Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, including the Scarlet Leaf Review. Last fall his book-length travel narrative on Iran (Descendants of Cyrus: Travels Through Everyday Iran) was published by Potomac Books, a commercial branch of the University of Nebraska Press.
The Hub of Civilizations as Ghost Town: Letter from Istanbul
The nights belong to the dogs. In the back streets of a darkened Sultanahmet, tourist center of Istanbul, the stray dogs that populate the city emerge from the shadows to lounge in the glow of the streetlights. I tiptoe past a pack of six. Startled, they leap to their feet and charge me, snarling and barking, teeth bare. I lunge back—the best defense being an aggressive offense. They shrink away but continue yapping—more bark than bite, this time. It’s a routine I’ve grown used to. “They’re usually never a problem,” a shopkeeper tells me. “Now they’re edgy. They know something has happened but don’t know what.” “They’re frightened,” says another. “Normally they never move around in such large groups. Maybe two or three, not these packs. They’re sticking together. It’s a defensive instinct.” All well and good, but they turn a nighttime stroll into a venture into the wild. But then, these are not normal times. In normal times the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet would be filled with tourists from Europe and North America, China, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East, packed and stacked into the neighborhoods’ boutique hotels, and filling the restaurants and bars after days spent ogling the sights of a city often called the hub of civilizations. But these are not normal times. A global pandemic has closed Istanbul’s airports. The hotels in Sultanahmet have shed their remaining guests. The last of the stragglers have boarded flights home. Museums and restaurants have closed. The Blue Mosque, still radiantly lit at night, accepts no visitors. The city’s stray dogs cower and snarl in its shadows. * Istanbul, or Constantinople, as it was long known, has seen its share of plagues and pandemics. The first recorded plague in human history was the Plague of Justinian, which devastated the city from 541-549 A.D. It killed a fifth of the population, though some claim the actual figure was twice that. Justinian himself fell victim to the disease in 542 but survived. Others were not so lucky. Cemeteries filled quickly and soon there was nowhere to bury the dead. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, corpses were left exposed to the open air. The stench of death filled the streets. Justinian and the Byzantines had grown used to fending off military forays, but this time they were caught unawares. The emperor had already spent heavily battling the Italian Ostrogoths to the west and the Vandals in Carthage to the south. A church-building spree, which included the massive Hagia Sophia, had also set him and his empire back. As the plague spread farmers were unable to tend their fields and ports closed, shutting off revenue for the once burgeoning empire. Research released in 2013 confirmed what had long been expected, that the cause of the plague was mice arriving at the port of Pelisium in 540 A.D. carrying the bacterium Yestisinia pestis. Eight centuries later the same bacterium would produce the Black Death and kill a third of the population of Europe, and it too was carried by rats arriving on ships. In the sixth century, Constantinople wasn’t the only victim. The plague spread through the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and would recur in successive waves for the next 200 years, racking up a death toll of 100 million by the time it ran its course. * Now there is no stench of death on Istanbul’s streets, only the stink from the garbage that is picked up less frequently from the city’s rubbish bins. And there is little to hide it. The aromas from the street food that usually fill the air have been blown out to sea. Gone are the vendors who man the bright red, model tram cars that serve up bags roasted chestnuts and fresh ears of corn (boiled or grilled, either sprinkled with a heavy dash of sea salt). Vanished also are the sellers of simits—sweet, chewy bread circles browned to form a crispy crust and encased in sesame seeds (add a slab of soft cheese for a creamy aftertaste). Along the Eminonu ferry dock the charcoal grills that cook up fish sandwiches (balik ekmek), doused with lemon juice, are cold. Beside the Rustem Pasha Mosque, the carpet of pigeons that feeds off the seeds tossed by passersby (1 bag, 3 lira) have flown the coop. Hankering for fresh-squeezed juice? Orange or pomegranate? Grapefruit or apple? Lemon or lime? Go thirsty or settle for store bought. On Istanbul’s streets there is satisfaction only for the sweet tooth. The windows of the xxxxxxx’s glow with trays of honey-soaked baklava (thin layers of filo dough stuffed with pistachios), sutlac (rice pudding), kaitifi (dry fruit and walnuts baked in a wrapping of finely shredded pastry), and revani (semolina cake sprinkled with shredded coconut). When the first wave of restrictions rolled through the city its sweet shops were spared, deemed “essential services” by government authorities. In Turkey hardships have limits, and no matter how troubled the times traditional sweets are off limits. * The second major plague to strike Istanbul arrived in 1812, under the rule of the unlucky Ottomans. At first there was little to fear, but it moved quickly. It appeared in July, and within two months the death toll in the city had reached 2,000 a day. By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire had achieved great reach, but with expansive territory came great opportunity for widespread dissemination of disease. The plague also struck Alexandria, on the other side of the Mediterranean. The Balkan peninsula, then under Ottoman rule, wasn’t spared, nor its territories beyond. The tally of the dead in Bucharest, Romania, topped 25,000. To the east, outbreaks struck Georgia and the Crimean Peninsula. For much of the winter of 1812-13 the Ukrainian city of Odessa was in lockdown. Return to normal came one slow step at a time. By spring churches, theaters, and businesses reopened, but travel restrictions walled the city off from visitors and kept the residents within its bounds. By the time the epidemic was finished, Istanbul counted 300,000 deaths. It could have been worse. In the 1,200 years since the Plague of Justinian knowledge of the cause of epidemics and how to control them had made significant progress. Gone was the notion that plagues were the result of human immorality or harbingers of Judgment Day, which had been supported by biblical texts. By 1600 a theory began to take shape that unhealthy air spawned epidemics, and that disease could be passed from person to person. The remedy was to flee the stench-filled cities for the fresh air of the countryside—an option usually only available to the aristocratic class. For the working poor, herbal potions, prayer, and good-luck charms were the only means of protection. * 9:00 P.M., Friday, April 10: The Turkish Ministry of the Interior announces a national lockdown that will run through the weekend. Ferries will be docked. Busses and trams will not run. The Istanbul and Ankara metros will be shut. Not only Ankara and Istanbul are hit with the closure but 30 other municipalities. Permission for “essential travel” can only be obtained from local police. 