Istanbul

Falling first like stardust, then in big wet flakes, snow transforms Istanbul into an unreal city reflected in a clouded mirror.

The rare book dealer near the Galata Tower carefully locked the wooden door of his shop and stepped outside, leaving behind on the heavy walnut shelves the musty scent of hundreds of precious tomes, most of them thick with dust, standing side by side in their silk-stitched, Moroccan leather bindings, their inside covers lined with marbled paper where color danced with water, their red and green headbands made of raw silk or cotton cord. The shop stood there modestly in the cobbled street, humbled by the grandeur of the Galata Tower that loomed above it summer and winter. It was a shop he had inherited from his father, a shop that sold books on navigation, with models of astrolabes, sailor’s knots and ships’ anchors, old compasses that no longer indicated any direction at all, yellowed atlases, and astronomical and astrological maps of the heavens. The minute he stepped outside he suddenly found himself in a snow-blue Istanbul. Although he had long been accustomed to Istanbul’s variable weather, he was still taken aback. Only this morning when he had paused briefly near the Şahkulu Mosque on his way to the shop, Istanbul had been slate grey under a rusty leaf-brown sky, but there had been absolutely no indication it was going to snow.

 

BEHIND A VEIL OF SNOW

But now snow was falling on Istanbul, snow like stardust sifting down on the Yüksekkaldırım, Kuledibi, the Galata Tower and the Mevlevi dervish lodge, on the streets of Cihangir and Galata and on the wistful Karaköy harbor down below. Swirling and heaving to and fro as far as the eye could see, giving a person a sense of vertigo, as if he would tumble into carefree abandon the minute it touched him, snow fell on his left on the Camondo Steps, on Kurşunlu Mahzen and Voyvoda Avenue below and on the Bereket Han, where traces the arch of the old Genoese Palazzo del Comune are still evident, on Kemankeş Mustafa Pasha Mosque, on the Arap Mosque and Kurşunlu Han, on the Churches of Saint George, of Saints Peter and Paul, and of Surp Grigor Lusavoriç, on the Zülfaris Synagogue, the Azapkapı Mosque and the Şehsuvar Mosque, on Bereketzade Fountain and d’Aronco’s famous Laleli Fountain, and on the bookshops large and small that sold reprints of the maps of Huber, Goad and Pervititich and offprints of Melling’s engraving, ‘Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople et de Bosphore’, on the Barnathan Apartment, a throwback to the splendor of the old days between Şahkulu Street and Galip Dede Avenue, and on the enormous building now known as the Doğan Apartments, formerly Helbig, which had once housed the Prussian Embassy on Serdar-ı Ekrem Avenue, all of them steeped in a damp, foggy grief below a veil of opalescent white snow. In the white gloom, snowflakes left their cobalt blue signature on the void behind the former Prussian Embassy building and its gothic lines. Over the slope from Galatasaray a harsh north wind whipped the naked branches of the trees, long since stripped of their leaves, blowing all the snorting, snow-laden, piano-black, pink-spiked clouds in the direction of Galata, Kuledibi and the Karaköy harbor below, last haven of weary freighters. Anxious to poke through the wind-tossed flakes, the puny rays of the fading sun wove spiderwebs of silver over the barely perceptible Golden Horn, which lay below in the snowy light like a relief of embossed silver with its rusty hulks of freighters, its timeless small boats and barges, and its riotous gulls.

 

UNEMPLOYED PAINTER AT WORK

Slowly and meticulously like an unemployed painter with all the time in the world, the snow continued to bathe Istanbul and everything in it milky white: Kasımpaşa, where smart-stepping sailors bought wallflowers and blood-red carnations in summer from dusky gypsy women; old Balat, where the strains of an ancient composition still rose from a distant piano; and the Galata and Unkapanı bridges, outlined against the sky in ash-grey pencil as if by a child playing a mouth harmonica.

He glanced across at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which loomed like a spectre in the fog of snow on the opposite shore. Suddenly a sharp, twisting wind tossed the snowflakes from on high towards its minarets, which were rumored to harbor jewels—Süleymaniye, which watched over the people from above like a hoary elder. Was it the mosque’s minarets or the ghosts of cypresses that he could just make out rising to the sky in the snowy twilight? He couldn’t be sure. Beneath the falling snow all Istanbul lurked now, like a plainclothes policeman, behind the Süleymaniye in the gunpowder grey fog. Like crystal goblets, snowflakes fell shattering into the void, their pale flashes seeming to recharge the tired lights of a long since dead wooden house at Zeyrek beyond. Falling first like stardust, then in big wet flakes, the snow transformed Istanbul into an unreal city reflected in a clouded mirror. In an indigo sky illumined with streaks of lightning, flocks of marble-white gulls mingled with the snowflakes, soaring in a wild cacophony into a phantom world. Snow was falling on Istanbul and Galata, and he trudged slowly up the hill towards Beyoğlu.

 

IT’S SNOWING IN BEYOĞLU TOO

But snow was falling here too. The century-old trees in front of Galatasaray Lycée were already covered in white. Snowflakes drifting down past the deep blue windows of the darkling grey and black buildings lent an air of ‘Istanbul aprés la guerre’ to Istiklal Avenue. Snow was falling on this broad thoroughfare, which begins just below Tünel Square, running up to Taksim Square and Elmadağ beyond, as it was on Kasımpaşa and Tophane, which he knew to exist but which were invisible now. The Bedesten, Zincirli Han, Kurşunlu Han, the buildings of the Swedish, Russian, Austrian, French and Dutch consulates, the churches, the Çiçek Pasajı (Cité de Pera), Küçük and Büyükparmakkapı streets, Sıraselviler Avenue, the Ağa Camii, the Church of Surp Agop, Talimhane, Notre Dame de Sion Lycée, Harbiye and Pangaltı—all were covered with snow. Like bursting drops of purple ink, the neon lights came on one by one, staining the grey snowflakes swirling about under a metallic Byzantine sky. No longer in the form of big wet flakes, the snow was gusting now like a cloud of spicy black pepper, falling too on the orange-painted trams with steamed up windows, that rolled wearily down Istiklal Avenue.

 

“WE WERE ALWAYS COLD”

Although he could not see it, still he knew. It was snowing now on the Bosphorus as well. Electrified in the driven snow, the bare branches of the magnolias and the Judas trees orphaned in the blizzard at Aşiyan gleamed eerily. Sparks burst in all directions from the tops of the minarets of the graceful Ortaköy Mosque, skimming the choppy waters of the Bosphorus which were shrouded now in a livid phosphorescent mist. Flake upon flake it fell, from the Hagia Sophia, its domes illuminated by lightning, down over the Galata Bridge, swaddling the entire Golden Horn in white solitude. First on this shore then on that, it was falling on Beşiktaş, Ortaköy and Kuzguncuk, on Beylerbeyi, Çengelköy, Arnavutköy and Bebek, on Kandilli and the two Hisars, and on Kanlıca, Emirgan, Istinye and Çubuklu all the way up to Büyükdere, Sarıyer and the Kavaklar. Istanbul was engulfed in a whirlpool of snow, driven like a rudderless ship towards an uncharted white wilderness. He was cold. He remembered some things he had experienced himself, and some he had read in books, about old Istanbul winters. For some reason, he recalled some lines from poet Turgut Uyar: “We were cold, always cold, being cold was all we knew / our hands, our love, our endlessly long beards, all were cold.” He walked on, into streets without addresses. Istanbul lay spread now like an unreal city under the opalescent evening sky.