The simit seller I spoke to said there was no vakfı (religious charitable foundation) here, but there was a dernek (an association). Did I mean this, he questioned. Turks aren’t great lateral thinkers but I am, so I said yes, hoping I was right.
I followed his directions but almost immediately became lost amongst the hundreds of tourists, in groups, pairs or alone, milling around, taking group shots, selfies and artistic photos, obscuring any chance I had of finding a sign to show where my reader was waiting. At another entry in the exterior wall, I asked a third man, a security guard this time, for more directions. He too thought there was a dernek but not a vakfı somewhere in the grounds and took off in search of it. As he scurried away to the other end of the gardens I began to despair of ever finding Grubana. However I followed in his wake, determined not to give up. Suddenly he came to an abrupt halt and told me he was going to check with a colleague before darting into a low building tucked away in a stand of trees. Within a few minutes he returned and told me yes, there was a vakfı. Apologetically he said he hadn’t know about it because he was new. I thanked him for his help before hurrying off in the direction he indicated and almost immediately found Grubana, my reader, standing in front of a startling white building with letters four feet high saying Istanbul Sultanahmet Vakfı. I’d missed it because I’d walked through the Hippodrome and not past the front of the Blue Mosque, but it surprised me that people who worked at the mosque weren’t aware of it.
Over coffee I told Grubana of the mix-up over the location of the foundation. When I told her I had discovered that the mosque I’d first been waiting at was built for a Turkish Grand Vizier of Serbian descent she surprised me by telling me she already knew. It turned out Grubana is from Belgrade, and the story of Mehmed Sokullu is well known through a novel by the Serbian author Ivo Andric. Called ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, the book is set in the city of Visegrad. There a small Serbian boy is taken from his mother as part of the levy of Christian subjects of the Sultan (devşirme). The boy’s mother, like all the mothers of these children, follows her son, weeping at the thought of his loss. They reach the river where the children are taken to the other side by ferry, leaving the grieving mothers behind. These children become Muslims and take a Turkish name. The boy, Mehmed, rises quickly up the ranks and around the age of sixty becomes the Grand Vizier. Holding this position for almost fifteen years, he played a crucial role in the expansion campaigns of three Ottoman sultans. Yet his separation from his mother still haunted him and he decided to order the building of a bridge at a point on the river where he was parted from her. Construction of the actual bridge began in 1571 and was completed in 1577. Ivo Anric’s novel won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1961, and it stands as a lasting testament to Serbian history and his literary skills. Similarly, the bridge over the River Drina, called the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, stands as a memorial to the country’s long and turbulent history.
Now, rather than remembering this as a meeting where I had to stand out in the cold due to a misunderstanding, I see it as a series of startling but pointed coincidences. First I went to Turkish Sultanahmet to meet a foreigner, and found myself in an area that was once home to Uzbeks, foreigners themselves, at a mosque built for a Serb. I then learnt the story of this mosque, built for Mehmed Sokullu, from a person of Serbian descent. These things happened for a reason, but it is up to us to work out why. Just as my writing helps me move from my past and set the course for a happier and more contented present, I think it also acts as a bridge for Grubana and others like her to overcome their fear of the new to seek out new possibilities and ways of being.
*name changed to protect privacy
You can find this essay and many others in the 2nd edition of Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.