Istanbul: Memories and the CityIstanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



The Nobel-Prize winning Turkish author in his remarkable recapturing of the inner life of his native city “Istanbul” describes the concept of “huzun” as the peculiar shared malancholy for an irretrievably lost greatness that lives in the hearts of the citizens of his native city, the past capital and seat of glory of the Ottoman Empire. The “saudade” of Lisbon, the “tristeza” of Burgos, the “mufa” of Buenos Aires, the “mestizia” of Turin, the “Traurigkeit” of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston share only on their surface some common sense of Istanbul’s melancholy which is rooted even more deeply in the Sufi mystic’s sense of spiritual loss on looking back on the fleeting moment of epiphantic bliss, unsustainable in this world, the ever-yearned “close encounter” with God’s presence, which if momentarily aproximated, is forever thereafter lost this side of death. Pamuk’s “huzun,” a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) thus denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss coupled with historical loss, but also for the living, a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind” as he puts it, “that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”

The Christian equivilant might be the emotional complex associated with Saint John of the Cross, whereby the seeker’s anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down in his soul that he will, with innate bouyancy and the operation of the equal and opposite spiritual laws of counteraction, soar to its divine desire. Huzun is therefore,like other bi-polar narcotic addictives, a sought-after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer distress in withdrawal. “It is the failure to experience huzun,” Pamuk says of the craving, “that leads him to feel it.” According to Pamuk, moreover, huzun is not a mere personal preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the mere melancholy of an individual but the black mood of millions shared, as they share their common history, which if past, is yet ever present.

Born in Istanbul, Pamuk, the first Turkish citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, is now Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches Comparative Literature and Writing. His novels include “The White Castle,” “The Black Book,” “The New Life,” and “My Name Is Red” and “Snow.”



Ottoman Empire


The Ottoman Empire rose from obscure beginnings around 1300 in the wake of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate’s devastation by the Mongol invasion and in the presence of the slow deterioration and lingering dismemberment and death of the neighboring Byzantine Empire, whose capital of one thousand years, Constantinople, was one and the same city with Pamuk’s Istanbul. The first leader Osman, from whose name the word Ottoman derives, and his successors began to dominate and unite the various Turkic tribes of Anatolia, the land of modern-day Turkey and consolidate them under a centralized Turkic and Islamic state. After a brief setback from their defeat by Timur, a new young Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror thrust the Ottomans onto the world stage by successfully conquering Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire. Afterwards, under Selim and Suleiman the Magnificant the Empire was extended to include Egypt and North Africa, the European Balkans up to the approaches to Vienna, and finally Baghdad and Iraq, resulting in the transfer of the Caliphate, nominal dominion of all Muslims, to Constantinople the new Ottoman capital.

By 1600 the Ottoman Empire had become a superpower, far larger than any existing European state in both territory and population, which approached 20-30 millions, compared to only 5 million in England and 10 million in France. However, by the Law of Unintended Consequences the Ottomans sewed also the first seeds of their own demise, as their monopoly of the Far East trade with China and India resulting from their capture of Constantinople impelled Columbus on his voyage to China which led to the discovery of the Americas, the installation of Spain as the first global Empire and then to the growth of the rival global empires of France and Britain and Russia, the allies who would in their victory over the Ottomans and their German allies in World War I dismantle the Ottoman Empire forever.

In the meantime, however, several centuries of Ottoman reign would afford ample opportunity for the development of a rich literature, part of the common heritage of the world.






Mihri Khatun (1445-1512) was the most distinguished Turkish woman poet of the early Ottoman Empire. She came from a glorious Sufi family, a descendant of Pir Ilyas, the Sheikh of Amasya. Her intellectual family provided her with illustrious private tutors and access to the copious family library. She proved to have an inborn talent for poetry, and came to excel in the ghazal genre of love poetry. In addition, like the later grande dames of the Paris “salons” she occupied at striking figure in intellectual, governmental and artistic circles. Her ghazals were an expression of her amatory experience and a capacity for Platonic spiritualized love in the Sufi tradition. Many of her love poems were inspired by and dedicated to Iskender Celbi, the son of the world-renown Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan Pasha. Sinan was celebrated as the “Turkish Michelangelo” as he built or designed the great mosques that made such a striking contribution ot the world architectural heritage, such as the Suleiman and Sultan Ahmet Grand Mosques which still dominate the skylines of Istanbul and many other Muslim cities. Our first impression of Islamic architecture, a domed mosque flanked by four towering and pointed minarets, was a form created by Sinan. It can be said that he worked in the same spirit of the Rennaisance as did Michangelo and Da Vinci in that he borrowed the domed design of the Byzantine Christian Hagia Sophia from the past and reworked it in an Islamic format, creating the Islamic grand style of architecture we still celebrate in the grand mosques and such structures as the Taj Mahal in India. In fact he was a close contemporary of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, actually competing with Da Vinci in both submitting designs for a bridge across the Golden Horn in an international competition sponsored by the Sultan. Both Sinan and Michelangelo changed the face of architecture for centuries in their respective domains of influence and thus the term “The Turkish Michelangelo” is no exaggeration. Be that as it may, Sinan’s son also inspired Mihri Khatun to leave an additional legacy to the world in her poetry, such as her renown “I Opened My Eyes From Sleep:”

