Saturday, 23 June 2012

Besieged at Topkapi Palace

There’s a stirring in the air. Guards are shuffling nervously, drumming their fingers against starched uniforms, glancing furtively around them, checking doors and whispering into radio transceivers. Something’s afoot.
We are in Istanbul, inside the Privy Chamber of Topkapi Palace, the opulent residence of Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. I can’t help but think of the 1964 heist film, ‘Topkapi,’ starring Peter Ustinov. My imagination goes into overdrive. Is someone about to burst through the doors, face hidden beneath a balaclava, wielding a gun and screaming hysterically? But this isn’t the Imperial Treasury, wall-lined with bejewelled objects made of gold and other precious metals (gifts that have ceremoniously been offered up to the great Sultans of the Ottoman Empire across the centuries) - although for many the artefacts here are beyond any earthly price. Queens and Kings, Ministers and Presidents, Sultans and humble Muslims along with an endless stream of tourists, have all come here to gaze upon the most holy relics of the Islamic world.
We shuffle round the room and gaze upon the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, two of his swords, his bow, his footprint, one of his teeth and a single hair from his beard. The crowds heave and splutter to a stop, marvelling at the staff of Moses, a turban hat from Joseph and a carpet that had once belonged to the daughter of Muhammad.
Suddenly, the guards spring into action. There are yells and much arm-waving. The men try to herd us out of the first room and through to the second with the aim of driving us outside, but the tourists like sheep, are studiously ignoring their shepherds.
I hear a commotion from behind and turn to see a rush of besuited men heaving across the entrance. Two guards quickly dash to the door and cordon it off, halting the flow of tourists queuing outside. It seems we have been besieged, locked into a room with some as yet unknown person and for some inexplicable reason.
It’s mostly just the tourists that come here now. The great Sultans left a long time ago, although this place is filled with their ghosts - and their portraits: The Conqueror, The Magnificent,  The Warrior, The Hunter, The Devout, The Composer, …The Blond  and The Hunchback. But someone of great importance has clearly arrived.

The black-suited men in their crisp white shirts, swaddle around an obscured figure like a colony of excited penguins. They jostle for position, squawking excitedly and holding up flashing cameras like trophies high in the air. 
I make my way to one of the guards, his bulky body puffed up with importance and pride.
“Who’s here?” I ask, “The Prime Minister of Turkey?”
“Oh no, Madam.” He mutters a string of incomprehensible words with a thick Turkish accent. Then a translation slowly filters through my brain.
I have been locked into a room with a living, breathing modern-day Sultan - the Sultan of Brunei.

No comments:

Post a Comment