Monday, March 22

Six impossible things before break fast

For the audio to this post, before reading click on play below to listen to Ishmael by the great South African jazz pianist Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim).

This week's Theme Thursday subject is 'Breakfast'. By now I am several days late, but still want to break bread with you here and share this my most memorable breakfast memory, not an early morning sitdown affair at the kitchen table, but an unerasable moment I enjoyed late last August, high atop the Galata Tower as I gazed out over the Istanbul skyline at sunset on Friday during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

This came on the last of my seven nights in Istanbul. On each of the previous nights I had made a point of ceremoniously going up on the hotel's rooftop terrace just before sundown to see the spectacle of the mosques lighting up and hear the muezzins chanting out their adhan, the call to prayer, from the minarets. Our hotel was well situated for this observance, right next to the Shezade (Prince's) Mosque and a short distance from the Suleymaniye the Magnificent Mosque and the Beyazit Mosque, with the marvelous six-minaret Sultanahmet Blue Mosque and the Fatih Mosque a bit farther away but within clear view.

View from Galata Tower at sundown

And within earshot. There is something mysterious in the way the plaintive call of the muezzin seems to spiral up from the clarinet sentries that stand by the silent drums of all those temples and then float over the rooftops of this time hallowed city. I would try to pick up each mosque's chanting muezzin and follow their individual calls separately until they melded and flowed into each other so completely that it was impossible to hear anything but a single reverential voice crying out from the multi-throated choir.

Istanbul Sunset by Atilla1000 from Pichaus
During Ramadan the sunset call to prayer is the most welcome for the faithful, as it marks the end of their daylong dawn-to-dusk fast. Those who strictly adhere to the fasting ritual will not even drink water while the sun is up, a parching challenge when the holy month falls in the months of summer heat as it did this past year. So the muezzin's evening wail bears a cool quenching promise of imminent release from heat, thirst and hunger that seems to make it ring clearer and carry farther in the dusky red horizon.

Istanbul is a city of mosque minarets as surely as New York is the city of skyscrapers. I will never forget the gorgeous skyline that greeted María and I some 20 years ago during our first stay in the city, as we silently feasted our eyes on the countless dark mounds and delicate spires silhouetted against the fading glow of the setting sun on our return to Istanbul by boat on the Bosphorus Strait after a daytrip up to the Black Sea.

I had long been drawn to the sound of the muezzin's chant, for reasons I do not know. Perhaps it was the tug of my eclipsed Arab ancestry — although both my grandparents on my father’s side were from Lebanon/Syria, this part of my family history is almost completely unknown to me. Or maybe it was simply the exotic allure that distant desert songs can exert on a fanciful boy who grew up in New Jersey in the shadows of New York City’s soaring towers. For whatever reason, for me there is a mesmerizing quality to the throbbing plangent cry. Even before I had actually heard the mournful minaret call I felt I had recognized it in the stirring laments of Coltrane’s soprano saxophone or Yusuf Lateef’s eerie soulful oboe and certainly in the powerful hoarse seguiriyas sung by Spain’s best flamenco singers.

But when I did first hear a muezzin summon the faithful on a trip to Morocco many years ago, it felt completely new and strange. There was a nasal vibrato that I had not expected, as if the guttural emotion welling out of the muezzin’s windpipe could not all pour out through the mouth and had to trill its way out through the pinched upper reaches beyond the pharynx. To me it conjured up the bleated song of lambs or a flock of goatskin bagpipes crying out or images of a giant one-stringed lute humming mightily. Again and again, the reedy chant rises up in long and longing ululations and then falls back into silence. But there is no silence when several muezzins from different mosques are heard at once, and the effect is even more striking, the lilting chorus surging and ebbing, never resting…

Photo of Galata Tower by Sametak from Flickr
Perhaps the best view of Istanbul is afforded by the observation deck of Galata Kulesi, the 220 foot high cone-capped cylinder that since 1348 has towered above the northern bank of the Golden Horn inlet that divides the city. I assumed it would be impossibly clogged with jostling sightseers at sunset, the most prized viewing hour, so I did not entertain much hope of being able to earn a spot there when I headed across the Galata bridge shortly before sundown. But, inexplicably, to my great and delighted surprise, there were no lines and I was able to quickly make my way to the top as the sun was about to end its slow daily descent.

So my break fast tableau was set, the majestic Constantinople-Istanbul stretched out before me, with her scores of historic mosques. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, the phantom minarets began to put on their show, lighting up, one after another, like the brightest stars do at nightfall. Suleymaniye, Sultanamet, Eyup, Fatih, Yeni Cami, Shezade, Beyazit, Rüstem Pasha … and, also one by one, the muezzins took their solar cue and in quick succession began their twilight incantations. The evening air was soon warbling with disembodied prayers wafting up from dozens of minaret candlesticks. And they were all converging on Galata Tower, they were all singing for me.
the arc of the muezzin’s call
bowing on a single string
goatskin bagpipes bleating
in the evening wind

a gingered night’s offering
to the whispering moon
the humming echo
of a red vesper rune
One by one the voices trailed off into the dusk, their summons ended, the choir thinning out until only one last night crier was heard. And just as it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the fading golden peal of a vibrating gong ends and the ensuing silence begins, I cannot tell when the last muezzin fell silent on that crimson evening. It was break fast time.

Interior of Rustem Pasha mosque

I was recently reminded by Susan’s Through the Looking Glass series at ArtSpark Theatre of the passage where the White Queen tells Alice that “sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast". And in that spirit, I offer here six impossible beliefs to utter atop Galata Tower as I try to relive that evening before break fast:

♫ The story told on one of the panels on the Galata observation deck is true: in 1638 one Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi did fly from the top of the tower on a glider he built himself and landed unhurt on the Asian side of the Bosphorus over two miles away.