10:00 P.M.: Supermarkets, neighborhood markets, and corner kiosks are abuzz. Shoppers with carts and reusable bags fill up on bottled water, snatch fruit and vegetables from plastic bins, grab rolls of toilet paper and olive oil from depleted shelves. Stocks of milk and cheese vanish. At the checkout lines customers stand 10 deep. Closing times arrives but doors do not close. An hour later the last customer slips out, dragging a carry-on bag brimming with essentials. The message from the government has been unambiguous: the enemy is at the gates; it is time to hunker down. 12:00 P.M., Saturday, April 11: A bright spring sun hangs high in the sky, casting light and a heavy dose of seasonal warmth into the back streets of Sultanahmet. But light is all that fills them. They are eerily stark and quiet. And yet, despite the lockdown, all is not completely still. Spring buds have appeared on the trees in the Hippodrome. Two pigeons flutter around the base of the Egyptian obelisk. Tulips are sprouting in the flower beds. The slightest breeze ruffles the young leaves. A choice awaits: to remain inside for days or take on the silence and stillness (and risk of a police fine) for an afternoon stroll. The fine is 3,000-lira, or $500, for breaking the lockdown, the same not wearing a medical mask. The decision is swift. Lockdown pleads nolo contendere. I head out. At Sultanahmet station the security booth is unmanned. A metal barrier has been drawn over the ticket vending machines. Two passengers, unaware of the lockdown, wait for a tram. To the east the tracks bend to the left and angle down toward Gulhane Park. To the west they aim like an arrow at the city walls. East or west, it is a line to nowhere. East or west? This time, a tossup. I head west, walking the tracks, the tram line now the city’s longest pedestrian walkway. An empty bus passes, garage bound. A little way ahead lies the Bayezid Mosque, Istanbul University, and the Grand Bazaar. In the broad plaza before the university gate a flock of pigeons pecks at kernels of corn tossed by an old man from a tattered paper bag. Along the wall of the university the bottoms of plastic containers have been laid out, sliced from their tops and sprinkled with dry cat food. For the last month the city’s stray cats have been incognito, incommunicado, almost invisible. The dogs have commanded the streets, just as the seagulls reclaimed the rooftops of houses and hotels once the normal rhythms of life slowed. The cats and their kittens have remained hidden, snuck away in the cracks and crannies between trash dumpsters and the rotten wooden doors of tumbled-down apartment buildings, sneaking out only to nibble at the leftovers left for them. But with the residents abandoning the streets and the dogs napping in the sun, finally the cats appear. A police car cruises along the tram line. The officer at the wheel spots me, nods, raises his hand in a languid wave. I nod, wave back. The old man neither looks up nor waves, continues scattering his corn. The spiraling network of lanes around the Grand Bazaar is a model of the current economy. There are no sellers to sell, no buyers to buy. Grim-faced mannequins stare out on the barren thoroughfares through smudgy windows. Old newspapers and paper cups are stirred by the slight breeze. The resident cats skitter in and out, seeking discarded nibbles. One gnaws at a chicken bone. * The story of the Grand Bazaar is a tally of numbers: 250,000 to 400,000—the number of shoppers and curiosity seekers who wander its streets each day. 26,000—the number of stall owners, clerks, cleaners, and gofers who ply their trade in the Grand Bazaar. 4,000—the number of market stalls that line its streets. 61—the number of streets that appear, officially designated, on the Istanbul city plan. And keeping with tradition, their names identify the trade carried out on each. There is Kalpakçılar Caddesi (Jeweler’s Street), Divrikli Caddesi (Furniture Street), Sahaflar Caddesi (Carpet Street), Perdahçılar Caddesi (Leather Goods Street), and others, their names equally uncomplicated, equally descriptive. It all adds up to a draw of 100 million visitors a year, making the Grand Bazaar the most heavily visited tourist destination in the world, the Taj Mahal and Paris’s Eiffel Tower also rans. The Grand Bazaar began as the Celebi Bedestan, or Bedestan of Gems, erected by Sultan Mehmet II two years after his Ottoman army seized Constantinople, in 1453. Textiles and jewels were the stock-in-trade, but later slaves were added, a practice borrowed from the Byzantines. As the empire expanded so did the bazaar. By the 17th century it had become a primary transit point for goods throughout the Mediterranean. Spices, silk, and precious gems passed through on their way to European markets. Glassware and metalwork traveled eastward. Despite the volume of consumer traffic, the “hard sell” was profoundly in apropos in the bazaar’s mercantile culture. In keeping with the tradition of the times the costliest goods were kept out of view, all with the aim of tantalizing the prospective customer, who relaxed with the merchant on a comfortable sofa, sipping tea or coffee, as they bargained. Almost inevitably, the Grand Bazaar would suffer from its own success. As the Ottoman Empire spread into southeastern Europe it cultivated a European-oriented class that favored Western goods. Eventually, the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian merchants who handled the trendier trade closed their stalls and opened high-end shops in the Pera and Galata neighborhoods of Beyoglu, making it the Fifth Avenue of European Istanbul. * The stillness at the Bayezid tram stop says all. The sky overhead is empty of clouds. The broad square beside the station has no traders or shoppers. No passengers are waiting for trams that are not running. Istanbul is city of silence. I poke a little deeper. At the south end of the bazaar, the Skullcap Seller’s Gate is closed. On the bazaar’s east side the Jeweler’s is also shut. At the north end, the Sahalfar Kapisi has followed suit. But there is a small gap in the thick wooden entry, wide enough to permit a peak inside. Dim shafts of light descend from the glazed windows that provide illumination from high overhead, a centuries-old habit. Now they brighten only the gloom of shuttered stalls and empty streets, and the few pigeons that have built nests in the crevices of the archways. Think of the Grand Bazaar as a city within the city and the neighborhood to the north is one of its suburbs. The twisting, undulating streets hold more of the city’s commercial vibe, too much for the even Grand Bazaar to contain. And the pattern of the bazaar has also spilled beyond the bazaar. There is a street for men’s suits and another for women’s dresses, another for underwear (both genders) and nightwear (women only). At the corner begins the shoe district and then one, separately, for socks. Further along, sportswear logos appear— Nike, Adidas, and Puma, Mizuno, and Reebok. Istanbul’s mercantile life is as neatly organized as a filing cabinet. But it is also a victim of the virus. There is no dealing to be done, no goods to buy, and no one to sell them. A giant headshot of Marilyn Monroe—smile gleaming, eyes flashing—looks down on an avenue filled only with late afternoon sunlight. I wind and twist and backtrack and again run up against the wall of Istanbul University. I follow it further north until it meets the iron fence surrounding the Mosque of Suleiman, Suleiman I, or, as he is known in the West, Suleiman the Magnificent. Many a historian would cite Suleiman as the Ottoman Empire’s greatest ruler. His reign lasted 46 years, from 1520-66, and under his watch the empire achieved it greatest reach, stretching from North Africa to the Caspian Sea and north through the Balkan peninsula as far as Hungary. Suleiman reformed the Turkish legal code, combining traditional Islamic Sharia Law with secular principles, and ushered in a golden age of Ottoman achievements in art and architecture, enriching it with contributions from the Arab world, Persia, southeastern Europe, and other parts of the empire under his domain. Schools, libraries, hospitals, and social services sprang up in mosque complexes, introducing an aura of modernism to Ottoman life. He became a noteworthy