The things that really brings history home for me are the little things; not the grand fallen gates of an ancient city, but the accidental artifacts: a broken doll, played with by some child 3000 years ago. A gameboard scratched into the pedestal of the statue to help its guards pass the time. A love poem.
Buried away in a back hallway at Istanbul’s Oriental Museum is a case of “interesting cuneiform” tablets. The oldest known love poem (why don’t they give us a translation?), a secondhand copy of the Code of Hammurabi, the “Book of Proverbs”. And a small Sumerian legal tablet simply labeled “Inanma prefers the farmer.” This little chunk of clay has outlasted the last survivor of its civilization, of the civilization that destroyed it, and a dozen others since. The passing fragment of a life – I picture Inanma a young woman, arguing against her promised husband in favor of that rakish fellow of the fields. Or a bored magistrate settling yet another cart-hits-cow dispute in the local market. Human history is made by people, and it is these little artifacts that make them human. Their lives are sketched in the sparse lines of a Hirshfield portrait, and our knowledge of their humanity – their dreams, their sorrows – lets us fill in the rest.
I guess that’s what makes Istanbul so intense for me. For well over two thousand years, it’s been a crossroads of civilization, a one-stop-shop for conquerors from all points of the compass. Uncountable stories have marched through here, hoping, fearing, living and dying. The accidental fragments of their lives are so deeply etched in this city, that it’s hard not to be overcome by the enormity of it all. So, I don’t have a lot of words for today, just wonder. I hope you’ll understand if I give only the briefest, um, sketch of how we’ve spent the last day and a half.
Landed in Istanbul late afternoon, whisked through customs and all feeling like old pros. Hotel, chosen online, is mercifully everything we’d hoped – right up against the Topkapi wall, a short walk from everything we want to see. Wander out around Sultanahmet Square at dusk to see the Hippodrome, the market, the lights. Constantly accosted by carpetsellers, but I’m in the groove – one of them falls in to follow us:
“Yeah – we like everything we see“
(uncertain pause) “You like me too?”
“Yes, we especially like you!“
He laughs a deep, appreciative laugh, slaps me on the back, and sends us on our way – “All right, you. Have a good visit!”
[Oh crap – the flakey hotel internet connection just went south and took about 45 minute’s worth of rather inspired writing with it. It’s midnight, and I’m suddenly very crabby.
I promise to follow up tomorrow, after I’ve gotten some sleep]