Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It

Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It




When I looked into the mirror in the hotel bathroom on the morning of the second day, I realized that sleeping with the sight of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia fresh in my eyes had made my eyelids puff up to truly unmanageable proportions. Blinking was a painful practice, as there seemed to be bits of mosaics and minarets trapped beneath my lids, grating against my vision every time I closed my eyes for even the briefest instant.

We had been careening through the city and our speed only served to intensify the impression its sights made upon me. Within the blurred motion from wonder to wonder, certain moments stand transfixed and magnified in my eye, refusing to fade even now.

I glimpsed my first view of the city at large from the hotel balcony the morning we arrived. The seagulls that crowded the neighboring rooftops cackled at my wonderment. One in particular glared at me disapprovingly as I attempted to take a decent photograph of the city’s toothsome skyline, knowing perhaps that even if I had wielded the camera more skillfully, I still would not be able to do it justice.

Apologetically, I snapped the camera’s shutter closed, with simply the press of a button capturing a second’s worth of light, but inevitably letting escape the sight itself. My avian detractor shook his feathers at me and flew off indignantly.

But little time was to be had for loitering or lamenting the inadequacy of my methods for recording experience, and in a moment I too abandoned the balcony. Leaving the hotel, we walked up the middle of the narrow streets. The city appeared to be either undecided or in hopeless disagreement with itself upon the choice of a color pallet. Red roses bloomed against the slate color of the cold Marmara and an arrangement of houses painted in bright yellows and blues provided the backdrop for the browning leaves of deciduous trees.

When the Blue Mosque came into view above the other buildings, its countless domes of deep grey were shaped against the sheen of an overcast sky into a perfect cloud. Swift patches of sunlight cast a golden gleam here and there. As I entered the improbably delicate structure of stone, pulling a scarf round my head was as much a gesture of respect as an act for my own protection—amongst the camera-toting crowds it seemed inappropriate to become lost in awe, as I was like to do beneath the curves and intersections of color that patterned the floating arches and domes.

Cats wandered around the courtyard of the mosque—and all through the Hagia Sofia as well—fat, friendly creatures flocking to the city’s places of worship because they know man’s salvation is their own, while men feed them because they sense that even a cat’s salvation means much to theirs. It was these the moments of small magic—the cat admiring a chandelier in the Hagia Sofia, the young men hawking lurid spinning tops in the open air of the Hippodrome, the shape of a completely unnecessary arch over the window of a tower along the Theodosian Wall—that saved for me the moments of greater beauty, which otherwise would have risked the numbed simplification of a series of overwhelming images experienced in rapid succession.

Still, I feel as if I have been through a blanching and have not yet quite recovered from the shock. In flashes seen from the window of the hired car as it carried us off to the airport, the city offered all its promises of a life to be had only there, all its possibilities of intimacy if only I gave myself to experiencing it. Thus I left Istanbul as suddenly as I had arrived, taking away with me a few souvenirs, some questionable photographs, and a need to return.

Katherine James is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Electra Street Editorial Collective.