♫ No call to hatred or subjugation will ever be heard in the muezzin’s adhan, neither by the callers, nor by the heedful called, nor by unheeding wayfarers who gratefully eavesdrop on this sublime choir.

María and our daughters, María and Isabel

♫ The stalagmite minaret lighthouses will fuse their glow with the stalactites of starlight dripping from the indigo sky to light our path out of the labyrinth.

♫ The muses locked in the mosaic tiles of all the mosques will stir anew amidst hyacinths and carnations, tulips and peonies, and we shall know their song.

Rustem Pasha tiles by G. Dall'Orto

Minarets by the Bosphorus
♫ The endless succession of dawns and dusks washed away by the currents and eddies of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn as they lap at the pylons of history will rise up from the silt and percolate their secrets out through those choppy waters.

♫ We will all sit together to break fast, quench thirst, slake hunger and sate revivified senses while our eyes drink the blue ocean and our hearts eat the sun like a fruit (to paraphrase the lovely Genevieve Taggard poem known to me thanks to blog friend Joanny the Dowser’s Daughter).

To hear an adhan call to prayer listen to the video below, along with images of some of Istanbul’s mosques. To get the idea of what I have tried to convey in this post, you must imagine several of these intoned simultaneously from all different directions:

Enjoy breaking fasts and breakfasts with other Theme Thursday participants by clicking here.

Credits: The music is Ishmael from Dollar Brand’s “Africa — Tears and Laughter”; Inner City records 1979
Dollar Brand: vocal, piano, soprano sax
Talib Qadr: soprano sax, alto sax, vocal
Greg Brown: bass
John Betsch: percussion


  1. Another gem of a post, Lorenzo! First of all, your family is beautiful--what an attractive group of women. And your photos here are amazing--exotic and evocative. Listening to the clip, I felt transported, and felt as if I was in another place. Thank you for the vicarious journey and wonderful images.

  2. Suzanne (A Brush with Color): Thanks for the kind comments, glad you enjoyed the trip. I just finished seeing the video you posted with Patti's son describing how the family dealt with the hardship of her paralysis. So poignant now that she has gone.

  3. Lorenzo:

    I must confess I listened to the music several times over --- the mixture of the visuals and the music created a sense of awe and mystery, with a profusion of hypnotic rhythms and hauntingly evocative melodies --

    Your wife and daughters are beautiful -- as is your reminiscent words.


    thank you for the honorable mention -- Taggard's poem does fit that ancient part of our terrestrial ball in which we live and honor creation.

  4. What a wonderful place to visit, Your family is beautiful.

  5. This was beautifully woven. Thank you.

  6. Funny, we were just discussing minarets in the car yesterday. Your ladies are gorgeous, you lucky Lorenzo, you! Beautiful post, as well.

  7. Thanks joanny, willow and Susan (ArtSparker) for the nice comments about my three girls. It was a special trip for us to take with our daughters. María and I first visited Istanbul on our honeymoon and our first daughter, Isabel, was born 9 months later, so you can all surmise we have a special attachment to this beautiful and endearing city. It was nice to go back 19 years later with our now adult daughters.

  8. Lakeviewer: Hi and welcome to the blog. Appreciate your kind thoughts and see that you have signed up to follow. I'll be sure to take a stroll by the lake soon and visit your blog(s).

  9. Gorgeously described. So much of this could be pulled out, but I here is a bit I liked:

    "the muezzins took their solar cue and in quick succession began their twilight incantations. The evening air was soon warbling with disembodied prayers wafting up from dozens of minaret candlesticks. And they were all converging on Galata Tower, they were all singing for me."

    Sigh... Makes readers wish they were there, no doubt :).

    Beautiful family too, Lorenzo! Your daughters are striking.

  10. Even tho' it's been 14 years since I was there, it is just as you describe so well - something so myesterious and ancient and beautiful about the call to prayer. Thanks for posting this - wonderful.

  11. Yes, sadly I missed this post the day you posted it. I remember seeing it in my Reader and clicking through to your blog but it wasn't there. Strange glitch in blogland that day.

    This essay is a magnum opus, sang beautifully through words and pictures. You have been there and you know the truths you felt, and you are gracious enough to share that knowing with us.

    I feel as if I have been to Istanbul, seen the vistas and felt the muezzin run through me, too.

  12. The fullness is here, that ginger fullness. Sadly, I missed it this way when we lived there. I had "issues" and lacked the freedom necessary to open to that place this way. But I must say, I wonder if many people would open to a place as you have, just in this one brief collection of moments.

    I do love the place, very much, and badly want to go back. It would be nice to go back free and do what we should have then. We were inhabitants, not tourists. Maybe it would be nice to be tourists there.

    The only thing missing here in this post, I think, are the smells. Cumin. Sesame. Tea. Sweat. Sea. Fish. Diesel fuel. And maybe the sound of ferries chugging and the simitci yelling Simit!

  13. I missed that the women in the photo were your family. Splendidly beautiful, especially as they donned coverings to honor the space.

  14. I love this blog entry, it inspired me in the creation of this work and I have linked the image post to here

  15. I came back to listen to Abdullah, daydream about the Silk Road, and tearfully reminisce what I can't recall . . . which is to sit there as you did, and gather all of it in. Because I didn't do it. I didn't sit there, and listen. And watch. And appreciate. But I can hear the call to prayer, from three points around our apartment building. Did I listen fondly, while I looked out at the sea of ugly apartment buildings? Did I want anything other than to leave, to go home, be anywhere that I didn't have to lower my eyes because I was a woman, anywhere but there?

    Is there a timeless, history-less Istanbul? One that makes a woman feel whole, and welcome, and able to walk out as you did, into the early morning, alone?


"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" — Ralph Waldo Emerson
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