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Authors: Robin Ratchford

From Souk to Souk

BOOK: From Souk to Souk
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Travels Through the Middle East

Robin Ratchford

Copyright © 2014 Robin Ratchford

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concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.


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ISBN 978 1783067 282

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“Possessed with the thought of travelling about the world of men and seeing their cities and islands.”

– Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade


The Middle East fascinates me, not only because of its central role in the evolution of civilisation, but because of its pivotal position in contemporary geopolitics. Both aspects affect our everyday lives. In this part of the world, the links between the past and the present appear immutable, their hold on the future unbreakable.

From Souk to Souk
is based on my experiences and impressions of places I have visited in and around the region. Only Kabul, according to geographers, lies outside it. Often, though, cartographers' borders are somewhat artificial and when I visited Afghanistan it was clear that the cultural influences of the Middle East extend here too. Alexander the Great, whose exploits brought him to various cities featured in this book, founded several towns in what is today Afghanistan. And, given that the country also shares a religious heritage with the Middle East, I could not resist featuring the Afghan capital.

The vast majority of the people I met during my visits were friendly, kind and showed an intense interest in the world beyond the borders of their own country. For many of them, overseas travel is not an option and, when it does occur, sadly it is sometimes as a refugee, fleeing the sectarian unrest and internecine struggles that continue to plague parts of the region. Indeed, some of the cities I visited have, in the meantime, become caught up in the Arab spring, leaving me wondering what has happened to the people I met there. I have deliberately chosen not to write from the perspective of hindsight, choosing instead to describe the people and places as they were when I encountered them. And, it has to be said, most of the people I met were men: in many of the countries, for cultural reasons, social interaction with local women is simply not possible.

Turmoil is not new to the area. In the course of the centuries, the lands of the Middle East have been united under, and divided by, seemingly countless empires and kingdoms; they have been brought together through trade and wrought asunder by warfare. From this perspective, today's frontiers seem to be merely the latest configuration of borders that shift like desert sands. In writing about what are sometimes quite disparate places, I realised that the souks are a common, if variable, element linking these various human settlements not only geographically, but also through time. Some of those that feature in the book have occupied the same sites for centuries, others have evolved to such a degree that they are now souks in little more than name.

From Souk to Souk
is not a chronological travelogue. It does not claim to be journalistic reporting, but nor is it pure fiction. Rather, it weaves observations with perceptions and memories with imagination. After all, who, when visiting such a beguiling and exotic collection of lands, could be expected to return with a clear head and untouched by their enchantment?

Robin Ratchford

Journey to the Centre of the World

‘Hello, my friend! Where are you from?'

The voice jolted me from my thoughts. I looked up to see a man in his early twenties with an earnest and friendly aspect, on whose thin lips hung a nervous smile. His blue jeans and polo top with its little animal motif on the breast appeared smart enough, but his footwear betrayed his modest background.

‘I'm British,' I said, after some hesitation, ‘but I live in Belgium.' I was slightly alarmed, but let my face freeze into an expression that I hoped would not show it.


‘No, Brussels.'

!' he beamed after a momentary blank expression, apparently delighted at having found a hook for continuing the conversation. ‘I have a cousin there.
Vous-parlez français
?' His accent was strong, his effort determined, his regard interesting.


Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul: three names for a city that conjures up notions of the exotic as few others do. Fabulous mosques and minarets, sultans in magnificent costumes and outrageous turbans, beautiful and ambitious women behind the closed doors of mystical harems, regimes at once incomprehensible and cruel: these are just some of the archetypal images that through the ages have been associated with the city on the Bosphorus. But the erstwhile capital of so many great empires represents more than anything a grand cultural bazaar where the small continent of Europe ends and the vast and populous landmass that is Asia begins.

It would be in this city that I would spend the last days of the twentieth century: not the simple, chronological hundred years, the passing of which was indicated by a date ending in two zeros and fêted by parties and fireworks, but the century whose end would be marked by an event that represented the opening of a door into a new, different era. In the same way that historians sometimes view the eighteenth century as a concept ending not in 1799 but in 1815 and the nineteenth in 1914 rather than 1899, I doubt future chroniclers will conclude that the twenty-first century began in 2000.

Istanbul was also where I began my travels to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was not my first visit to a Muslim land: I had already been to Morocco, but although it is an Islamic country, both its capital Rabat and the iconic city of Casablanca lie further west than either Barcelona or Madrid and face the chilly, tempestuous Atlantic rather than the sparkling and constant
Mare Nostrum
. It is not merely a question of longitude or tides, of course: Asia Minor and the Middle East are among the cradles of civilisation with many cities in the Fertile Crescent having been inhabited for thousands of years. The trip to Istanbul was my first foray into this beguiling world steeped in history. Like so many before me, and perhaps like you, too, I was tempted by the lure of the Orient and its promise of the exotic, of the unknown, and of seeing with my own eyes that which I knew only from countless tales and fables, history books and films. I was hungry to see what really lay behind the gossamer drapes of Turkishness that hung like so many cultural veils between the Levant and those as yet innocent of its ways. And I was thirsty to drink of its pleasures, to taste the wine of the country on my lips and in my mouth, to recline on its divans and let the aromatic smoke of a thousand
transport me to another world. To the uninitiated, the turbans and harems have been replaced by blood-red fezzes, the dark prisons of
Midnight Express
and perhaps a vague recollection of the mood captured in a happier film, the wonderfully atmospheric
. The reality is, of course, different, but traces of these elements still exist in some form or other: that is what makes the city so exciting.


‘Really? You have a cousin in Brussels?' I asked, not overly surprised. ‘Yes, there are lots of Turks there.
Mais vous parlez français
?' My eagerness to escape from whatever the young man in front of me wanted to sell or beg for was blunted by my curiosity as to his language skills.

‘No, that's all I can say,' he laughed, displaying a mouthful of white but rather uneven teeth as he sat down on the bench next to me. ‘You are a tourist?'

‘I'm just visiting,' I smiled, unconsciously inching away from him.

‘What would you like to see? You have been to Topkapi?'

‘No, not yet,' I said, clearing my throat.


As I contemplated the delights of Istanbul from the comfort of my plane seat, it was difficult to determine whether the frisson my imaginings provoked were of excitement, of fear, or a dangerous melange of both. Yet I sensed that, somewhere in my subconscious, there simmered a worry that the experience might not live up to expectations. If I had looked a little deeper, though, I might have realised that the apprehension I felt was about something else altogether.

As the aircraft began its final descent, the unpromising view from the window was of a vast metropolis, home to millions and blanketed by an uninviting brown smog. I landed at Atatürk Airport, so modern that it could have been anywhere in Europe and which, technically speaking, is indeed on the Old Continent. The Istanbul I had come to discover was, of course, also a shining example of a secular Islamic country, a beacon of hope that other states in the region could also develop into modern democracies. The creation of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire had seen the introduction of a temporal constitution, the replacement of traditional clothing with Western attire, the adoption of the Latin alphabet and, before Belgium, France or Italy, even votes for women. Turkey, I thought, but above all Istanbul, surely proved that secular Islam was possible and that a clash of civilisations between East and West need not be inevitable.

The adrenalin-rush ride to the hotel in the small yellow taxi felt like one of the more frightening computer games as, tyres squealing, we swerved between cars filled with families or watermelons and raced past growling lorries churning out clouds of black smoke. My moustachioed cabbie blasted out a tune on the horn, impatiently cursing any driver who did not immediately get out of our way, which was most of them. When we finally pulled up outside the hotel in the historical Sultanahmet quarter, I felt myself physically deflate with relief that we had arrived in one piece and had to virtually peel my hand off the grab handle, such was the tightness of my grip.

During the hair-raising journey from the airport my entire attention had been focused on the road and the blur of passing vehicles. Now, as I clambered out of the car, I felt I had been transported to a different world: it was as if the jolting experience of the taxi ride had served to exorcise the memory of the airport's modernity and by a strange motorised catharsis deliver me to a more traditional Turkey. Rising above the trees like a scene from
Tales from the Thousand and One Nights
were the minarets and domed roofs of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Here was the quintessential view of Istanbul, of its exoticism, of its Islamic nature, despite the Turkish state being secular and the 1500-year-old Hagia Sophia no longer a mosque but since 1935 a museum. These iconic buildings announced to me that I had arrived in the Levant even before I had crossed the Bosphorus into Asia Minor. I stared at the two monolithic structures and felt a wave of excitement trickle over my body as I finally accepted that I was in Istanbul, surrounded by its beauty and its history, its temptations and its dangers.


A couple of hours later, I found myself inside the Hagia Sophia. It had beckoned me, absorbed me, and surrounded me. In contrast to many historic sites that one sees, the edifice requires no imagination to visualise how it might have been: like Rome's Pantheon, it stands virtually intact, a would-be portal to antiquity. Originally a Christian church, it was the first basilica to be built with a high dome, setting an architectural trend that lasts to this day, in St Peter's in Rome and in St Paul's in London. Standing below the cupola that had already existed for half a millennium when William the Conqueror first stepped on English soil, I marvelled at its height, equivalent to a twenty-storey building, and wondered how it would have seemed to past generations used only to low – and lowly – dwellings. I wanted to lie on my back on the cold stone floor so I could contemplate the dome's expanse, but I knew it was impossible: this Grande Dame would take instant offence and send her guards scurrying to remove me. And, besides, I dared not.

Christian saints stared down from golden mosaics, their expressions as paralysed as the day Constantinople finally fell to Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmet II, an indecently young 21-year-old when he proudly rode his armies through the gates of the city. On that May day in 1453, under the same hapless gaze of these saints, throngs of Christians sought divine protection behind the bronze gates of the Hagia Sophia, only to be sold into slavery by their captors. Next to these ineffectual symbols of Christendom, sensual Arabic calligraphy with its beautiful – but to me unintelligible – Koranic declarations seemed to float like strange sheet music accessible only to believers. In that great space, I felt small and transient, my presence, my life, but a momentary flash on a timeless scene. I walked in, around and out of the Hagia Sophia like an insignificant extra in a vast oeuvre I did not understand.


