The Smallest of Prices

Everywhere we lived, my father had a home office. And the best thing about that office was that it was filled with books. Floor to ceiling, stacked in front of his desk, piled under his chair and atop tables, were books ranging in topic from religion to geography, world cultures, dead languages, history, science, and so on. Among them was one large book, with a blue spine, and in it were descriptions and photographs of Istanbul. Markets, mosques, street scenes. It was exotic, even to my travel-jaded eyes, and I wanted to experience the sights and smells for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe obvious apple of my eye, in regard to Istanbul, was the Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. I cannot think of another place so steeped in religious history.  There, my studies of Byzantine, Ottoman, Islamic, and Christian history collide in one breathtaking structure. I simply had to go there.


And so I did, many years later. I saw the Blue Mosque, and viewed the sacred relics in Topkapi Palace, and dined on a terrace overlooking the water. And, indeed, I spent hours in the Aya Sofya, touched the Marble Door, viewed the ancient Christian mosaics, and the mosque was even larger and more beautiful than I had imagined for all those years.

14 million people in a city seems like a terrible crush, and the streets and markets were at times cacophonous, but over the racket of vendors, traffic, and street prophets, the haunting müezzins’ calls to prayer resound. The city is made of magic. The sounds, the scents wafting on the breeze off the Bosphorus, the gentle ways of its inhabitants, all create a sense of calm amidst the chaos. Orhan Pamuk wrote of Istanbul, “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.”


A friendly guard at Topkapi Palace


I walked through the squares, and parks, and markets, through neighborhoods, and down city streets. I talked to guards and shopkeepers and ladies out walking with their friends and children. The people of Istanbul are friendly and funny, and curious and kind.


Later in the day, full of Turkish delight and nose twitching from sampling the wares in the Egyptian market, where spices are sold, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar.


The gate of the Grand Bazaar

The name is apt; everything about this bazaar is grand. The vendors are endless in every direction, so many I could not see the far end, and in fact never did make my way all the way through to the opposite side. I made a few small purchases: a scarf, a necklace, and by then it was growing late and the sun was setting quickly.


Not prayer rugs, but a sales demonstration inside a rug shop.

As I approached the way out, a man about my age called to me, and asked if I wanted to buy a prayer rug. They were beautiful, and I admired them, but declined. I went on, and there was a bit of a bottleneck as people were leaving through the gate. I stood waiting my turn, and the man came to me again. His English was only slightly better than my Turkish, but we managed nonetheless. He said that he noticed I admired his rugs, and he would cut the price for me, as the hour was late, and he wouldn’t have to carry it back home again.

The price was more than fair, and yet I hesitated, as the idea of carrying a prayer rug across the city, then jamming it into my bag, was a complication I was not sure I was prepared to take on. He held my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I will give you this rug, for the smallest of prices: a kiss. A kiss,” he said, “to bring me good fortune.”

Who can say no to that kind of charm? Righty-o, I agreed, he rolled up my rug and handed it to me, and I offered my cheek. Quick as a snake, he landed the most resounding smooch square on my lips, winked, and disappeared into the market.

And that is how I bought my prayer rug for the price of a kiss in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a magical city where anything can happen.



Those silent gods

When I was young I visited a temple built into a mountain.

To get there we journeyed deep into the jungle, where we climbed a hundred stone steps  littered with large, frightening grey-brown monkeys.  Upon reaching our destination, the  mountain peak fell away on one side exposing the temple to the heavens, high in the sky yet within caverns.  Stone statues with gritty texture and fine features towered larger than life over smaller gilded icons set into alcoves and perched upon rock altars.  There beside the stone gods stood their blessed messengers, shaven monks in rough robes, lined in rows like sentinels and exuding such peace that for a moment the jungle stood still.

The smells of the jungle: the monkeys, the foliage, and the damp earth, mingled with the heady scent of incense and the odor of worshipful bodies pressing close to touch a god.  Closer to the main temple, the metallic smell of old rock and trickling cave water, oily to the touch, took hold of my senses.  It was late in the day, and the sun added that hot smell I have only found in the jungle, of photosynthetic processes happening on a grand scale.  Rotting vegetation and animal waste added a tangy edge to the cacophony of scents.

The screeches of monkeys defending the temple steps, jungle birds squawking in branches above, quiet hymns and prayers within the temple caves, and the sound of the quickening of my breath filled my ears as I gazed into those unblinking stone eyes looming over me.  Close to me a young monk whispered his thanks for another day of life.  The ground underfoot was rough cave floor and pebbles and dust shorn from the mountain out of which the temple was carved, a fine contrast to the smoothly polished steps I climbed from the soft jungle floor.  Suddenly alone in an alcove, I dared to put one hand to the face of a deity.  Like a pumice to my palm, that cheek and those lips appeared finer than my own features.  Such fine detail born of such rough material.  My throat was dry from the dust and incense, and a sip of water from a bamboo ladle tasted slick and woody, as though taken from a leaf after a rain.

Another glance, and we started down those hundred steps to the jungle below, and the path leading out of the deep, dark green to the bustling city beyond.