So much of Istanbul straddles two worlds like a strange portal: It is both religious and secular, conservative and progressive, blooming and decaying like fall and spring took hold of each other and didn’t know how to let go. It is ancient and modern, filled with the graves of brazen sultans alongside gleaming sky-high structures, brazen in their disregard of the dome-topped mosques and modest abodes climbing steadily up winding hills. And, of course, the city itself is the only one in the world to straddle two continents, Europe and Asia, separated by the narrow passageway of the blue Bosphorus Strait.
These dichotomies exist in every city, I’m sure, but the blend of cultures in Istanbul made it a wholly unknown place to me. My first hazy glimpse of the city through the taxi window was like a look into another world: women in head scarves strolling past men fishing on the edge of the water across the road from a crumbling ancient monument that no longer had a name. Horns honked, people yelled, the driver spoke a lumpy molasses mumble into his phone, never pausing for input from the other end, just a one-sided monologue I couldn’t understand. And then, the most unknown sound of all: the ezan. The call to prayer.
The ezan is sung by the muezzin, who is unique to each mosque. This is his job. To sing and to serve allah. He trains from a young age to perfect the art of melodiously bringing allah and Muhammad into the souls of all who can be reached with the sound of his call, be they muslim or not. Though the central purpose of the ezan is to bring all to worship, it is also meant to be beautiful. This is what I love about it most: all dogma aside, it is simply about beauty.
This recording is from the Ortaköy mosque during July’s full moon. I sat on a rooftop patio with friends smoking nargile and playing backgammon while the moon rose behind the golden minarets, fiery against the black sky. We listened in silence while in the distance, those walking below us sent paper lantern wishes up from the water’s shore, orange orbs of hope floating lazily into the heavens, lifted higher by the muezzin’s angelic cry.