Byzantine, Columbia University, Constantinople, Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk, Ottoman, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Did you know –
Istanbul, the current day name of the capital city of Turkey was known by the name Qustuntuniya (Constantinople in Roman), under the Islamic era, and this name had been prevalent since the third century..
Istanbul is one of the oldest cities in the world, and her name has been changed several times during different regimes. Qustuntuniya or Istanbul in the present day, is a unique city in the world as far as her location and history is concerned. It is the only city in the world which is half in Europe and half in Asia. The straits of Bosporus divide the two halves, with one end merging into the Black Sea, and the other half merging into the Ocean of Marmara. It has been the capital of the Roman Empire for eleven centuries, and its culture was dominating the entire world, as it was regarded to be the ‘Superpower’ of the world. The principle church of Eastern Christianity was also situated here, whose head was known as the Patriarch. Thus, this city had, simultaneously, become the centre of both Christianity and the Byzantine Empire
Here is a wonderful passage written by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, describing his fascination for the Urdu lafz Qustuntuniya and his childhood memories with that land and the word –
By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Qustuntuniya…A word, name, a place, a city. It has lived in my consciousness since when I was a child and didn’t perhaps quite know what the name Qustuntunia stood for in our history, the history of the world of Muslims, the history of the world. The word reverberated in my soul, a living, organic power in a large jungle of new words that I kept exploring every day. Words that I heard in older people’s conversations, or nowhere in particular, but they came to me confidently, like guests sure of a lavish, even respectful welcome, someone alien but bringer of good things perhaps. I learnt perhaps from my father that Qustuntuniya was the ancient name of a City whose real name was Istanbul. It was in an Urdu novel about the Ottomans that I read as a twelve-year-old-seeker after all knowledge, that I learnt that Istanbul was also baab-i aali whose English/French meaning I learnt much later to be sublime porte. But Qustutuniya retained a special puissance for me. It rang loud and beautiful like the sound of the huge copper orb that did duty as my school bell whose edges were rough but whose middle on both sides was beaten to a burnished gold due to the rhythmic mallet-strokes of my school’s bellringer.
The year was 1943, and the city was Azamgarh, a big-looking-to-me but actually a small town in the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh of India that I heard the school bell for the first time as an eight-year old. The school was left behind in the journey of years but the magic of the bell, and of the name Qustuntuniya that somehow symbolized the bell, remained. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties there was a spate of cheap Urdu novels depicting the exploits of Ghazi Mustapha Kemal Ata Turk, Ghazi Ismet Enunu, and their small band of intrepid warriors who fought on the one hand against the spies and the cruelty cohort of the secret police of the Sultan Abdelhamit and also against the wiles and guiles of the western politicians who were at war with each other but were united in their aim of dismembering the Ottoman empire and also destroying the entity of Turkey as a nation.
My heart went out to the Ghazis when I read those novels but I also regretted in a not unsubtle way the passing of the Caliphate. Be that as it may, but my Istanbul was intact. It wasn’t overrun by the boots of the westerner who had loved to describe Turkey as the sick man of Europe. The Ghazis had saved it for me. The word Istanbul may not have had the electric guitar-like boom and reverberation, but it was home to my Ghazis, and it was successor to my dreaded and loved
Qustuntuniya which reminded me of my school-bell, my school days, and the of the Ottomans. Somehow the rhythm of Ottoman seemed to coincide in my brain with Qustuntuniya just as Ghazi stood for me for those unknown but honoured soldiers who fought in the seventh century at Rum, one of whom was Eyup Ansari, the Prophet’s beloved companion, who is buried at what is now known plainly as Eyup and from where I could see the Black Sea stretching beyond my mind’s eye when I visited Eyup in 1995. Later, when the world’s geography and history became somewhat clearer to me, I came to understand more of the marvel that is the Bosporos, the narrow, but blue, how so blue river-like sea that separates Istanbul from Istanbul, Europe from Asia. In the the dirty
yellow paper novels of my early boyhood I used to read of the Haggia Sofia, often described as the Aya Sofia Mosque. But little did I know of the wonder of the high ceiling, almost beyond the reach of the eye, of the oreil windows that seemed to prevent the light from coming in rather than let the light enter and illumine some of the vast interior that seemed so full of the mystery of esoteric knowledge. But nothing, not even Francis Robinson’s description, had prepared me for the four
minarets that Sinan Pasha had hung so miraculously upon the Haggia Sofia with such imaginative precision and mathematical balance that they seemed to have grown up with that ancient pile.
