Staring at the Sun: Meeting God on an Istanbul Rooftop

Four years away from the city of my dreams, and I find myself once again in the heart of Istanbul. My companions are a group of 20-somethings between jobs, exploring the world as much as time and money will allow. This beautiful city has taken me in, enveloped me, seduced me all over again, and I feel at home among the chaos: the smells of the juicy lamb meat roasting in the streets, the mournful moan of the call to prayer lingering over ancient alleyways, the gentle bubble of nargile in a quiet courtyard.

We descend the hill from Süleymaniye Camii, an imposing imperial mosque built at the top of one of one of Istanbul's seven hills, and navigate the familiar winding streets of the old Ottoman city. Today, we are on a treasure hunt. We are searching for an old rooftop I used to frequent, one that gives way to breathtaking views of the city. Rumors are that it is now closed: it was a local secret for years, but after scenes from James Bond's Skyfall were filmed here, word quickly got around and enough people came to visit that it caused damage to the medieval roof. However, we are persistent, and instinct tells me that another rooftop in the area is still open. "What I love about Turkey is that with a little charm and a little insistence, anything is possible," an expat friend here once told me. Today, that is my creed, and admittedly, the thrill of finding a secret rooftop in the middle of the bazaar district gives me a distinctly childish sense of wonder and adventure.

We find ourselves in a forgotten medieval han. Hundreds of years ago, these courtyards served as inns for traveling merchants to rest and trade goods. There are dozens of these hans around the Grand Bazaar, the world's oldest and largest covered market. Today, they serve as spaces for craftsman's shops: glass blowing, jewelry designing, lamp-making, leather dyeing. I am looking for a man named Mehdi. Several years ago, he who would sit here on a small stool, with a ring of dozens of keys in his hands, much like a dungeon master, waiting for a small bribe to let eager thrill seekers up to the rooftop. Since its closing, however, Mehdi bey is rarely around. In any case, the terrace I seek seems to be closed off from the public, a padlock and chains warding off any remaining hope of accessing the stairs going up.

We meet a young man, who beckons us through dark alleys and winding staircases, and leads us up through another courtyard; past blacksmith forges and corner stores, past the gazes of old men with their prayer beads and veiled women cradling their children, past the centuries-old grime of fallen empires, horse drawn carriages, and coal-fed fireplaces. We continue up a crumbling staircase. A door swings open, and the city sprawls out beneath our feet. We have found it.

Seagulls by the dozens swoop in and around us every which way, the deafening sound of their cries and the elegant breeze of the Istanbul summer intoxicating us, whisking us away to another time and place.

Oh Istanbul, how I have missed you! Another rooftop, another day at the center of the world. Moments like these bring me back to Yahya Kemal's poem:

I looked at you from another hill, dear Istanbul!

I know you like the back of my hand, and love you dearly.

Come, come and sit on my heart's throne as long as I live

Just to love a district of yours is worth a whole life.

There are many flourishing cities in the world

but you're the only one who creates enchanting beauty.

I say, he who has lived happily, in the longest dream,

Is he who spent his life in you, died in you, and was buried in you.

An old man feeds the seagulls bits of shrimp and chicken, and they caw and swoop and fight for a bite. A couple kittens sneak in and out of the chaos, stealing a piece of fish here and there. The man turns and greets us as if he had been waiting for us all along, as if to congratulate us on finally finding him, proud of the secret he has been waiting for years to reveal to us.

He stares directly at the sun and whispers almost low enough for the wind to steal his voice away to the city below. "Look," he says, "sun," pointing to the brightest point in the sky.

His eyes are a faded blue-ish gray from years of challenging the center of the universe to a staring contest. He carries himself in a way that gives off a powerful and calming aura of paternal wisdom, and serves us tea as if welcoming old friends, the wrinkles near his eyes complimenting his smile. He shows us inside a nearby building, which reveals a massive library of books, old and new.

It would only be fitting that among the detritus of empire, among the bleeding history of everyday Istanbul, far above the homes delicately tumbling downhill into the sea, beyond the tiled domes and sharp minarets reaching for the stars, a God-like figure sits patiently alone, his very character mimicking the beauty of the ethereal city below. If I have ever met God in human form, it is surely the old man, staring directly at the sun, feeding seagulls on the roof of the world, with a sprawling library tucked away in the shelter of his modest rooftop home.