I opened my eyes from sleep, and suddenly raised my head
There I saw the moon-face of the love-theif, shining

My star of good luck had risen—I was thus exalted
When in my chamber I saw this Jupiter rise to the evening sky

He appeared to be a Muslim, but by his dress an infidel
And divine light poured from lthe beauty of his face

I opened, then closed my eyes, but he had vanished from my sight
All I know of him—he was an angel or a faery

Now she knows the water of life,
Mihri will not die until the Judgement Day
For she has seen that visible Alexander
in the eternal dark of night

Thus notably Mihri Khatun includes in her poetry both Muslim and Classical Greek references along with a spirit of Sufi longing after the beloved, divine or sexual, reminding us that the Muslim world was also an equal heir to Aristotle, Plato, Alexander and the Classical Greek and Roman heritage, along with the inheritors of the Western Renaissance such as Petrarch and Shakespeare. Both the Western masters of the Renaissance and the Muslim masters of the earlier Islamic Golden Age which preserved so much of the Greek and Roman heritage, saw and acheived so much each in their times, because, as Newton stated, “they stood on the shoulders of giants,” i.e., both Muslim and Western geniuses standing on the same Greek and Roman shoulders as the common heritage of both civilizations.


Evliya Celebi (1611-1684) is often referred to by the nickname of “The Turkish Marco Polo” not only because of his extensive travels but also for his voluminous writings giving his impressions, social conditions, geography and in-depth cultural cultural insights regarding the lands and peoples he visited. He was the son of the chief jeweler of the Ottoman royal court and his family’s immense wealth gave him the time and resources to devote himself to his chief and obsessive passion: travel. He traveled to every corner of the Ottoman Empire, from the Balkan domains neighboring Vienna to modern Saudi Arabia, into North Africa and through Egypt southwards into Africa, and then beyond the Empire into Russia and beyond. While not as extensive as the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, his travels were extraordinary and his writing of them masterful.


By any standards, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was an extraordinary worman who lived an extraordinary life at a time when few women had such opportunities. A countess and cousin to the great novelist Henry Fielding, she took advantage of her wealth and social position to educate herself to become a notable classical scholar, translator and poet, following in the footsteps of other aristocratic women of the French salons such as Madame de Sevigne. As a girl she was mentored by many illustrious tutors such as Mary Astell, who published and attempted a plan to found a Protestant women’s convent dedicated to the intellect of women, and Bishop Montagu. Her later mentor, Edward Wortley Montagu’s intellectual guidance became amatory, and her father refusing permission for them to marry, she finally eloped with him.

Like the “precieuses” or intellectual court ladies of the French salons she wrote and circulated poetry to closer friends and aristocratic acquaintances, in her social class it being considered ungenteel and unladylike to publish for the masses, and her writings became generally known only after her death. She proved herself, however, unlike the “ladies of sentiment” of the Continent, to be more interested in satire, wit and sex. Like Aphra Behn before her she was the object of scandal and admiration and dabbled in journalism, producing an edition of “The Spectator” for her friends Addison and Steele. She was a personal friend of Alexander Pope with whom she exchanged letters and poetry until they became enemies after he satirized her in his famous poem “Epistle II: To a Lady.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s life became inextricably connected with the Ottoman Empire when her husband Wortley Montagu was named ambassador to the Sublime Porte and she accompanied him to reside in Constantinople. In the collection of letters later published after her death as the “Turkish Embassy Letters” and written during her residence in Constantinople she provides an intimate account of women’s lives in both worlds, illuminated by her observations, thoughts, comparisons and contrasts. While Western men and writers such as Flaubert and Montesquieu fantasized about life in a Turkish harem as in the latter’s “Persian Letters,” her sex allowed her to intimately visit and observe the reality. Ironically, she was able to enjoy greater freedom walking the streets of Constantinople in Muslim women’s dress using the veil as a mask, than she could enjoy as an aristocratic lady in London, allowing her to make close observation of various classes of society of the Turkish capital.

Upon her return ot England she helped to popularize the Turkish practice of inoculation against smallpox, which was more accepted there than in Europe, publically inoculating her own two children to help overcome public fears of the vaccination process.

In 1739, at the age of fifty, she broke off her friendship with Alexander Pope and ran off to Italy with a bisexual writer, Francesco Algarotti, less than half her age and continued relations with him for the next twenty years until his death, though using her wealth to live in expatriate exile independently of both her lover and her husband. From Italy she wrote about her alienation as a foreigner and as a woman from all the worlds she had tried to inhabit. Returning to England only in the final year of her life at seventy-three her final words were: “It has all been most interesting.”


