Supping Full With Horrors: A social evening with Turkish outcasts
I came back late at night from the Distinguished Physician’s special dinner party for minorities, Leftists, and persecuted journalists. His villa in Istanbul overlooks the once-picturesque cove of Tarabya on the European shore of the Bosphorus. It is still picturesque, if you look only to your right. Harold Nicolson wrote of this view:
To the south, fringing the soft lip of the Marmora, another ruin; the frail façade of a palace on the shore. Three marble arches opening to the sea: the carved brackets of a fallen balcony, the waves below splashing on heavy capitals half-buried in the sand. And through the arches the wide level of the Marmora, blue as a lapis pavement, stretching across to the sharp shore-line of Bithynia: and beyond, the soft sweep of the mountains, twenty miles away: the snows of Olympus hanging in the sky. The Palace of the Bucoleon, the Palace of Hormisdas, that balcony where fourteen hundred years ago Theodora had dreamt of lust and love and Empire; a pavilion, merely, to the vanished palaces upon the hill, a pavilion, delicate and imperial, built out into the waves. Ruin had come and touched it with a gentle dignity.
If you look to your left, however, you see only a massive and monstrous gray concrete slab. It is a hotel, apparently, though it might be mistaken for a prison. Former Turkish prime minister Süleyman Demirel built it, the Distinguished Physician told me. What can you call the deliberate construction of a thing so ugly there but an act of vandalism? The kitschy neo-Ottoman hotels they’re building now at least suggest an appreciation that what was built in the past was beautiful and that it might be worthwhile to try to imitate it. This hotel simply expresses a contempt for history, a contempt for beauty, an eagerness to destroy both for all future generations.
But to the right, the view that Nicolson saw remains. The elites of this city—the vanished world—once understood Greek and Renaissance architectural ideals. To the right are order, balance, symmetry, careful proportions. An oleander tree in pink blossom separates a ruined villa’s marble courtyard from a sunken pool, now covered in moss. The tree is very old, to judge from its size, and someone thought a great deal when planting it about the way it would draw the eye upward, toward the terrace.
The Distinguished Physician’s house is a temple of exquisite artistic judgment. The carpets, the urns, the muted paintings on the wall, all were chosen by a man of taste. Even the deaf Persian cat seemed deliberately engraved over the windowsill. The Physician explained one of the carpets. There was a book on his coffee table, in French, about the excavation of Paleolithic Çatalhöyük. The Great Mother Goddess seated on a throne, her hands on the heads of leopards—could I see that these were exactly the carpet’s motifs? The book depicted the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük—bare-breasted, slender, smiling, cooperative, French with slightly Asiatic eyes. I asked: Does it make you melancholy? Yes, he said. Think of it: they were just as intelligent as we are.
What the Distinguished Physician didn’t mention, but what the Archpriest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate explained to me later in the evening, was that the hotel had been built over the ashes of the church of St. George, which was burned to the ground in the pogrom of 1955. When he explained that, I understood. How else to interpret the destruction of that view, the creation of that kind of savage ugliness in its place, but as an act of self-hatred and self-punishment? If ever you were tempted to doubt the existence of a collective unconscious, just look at that thing.