poet himself, writing in both Turkish and Farsi. The site of Suleiman’s mosque, perched atop the highest hill of European Istanbul, was chosen to reflect his status, though more than a touch of self-aggrandizement may have been at play. After the Hagia Sophia was completed the Byzantine emperor Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” referring to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Not to be outdone, Suleiman saw himself as a second Solomon and ordered his mosque to echo the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of Solomon’s Temple. Even on a lockdown weekend the peaceful grounds of the mosque and the enormous dome rising overhead is a reminder of better times to come. On its east side a terrace offers a sweeping view of the Golden Horn, Beyoglu, and Asian Uskudar beyond. But now the late afternoon shade has crept in and brought with it a late afternoon chill. I return to the west side of the mosque to sit on a bench in the sun. The souvenir shops and cheap restaurants that line the street are closed, like everything else in the city. Three men play backgammon at a dusty table, left outside in hope that the slowdown will be short and customers will soon return. The rattle of the dice and clack of the tiles breaks the silence. Two cats appear, peck at the food left in a plastic tray placed along the wall. A breeze wafts up the hill, stirring the branches and sending the leaves overhead aflutter. 4:58 P.M.: the call to prayer blares from Suleiman’s loudspeakers. There are echoes across the Golden Horn, in Beyoglu, Eminonu, all the way back to Sultanahmet. Mosques all over the city join in, but in a few minutes all is quiet again. The backgammon game continues. * Almost 20,000 miles of roadway crisscross the Turkish countryside, from Izmir on the Aegean coast to Trabzon on the Black Sea, the Mediterranean port of Antalya to Diyarbakir, an hour drive from the Syrian border. Almost 8.000 miles of rail tracks knit their way through the road system. Both are now empty and quiet. A decree from the government in Ankara has banned travel between 31 of Turkey’s metropolitan regions. At the expansive Otogar and the Yenikapi depot hundreds of busses stand immobile and silent, like row after row of sleeping elephants. The ferries that cross the Sea of Marmara are moored in their docks. A week ago there were dozens a day. Now there are none. * Turkey may have pushed the pause button, but Istanbul is still in motion, creeping but in motion. The busses, trams, and metro trains run, even if they carry few passengers. I head to Sultanahmet station to catch the M1 to Beyoglu. The station guard draws his hand across the lower half of his face, a signal to don the medical mask stuffed in my jacket pocket. There are four people on the platform. On a normal day there would be dozens. Two minutes later the tram arrives. The driver, sealed in an airtight compartment, also wears a mask—a public, rolling role model for waiting passengers the entire length of his route. The doors open. The five passengers step aboard. On the floor of the car large yellow circles printed with the words “Stand Here” are spaced five feet apart. Paper sheeting covers every other seat. “Maintain Social Distance” it warns in flaming red on white. Normally the video screen mounted on the ceiling would display ads for dental clinics and real estate agents, but now it is all virus, all the time. A pretty woman in a white medical coat demonstrates proper handwashing, how to discreetly refuse a handshake, and the safe way to dispose of used medical masks. The audience is light—a young woman with pink hair tapping on her smartphone, an African immigrant staring out the window. At Eminonu I descend the stairs leading to the pedestrian subway that connects to the ferry docks. Every day, rain or shine, the subway is chock-a-block with vendor’s stalls peddling leather goods and handbags, sunglasses, T-shirts, and sports apparel. Every item is a knockoff, a cheaply made imitation bearing a faint resemblance to the original handbag, sunglasses, and T-shirts. Within a week the Nike, Puma, and Adidas insignias flake off the gym bags and athletic gear. Today the metal security shields that guard the stalls are drawn and locked. Only one stall is open, selling baby clothes. On the Eminonu esplanade the central snack stand is in open but the grill that cooks up seabream and seabass filets for the fish sandwiches it sells by the bucketful is cold. The kiosk for the Bosporus ferry hawks views of the city’s landmarks (Maiden Tower! Dolmabahçe Palace! Rumeli Fortress!) but no ferries are running. I had set my sights of cruising north to the end of the run and village of Anadolu Kavagi, where the ruins of Yoros Castle, used by the Byzantines to guard the critical waterway, still command a sweeping view of the Black Sea. But an obstacle has appeared more formidable than the walls of Theodosius. Those could be breached. Now the invisible is insurmountable. * Lygos, Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople, Istanbul—the city has worn many monikers in its 3,000-year history. To the Thracian tribes who built the first the first settlement in the seventh century B.C. it was known as Lygos. At the end of the third century it was conquered by the Romans and became Byzantium after. In 324 a mystical dream persuaded Emperor Constantine to uproot the seat of the Roman Empire and move it eastward. For a few years Byzantium bore the nickname New Rome. In 330 the new capital was granted official status and formally renamed, and at its peak Constantinople was the largest city in the Western world, with a population of half a million. It was not to last. Gradually, over the centuries the empire withered to the region of the capital and a few nearby islands. By the 15th century, Constantinople had been reduced to a hodgepodge of villages scattered between orchards and open fields. In 1453 it finally fell to the Ottoman, and yet, conquered or not, Istanbul officially remained Constantinople for almost 500 years because no law or decree designating a formal name change was ever introduced. In 1928 the modernizing reforms of Mustafa Kamel Ataturk replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin. A year later a postal law decreed that “Constantinople” had finally, at last, become Istanbul. Later that year The New York Timesinformed postal patrons that mail addressed to "Constantinople" would be returned, undeliverable. It took almost five centuries, but in the end Constantinople had finally fallen. * There is another way to each Anadolu Kavagi, I find out—by bus through the villages of the Beykoz region between the city and the shores of the Black Sea. On another day, leaden clouds hanging heavy in the sky, I strike out. I swipe my transport card on boarding. The driver is shielded by a wall of plexiglass, his face mask dangling from one ear. There are three other passengers, spaced suitably apart. To ensure it is the correct route I spout, “Anadolu Kavagi?” in poorly accented Turkish. His eyes brighten and he nods assuredly, grateful for interaction despite the plexiglass. The ride is swift. The bus careens along the two-lane road, zipping past empty stops, hitting the brakes only when the light above the windshield—“Duxxxx”—flashes red. We drop off one passenger, add another, add two, leave one. It continues. With half a dozen onboard the bus is crowded. A few raindrops fall, splattering on the windshield. For a few minutes the wipers slap-slap back and forth. The rain stops. We glide through the tiny towns unimpeded. Traffic in the city center is sometimes touch and go, but generally light. Traffic in the outback is almost nonexistent. After an hour plus we pull into the center of Anadolu Kavagi. I know we have arrived because the driver has turned to me, sitting two rows back, nodded, and pointed to the