On a cold and rainy January morning, the four of us set out to explore the byzantine relics that are less commonly visited. Underneath Balkapanı Hanı there is a Byzantine era basement that was and is still used for the storage of foodstuffs coming into the port nearby. Unfortunately we were not allowed to see it. There is a heavy metal door and a very unfriendly man guarding the ancient basement.
So we went to the Theodosian walls to look for a the oldest standing church in Istanbul. It was once the Monastery of St. John the Baptist Studius, was converted into a stable, then Mosque and then converted into ruins by earthquakes and human neglect. Unlike the land walls, however, this place is well protected and surrounded by a thick wall of its own and barbed wire. I had expected it to be nearer to the water in a quarter of town that that consists of ruins of many eras, 19th century ruins, 18th century ruins, etc.. .and with the church 5th century ruins. But alas, the church/monastery, turned stable turned mosque is in the middle of a respectable neighborhood. So we could not go inside and crawl on stuff. Second plan thwarted.
We then decided to walk back up to the walls. The Theodosian land walls run from the Sea of Marmara near Zeytinburnu to the Golden horn near the post-conquest neighborhood of Eyüp for about 5.5 kilometers. Our plan was to meet with Atila in his crypt and get drunk with him.
To get there we walked along the top of the walls for about a kilometer, at times crawling over very dilapidated section, at other times just squeezing past a crumbling tower which had left us only a tiny and very rain soaked ledge to pass by. When we got to the end of the continuous surface of the walls, just a few meters from the gate that leads to the crypt and so to the last stairs we discovered that they had been closed. So we walked back to the last set of stairs we saw and retraced our path back to Silivrikapı, this time on the road below.
Before going to see Atila we had to get some booze, so we went to the nearest Tekel (liquor shop) and bought what turned out to be the cheapest alcohol we have ever found in the city of cities. Seven liras fifty is all that the bottle of red wine cost. The brand of the dionysian drink is Ottoman, as in English, literally: Ottoman. I asked the shop keepers if they knew Atila. The response was broad smile of affirmation. On a hunch, I asked if he was a regular customer and if Ottoman was his preferred drink. Indeed he was and it is.
We walked to the crypt and ran into Attila as he was leaving. In a bag he had an empty bottle of Ottoman. Drunk as a skunk, he said the was leaving because he had business. I told him we had come to meet him and had brought wine. So he took us to his crypt, told us we could hang out inside the main chamber and honest-to-god swore revenge if we touched his newly acquired bed –a yellowish tweed couch that by some black magic he had made to fit inside the antechamber.
We gave him one of our bottles of Ottoman and we then proceeded to interpret the writings on the stile to the best of our ability, determining for example, that one of the carvings depicted the taking of the Eucharist. We drank the bottle of Ottoman. It turned out to be quite palatable turning to tasty as the Alcohol molecules diffused into our blood. When we walked outside of the crypt getting ready to leave, I looked left and saw a large mound, about 3 meters in diameter and half a meter tall of Ottoman bottles. He really likes his Ottoman.
After a good cryptological picture session we left Attila’s home, careful not to touch his bed and to leave everything in its place, we went back to purchase three new bottles of Ottoman and walked to another part of the walls: Mevlanikapı. To get there we snaked our way through the neighborhoods that flank or plain rest on the wall. This part of the city is home to the city’s garbage collection facilities, both institutional (garbage transfer stations) and informal –the hoards of truly poor who roam the streets collecting plastic, metal and cardboard who make their home by the walls. As we walked, the acrid smell of burning plastic often hit us –I guess the trash collectors don’t find many trees for fuel, but plastic is plentiful.
We got to the section of the wall that preserves passages, tunnels, and staircases. It is a dramatic setting for drinking. On the Thracian side of the walls a large cemetery is a crow rookery. To the east slums. A view north is a view of adventitious farming, a the crumbling remains of two empires, now home to vagrants and gypsies. Behind the ruins, massive skyscrapers rise fueled by an economic fervor that may too one day produce its own ruins, except this time they will be of concrete, rebar and glass.
As we walked along the outer wall, stepping over discarded clothes, trash and human feces, we past a man enjoying some pain thinner or another choice solvent. He was occupying the room in one of the wall towers that I has planned for our archaeological drinking sesh. So we pressed on through archways and up dark, glass strewn circular stairs to the bridge over the gate. With vehicle traffic running under us, crows flying overhead and the dark of night setting, we, as they say in Turkish, sohbet ettik —we chatted