Fuzuli was the pen name used by Mehmed Ibn Sulayman (1480-1556) who is renown in Turkish letters as the court laureate in the reign of Suleyman the Magnificant, a writer of mystic and personal love poems, and, being a Shi’ite Muslim, on the tragic events of Karbala’s history attached to the martyrdom of Hussein, successor of Ali. Like most Islamic poets, he wrote in several languages, his native Turkish, Arabic and the Persian language used in royal and scholarly circles, and wrote extensive prose works on philosophy, religious issues and literary criticism in addition to his poetry. His themes focus on the human emotions, mystic love, wisdom, Sufi mysticism and also court pangyrics celebrating the Sultan and the Grand Vizir. Though Turkish he spent almost all of his life in Iraq as it became a part of the Ottoman Empire.

His most famous work was his “Layla and Majnun” (Layla wa Majnum)a story of “star-crossed lovers” akin to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, also rendered by many other writers across the Islamic world such as the Persian Poet Nizami. It tells the story of Quys, or Majnun (The Madman)who fell insanely in love with his soulmate Layla. Prevented from marrying by her father who objectet to his poverty and scandalously lunatic behavious towards his beloved, he in desperation took up the life of a wanderer writing poems about her and observing her from afar. She marries another of her father’s choice, but out of her love for Majnun refuses to consummate the marriage and dies of a broken heart. Majnun also dies of grief on her grave after inscribing lyrics of undying love on the neighboring rocks. Buried together, two trees grow on their graves whose trunks and branches are inseperably fused.

His own life followed a similar path of love, when as a young scholar he fell in love with the daughter of his mentor, Rahmat Allah. Illustrative of his love theme is his poem, “Oh God, Don’t Let Anyone Be Like Me!”

Oh God, don’t let anyone be like me,
crying and disheveled
Oh God, don’t let anyone be an addict of love’s
pain and separation’s blow

Always I have been oppressed by those merciless
idols, those beloveds
Oh God, don’t let a Muslim be a slave
to those infidels

I see the moon-faced one, thinking of killing me
with her love
I’m unafraid, oh God, just don’t let her change
her mind

When they want to draw from my body the arrowhead
of the cypress-bodied one
Oh God, let it be my wounded heart they take
but not her arrow

I’m accustomed to misery and cruelty–how would
life be without them?
Oh God, don’t let my suffering be limited
nor her tyranny end

Don’t say that she shows no justice, that she is
so unfair
Oh God, let no one but her be sultan
on the throne of my heart

In the corner of this tavern Fuzuli found a treasure
of delight
Oh God, this is a holy place, may it never
be brougt to ruin


Nedim (1681-1730), is the penname and a nickname meaning “drinking companion” used by Ahmed Mehmed Nadim, Poet Laureate of the Ottoman Empire and a close friend and drinking companion of Sultan Ahmed III and his Grand Vizir, Damad Ibrahim Pasha. Under Nedim’s influence Turkish poetry came of age, acquiring a pure Turkish style and new themes, distinguishing itself from the classical Arabic and Persian poetry on which was modeled for many centuries. Nedim was also associated with Sultan Ahmed III’s controversial Westernizing policies, comparable to those undertaken by Tsar Peter the Great in Russia around the same period, which in Turkey however resulted in a reactionary movement which deposed the modernizing Sultan rather than Peter’s successful undertaking. His poem “At the Gathering of Desire” is addressed to “Saki,” meaning a court cup-bearer or beloved, a name later used by Edwardian British short story master H.H. Munro:

At the gathering of desire you made me a wine-cup
with your sugar smile
Oh Saki, give me only half a cup of wine
you’ve made me drunk enough

You crushed me under the hoof of a wild horse
that runs like fire
In those places flames rise up from my ashes
like cypress trees

Ah, east wind, you came to me with the scent
of my lover’s hair
You made me love-bewildered like the huacinth’s curl

With your beauteous grace my hair has been standing
like a jinn
With love you’ve made me mirror-colored from head
to foot

Don’t make your crying Nedim drunk and devastated
like that
Saki, give me only half a cup of wine, you’ve made
me drunk enough


My own work, particularly Spiritus Mundi, the contemporary and futurist epic is also influenced by Islamic literary traditions. It features one major character, Mohammad ala Rushdie who is a Sufi novice in the Mevlevi order who is also a modern social activists in the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy. He in the course of the novel is taken hostage by terrorists and meets the Supreme Leader of Iran, urging him to “Open the Gates of Ijtihad” or reinvigorate Islamic tradition with creative reasoning and openness rather than binding it to blind precedent and unthinking tradition. Another historical chapter, “Neptune’s Fury” features the sojourn of Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorius in Istanbul as his ship is repaired after the battle of Alexandria against Napoleon’s fleet in which the Turks and British were allies, experiencing “huzun” for the Byzantine past.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s