ISTANBUL'S EXTREMES

istanbul2.jpg

Claire Davenport discovers an inviting world of peril and pleasure ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

"God allowed the mob to commit this sacrilege knowing how great the beauty of this church would be," wrote Procopius, a Byzantine historian, after the Roman emperor Justinian built the Sancta Sophia, a cathedral designed to compensate for the massacre of rebels in what was then Constantinople. This intimate relationship between beauty and brutality still persists in Istanbul. I became all too aware of this recently, when I was 400 metres away from a suicide bombing.

Trying on a pair of shoes in Istiklal, the city's main drag, I heard a sudden and sharp bang in the distance. The shop's owner took a fleeting look outside and shrugged. "Don't worry," he said. He was eager to sell me the only pair of size-41s in the shop.

When I tried to make my way back to Taksim square—the scene of the yet unexplained incident—men angrily waved me back. I ducked into a restaurant and had some salep, an orchid-based drink. A few families were tucking into freshly made pancakes filled with goat's cheese.

Back at the hotel, two Bosnian friends who speak a bit of Turkish told me what happened. A suicide bomber had wounded 24 people on Taksim. Had I lingered on the square just 15-minutes longer that morning, I would have witnessed the destruction.

We called off our sightseeing plans, though a Turkish friend assured us that mosques and museums were never targets. He joked that the bomber was probably a teenager whose girlfriend had left him. The city swiftly rebounded, and Taksim was back in business just hours later. Turkish shoppers milled about undeterred.

The bomber was not some forlorn teen but a man connected to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group, according to Turkish police. The PKK has led a campaign of terror since the 1980s in retaliation for Turkey 's oppression of the Kurdish minority and the state's refusal to recognise the Armenian genocide. The attack was the third suicide bombing staged in Taksim in the past decade.

Later that day, in a fish restaurant on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the first news reports of the bombing seemed to draw the attention of other tourists. A Turkish man next to me raised an indignant eyebrow and went on eating his lunch. We left feeling fortified by cups of strong sweet tea. There seemed to be little harm in pursuing our original plan of an evening in the city's most popular Hammam baths. A good soak, a toe-curling massage and an attentive neck-to-toe scrubbing by a half-naked stranger does wonders to restore confidence in one's fate.

My time in Istanbul was brief. Like all short experiences in exotic parts of the world, it felt disproportionately illuminating. (As any journalist knows, it is far easier to make grand conclusions about a place after two days than after two years.) What impressed me was the city's mix of both peril and pleasure, and the casual way locals greet and understand both. There is wisdom in this approach.

Orhan Pamuk, the city's Nobel-winning native son, rarely misses an opportunity to declare that Istanbul is a ruined and defeated place. Yet the city, with its romantic "end-of-empire melancholy", is the site of his best work, and a place he returns to again and again. It boasts such a mesmerising mix of beauty and misery and fortitude. "Istanbul's fate is my fate," he once wrote.

 

Claire Davenport is a writer based in Belgium. Picture credit: realSMILEY (via Flickr)

Read more: The Economist's special report on Turkey