Later that day, as I stared at the floodlit views of these magnificent buildings in the gathering dusk, I knew that, atmospheric though it was, the sight before me was something very recent: during the eras of which they are so evocative, after dark these two great structures would have been no more than silhouettes against the starlit skies of ancient times. Now, I could not decide if they were basking in the glory of the floodlights or felt blinded by the glare of a world that left them no peace, even at night.

I was in the
Sultanahmet Meydanı
, the park set out on the site of the huge hippodrome, first built 1800 years ago and expanded under the Roman Emperor Constantine a century later. In Ottoman times, it was the sporting and social focal point of the city. Today, the leisure activities are more low-key and certainly more peaceful, with Turkish families wandering round the grounds or sitting on the slatted benches, chatting and eating roasted chickpeas, sunflower seeds and nuts from small paper cones. I passed old men watching the world go by or playing backgammon. The click-clack of the wooden checkers on the board mixed with the laughter of small children who, clutching foil balloons on sticks, ran around enjoying the open space, no doubt a welcome contrast to the cramped apartments in which I imagined they lived. Spotting an empty seat, I decided to sit down and savour the atmosphere of my first Turkish evening. In front of me, I recognised a Judas tree – so called because Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from one – its bright pink spring flowers a result of it blushing with shame. It was the end of summer, though, and tonight there was no evidence of ignominy, the specimen opposite just a sombre mosaic of dark green and black in the fading light. The squeaks of bats swooping and darting, erratic tiny shadows against the darkening sky, filled the balmy evening air. And, beyond the oasis that was the
Sultanahmet Meydanı
, murmured the constant background noise of this city of millions.

It was as I was reflecting on my first day in Istanbul that this lanky young man had appeared in front of me and started up a conversation I was not looking for.

Turkce konusuyorsunuz değil mi?
' he asked, looking at the copy of
in my hand and raising a dark eyebrow with contours so perfect it could have been plucked.

I find carrying a local newspaper can be an effective way of fooling all manner of street vendors and stallholders into thinking one lives locally, with the happy result of being spared many a tiresome sales pitch. Clearly, though, the young man next to me had not been deterred and had pushed his way through my first line of defence with disconcerting ease.

‘No, not really. Just a little bit,' I fibbed, standing up. I had only guessed what he had asked and in fact speak no Turkish at all.

‘I can show you Istanbul,' he offered, also rising to his feet. ‘I am a history student: I know lots about the city. I can show you many interesting things.'

Was that enthusiasm or desperation in his hazel eyes, I wondered?

‘Thank you, but I don't need a guide,' I smiled, instantly regretting the words.

‘How much do you want to pay?' he persisted, his accent becoming slightly stronger.

‘Well, nothing actually. I don't need a guide.' I shrugged and formed my mouth into a sort of helpless smile. Once again, I had painted myself into a corner with my stubbornness. ‘Thank you, anyway.'

I turned and began walking away as casually as I could, conscious of the embrace of the warm city air. A moment later, I realised my would-be guide was following me, clearly determined not to give up so easily.

‘How much do you want to pay?' he repeated.


The next morning I had breakfast on the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, from which I had a panoramic view across the city, already humming and sparkling with life, a flash of morning sunshine occasionally reflecting off distant panes of glass across the water, perhaps a window opening, a car turning: a banal action in an anonymous life that unknowingly sent a momentary twinkle into my own. I sipped my cappuccino: I was not yet ready for a Turkish coffee.

I pondered on how, considering it was one of the oldest parts of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet quarter was surprisingly open and leafy. Yet, beneath the thin veneer of green lay 25 centuries of history and, from the division of the Roman Empire in AD 395 to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, this city had been the seat of power for over 120 emperors and sultans. As I had walked past the neat lawns and flower beds of the
Sultanahmet Meydanı
the day before, it had been hard to believe that the site of this formal park was once considered the centre of the world, the nearby Million Stone marking the spot from where, after the Emperor Constantine made the city his eponymous capital in AD 330, all roads in the Roman Empire began. Wandering around the site of the former hippodrome, I had realised it was only time, not space, that separated me from the 100,000 spectators who once filled its terraces to watch and bet on the chariot races, the four teams each sponsored by a different political party in the Senate. The crowds that cheered the Blues, the Greens, the Reds and the Whites and, on occasion, rioted on an unimaginable scale, sometimes leaving tens of thousands dead, were no more, their shouts and cries forever lost on the winds of the Bosphorus, the atoms and elements that made up their bodies since reincarnated countless times in all the things we see around us – in ourselves even. I had looked at the palms of my hands and considered whether the carbon, iron and copper within me had previously existed in the body of one of those men or women. Yet what, I had wondered, had happened to their souls? Had they been simply discarded on a current of sea air in the same way as their words and laughter? As the day had drawn to a close and the shadows across the park had grown longer, I had become increasingly aware of the contrast between the longevity of the urban creation around me and the ephemeral existence of those who walked its streets. Now, in the bright light of the morning, yesterday's thoughts seemed almost as distant as the Constantinople of the Eastern Roman Empire.

BOOK: From Souk to Souk
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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