An Irishman's Diary


The first tribe of nomadic hominids to glimpse the Bosporus were equally the first people to be instantly enraptured by it, their leaden jaws akimbo; for even the meagre imagination of simian proto-man could not have resisted the magical allure of one of the most powerful locations in the world. Two seas reach and meet across the southern rims of the Eurasian continent, where land and water fuse - and where, in time, did many cultures, at that place we call the Golden Horn.

This is where Istanbul now stands, the most exciting and exotic city in Europe, pulsating with energy. It is the world capital of trade, where everything sooner or later finds its value. The myriads of tiny kiosks sell items - old bolts, bent screws, bits of glass, broken hinges - for which there could surely be no buyers. Yet their owners still manage to subsist, like highly specialised spiders, waiting down the decades in patient stasis for the unique prey from which they can inhale a few molecules of life-giving blood, before returning to their unmoving, scarcely breathing vigil.

Istanbul is the place where the parallel lines of market forces finally join, where the unbuyable meets the unsellable, where the Koh-i-noor and a broken collar stud alike can find their true worth. But market value has meaning only if price has immediate competition - and this is why Istanbul is so captivating.

There are streets containing shops which deal only in huge industrial valves the size of washing machines; streets which specialise in nails; streets which deal only in plumbers' complex brass joinery; streets which are host only to purveyors of electric switches.

Distant youth

How can anyone make a living out of selling such items? The switches lie in heaps, trailing tiny electric entrails. Their sockets and inserts are compatible with no electrical system still living. Their fabric flexes and heavy metal parts speak of a distant youth spent connected to art deco lamps which glowed through clouds of smoke from hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes, or to large upright wirelesses bearing news of brown-shirted thugs in Germany, or to Bakelite telephones on which one might ring the Sirkeci station to book a first-class ticket to Paris on the Orient Express.

Decades later, salvaged from the ruins of the now extinct electrical civilisation they once served, they seek employment once again.

They are the tiny fragments at the bottom of the pyramid of trade which the civilisation of Istanbul inherited from the Ottoman Empire. The dismemberment of that empire, so enthusiastically sought by the Franco-British in particular, was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. So many of the fault-lines of the world today run through the empire that for centuries was governed with shrewd pliability by the grand vizier from the Sublime Porte: Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Kuwait and Bosnia-Herzogovina.

Tolerance of diversity

For the Ottoman Empire was perhaps the greatest land empire the world has known, its most beguiling aspect being its most forgotten: its extraordinary tolerance of diversity. The prize for submission to the rule of imperial writ was promotion within a system that richly rewarded talent. Some of the greatest viziers - roughly, prime ministers answerable to the sultan - were Greek, Kurd, Serb or Jewish. The result was a complex civilisation with an ornate and industrious culture, whose magnificence was reflected in some of the noblest buildings the world has known.

The Ottoman empire is - tragically - gone, and with it, much of the multinational and polyglot diversity which made it one of the glories of world civilisation. With partition in the early 1920s, while Turks were expelled from northern Greece and many of the Aegean islands, Greeks fled across the Bosporus to Thessalonika, Levantines to Alexandria and Beirut, and Jews to Palestine. But the magnificence of the Ottomans lives on in Istanbul, in its great palaces and mosques, and in the trader-energy which simmers at every street-corner.

It is one of the malign simplifications of non-trading cultures such as our own that those who live by trade are congenitally dishonest. This is the reverse of the truth. Honesty is the oxygen of trade. Just as good money drives out bad, honest traders in the longer term will see off dishonest ones. The broader consequence of this is that honesty is not merely highly valued in Turkey, but is a binding cultural norm.

To be sure, I was occasionally cheated in Istanbul - the Arabs who charged me three times what I should have paid for lunch the other day are probably weeping with laughter even still. No matter. I could afford to be cheated a little bit here and there. And very probably my own bargaining skills explained a lot: after laborious and immensely canny haggling I bought a leather belt in the Grand Bazaar. Later, in Istanbul airport, at one of those absurdly over-priced shops that exist in all airports, I found an identical belt; it was half the price.

Incomprehensible currency

But generally speaking, you will not be swindled in bars or restaurants in Istanbul, though the incomprehensible currency, which inflation has made resemble a branch of astrophysics, makes cheating very easy indeed. Instead, a waiter or shopkeeper will delicately select from the wodge of hundreds of millions of lire in your hand the precise sum required, while you gaze on with the cretinous incomprehension of a village idiot who has wandered into a lecture by Einstein.

Istanbul is not merely the greatest city in Europe, with the finest and most fascinating people, but probably the world. And that's all that needs to be said about it.