Turkey – Istanbul

020_0357.jpgLeaving my sightseeing too late, the Topkapi Palace and Harem are closed for the day, but Haghia Sophia waits. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532, she remained the most important church in Christendom for nearly 1 000 years and thereafter, with the arrival of the Turks, was declared a mosque. Since 1934, she has been a museum, where Christian and Moslem symbols live in happy harmony. Her age is revealed in the worn slope of her pale marble steps, her spiritual history acknowledged by the silent awe of her visitors. Heads are raised to the great ochre arches above, and bowed to the distant pale grey marble floor below. The evening sun slants through the western windows, sending brilliant shafts of light through the cool dark interior. The light flows around green marble pillars and skims lacy stone balustrades; it bounces off the golden mosaics, leaving flecks of light on the gleaming floors before catching in the glass of the oil lamps, which hang like bells from curved metal chandeliers.

Dusk slowly creeps into the great corridors, and people vanish through marble arches and copper-clad doors until it is just me, Haghia Sophia and the guards, who, although it is minutes past closing time, remain at respectful distance to allow me the rare pleasure of having this space to myself. I find the centre of the great dome that was said to ‘change the history of architecture’, and in the ringing silence stare up into the vast space. Time resides there. With a little nod the nearest guard lets me know that my time has come, they would like to go home now, would I mind?

Across Sultanahmet Square, at the Blue Mosque, life is still moving apace. Salep vendors – men in traditional Turkish outfits who carry huge silver pots of tea on their backs – dispense steaming cups of tea with a slight bow. Others sell flutes, spin taffy lollies or tell your fortune with a psychic rabbit. Hawkers sell boiled corn on the cob, and salesmen roam the square, balancing giant trays of crisp sesame rings on their heads.

‘Where are you from?’

The question is obviously addressed at me. I look around and am face to face with a beautiful young man with dark hair, square jaw, piercing eyes and sensuous mouth, set in a pale complexion.

‘I just want to talk a minute.’

The pretty boy falls into step beside me. What does he want? He is not a beggar; he is far too groomed for that.

‘Can I show you around?’

As I climb the steps to the Blue Mosque, I try to work out what I am dealing with. Is this a hustler, a thief or just a friendly local trying to make a visitor feel welcome? I am reluctant to get rude and huffy until I am sure it is appropriate. I don’t have a handbag filled with valuables flapping about, so am not concerned about being robbed, but do I really want this man to be quite so close? Looking back over the crowds in front of the Blue Mosque, I notice that there are pretty boys everywhere. Where are you from? Do you need a guide? The questions are asked over and over. The penny drops; these pretty boys are working boys. It seems they have found that a certain group of women, middle aged and traveling alone, are fair game for a bit of tour guiding, company and dinner. The pretty boys would probably sell their souls along with all the accompanying flesh if the price were right. I am not interested; pretty poor boys, I am sure, make pretty poor company. I politely dismiss my hanger on.

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