/ 1 of 1
This is a magnificent place, full of new confidence and new money, lapped by the brilliant waters of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn: a city for the 21st century in an ancient setting
lt's a relief to be here. Only a few hours ago I was a prisoner in Damascus. Actually I've had far worse prison experiences. No one beat me up, and I didn't even have to leave the departure lounge at Damascus airport. The only really bad thing about the room they put me in was the smell: cats must have lived and loved there. There was a bathroom, but no hot water; there was a television set, but no signal. The sheets had previously been slept in by a heavy smoker. But if I wanted something to eat or drink, I was free to go out into the departure lounge and buy something, while a couple of heavies kept an eye on me. My imprisonment only lasted 24 hours, until I could be decanted onto the flight back to Istanbul, where I'd come from. As I say, it was pretty mild.
With the Syrian uprising continuing, the government in Damascus wouldn't allow foreign journalists to come in and observe it: with a few exceptions, of which I wasn't one. So I tried a full frontal assault, and arrived at Damascus airport with my identity mildly but legally disguised. It seemed to work, and the immigration official was actually raising his hand to stamp my passport when the boss came over and stopped him. He was very polite, but he watched BBC World News, and my face wasn't entirely unknown to him. My efforts to explain that I had come to Syria for a holiday brought a tired smile to his face. An hour later, I was lying on the dirty sheets listening to the announcements from the airport loudspeaker outside. There was a lot of landing and taking off going on.
What really cheered me up in the departure lounge was that there were badges, flags and posters of President Assad wearing a sinister pair of dark glasses on sale everywhere. Actually, I've interviewed President Assad and found him pleasant and rather gentle, even when I asked him some harsh questions; and as an ophthalmologist he probably just wears dark glasses to protect against the Syrian sun. Still, a PR adviser might have warned him against them, to take them off on Soprano or Godfather grounds. With the spooks watching me discreetly I bought a bagful of mementos.
And now I'm back in Istanbul, a free man. The first thing I had to do was to meet a couple of Syrian dissidents who act as a conduit for video material smuggled out from the anti-Assad demonstrations. Inevitably, I suppose, Richard Hannay's assignation with his fellow adventurers in John Buchan's Greenmantle came to mind. If you recall, Sandy Arbuthnot draws Hannay a map of a lane running from the Kurdish Bazaar in Galata to the ferry of Ratchik. Behind a café kept by a Greek called Kuprasso, says Sandy, is a garden. 'At the end of the garden is a shanty called the Garden-house of Suliman the Red. It has been in its time a dancing hall and a gambling hell and God knows what else. It's not a place for respectable people, but the ends of the earth converge there and no questions are asked...'
Over the years I've met dodgy informants in plenty of places like the Garden-house of Suliman the Red, but this wasn't to be one of those times. I'd arranged to see the dissidents in a pleasant café in Galata, across the Golden Horn from the old heart of Constantinople: no dancing, no gambling, just a pot of Turkish coffee. We talked, I took notes, we shook hands, and that was it. Afterwards, though, I couldn't resist going to see if Suliman the Red's place was there still. I set off on foot, away from the stunning tower built in 1348 by the Genoese who once inhabited this part of the city, and headed down towards the Galata Bridge. (The football club Galatasaray, with its ferocious reputation, gets its name from the area.) I reasoned that if John Buchan's ferry of Ratchik had existed, then it might have been somewhere near the bridge.
Well, maybe it had been, but frankly I couldn't work out where the ferry or the lane or Kuprasso's cafe might have been, let alone Suliman the Red's Garden-house. It's all been built on, upgraded, concreted over, past any hope of recognition. On a winter's evening this stretch of Galata might still have some of the book's scary quality. More likely there was never any such place as the Garden-house. After all, John Buchan wrote Greenmantle at the height of WWI, when Britain and Turkey were enemies: not much chance of picking up a bit of local colour.
After wandering around I just sat and looked across the water and thought about the siege of 1453 instead. I could see where the gigantic chain had once stretched across the Golden Horn in order to stop the Turkish fleet from entering; the Turks, with their habitual intelligence, simply lugged their ships round it and stuck them into the water on the other side. I could see where St Theodosia had been, and the Imperial Palace; and I could at least look in the general direction of the Circus Gate, the little postern in Constantinople's wall which the Christian Byzantine troops forgot to close behind themselves when they fled back after a sortie. As a result the Turks got through it, and captured Constantinople.
But the sun is shining directly onto my book as I write this, and it's almost blinding. Time for another Turkish coffee. Or perhaps a raki. Yes, definitely a raki.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.