door. I nod in gratitude. He nods again. Along the waterfront the fish restaurants that normally would be humming, rain or shine, are closed. Thick plastic sheeting guards the tables and chairs stacked along the walls from the any rain and battering wind. But they have not been removed entirely—a faint but fading sign of hope that the normalcy that once enlivened the water’s edge and put lira into the pockets of the up-against-it locals is just one more weekend away, maybe two. If I’d been looking forward to a hearty waterfront lunch I’d be disappointed, but I wasn’t. I was looking forward to a hearty hike to the site of Yoros Castle, one of the few historic sights in greater Istanbul not to be placed under lockdown. The road is easy to find because it is the only street that angles steeply uphill from the center of town. A handwritten signboard also points the way. I huff and puff up the zigzag road, passing houses with Bosporus views that only sweep in increasing arcs as the road rises. Halfway up lies a restaurant tucked against the side of the hill. It has a picture-postcard view from an empty terrace, now an empty plain of decorated tilework awaiting the return of waiters’ feet and arriving and departing guests. I climb further. The road smooths out. The ruins of Yoros Castle appear, along with the apron of greenery surrounding it. The site is vacant but shows signs of previous visitors—a cold campfire and the shards of broken beer bottles left by a youth party held long before the pandemic drove all of the city into semi-lockdown, or since. Either are possible, or both. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter, especially on a chilly, cloud-filled spring afternoon, is the view from the castle ruins. To the west is the mouth of Bosporus and the town of Sariyer across the strait. To the north lies the Black Sea, steely blue and flatly smooth and ending somewhere far beyond the horizon. A single tanker has left the strait and entered the open water of the sea, aiming for the port of Varna, Odessa, or Sebastopol. The climb has been far more than a long-sought stretch of the legs. It has been a climb to the lip of the world, like scrambling from the bottom of a teacup up to its rim and finally being able to peer beyond it to see that the world beyond has not shrunk in the least, even if our own horizon has. * In January 2016 a suicide bomber blew himself up at the north end of Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the long public square that in Roman times was the site of the stadium that hosted athletic contests. The bomber was Nabil Fadli, an ethnic Turkman born in Saudi Arabia but living in northern Syria, where he fell in with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As the story goes, Fadli casually walked up to a group gathered at the north end of the square and detonated the explosives hidden under his jacket. He killed 14 tourists, mostly Germans, and severely injured 13 others. Almost exactly one year earlier another suicide bomber had struck Sultanahmet Square. This attack was unique in that the bomber was a woman, Diana Ramazanova, from the Russian province of Dagestan. Ramazanova killed only herself and a policeman, but at the time she was several months pregnant. After the 2016 bombing, security in Istanbul’s tourist hub tightened. An office of the tourism police already stood close to the tram line, but this was meant to handle petty crimes—, thefts, purse-snatchings, and the odd assault. A paramilitary SWAT team was added. Now the policeman-soldiers stand watch round the clock, donned in flak jackets and carrying guns made to spray bullets like raindrops. An armored vehicle is parked nearby. Sometimes women are part of the force. Some wear Islamic hijabs. Most don’t. These days suicide bombers don’t rate that high on the SWAT team’s list of threats because there are no tourists to blow up and no tourist industry to destroy. The virus has taken care of that. And in a dark irony, the pandemic has also destroyed the suicide bombing industry. Yet the guardians of Sultanahmet Square remain, their mission unclear. This time there are no fidgety gestures to be on the lookout for, no shifty-looking loners carrying a backpack to watch. This time the enemy is invisible. * At the Hippodrome, one is allowed to pass through but not linger. Bands of thick packing tape are stretched across benches that couldn’t be removed, as in other parks in the city. These have been bolted to the cobblestones. The snack stand is open but has no customers. The café near the entrance to the Blue Mosque is also open because it has no indoor seating, because it has no indoors. All of its tables are outside, along with the counter where orders are picked up and checks paid. It has one customer, sipping coffee. Beside the café, a souvenir shop stands as a beacon of hope for tourist-hungry vendors. It is the only souvenir shop open and the reason is clear—it also has no interior. Postcards and ceramic ware, silk scarves and jewelry dangle from display racks that have been pushed front and center, to catch the eye of the rare passer-by. The scarves waft woefully in the spring breeze. I walk up to the metal barricade that has been strung around the Hippodrome. The guard raises not his pistol but an electronic temperature taker, points it at my forehead, checks the reading. He nods and waves me through. My belt pack goes with me, uninspected. A fever trikes greater fear than any weapon I might be carrying. I hop on the tram and head west, toward the onetime boundary of Byzantine Istanbul. The stations, and the city’s history, slide by. The stations and their landmarks are announced in Turkish and English on the tram’s PA system—Çembelitaş (Column of Constantine—or what remains of a column erected to memorialize the conquest in 330), Bayezid (Grand Bazaar), Laeli (Laeli Mosque and branch of the archeological museum), Aksaray (connections to the underground metro). Aksaray is the unofficial boundary of tourist-centric Istanbul. Beyond it the string of stations continues—Yusuf Paşa, Haeski, and Findikzade, Çapa Şehremini and Pazartekke—but English is dropped from the station calls and there are no tourist sites to announce. The cars are filled with the expected sampling of urban commuters—secretaries and shoppers, store clerks and office workers—those who still have jobs to attend and necessary errands to run. Every other seat is blocked with a social distance warning—“Sosyal Mesafe!”—forcing passengers to crowd the aisles. After Pazartekke the tram line cuts through the once unimpregnable city wall and enters what was once hinterland, now another urban ring beyond the city center. The train eases into Topkapi Station. I get off. * Istanbul’s city wall begins at the Sea of Marmara and aims north for a mile or so before forming a gentle arc that angles northeast. It is a colossal fortress of brick and stone that rises and falls with the city’s rolling landscape. Along the way nine imposing gates have provided entry and exit from the city for more than a thousand years, even as it expanded far beyond the wall. After a course of three and a half miles the wall finally ends, stopped by the Haliç, the Turkish name for the Golden Horn. Constantinople’s first line of defense was built by the emperor Constantine in 324. It was such a great undertaking that it took the next Byzantine ruler, Constantinus II, to finish it. Like so many public works projects, eventually it had to be overhauled, as the growth of the city rendered Constantine’s original wall obsolete. In the first half of the fifth century Emperor Theodosius II, aware of the threat posed by Atilla the Hun, hunkered down on the Balkan Peninsula, realized he had to improve on the wall. The result, achieved in 413, was what the Cambridge Ancient History has called “perhaps the most successful and influential city walls every built—they allowed the city and its emperors to survive and thrive for more than a millennium . . . on the edge of an extremely unstable and dangerous world.” They were not to last. Improvements in siege cannons made the massive stone walls that had protected medieval cities and religious centers for centuries obsolete. The 21-year-old Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, up to par with the latest technological advances, like any ambitious 20-something, knew this all too well. By the middle of the 15th century the Byzantine Empire was an empire only in name. It had withered to the boundaries of Constantinople and a few nearby islands as the Ottomans inched toward the capital, gobbling up Byzantine land along the way. From his stronghold in Edirne, near the borders of Greece and Hungary, Mehmet II made his way to Constantinople, bearing 70 siege cannons to blast away at the walls that Theodosius had built. His showpiece was a gun nine yards long, designed and built by Orban, a Hungarian mercenary who first had tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, and when snubbed turned to the Ottomans. It took a train of 60 oxen and 400 men to lug it to the walls of the city. * Just beyond the city walls, near Topkapi Station, lie two cemeteries that date back to a time when the dead were habitually buried outside the city. The purpose: to protect the residents from the corruption of decomposing bodies. Islamic tradition states that the dead should be laid in the ground with 24 hours of death, or before sunset of the following day. Embalming or any preservation of the body is forbidden. Jewish tradition is the same. In the Christian world the dead need not be buried with such haste, but the practice of placing cemeteries outside a city proper was also followed in Christian Europe. For European Christians this separated the afterlife from the world of living, and at a significant distance apart, a not insignificant distinction at a time when everyday life was commonly visited with death. But now it is spring, the time of year when life returns to a long dormant Earth. In Istanbul the death rate has yet to reach the levels it would climb to later in the year, meaning the arrival of spring can is still a time to renew the spirit of life. On the outward side of the walls a parkland traces the same path from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. Along the way the walls still loom, strong and imposing, but beside them, the entire length of the way, young leaves have appeared in the trees. Fresh grass has sprouted. The breeze from the sea carries less chill. In the cemeteries the dead rest peacefully. A cyclist pedals along the concrete path that cuts through the park. A jogger follows behind. A young couple sit on the grass sipping soft drinks. There are no such scenes within the walls because the few parks in the city are sealed with yellow police tape, making the trip more than a make-believe journey. It is a rewinding of time. There are no armies, Muslim or Christian, with siege cannons at the gates. For the moment, as long the cyclists are pedaling and dog walkers walking it is also possible to imagine there is no danger within the walls, or without. It is springtime and the city is alive, if dormant, and the sun is shining. * Attacks, invasions, and sieges have been written into Istanbul’s history, in between periods of prosperity and expansion by two empires, first the Byzantine and then the Ottoman. But it is the attacks and sieges that have been inscribed more boldly on the historical record. In 1204 Constantinople was invaded and ultimately sacked, not by the Ottomans but the combined forces of the Venetians and the Crusaders, seated in Rome and vanguards of the Western Church. The year before Angelios, a Crusader sympathizer, had been crowned emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The city was divided between Orthodox and Roman supporters, and for anyone seeking to unite the Christian population, Angelios wasn’t given much time. The next year he was deposed and thrown into prison, where he was strangled to death. In March 1204 the Crusader and Venetian forces agreed to combine their forces and seize Constantinople, or at least try, with the spoils of the empire to be divided between them. They gathered in the Galata region on the opposite side of the Golden Horn and from there launched a naval attack. The Crusaders managed to break through the walls but were repelled by a Byzantine army that had been lying in wait. They laid a wall of fire to stave off the Byzantines but only managed to burn down large sections of the city. The siege lasted a little more than a month. By the middle of April the Crusaders had breached the walls and were running wild through Constantinople, sacking the churches, monasteries, and convents of artworks, gold that had been embedded in the marble altars, and whatever else they could get their hands on. Two bronze horses that stood in the Hippodrome were ripped from the ground. Statues from the Greek and Roman eras were stolen or smashed to pieces. The Venetians mainly had their eye on relics of the saints and went after them after all other valuables had been looted. The Crusaders managed to seize Constantinople, but their hold was not to last. The Byzantines retreated to several satellite centers of power, one in today’s Iznik, and took the city back in 1261. But the empire had been fatally crippled. Almost two hundred years later, in 1453, again in spring, the Ottomans would appear and stage a siege that would last for 53 days and reach new heights of barbarity. Christian soldiers who had leaped off sinking ships in the Golden Horn were taken prisoner and impaled on stakes in full view of the Byzantine forces manned on the city walls. The Byzantines retaliated by dragging their own prisoners to the walls and executing them, one by one, in full view of the Ottomans. Finally, on May 29 the Ottomans broke through the Theodosian Walls, aided by the power of their siege cannons, and then it was their turn to run amok. Thousands of the city’s residents filled the Hagia Sophia, seeking protection from divine forces. In time, the Ottoman army managed to wrest open the doors. Both men and women were raped. The elderly and handicapped were quickly dispatched. The survivors were enslaved or driven out of the city. According to the Venetian diplomat, explorer, and travel writer Giasofat Barboro, the flow of blood “resembled rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm. . . . All through the day the Turks made great slaughter of the Christians through the city.” * “Without money,” she says. She is the clerk in the pharmacy near the Sultanahmet tram station. My supply of medical masks has run out, so I’ve stopped in to pick up some more. Large red circles on the floor delineate standing distance. The checkout counter is shielded by plexiglass. “How many?” she asks. “Three.” “They come as ten.” This is the first time I’ve had to restock, though means of defense are ever present. “We have maske,” reads a sign in a nearby minimarket. At produce stands disposable plastic gloves are free for the taking. She reaches under the counter and hands me two. “Without money,” she says, translating directly from Turkish. The virus’ spread has produced an unexpected side effect. All over the city mini-acts of kindness have become infectious. At the tram stop the day before a red screen appeared when I swiped my transit card on the turnstile scanner. “You have reached your limit. Please recharge,” the display read. A young man behind me tapped his card twice and waved me through. A few days later I’m riding the 99 bus up the Golden Horn. Near the church of the Greek patriarchate a man boards, digs in his wallet for his transit card. He digs some more. He continues digging. The bus has pulled away from the curb and is back on the road. A young woman sitting three rows back rises, taps the scanner with her own. The man nods perfunctory gratitude. At the bus plaza at Eminonu I ask one of the drivers for the number of the route to Eyup, again up the Golden Horn, a district whose pride of place is an historic mosque complex. English is not his lingua franca. He holds up nine fingers, two times. I gesture—where? He points to a bus island on the other side of the plaza. I point in the same direction. He nods with conviction, again holds up nine fingers, twice. All over the city of 15 million, or 17, depending on the count, crowds have thinned. Stores have shut. Mosques are open but see few visitors. The fishermen who used to drop their lines from the Galata Bridge from sunrise till the late hours of the night are not to be seen. Still, five times a day the muezzins come to the neighborhood mosques for the ritual call to prayer. Few heed it. And yet, there have been unmistakable side effects of the virus’s spread—miniscule gestures of thoughtfulness, greater demonstrations of patience, random acts of generosity. Lines at ATM machines stretch the length of sidewalks as customers maintain appropriate distance. There are no grumblings of irritation, no fidgets of impatience. Inside supermarkets there is no jostling at the checkouts. Express passage is granted for those with the fewest items. Often the last go first and the first are content to be last. “Paket?” the clerk asks, and holds up a plastic bag, magnifying the gesture. She recognizes that I’m not Turkish and knows that I don’t speak Turkish, because I stop in regularly and each time fumble a little incomprehensibly. But “paket,” she knows, is perfectly comprehensible. Despite the unexpected courtesies, the generous expressions of give-and-take, the itch for movement resists scratching. One afternoon I strike out for Ortakoy, a 20-minute bus ride up the Bosporus and site of a waterfront mosque done out in European baroque though fused with Ottoman touches. At the tram stop a young man stands at the turnstile, eyes me as I draw near. I’m about to scan my transit card when he shows me his own, scans it. The red reject screen appears. He mumbles in Turkish, scans his card again. Again the red screen appears. The meaning is clear. I scan mine twice, allow him through. At Kabataş I catch the 35 bus north. Spring sunlight slices through the windows, dances off the waters of the strait. A freighter loaded with shipping containers churns toward the Black Sea. Others head south, toward the Sea of Marmara, where more are anchored facing northeast, into the prevailing wind, a holding pattern that keeps them from wavering. To the idle city the sturdy freighters signal resolution and stability. The 35 bus pulls up to the curb near the Starbucks in the center of Ortakoy. The sun is still bright, the wind crisp but fresh. The sudden burst of spring has brought out elderly strollers and mothers pushing baby carriages, though they have no destination. Yellow police tape is stretched across the entrances to Ortakoy’s main park as well as the promenade that fronts the strait. The benches in the park are also yellow-taped. I wander north, toward the mosque. Cutting across the sky, high overhead, the long arc of the Bosporus bridge sees little traffic. Beneath it stands the mosque, graceful and elegant, dominating the water’s edge, a cake-like block of filigree in stone lined with slender panels of stained glass that challenge the minimalist span of the bridge. I’m eager to see the inside, but the guard at the security booth in the small courtyard outside waves his hands. The mosque is closed. His wave was neither a command nor warning. It was more a gesture of apology. He shakes his head, slightly and sadly, as though acknowledging a death. I head back to the promenade. The breeze off the water is now chilly. Most of the sky has turned steely grey. Near the back entrance of the Starbucks, and the terraces of all the other closed cafes and restaurants facing the Bosporus, two young women walk up to me, wrapped in heavy jackets and wearing ski caps and medical masks. Their eyes smile. The tops of their cheeks glow red. They attempt communication, see that I speak no Turkish. They try again, slowly, again fail. One takes out her phone, taps on the keyboard, shows me the display. “It is not allowed to walk here,” it reads. I smile and nod. She types again: “Thank you.” They turn and leave. “Polis” reads the backs of their jackets. The bus back to Kabataş isn’t due for half an hour, so I head toward Ortakoy’s main street to see a bit of Ortakoy in semi-lockdown. I have hopes for a diversion from silent, somber central Istanbul, but Ortakoy is central Istanbul in duplicate. A few shoppers stroll the streets. A few restaurants and cafeterias are open for takeaway. Corner markets and kiosks do meager business. Bank customers tap their feet at ATM machines. But then, halfway up the street, a vendor at the fish market mans a vat of hot cooking oil, selling battered mussels and chopped fillets—three to a skewer. In the middle of a time of deprivation and denial a rare choice presents itself—fillets or mussels? I point. He lays two skewers on a tiny cardboard tray, holds a plastic bottle at the ready. “Garlic sauce,” says another customer. “Very good.” I nod. The vendor squirts, hands me the skewers. Without money. * While the dogs rule the night and the cats the day, it is ghosts that roam the Pera Palace Hotel at all hours. The Pera Palace is suitably situated in the European-oriented neighborhood of Beyoglu, as it was intended. Built in 1892, it was designed in a combination of Oriental, neoclassical, and art nouveau to appeal to the European travelers making Istanbul their final destination on the Orient Express. For a blossoming Turkish travel industry, the hotel represented a leap into the 20th century. After the Ottoman palaces, it was the first building in the city to run on electricity. It could also boast the first electric elevator and was the only hotel in Istanbul to provide hot water straight from the tap. For most of the 20th century it was the place to stay and the place to be seen in European Istanbul. But it is no longer the 20th century and these are not normal times. Now the front door is locked. The last guests have long left, leaving the interior is a catacomb of empty rooms. In the lobby bar the chairs are stacked on the tables. The bust of Ernest Hemingway, a onetime guest, goes undusted. Istanbul’s other hotels are similarly depleted. In Sultanahmet and Beyoglu and other tourist hubs the last of the stragglers have pulled their trolleys to the pickup points for the shuttle busses that whisked them to the airports, where the final flights carried back to their home countries. It is not unlike an evacuation in a war zone. In the Pera Palace all that remain are its ghosts—Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Alfred Hitchcock. Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, once stayed in room 101. If the local lore is credible, Agatha Christie wrote much of Death on the Orient Express in room 411. If the local lore is faulty, her many visits to the city provided her with much inspiration. “We stayed open a few days after the airports closed because we still had a few guests left,” the concierge at the Sultanahmet Four Seasons told me. We were standing at the entrance and the carpet shop across the street had been closed for weeks. So had every other carpet seller in the neighborhood. The only businesses open for what business remained were the shops that sold overpriced groceries and other essentials to the few residents that didn’t rely on the tourist industry for a livelihood, which are not many. Yet they could be seen from time to time stopping into the neighborhood markets for milk and bars of soap and cigarettes. It was enough trade for the owners to stay open, but only as long as it covered the ongoing expenses of rent and utilities. Many chose to cut their losses and turned off their lights. I asked the concierge why the Four Seasons was still “open”—or appeared open—if it wasn’t hosting a single guest. “Sometimes people stop in looking for a room, and we have a few other places where we can direct them.” In another time, the Sultanahmet Four Seasons was Istanbul’s first modern prison. Built in 1918, as the light of the Ottoman Empire was about to be extinguished, the grounds served as a holding tank for dissident writers and intellectuals awaiting their days in court, a function it provided for much the 20th century as the Turkish Republic struggled with such difficult concepts as “democracy.” Empty of guests, it now has its own ghosts to fill the former cells, now five-star guest rooms—novelists Orhan Kemal and Kemal Tahir, screenwriter Vedat Türkali, the poet Nazım Hikmet, and Communist Party leaders Mihri Belli and Hikmet Kıvılcımlı. The soaring, gleaming hotels that surround Taksim Square—the Wyndhams, Taxim, Metropark, and Marmar—have no ghosts. They have no guests either. But they have electricity. I try the electronic sliding door at the Taxim, hoping to find a city map to replace the frayed sheet I’ve been carrying for a month, but it refuses to budge. No ghosts stalk its halls or haunt the lobby bar because it has yet to acquire even a footnote in the city’s history. In Istanbul fame and infamy come at the price of time. Along the Istiqlal Cadessi, the wide pedestrian thoroughfare that runs the course of European Istanbul, there are also no ghosts on the prowl. They were driven away long ago by the collection of boutiques and upmarket clothing stores that have taken over both sides of the street. Light rain begins to fall. I pop open an umbrella, a reckless gesture when the street is a phalanx of strollers and shoppers crawling in both directions. But now it is harmless. The strollers are spaced as far apart as chess pieces in the final stages of a match. A voice calls out: “Where are you from?” It’s the vendor manning the kiosk selling cigarettes, soft drinks, and snacks to idle strollers—or tries to sell. It is a familiar story among the small-scale traders throughout the city: Sitting at home he makes nothing. Sitting in the kiosk all day he does little to nothing while watching the passersby, but he does make something. I interrupt his idleness, buy a can of cherry juice. “How did you get here?” he presses. It is not an idle question. The land border is shut. The airports have been closed for a month. I explain that my arrival predated all the closures, predates even the pandemic. When I arrived the pandemic was a mere flicker of a spark and Turkey had not seen a single case. Within 10 days the airport I had departed from closed and Turkey’s quickly followed, so for the past many weeks I’d found myself in a nether state, like the faceless characters in an M. C. Escher print—floating in a circular, eternal vacuum of space, no origin nor destination. “We’re all like that,” he says as I depart, clutching my can of cherry juice. Back on the Istiqlal Cadessi the strollers are scarce and the shoppers more so. Suddenly I realize what is more rare—no, almost nonexistent—a visitor or traveler or anyone who doesn’t call Istanbul their home. Everyone who passes me is speaking Turkish and has Turkish features, whatever these may be. And it has been the same in every other district of the city for the last several weeks. As for the visitors and anyone who doesn’t call Istanbul their home? They left long ago and took the city’s tourist industry with them. Wandering the streets, I also have become as a ghost from another time. * May 24—the beginning of Eid Al-Fitr, or Bayram as it is known in Turkey, the three-day holiday celebrating the end the holy month of Ramadan. Unfortunately, it coincides with the weekend, another lockdown weekend everywhere in the country. All Turks, secular or religious, are ordered to remain in their homes between Friday night and Monday morning. Bakeries are the only businesses allowed to open. The penalty for being found afoot without a proven purpose: 3,000 lira, or $500. Again I strike out, reckless, foolish, adventurous, but undeterred. Kumkapi is a working-class neighborhood where apartments are squeezed together like thick volumes in an overstuffed bookshelf. A wander through the backstreets shows that the government order is being obeyed, but with a great deal of discretion, and it is being enforced, but with greater discretion. It is another bright and warm spring weekend. And it is Bayram. The benches have been removed from Kadirga Park, just beyond the Little Aya Sofya, another Byzantine church later converted into a mosque. With nowhere to sit the residents of the nearby apartment blocks have created their own al fresco social scene. Plastic chairs and squat tables carried down from neighborhood from balconies have been situated around the rim of the park. In one cluster a group of elderly women sip tea. Twenty feet away their husbands play cards. A police car slowly pulls into the square, stops. There is no frantic scatter. One of the policemen gets out of the car, chats with a few of the residents. He gets back in and they drive on, turn into one of the backstreets where boys kick footballs outside four-story hovels and little girls preen in their new holiday dresses. A bevy of pubescent girls swap brightly colored leather bracelets on front stoops beneath aprons of laundry hanging high overhead. The aroma of fresh-baked bread lingers in the narrow streets, unable to escape. The policemen cruise along. No fines are handed out. * A stone’s throw from the Eminonu ferry docks, Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station is more than a doddering, yet still functioning train depot. It is a historic landmark and one of the many symbols of Istanbul, reminiscent of a time when rail tracks were golden highways whisking the fashionable and adventurous, and predominantly European, off to foreign lands they had never seen and could hardly imagine. The aura of that era still lingers in Sirkeci, even if it is still a doddering, yet still functioning train depot. When Sirkeci opened on November 3, 1890, it was a showpiece of modernism suited to its time and place. To appeal to European travelers, it boasted Orientalist decor and was equipped with gas lighting and Austrian-made tile stoves that kept the offices and waiting rooms roasty warm. Its restaurant became a social hub for the well-connected, well-to do, and in-the-know, besides well-heeled globetrotters launching their explorations of the exotic “Orient.” At the end of the 19th century Sirkeci gained international fame as the final stop on the Orient Express. The creator of the line was Belgian civil engineer Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the luxury travel service Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits, which would sprout hotels and rail routes across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. For the European elite, Nagelmackers’ company smoothed out the bumps in long-distance travel by providing plush sleeping cars staffed by professional attendants and dining cars that served five-star cuisine. The route started from Paris’ Gare de l’Est and passed through Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest before gliding into Sirkeci. A spur line took passengers to Varna, Bulgaria, where they boarded a ferry for the final hop to Istanbul. The first Orient Express left Paris on June 5, 1883. In 1889 it would cut a direct path to Istanbul, clocking 80 hours running time. The next year Sirkeci became the Orient Express’ terminal station, a role it would play until the last train pulled up to one of its platforms, on May 19, 1977. * Midweek—free movement is allowed throughout the city, even if there is nowhere to go. Still, that does not quell the urge to roam. For a traveler with nowhere to travel a clear destination at these times is clearly a luxury. I head to Eminonu, where ferries depart for Uskudar, the largest district on the city’s Asian side. There may be no Bosporus cruise, but the Bosporus can still be crossed, as it must be for the thousands of commuters who make it daily. This time the trip is more than a routine commute. This time it is an exercise of the spirit, a slap in the face of confinement. Travel restrictions may have turned Turkey’s cities into garrisoned fortresses, but the ferry ride to Uskudar remains an unhindered, sanctioned leap to another continent. Yet there is an aura of banality to it all. As it has done a thousand times, the boat draws up to the dock and five minutes later it pulls away, the strict timetable an illusion of normalcy. It eases into the waterway. Waves lap its sides. But there are only 12 passengers aboard a boat meant to carry over four hundred. All the video screens advertise virus safety. On the middle deck the snack bar is closed. Every other seat is blocked off with a distance warning notice, but they are wasted words because every passenger can have a section of a deck to themselves—starboard or leeward, fore or aft. The run is an agoraphobics joy ride. * During the 1453 siege of Constantinople the Byzantines barred the Ottoman ships from entering the Golden Horn by laying a chain between the shores. It was a trick they had used before. In a 907 siege the Kievan Rus’ had set their sights on conquering the city and dispatched a fleet across the Black Sea, but when it reached the Bosporus they found the waterway blocked with an iron chain. Oleg of Novgorod, the Rus’ leader, half expected this and came prepared. He ordered his boats put to shore, where they were fitted with wheels, and from there they made their way overland to the city walls, near the Galata Tower. But there the attack fizzled. Protected by Theodosius’ engineering, the Byzantines stood fast and the Rus’ were forced to retreat. They didn’t give up so easily. The Rus’ returned in 941, this time under the command of Igor the Old. Igor planned another naval assault, but this time with a twist: the Rus’ would land on the Black Sea coast, north of Constantinople, rather than become trapped in the narrow strait. From there they would again make their way to the city overland. This time it was the Byzantines who shook up their means of defense. They placed fire throwers on boats at the northern end of the Bosporus, and when the Rus’ ships were within range they let loose. To escape the fire, the Rus’ warriors only choice was to leap into the sea, only to be dragged to the bottom by the weight of their armor. There was no magnanimity in victory on the part of the Byzantines. Most of the Rus’ prisoners were decapitated. In a gruesome display of tit-for-tat, the remaining Rus’ tore through the countryside, pillaging villages, crucifying the inhabitants and pounding nails into their skulls. * Crossing the Bosporus, the ferry angles far to the north so that the current and the prevailing winds pushing down from the Black Sea will nudge it smoothly and calmly back toward Uskudar. Seagulls squawk overhead and perch on the rusted railings, a reminder that it is only the rhythms of human life that have been upended. The boat calmly pulls up to the dock. The leaden clouds of early spring coat the sky. The wind blowing down the Bosporus has stiffened and carries a damp chill. Across from the ferry terminal bright blue busses huddle along the departure islands, waiting to take on passengers gathered under the protective shelters, lined with posters promoting 14 ways to keep the virus at bay. “Practice regular handwashing,” advises one. “If you sneeze or cough, do so into your elbow,” reads another. “Keep a distance . . . ,” the litany continues. Each island is a Scrabble board of numbers and letters—27D, 9E, 17A, 32G—bus lines that fan out through the sprawl of Asian Istanbul. I scribble 15C on a notepad and show it to a driver poised at his wheel, waiting to begin his run. He eyes it closely, squints, points to a scrum of busses in front of the metro station. I cross the plaza and in a few minutes the 15C arrives. If my directions work out it will take me to the top of Camlica Hill, one of the highest in the city and the site of Turkey’s largest mosque. Size aside, the Camlica is an upstart on the Turkish mosque scene. History taken into account, it has yet to have its cord cut. The Camlica opened in the summer of 2019 and was intended to be a showpiece for all things Turkish and all things Islamic, or all things Islamic and all things Turkish. The order is irrelevant, for the two are intertwined in the imagination of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also imagined the mosque. It can accommodate 63,000 for Friday prayers, and therefore also does double duty as a rallying point for Erdogan supporters. If Istanbulis were inclined to pray for an end to the corona siege, this is where the president’s fans would come. The 15C eases away from the bus island and begins a winding climb through the hills of Uskudar. Three passengers are onboard. With almost no one waiting under the bus shelters stops are few. A few shoppers walk the streets, lugging plastic supermarket bags. One after the other, the 15C whisks along, zigzagging uphill, bypassing darkened banks and real estate offices, hair salons and computer repair shops, restaurants and clothing stores—all minor but important pistons and gears of the city’s and the national economy. In 15 minutes the 15C has reached the end of the line. The doors pop open, and on the other side of the street looms the massive white facade of the Camlica, its six minarets aimed heavenward. On the hilltop the wind has gathered force, cold and cutting. I climb the steps to the entrance, but the sensor-controlled, sliding glass doors fail to open. Inside there is a long row of shoe lockers filling the vestibule, stacked six rows high. All are empty. There no shoes scattered at the entrance willy-nilly, as would be seen at the other mosques scattered all over the city. I lean close to the window, peek into the interior. The dark blue carpet is buffed and scrubbed, smooth and clean, showing no signs of wear Week after week, all over the city the mosques have received the worried and the faithful, the devout and desperate, but with the Camlica the pandemic has claimed another victim. The lesson is resonant: Even the largest and greatest may fall. It will be 30 minutes before the 15C restarts and makes its winding way back to the ferry. Rain has started to fall, thick heavy drops that splash and splatter on the stone concourse, driven by the fierce wind. I duck into the courtyard, where the walls and archways provide cover. The enormous scale of the mosque makes me feel small, insignificant, and meaningless, as all mammoth buildings are designed to do. The rain and wind only compound a gnawing feeling of vulnerability, even helplessness. Then, on the other side of the courtyard, under the archway, I spot a man in a black suit and white shirt walking from one end to the other. His steps are definite, sure, and purposeful, though their purpose is hard to determine. The minutes pass. I watch him pace, never pausing or interrupting his stride. He appears to be heading somewhere, but when he reaches the end of the portico he turns, retraces his steps, and continues in the other direction. When he arrives at that corner he reverses again and continues with the same resolution. I watch with a glint of admiration, this lone man strutting firmly and deliberately, as if he had a destination. Clearly he doesn’t, yet he marches with the commitment of a soldier on parade, oblivious of the driving wind and rain, or pretending to be.