Real Life History Lesson
It is a bright, crisp, sublime Saturday morning in March 2004, and officially the first day of spring. Unable to resist the weather’s charms, I close my Ottoman history reading, a photocopied stack of spiral-bound papers—the Turkish version of an official college textbook—and set out on foot. Aimlessly I wander around the back stretch of Superdorm, through the Etiler neighborhood behind my apartment, and east towards South Campus before making my winding way down the narrow, deeply sloping paths leading towards the Bosphorus below. My main viewing objective is Rumeli Hisar, a castle or fortress just off the water. One thing I truly appreciate about Istanbul is the exquisite way in which ancient architecture and modern life are woven wonderfully together. I notice it most acutely in Eminonu, the Golden Horn area, but Rumeli Hisar is one example in my very own modern neighborhood. I don’t know when it was built, or why, or by whom, but I often notice the eye-catching towers as I peer out the rear window of my third story Ottoman History classroom and I’m ready for a closer look!
As I reach the bottom of the hill, Rumeli Hisar stands before me. I can easily walk right up to the walls and two of the towers. They’re absolutely enormous. The construction is fascinating as well. In general, the bricks are coarsely-hewn, but a few scattered patches of the tower have decorative designs. There are also small windows high above. I wonder if there is a way to enter and explore a bit. From behind the wall I hear voices and once catch sight of a man’s head as he peers down at me from the towering heights above. People are entering somehow, but that doesn’t mean the castle is open to the public or that I am a welcome guest. Still, I continue my foot journey around the fortified walls. When I reach the tower nearest to the university, I find a set of stairs and begin to climb. The steps are leading me around to the front of the barricade. Beneath my black walking shoes, the stairs are sturdy, but increasingly overgrown with weeds; they haven’t seen foot traffic in quite some time. I hesitate. Perhaps solo exploration of an old, deserted, out-of-the way building isn’t a great idea for a young foreign woman. I talk myself out of the adventure and reluctantly turn around and say goodbye to Rumeli Hisar. I carry more unanswered questions than when I arrived, but the reticent walls aren’t in a hurry to spill any secrets.
Heading back towards the Bosphorus Straight and the Bebek neighborhood, a sign catches my eye: Aşiyan Müzesi. A museum? Here? Hmmm. That’s odd. But it does sound interesting and is in the general direction of campus, so slowly, wearily I climb the steep hill, following arrows until I come upon an enclosed yard surrounding a beautiful old two-story white house with balconies. Apparently this is the museum. Now what? There aren’t any other visitors, as far as I can tell, in this quiet gallery well off the beaten tourist path, so crowd mimicry isn’t going to be an option here. Fortunately, the museum guide speaks some English and seeing as my Turkish skills are an atrocious embarrassment, his efforts are greatly appreciated. Properly informed of all the historical details, or otherwise, the cozy museum is a delight to visit.
The building was once home to Tevfik Fikret, a noted Turkish poet and educator. Born in the mid 1800s and known as the father of modern Turkish poetry, Fikret was also deeply involved in education; he attended an illustrious high school and was the principal there before teaching at Roberts College which eventually became Boğaziçi Üniversitesi, the college where I am currently enrolled as an exchange student. Fikret built the house on campus for his wife and son and they all lived there from around 1905 until his death in 1915.
The museum/home holds plenty of books, art work and old photos. Unfortunately, I am unable to appreciate any of the poetry, so I examine the other art. One particular painting of interest is titled “Sis” or “Fog.” It was apparently inspired by one of Fikret’s poems by the same name. The huge painting draws my eye and holds my attention, but I’m not entirely sure why. The canvas is unusually large, but plain and bare, the colors are drab and dull, and the composition, the Bosphorus (presumably) blanketed in heavy fog with a single rowboat floating in the lower left corner, is a bit boring. But still I stare, captivated, attempting to see more through the mist. My attentive tour guide interrupts my analysis. “Stand there,” he says. “Look.” Following his instruction I step back. As if by magic, faintly out of the fog, the outline of a mosque appears. “It is Hagia Sophia,” he declares proudly, before also pointing out the Galata Bridge and the Blue Mosque. It is a beautiful thing to behold, Istanbul’s striking skyline emerging out of what only moments before was lonely, blinding fog. The enigmatic depth of the painting is extraordinary. I wish I knew enough Turkish to explore the poem which inspired the artwork. I’m doubtful that an English translation exists, and even if I manage to find one, I doubt it would do the work justice.
As I leave the building, I encounter an amazing view of the Asian shore of Istanbul and my history lesson continues. The keeper of the museum points across the Bosphorus at a small palace visible directly across the straight—Anadoluhisar. He also shows me the two rivers that flow into the Bosphorus out of the Asian terrain and tells me their names, but the words evaporate easily from my mind. Neither river is very large, but one is quite obvious because it carries light brown water into the deep green-black straight. So a second mysterious castle sits not far away? I am further intrigued.
I return to my dorm, mind spiraling a thousand different directions, and I settle in once again with my history reading and a plateful of sweet Ülker crackers smeared with thick dollops of creamy peanut butter. The topic for Monday’s lecture is sultan Mehmed II, and almost immediately the pages begin to whisper the tale of Rumeli Hisar’s deliberate construction and its important place in Ottoman history.
When 19 year old Mehmed II became ruler around 1451, he was not expected to be a threat to the Byzantine Empire, but the young sultan was determined to prove his strength both to to the Byzantine Empire and also to a certain high Ottoman official named Candarli Halil. This man had been partly responsible for the overthrow of Mehmed II’s father years earlier. Mehmed II did technically become sultan immediately following his father’s rule, but since he was still a child, Halil stepped in and ruled until Mehmed II was old enough to take control. The new ruler seemed to have two topics on his mind: 1) He wanted to be seen as a serious military leader and 2) shamed by the reminder of his father’s overthrow and fearful of threats to his own rule, he secretly wanted to end Halil’s life.
Mehmed II was determined that the conquer of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) would establish his power in the eyes of his enemies. In order to accomplish this, he ordered built, drew the layout for and personally supervised the rapid construction of Rumeli Hisar on the narrowest stretch of the Bosphorus. The location was key. The new fortress was directly across from Anadoluhisar, a castle his great grandfather Bayezid had built (and the castle that the man at the museum pointed out to me earlier in the day). His plan was met with success. Occupying both castles, Mehmed II took control of the Bosphorus and effectively cut Constantinople off from supplies and aid coming from the Black Sea area. He then sieged and attached the city and took the Byzantine capital into his control. Immediately following the victory, he ordered Halil’s execution. This military plot was integral in shifting the course of history as we know it (the fall of Constantinople is widely seen to signal the end of the Byzantine empire) and the strategic position of this fortress, right here in my neighborhood, played a critical role.
What an odd coincidence that I happened to read this passage today immediately following my Rumeli Hisar excursion and brief introduction to Anadoluhisar! Sultan Mehmed II himself stood on the same ground I tread this morning and directly supervised the construction of Rumeli Hisar. It is an extraordinary feeling to place little pieces of this history into context, to touch the walls of a fortress from history’s pages and peer at another from across the Bosphorus. Souls of stories of long ago glories and horrors begin to live and breath again piggybacking upon my own inhale and exhale, because now, in a way, they are a part of me. And a part of you, too. (3/20/2004)
(Originally posted on my old blog, Interim Arts, on May 10, 2014)