Encountering Cultures, Peter Ellis, Travel
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Chalk and Cheese

Sketch by Peter Ellis

The split personality of some cities was brought home to Peter Ellis when an ill-starred love affair ended in Istanbul.

Identical twins are never totally identical. Even before birth, one receives the bulk of mother’s goodness and this goes on into life. I have twin nephews, which I struggle – even after eighteen years – to tell apart. One has a pretty girlfriend and is studying for a sparkling career in architecture, the other is alone and sorting letters for the Royal Mail.

As it is with people, so it is with cities: one place; two fortunes. The dichotomy between Edinburgh’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ towns helped lay the foundation for Robert Louis Stevenson’s quintessential tale of the bipolar, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hungary’s capital has its ‘Buda’ facing its ‘Pest’ across the Danube (though I don’t know which gained the lion’s share of the country’s fortunes). And a north Londoner would throw up their hands in horror at crossing the Thames and settling ‘darn sarf’.

Water so often separates these urban twins. When I was in Khartoum – Sudan’s capital – I lived in a ghost town of embassies, government ministries, and NGO offices. The real life was over the Nile, in Omdurman. During the Darfur crisis, when the UN invaded, landlords could charge rents that would have made a Londoner wince and there were all-night, booze-fuelled parties on roof-top terraces. Once the aid money dried up and Sharia law was enforced, the parties ended, leaving a shell; Omdurman continued to bubble with the heat of traditional, communal living.

But it was a visit to Istanbul that most brought home the schizophrenic nature of certain cities. Unique as the city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, it started life as a clone: the original city – Constantinople – was founded as a second Rome once the original eternal city had outlived its usefulness. Then, after years of war and countless deaths, it was captured by the Ottomans and reborn as Istanbul.

Now the Turks’ great prize feels like an unwanted orphan. During low season and when the tourists have returned to their hotels for the night, more stray cats wander its lanes than people. At evening prayers in antique, cavernous mosques there are hardly enough worshipers to make up a football team, let alone a conquering army of the faithful. And down by the sea, on the shores of the Golden Horn, once majestic timber villas lie empty and rotting.

But take the bridge and cross the Horn and feel the city’s life-blood seeping back. Here the locals pack the shops and restaurants in one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, avant-garde galleries put on risqué shows and its streets and squares form the focus of social and political protests. As far back as the nineteenth century, the Ottoman sultans knew this was the happening side of the Horn, abandoning the old Topkapi Palace and moving east to build their western-looking Dolmabahce mansion.

I visited Istanbul with my new Russian girlfriend, our small hotel room a foretaste of our planned future home together. A snowstorm started to brew when she announced she was leaving and going back to Moscow. No explanation was given. As the snow swirled in the night sky I was left alone to wander the streets of old Constantinople and brood on what might have been and the rift that separates the sexes.

—x—

Illustration by Peter Ellis

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