Somerset Maugham Award
In 2013 Abi Curtis received a Somerset Maugham Award for her second poetry collection, The Glass Delusion (Salt, 2012). This is a particularly exciting award as it encourages foreign travel and the spirit of adventure. Abi wanted to go somewhere with a unique culture, and Istanbul suggested itself. It is a place where you can take a short boat-trip and move from Europe to Asia. Its skyline is jammed with mosques and minarets, banks and bars. Its history is complex and fascinating and this is evidenced in the spectacular architecture of the Hagia Sophia which holds the tensions of church and mosque in its fabulous domes. It exists on a borderline of creative tensions. Abi was seeking inspiration for her next work, her first novel.
Istanbul Diary 2014
The call the prayer comes out of the city like a sad song. Ululation as you wake in the near dark. Everyone hears the same.
I’m startled by the structures around me – high-rises with extra rooms built precariously on them, sometimes unfinished, their concrete exposed. The derelict wooden houses, picturesque but perfect tinder. Mosques on the horizon. A freighter lists in the harbour. At first, I’m unsettled by all of this; the sense that things might collapse, the chaotic feel of the traffic blaring in the street. But it begins to absorb me.
My husband and I are pushed gently by the crowd into the Grand Bazaar. A man whips past me with a tray of tea-glasses, sugar cubes and spoons, shining like a lantern. You can never be finished with a place like this. The oldest shopping mall is a labyrinth of streets, copper pans and lamps hanging in its corners.
Fig and saffron. Men crouched in the tiny alleyways – a poor man’s stock-market: exchange trading on mobile phones. The crumbling, curved walls still lavishly painted. Everyone wants us to taste their spices, feel the quality of their fabrics. We duck away, seeking the less-visited courtyards of those who still work as traditional artisans.
In a lower courtyard, we are beckoned in to see a goldsmith melting an ingot at a fiery kiln. He has a quiet dignity. A younger man urges us to take photos. They want us to watch. He cools the metal and lets us take it, smooth between our fingers.
We go to the underground cistern, dating from the 5th C AD. A watery, disappearing underground palace, dimly lit with an amber glow. Sonorously dripping. Golden lire shimmer under the knee-height water, huge fish moving slowly, also lit, as if made of gold. Our soft voices echo. The pillars recede into shadow.
Medusa is this way, her two heads, one upside-down, the other side-on, supporting huge columns. Deliberately placed askew. Perhaps to reverse or diminish her power? Bring those turned to stone back to life? A smile plays on her huge, stone lips. Her eyes are calm. She is hidden in a shadowy corner, slippery with damp. A drip hits my shoulder. Another. Like blessings. I know this place will find its way into my writing; it’s already as if it comes from a fantasy.
From there, as if we are pilgrims, we enter the Hagia Sofia: built by 537AD, a church and then a mosque. Its ‘graven’ images covered during the iconoclast age and the giant angels painted on the dome still have masks on their faces so that they become acceptable masses of feather. It is as if these masks were fitted so that the whole intricate image did not have to be destroyed. The great domes support other domes as if a cloud bank were made of stone; as if to bring the architecture of the sky inside. There is Arabic writing on huge medallions in gold on black, with a mosaic of the virgin and Christ at the dome’s golden centre: the imagery of two worlds.
Later we visit the Blue Mosque. It is lined with thousands of blue and white tiles and feels airy as the sky reflected in a cold lake. Our socked feet pad across the carpet; my husband’s too-big socks on mine. The soles of feet face us in prayer. I have been to only one mosque before Istanbul, in London’s fabulous Brick Lane. I find these places peaceful and meditative; they emit a sense of a unified community. After prayers, two children race over the floor as someone hoovers it clean again.
In the Chora Church we visit the fourteenth-century mosaics: tiny squares of light and colour producing the most intricate of images. Even the wrinkles around Jesus’s eyes are picked out in these miniscule tiles. I’m struck by the picture of The Last Judgement: the universe is depicted as a white shell, a nautilus held up by an angel, with the sun and moon inside it. It makes sense to me that the universe might be this way: folded in on itself.
Then we walked alongside the city wall through the neighbourhoods. There is great poverty here: children playing in scrap, dirty, dishevelled cats, people living in derelict, sometimes burnt out wooden houses. There is also beauty – sunlight over the city walls, a clean smell of figs and lemons in the air. We saw two Christian churches, and it felt strange to see their mournful, opulent interiors after the person-less, bright tiles of the mosques. I bought some ‘holy’ water from the fountain. It came in a tiny plastic bottle.
In the evening we went to the Galata monastery to see the monks meditating and spinning. These are genuine ‘whirling dervishes’. The whirling seems to be about coming to terms with death, hence the shroud-like garments and the tombstone shaped hats. Everything in the universe spins, so they do it too. They greet each other first, passing around in a circle and nodding to each in turn. They spin with their arms out and heads held at an angle. I wondered how they didn’t get dizzy. Whenever they stopped, they were beaded with sweat. Their white robes fanned out. And then they went again, on, as if in a dream.
Image copyright @AbiCurtisWriter
First published in The Author (2014)
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