Homage to an Istanbul lover

Homage to an Istanbul lover

I will never forget a panel on Ottoman cuisine held in Topkapı Museum last year. It was a lousy rainy day. I had to carry myself dutifully to attend just to listen to my friends, Özge Samancı and Arif Bilgin, two expert historians on the topic. However, I was soon to find out a surprise, a last minute speaker that gave the most interesting talk of the day.

He was passionately speaking about mallow and how popular it was in the Ottoman court. He stated that strangely there was no record of mallow purchase in court fiscal records. Apparently mallows were not bought but foraged from the outer gardens surrounding Topkapı Palace. Then came that bit of knowledge, I was to remember forever. The court used to recruit elderly women just for the purpose. The old women were knowledgeable and experienced in foraging and it was their duty to supply court kitchen with all the edible wild greens, herbs and medicinal plants. And apparently mallow was the most popular functional greens that was favored by the Ottoman royals. I was stunned to learn this detail, which reveals another untold story of Ottoman cuisine. That very moment, I told myself that I’d better follow every single speech he’ll ever give. I told myself that I have to attend every single talk he was to give. Alas, that will never happen, we lost Professor Ahmet Halûk Dursun in a terrible car crash last week.

He was a distinguished historian, a dedicated scholar of Ottoman history and the former director of Topkapı Museum. Last year he was appointed as a deputy minister to the Culture and Tourism Ministry and that was the reason he took stage on the panel. He was to make an inaugural speech as the deputy minister, but he was far from being a stuffy bureaucrat who would bore the audience with an irrelevant talk. Instead, he was so passionate about the intricate details of daily life in the Ottoman court that he could not help but give a pop-up talk on such details about court kitchen. He was so generous in sharing his knowledge and his attitude in transferring this knowledge was so humble and natural, one could help but be impressed. It was obvious that he was passionate about those minute details precious to food historians, but totally negligible for most history-centric scholars.

He was also in love with Istanbul, where he first came as a young student to Galatasaray boarding school, at the tender age of 11. He vividly describes his first impression of the city in the foreword of his book “İstanbul’da Yaşama Sanatı/The Art of Living in Istanbul,” unfortunately available only in Turkish. The school building was adjacent to Çırağan Palace, on the brim of the Bosphorus strait, an unmatched location to fall in love with the eternal city. He says he first saw a blossoming magnolia tree in the garden of the school and the Judas trees blooming at Fethi Paşa Korusu, the lush woods just on the other side of the strait, painting the hills with its unique pinkish purple, recognized as the color of Istanbul. These first encounters with the fascinating flora of the city made him an admirer of nature, trees and animals. Later in life, when he became the director of Topkapı Museum he did not hesitate a moment to leave his office to a pair of doves that sneaked in to build their nest onto an antique crystal chandelier so as not to disturb them, and started to use the adjacent smaller room. He also records the first full moon he saw from the dorm window, bathed in moonlight, it might have been the moment his lifelong love affair with the city started.

Being a Modern Age historian, he had managed to combine his French high school education with a deep knowledge of Ottoman literature, history and art.

He practically knew every corner of Istanbul, and he knew how to enjoy the delights the city offers season by season, day by day. He suggests where to watch flowers and birds, how to understand architectural wonders of the city, and of course where and when to eat what and how to find the best of seasonal tastes. His book is full of formidable details of Istanbul’s culinary richness of Istanbul, both contemporary and historic. Each chapter ends with a “Notes for the Curious” section, which contains information to be kept at pocket all times. Finally the book has a chapter solely dedicated to the culinary traditions of the past and tastes of Istanbul. He talks about fruits and vegetables of the city, gives us a detailed account of special fruits of every district, and above all writes about fish seasons, when to eat which fish, giving examples from historical sources, tells fish festivals of the past, informs us on religious dietary restrictions of diverse communities concerning mussels and all seafood. One easily understands that he used to enjoy his fish, in the prime time, cooked in the right way. Again it must be his first taste of Istanbul’s famous lüfer/blue fish that made him an aficionado of Istanbul flavors.

His book is an ode to his beloved adapted city. Rejecting being nostalgic, he embraces also the contemporary changes, but dutifully points out hidden treasures and traditions that are on the verge of being lost to history.

I wish I listened to him more often, I wish I could be one of his pupils that had the chance to stroll in the lesser known corners of the city. He was a passionate Istanbulite, unfortunately a treasure we have lost too soon. His funeral was brought back to his native town Hereke, but I’m sure his soul will rest upon the skies of Istanbul forever.