Navigating the Bosphorus with Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul thrives on its engagement with the Bosphorus, the natural strait that joins the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.

It is an intensely used waterway, both for the navigation of cargo ships and for public transportation. Istanbullus, the city’s residents, travel by boat between various neighborhoods on the European and Asian shores of the Bosphorus; navigating its waters is one of the main ways they move about the city.

But the Bosphorus is more than that. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Prize laureate in literature, writes in Istanbul: Memories and the City:

If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy, and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure, and happiness. Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus. But in earlier times, no one gave it much importance: They saw the Bosphorus as a waterway, a beauty spot, and…a fine location for summer palaces.

That’s in the past. Beyond providing a practical service to the city and its residents as a resource, the Boğazı/Βόσπορος is a metaphor for the encounter between Asia and Europe, for re-unifying the poorly-conceived division of the world into East and West.

And to me, it is primarily a place that expresses the creative power of Natura Naturans, that embodies natural beauty and aesthetic admirableness; it thus affords the possibility of human appreciation and contemplation.

We have enjoyed strolling along its shores, in Asian neighborhoods like Kadiköy or Üsküdar and European ones like Beşiktaş. I have appreciated the liveliness and grit of various ports, like Kadiköy, Eminönü, or Karaköy. And we have gazed at its shore-line contours and its waters’ colors and textures from various viewpoints, like the hilltop mosques of Çamlica in Asia and Süleymaniye in Europe.

Most of all, however, I have enjoyed navigating its waters on vapurs (public boats) like an Istanbulite. I have observed the city’s hills from the strait, noticing the topography both concealed and revealed by the constructed and wooded areas.

I have perceived attentively the force of the water currents and winds while observing its residents — the bird species, the pervasive medusas (jelly-fish), and even the bottle-nosed dolphins that the Nereid of the Bosphorus pointed out to me.

Occasionally I have read chapters from Pamuk’s Istanbul while traveling by vapur. The following passage about the Bosphorous sums up the experience of navigating it.

To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic, and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea–that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus. Pushed along by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke, and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveler begins to feel that, in spite of everything, this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and freedom.

Pamuk is a keen observer of the Boğazı that he loves. During my time here I have tried to be a mindful visitor, attentive to the life of the Bosphorus and its residents, human and non-human. I will treasure what they have shown me about life, humanity, and nature–lessons that will surely grow in meaning over time.

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