Read Hav Online

Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (2 page)

Intricate of intricacies,

Twine-twisted,

As a warren above wasteland

I cherish the town — chasing its own tale.

ONE

Last Letters from Hav

Six Months in 1985

MARCH

Locomotive No. 5 KOLCHOK

1

At the frontier
—
the tunnel pilot
—
L'Auberge Impériale
—
morning calls

I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier. Far up at the front the engine desultorily gasped, and wan faces watched me through crusted carriage windows as I walked all alone down the platform to the gate. There was no pony trap awaiting me of course (Tolstoy's reminded him sadly of picnics at Yasnaya Polyana), but a smart enough green Fiat stood in the station yard, a young man in sunglasses and a blue blazer beckoned me from the wheel, and in no time we were off along the rutted track towards the ridge.

Very unusual, said the driver, to find a customer at the station these days, but he made the journey twice a week anyway, there and back, under contract to the railway. This was the tunnel pilot's car, he explained, and he was Yasar Yeğen the tunnel pilot's nephew, the pilotage being a hereditary affair. In his great-grandfather's time they had done the trip with a pony cart, and in those days, when the tunnel was considered one of the wonders of the world, all manner of great swells used to leave the train up there for the experience of the spectacle. Why did they need a pilot for the tunnel? The Porte had insisted on it, for southbound trains only, as a token of the Sultan's sovereignty after the Pendeh settlement; and ever since then, for more than a century, while Porte, Sultan and Czars too had all passed into history, a member of the Yeğen family had boarded the Mediterranean Express at the frontier stop, and formally ushered it through the escarpment.

Dust billowed behind us as we bounced over the snow-streaked plateau; ahead of us there stood a solitary tall stone, a megalith upon a mound; and then suddenly we were on the rim of the great declivity, and over it, and plunging down the ancient and spectacular mule-track, the celebrated ‘Staircase', which appears in all the old engravings crowded with pack-trains, wandering dervishes, beggars squatting on rocks, platoons of soldiers with pikes and muskets, great ladies veiled in palanquins, vastly turbanned dragomans and gentlemanly horsemen in fly-netted pith helmets — ‘a very inconvenient approximation', as Kinglake called it, ‘of Jacob's Ladder'. The coming of the railway ended all that, and now the track was altogether empty — hardly anybody used it, Yasar Yeğen told me, except Adventure Tours in four-wheel-drive buses, and the cave-dwellers who inhabited the western face of the escarpment. So we proceeded gloriously unimpeded, skidding helter-skelter around those once-famous zigzags, and occasionally evading them with boisterous short cuts between the outcrops.

Halfway down I looked back, and there I saw, issuing from a squat chimney near the crown of the cliff, a pillar of black smoke which showed that the Express was on its way, chuffing subterraneously down its own spiralling descent within the limestone. ‘Don't worry,' said Yasar, ‘I am never late,' and sure enough, when we slithered to a showy stop on the gravelly clearing at the tunnel mouth, it was only a few minutes before we heard the train's resonant wailing cry from the bowels of the mountain. A gust of sooty smoke out of the big black hole — a cyclopean eye groping through the murk — a powerful emanation of steam, grease and coal dust — and there it was, tremendously emerging from its labyrinth, a huge locomotive of dirty red with a cowcatcher and a brass bell, its crew leaning from each side of their cab, as they reached the daylight, wearing goggles and greasy cloth caps, but bearing themselves as grandly as ships' officers on their flying bridges. The train eased itself to a stop with a mighty hissing of brakes, steam and smoke, and beneath the numerals on its cab I could just make out, not quite obliterated even now, the old Cyrillic characters of the Imperial Russian Railways.

A tall elderly man swung himself from the footplate, wearing a sober dark suit, remarkably unblemished, and a black felt hat in the Ataturk mode. He turned to salute the engine-driver when he reached the ground, and then walked in a distinctly authoritative way towards the Fiat. Hastily Yasar, smoothing his hair and blazer, jumped out of the car to open the back door, and almost involuntarily I got out too, so imposing was that approaching figure. The tunnel pilot looked as though the world and all its movement depended on him. The train seethed and simmered respectfully behind his back. He had a bristly grey moustache, possibly waxed, and on his chest he wore a brass emblem, larger than a mere medal, more like the insignia of some chivalric order, which incorporated, I saw as he neared me, the silhouetted form of a very old-fashioned steam engine. He strode directly over to me, bowed low and kissed my hand, grunting ‘Dear lady' in a blurred and throaty sort of way, ‘Dirleddy', as though he had often heard it said but had never analysed it. Then he stepped into his car, the door was closed gently behind him, and I hardly had time to thrust my money into Yasar's hand before they were away, hurling dust and rubble in their wake, breakneck up the precipitous bends of the escarpment. I sprinted for the train, dispassionately observed by those same pale faces in the carriage windows, and was just in time to scramble aboard before, with a more perfunctory hoot and a clang of couplings, it moved heavily off into the flatlands.

It was dusk by now as we crawled very, very slowly towards the city. Everything looked monotonous out there, and cold, and shadowy, and silent, and grey. We were crossing the marshy salt-flats which have always acted as a cordon sanitaire, and a field of fire too, between the coast settlements and the escarpment. They looked horribly forbidding, brackish wastelands bounded to the east by low brown hills — which one of them, I wondered, had Schliemann first claimed to be Troy? There was a line of tall iron windmills, and a few lights flickered palely in the marshes; and when, clattering over a bridge, we entered the first purlieus of the city, they too seemed sufficiently unwelcoming, with their shambolic buildings of mudbrick and clapboard, some painted a gloomy blue, with scrabbly yards, and clumps of corrugated-iron shanties, and gravel football pitches here and there, and an occasional tall chimney, and dim unlit streets. Sometimes an open fire blazed, and a few figures crouched around it. More often everything in sight looked lifeless, perhaps, abandoned.

