Snowflakes swirled in the wind, barely melting in the just-risen sun when we found the ruins: crumbling brick and stone, piled layer upon layer and towering over a bright new playground.
Laura and I had only hours before our flight out of Istanbul, and on our last morning we were exploring a corner of the ancient city we had missed over the last several days. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, just wandering through still-sleepy bazaars and trying, like all the stray dogs, to stay in the sun.
At a twisting, five-point intersection we chanced upon a stone portico, crowned with weeds. Beside it, a smaller door with a lintel adorned in old Ottoman Turkish script. “Otopark,” a modern red sign announced to passing cars.
Nearby, a white cat with black paws — still a kitten really — raced toward a man as he stepped out of a shop and set a tin bowl on the stoop. Across the street, two police officers tried to answer questions from a young woman who didn’t speak Turkish, then gave up and guided her through the gate of a building of an early Christian church long ago converted to a mosque.
And then we turned a corner and found the towering brick ruins.
At first, they looked like a cliff, formed in the wash of waves and sand in some Paleozoic sea. But as the sun climbed over the huddle of buildings nearby, it cast the ruined masonry in sharp contrast. A row of arched doorways stood on a middle strata. Or at least they were once arched doorways; sometime, someone bricked them in. Then, someone else cut holes in those bricks and made windows and new doors. Those were bricked in too eventually. And then the building was neglected — forgotten perhaps — long enough for the wind and the rain and sun to beat back the stone until it became a kind of compromise between chaos and order.
Finally, someone in recent memory looked at the hulking mass, saw a foundation, and added another layer: a modern building, still with glass in the windows and steam rising from the pipes. Like a child hoisted above a crowd on her father’s shoulders, this latest building now towers above the nearby hotels and apartments, gazing out toward the Bosphorus.
Istanbul is not a museum, of course, a point made rather obvious by the plastic slide and swings in the space below these ruins. The playground is too new right now to have even faded much.
It was early and freezing when I walked by, and so there were no kids playing here. But it seems a fairly safe bet to say that where there are playgrounds there are children and families. Presumably someone uses this space; it’s a ruin bookended by vitality, which has apparently been true for hundreds of years. Or thousands.
Someday the plastic slide will crack and fail. The building atop this man-made cliff will ruin. Someone may see the word “otopark” and have no idea what it means, or even what script it was written in. Everything that matters now will be compressed into another thin layer, waiting for another playground.
— Jim Dalrymple II