There must exist things more dramatic than a philharmonic orchestra performing in an ancient city in an ancient church during a summer lightning storm but I do not know them.
En route, I drove on the highway in a taxi. The clouds hung low and ominous, dark but still unbroken. We flew past the massive soccer stadium with skeletal glass high-rises over looking it, desolate in their partially-complete construction, seemingly abandoned. High up, where the wind must be sharp and cold, I saw two silhouettes standing on one of the balconies, 30 stories up. They are insane, I thought, but I can imagine the view. Then hill after hill of forest trees, like green cotton balls, began to blend into clusters of shanty clay and grey buildings, the sky hanging over them like wrath itself — lingering, dusty. The rattle of a huge Turkish flag hitting its post boomed over the rush of cars, declaring itself like thunder. And just then, suddenly, the sky challenged back.
A sheet of hail descended without any gracious warning, some pieces of ice even dropping into my lap. It was a dull but blinding sheet that consumed us so suddenly that it took longer to slow down than to lose sight of the road. I couldn’t see…anything. To the right I knew, though now beyond a thick fog, that there was a rail and a sharp drop into the valley. Don’t go over, I said, and began writing: It is white. The sky is flashing and then rumbling with the sound of thunder less than a mile away. The road is flooding quickly, the two back wheels of the taxi keep hydroplaning, and the water is racing down windows and streets and flipping off of tires in waves. I tell the driver to slow down, a request I commonly employ here but that is never obeyed except in this one, remarkable circumstance. It ceases, though not entirely. I roll the window back down and the air smells damp and unclean, humid.
The orchestra played loudly and even then couldn’t compete with the space, Hagia Irene. It is a simple, grand church with some faded gold paint decorating the domed altar above, a large, thin cross outlined atop it. The rest is stone and window (large pane glass, illuminated with flashes of lightning).
I wanted to hear the music, to listen to it absolutely, but I was busy imagining the lives of the musicians, what the soprano’s house must look like and the first violinist’s son. I was especially busy piecing together what I was sure must be the greatest love story of the century between the two violinists directly in front of me, side by side, continuously eyeing each other, smirking over parts of the music, whispering during the thundering applause. I watched the expressions of the conductor as he hopped and seized, struck up the flutists and quieted the cellists, playfully stuck out his tongue at the end of a crescendo; I have never seen a conductor so enraptured by his orchestra, an orchestra so enraptured by its leader.
The old city was desolate. Maybe from the storm or the fear or the economy, or all. It was spectacular so empty. So we walked on top of buried relics and next to museums which used to be mosques which used to be Roman which used to be Greek; sidewalks made of stone laid by emperors, Crusaders; baths built by sultans for their legions of wives. We walked in the damp, slippery, cobblestoned darkness. What history, what battle and defeat, what glory, what change. What contradiction.
And then I thought that this is the Istanbul I would like to write about. So I began.