The train moved so laboriously through these unlovely suburbs, frequently stopping altogether and ringing its bell mournfully all the way, that by the time we were in the city proper it was pitch-dark. The lights outside were all very faint, and I could see nothing much but burly dark shapes in silhouette, a power station, a dome, a square tower, what looked like a minaret, and a general monumental mass: and so, well after midnight, we lurched at last exhaustedly, as though the rolling stock were all but worn out too, into the vestigially brighter lights of the Central Station, which seemed to be immense, but turned out to have, in the event, only the one platform. ‘
Hav!
' a great voice boomed. ‘
Hav Centrum!
'

In a matter of moments, it seemed to me, my few fellow-passengers had all scuttled away into the dark, and I was left alone upon the platform, wondering where to spend the rest of the night. But enormously facing me I saw an advertisement made, as in mosaic, of brightly coloured china tiles. On the right it offered a stylized depiction of Russia, onion domes, troikas, fir forests. On the left, bathed in golden sunshine against a cobalt sea, was the city of Hav, with elaborately hatted ladies and marvellously patrician beaux sauntering, a little disjointedly where the tiles met, along a palm-shaded corniche. Florid in the middle, in Russian Cyrillic, in Turkish Arabic and in French, a sign announced the presence of L'Auberge Impériale du Chemin de Fer Hav, and immediately below it a cavernous entrance invited me, along red-carpeted corridors lined with empty showcases, to a kiosk of glass and gilded iron-work in which there sat a stout woman, smiling, in black.

‘You encountered the tunnel pilot, I hear,' she remarked unexpectedly when I presented my passport for registration. ‘He is my cousin Rudolph. He was named, you may be interested to know, after a Crown Prince of Austria who came here long ago, and took the pony cart with my great-grandfather to see the train come from the tunnel.'

‘Your family meets everyone.'

‘
Used
to meet everyone, should we say? Whom did we not meet? All the crowned heads, all the great people, Bismarck, Nijinsky, Count Kolchok of course many, many times. You should see the pictures in the pilot's office at the frontier — everyone is there! Even Hitler came once, they say, though we did not know it at the time. Our last great lady was Princess Grace — I met her myself, such a lovely person — they had a special car waiting for her, over from Izmir, they said it was the biggest car that ever went down the Staircase, even bigger than the Kaiser's . . .'

Chatting in this good-natured way, Miss Fatima Yeğen signed me in and showed me to my room, which was very large, like a salon, and had thick curtains of faded crimson. So, I thought as she stumped away down the corridor, late in a life of travel I am in Hav at last! A big blue-and-white samovar stood in the corner of the room, and there was a picture of a rural winter scene signed T. Ramotsky, 1879 — the very year, I guessed, when they had fitted out the Imperial Railway Hotel for its original guests. A palpable smell of eggs haunted the apartment, mingled with a suggestion of pomade, and when I drew the curtains there was nothing to be seen outside but the well of the hotel, lugubriously illuminated and echoing with the clatter of washing-up from a kitchen far below. At the foot of my bed was a television set, but when I turned it on it was showing a black-and-white Cary Grant film dubbed into Turkish; so I went to sleep instead — confusedly, as in a state of weightlessness, having no idea really what lay outside the walls of L'Auberge Impériale du Chemin de Fer Hav, and fancying only, in my half-waking dreams, the bubble of the samovar, the drab grey salt-flats, the windmills, and the procession of kings, dukes and chancellors winding their way with plumes of swirling soil, like defiances, down the mule-track from the frontier.

But I was awoken in the morning by two marvellous sounds as the first light showed through my shutters: the frail quavering line of a call to prayer; from some far minaret across the city, and the note of a trumpet close at hand, greeting the day not with a bold reveille, but more in wistful threnody.

2

Legend of the trumpet — to the market — scholarly shopper — Katourian's Place — all Hav — Missakian breakfasts

Hardly had the last note of the trumpet died away than I was dressed and on my way down the silent hotel corridors towards the daylight.

The legend of the trumpet is this. When at the end of the eleventh century the knights of the First Crusade seized Hav from the Seljuks, they were joined by hundreds of Armenians flocking down from their beleaguered homelands in the northwest. Among them was the musician Katourian, and he became the cherished minstrel of the Court, celebrating its feats and tragedies in beloved ballads, growing old and grey in its service.

In 1191 Saladin, after a siege of three months, forced the surrender of the Crusaders, and on the morning of the Feast of St Benedict the Christians left the Castle with full courtesies of war and marched to the galleys waiting in the harbour. Their Armenian followers were left to face the fury of the Muslims, and as the last of the long line of Franks passed through the Castle gate between the rows of Arab soldiery, the musician Katourian, feeble and bent by now, appeared on the breastwork high above and sang, with more power and emotion even than in the heyday of his art, the most famous of all his great laments, ‘Chant de doleure pour li proz chevalers qui suet morz'. It rang across the city as a magnificent farewell, so the fable says, and with its last declining cadence Katourian plunged a dagger into his breast and died upon the rampart, known from that day to this as Katourian's Place.

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