On Belonging

The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was beautiful.

Knowing it had served as the housing of a harem seemed to bring the cool, tiled walls to life, and I could almost hear whispers in the gentle breeze of the courtyards.

When I looked at the intricate designs on the walls, at the arches of the doorways, and at the carving of the wooden window covers, I knew that these walls, doorways, and windows had been looked at by many eyes, over many centuries.

If only I could time travel back to the times of Constantinople. What would it have been like to have lived here right then, to have belonged to this world, to have belonged in this palace?

I imagine it as fairytale-like, though in reality, day-to-day life for a harem woman might’ve been tough. But people were different then and didn’t expect the luxury and ease we do now in our everyday lives.

Maybe the residents were content to have a roof over their heads, food, a nice view over the Bosphorus Strait, and maybe they did feel a sense of belonging.

They way they belonged to that place is something I will never be able to re-live. Not as they did. That’s a thought that played in my head while visiting Topkapi. As a Nordic woman from a completely different culture, time, and space, I would never be able to feel that sense of belonging. This place was just for me to visit, not to feel, not to fully understand.

Maybe belonging is a state of mind.

I’m lying flat on my stomach in a small space, isolated with low partitions and I can hear everything around me. It’s the top floor of the Cemberlitas Hamami’s women’s side. A short, dark woman of an undefinable age is giving me a massage and we are communicating in improvised signs. The hamam is very hot and humid. My skin still feels raw from the scrub in the spa area earlier, and I’m in complete awe of the Turkish bath’s beauty.

The humid washrooms I had just come from had been made of a grey stone, soothingly. Some parts of the bath have been in use since 1584 and as I lay there thinking of this, the old building’s history seems to creep into my fresh, red skin, with the old layers peeled off. Suddenly, there comes a strong scent of mixed essential oils.

This exact moment feels like something new, I think to myself. I’m someone who never feels like she’s abroad anymore and who’s been to a hundred spas and massages. Everyplace has for the longest time felt the same, new places forever reminding me only of previous travels. But this time, you’ve got me. Just for a moment, I’m in a different time.

The twin cupols of the Cemberlitas hamam. My trip was in 2012

33 replies on “On Belonging”

Both places you describe were so foreign to me as well. Like you, I tried to let my mind go back in time or find a new sense of belonging in the present, but alas, my mind is only so compliant! Before long, I was my own Western, overthinking self and the spell was broken! But I did adore Istanbul and for a few brief moments in my days there I felt transported to another time and place .

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It’s great when travel can do that, isn’t it? Maybe it’s always the small moments that make a difference, the feeling comes over you like a wave, Hey, this feels different…


Thanks, Manja! Topkapi was my favorite place in Istanbul for sure. Who knows, indeed… Come to think of it, I did read somewhere that Nordic blonde women were brought to Turkey as slaves back then, so who knows….


Oh, this really hit home. So beautifully written. In college I came upon a book called Harem, which was really well written. In it the author played off the premise that the Sultanic line had been broken. The protagonist was a Tatar woman named Gülbehar IIRC. It used to drive my Turkish friend nuts, because I kept rehashing things she’d learned all through school. Turkey, and Istanbul especially, is definitely on my bucket list.

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How can you remember a book you read in college so well? My memory gets jumbled so easily, I can’t even remember my favorite books very well!
Anyway, thanks for reading this oldie 🙂 I have mixed feelings about my visit to Istanbul. The good stuff is in this post.

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I’m visiting from the link you left on Amy’s blog “Bedlam & Daisies”. Istanbul has long been a dream destination of mine. The details of the palace are exquisite and you created a powerful mood with your words.

I too often walk through old buildings and streets trying to ‘wear’ the skin of the past imagining all those who came before me. I too would love to step into the past for a glimpse of how their lives really were – I’m guessing so different and yet the same.

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So different and yet the same – yes, that’s how I imagine it, too. Sometimes not knowing all the facts just makes my imagination run wild, and I prefer that it that way, rather than reading about events and numbers in history books. I enjoy making up the story in my mind, especially after having visited such a visually powerful place as Topkapi.
Thanks Joanne for visiting and for your thoughtful comment!

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