All that I knew of the Suleymanieh mosque was its seven minarets, so slim and so strong that they seemed to have been cast almost from the steel which had been used by my Indian Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century BCE to inscribe upon them religious and secular edicts throughout the the length and breadth of the country. In fact, one stood right in the middle of my city of Allahabad in Uttar
Pradesh, six hundred kilometres sout-east of Delhi. Uncorroded, untamed by wind and weather, unshaken by storm and rain, the Asokan pillar stands testimony to the victory of mind over matter, of matter over the elements. The minarets of the Suleymanieh seemed to me to be of the same class, as if stone had fossilized and assumed the properties of steel. In the American Museum of Natural History I saw huge slabs of agate and amethyst that were wood millions of years of ago and in the 12th century Fort of Bidar in South India I saw steel cannon balls lying in the open and turning to stone as the centuries rolled gently away over them. The minarets of the Suleymanieh haven’t needed millions of years to look like pencils of solid steel, as if time has foreshortened itself by some inner force exerted upon it by the millions upon million of times that the Name of God has been said in it.
In the Suleimaniyeh I met a personable young man who was perhaps a junior Imam and who was delighted to receive a friendly visitor from Hindistan. He spoke to me warmly in fluent, Qur’anic
Arabic while I whose Arabic is barely minimal tried to get an occasional shukran (thanks) or na’am (yes) edgeways. We parted at the best of terms but the memory that most lingered in my mind was that of the Imam’s podium rising almost up to the incredibly high ceiling. Istanbul had evolved into my consciousness over the decades before we visited there in 1995. It was the city of the Ottomans, but it was also a city on whose shore somewhere nearby a Homer had read or declaimed his poem to a rapt audience, a city where aspiring orators from ancient Rome came to learn the art of public oratory. It was also the city of pottery of incredible blue and green hues and one of my most cherished possessions today is a set of cups of hues bright-anddull, so striking that they wouldn’t have been out of place in the collection of the Iranian emperor Jamshid who possessed a goblet in
which he could see the whole world at will. The covered bazaar, big as a city, where I bought it would have been a jewel even in the crown of Shahjahan’s Delhi. The people of Istanbul are most courteous, notwithstanding the fact that our English was little understood there, and my marginal
French too wasn’t much use. I found that German would have served better, had I had some German. Once I and my wife disembarked the vaporetto at a place that I was confident was Uskudar, on the Asian side of the city, where our hotel was. I found to my confusion that despite
the mosque and the street formations and the lights being entirely similar, we were in some place else. Turning into the street where our hotel was, I found that the hotel was mysteriously not there. But there were friendly people aplenty who told me in reasonable English that I should take a taxi to go to Uskudar across the water. They found us a taxi at the kerb who took us across a huge bridge, silent at that hour, and then through quiet lanes and bylanes that reminded me of Old Delhi, though not of the nineties, but of the early sixties when one could see familiar faces and hear snatches of familar conversations while driving slowly through the backstreets of Shahjahanabad at night.
Conversation with our taxi driver was impossible, but in his quietly hummimg motor coursing swiftly over the moonlit bridge, we felt quite safe and uncheated. In due course he deposited us right at the steps that led up to the street to our hotel and I swear I couldn’t distinguish at all between it and the one which we had left the best part of an hour ago.
Many years later, reading that overpowering book Istanbul by that towering genius Orhan Pamuk, I felt that he saw Istanbul as a semi-dilapidated, semi-tragic, semi-westernized giant that was groping
for its place in the modern world. My best memory of Istanbul is of a lunch in the Tope Kapi Museum high over the water whose waves danced incessantly telling us of the ancient Greek and Roman galleys, Western men of war, Ottoman warships that had lived and died upon that water but some of whose blood, and wisdom, and poetry, and philosophy had remained on the mainland for ever.
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi