One of the most frequently asked questions that I get as a British author is ‘why do you set your crime series in Istanbul?’
Well, there are a lot of reasons for this that are connected to my own past, my belief that modern Turkey is under-represented in crime literature etc., etc. However, another reason that I generally finish my now familiar diatribe with, namely that ‘Istanbul has a lot of places in which to hide bodies’, is somewhat glib and does sometimes make people laugh, if a little nervously. In fact, just lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve become so casual about this remark that it can only be a question of time before some smart guy or gal asks me to prove it. What follows therefore is a pocket guide to where to hide a body in Istanbul - all locations, hopefully, laced with a good dose of history, local legend and gruesome humour. I will specify where locations may be visited by members of the public (morbid or otherwise), as part of my on-going mission to get more people to experience the city. I should add at this point that it is only fictional murder and concealment that we are considering here today. Tourists should note that anything beyond theory will be looked upon in the most unsympathetic light possible!
To start with the familiar, almost everyone has heard about, or at least seen photographs of the Ayasofya, or Church of the Holy Wisdom as it was once known. Consecrated in AD537 when Istanbul was Constantinople and the capital of the Greek Byzantine empire, the Ayasofya was, at the time, the greatest church in Christendom. However with the Ottoman Turkish conquest of the city in 1453, the Ayasofya became a mosque - hence the attendant minarets we see today. Not that it is anyone’s place of worship now. Because Turkey became a secular republic in 1923 the Ayasofya was deconsecrated in 1934 and then declared a museum which it has been ever since. For anyone who has been living in a very dark bag for the last 1500 years I’ve included a picture of this building for your delectation.
To say that this place has a dark history is rather like saying that Ronnie and Reggie Kray were a bit on the ‘dodgy’ side. For a start there’s theft. Of columns mainly, like the eight made of green Serpentine under the arches of the nave that are thought to have come from the Temple of Diana in Ephesus. The red, Porphyry columns were provided courtesy of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek. Grisly relics were also a favourite and these included the arms of St John, a phial of Christ’s blood and the grid-iron upon which St Lawrence was roasted alive. But if murder is your interest, and I know that it is yours, there was plenty of that going on too.
The Byzantines themselves made a good start with pious church-goers like the Emperor Basil who killed his homosexual lover and joint ruler Michael III in 867. One hundred and fifty years later the Empress Zoe, who is depicted in a mosaic in the upper gallery of the building, killed more than one of her many husbands and blinded her nephew before dying in her bed at the age of 72. There were many more incidents like this although they all pale into insignificance in the face of what the Crusaders did when they conquered the city in 1204. Killing just about anyone they could find in the building, they made a point of having sex on the alter and then installing a prostitute on the imperial Byzantine throne. The body of the man responsible for this outrage, Dandolo the Doge of Venice was actually buried in Ayasofya for a while after his death. However, following the Ottoman conquest of the city, his body was removed and thrown to the street dogs. In light of all this it isn’t, I hope, that difficult to see why I used Ayasofya as the location for a particularly bloody denouement in my fourth Ikmen novel ‘Deep Waters’. In that book my very deluded villain hurls himself our of one of the extremely old and intriguing doors that punctuate the outside walls of the Upper Gallery. If you’re thinking, ‘when is she going to get to good hiding places for bodies’, just stick with me.
I’ve always known about these doors ever since I first went into Ayasofya. But it was only on a grey January afternoon in 2001 that I discovered their gruesome potential. Basically I always thought that they had to lead somewhere, out onto a maintenance platform or something - what do I know about buildings anyway? But then I saw a guard open one and I realised that this door and, as I found out later, most of the others too, actually just lead outside. A sheer drop to certain death, a small ledge above one of the outside buttresses or, at best, a tiny flight of stairs linking to other doors is all that awaits and I, as I’ve mentioned before, ‘killed’ one of my villains using these portals. However with regard to the concealment of corpses we come to a very interesting exercise in hiding in plain sight. Ayasofya is such a huge and well-known edifice that one almost takes it for granted. You walk along, you look up, you think ‘oh, there’s Ayasofya’ and then you move on. From so far away on the ground, who would notice something ‘extra’ on top of a buttress or even know that anything was laying across one of the little, hidden staircases? Of course odour and, eventually, some other pretty repulsive natural processes would give the game away but not before our assailant had made good his or her escape. I have to confess that rooftops are my current Istanbul obsession and so Ikmen may well have to deal with something like this (although not at Ayasofya) some time in the future.
‘As above, so below’ or so the ancient mystics would have it and so it can be in crime fiction too. As well as ‘killing’ above ground I have also done my ‘bit’ under the city too. Underground Istanbul is littered with deserted chapels, vaults and, most importantly, huge colonnaded cisterns build by the Byzantines as water storage tanks. The one I’ve included a picture of here, the Yerbatan Saray, is the most famous example and is open to the public in all its glorious damp weirdness on a daily basis. However, there are other cisterns - smaller, like the one in which I placed a girl’s body in my novel ‘Harem’. These can be found almost anywhere in the old city, (that thumb of land between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn where all the great mosques and palaces live) in fact no-one really knows where they all are or how many of them are in existence. I personally know of two, one in the garden of a friend of mine which is now used as a very comfortable studio. The other is somewhere underneath a, probably long gone, tea house in the Grand Bazaar. I couldn’t find it again if my life depended on it, but I do recall once, long ago, being lowered down into a dark hole in the ground with a lighted torch in my mouth. I was smaller in those days and the man who held onto my wrists up above was a big guy, he needed to be because I looked for quite a while - at crumbling columns and ragged, herring-bone brick-work. I thought then how difficult it would be for a person, once trapped or interred in this place, to be found again. Go to the Yerebatan Saray, imagine it dark and half filled with thick, black silt and tell me you don’t imagine all sorts of horrors in there.
On a less exalted level, there’s plenty of scope for dumping in derelict Ottoman houses, like the wonderfully skeletal example in the picture.
These are being gentrified now, although there are still many around just like this and they do, generally, have cellars (always useful in our line of work). And with fewer street dogs rooting about where they shouldn’t these days, derelict houses are in the main a good bet. But then so too are the homes of the rich and, sometimes, famous. The picture I’ve included here is of a Bosphorus-side mansion known as a yali. Originally used as summer retreats by the Ottoman aristocracy, these yali’s occur in crops along the Bosphorus at fashionable villages like Sariyer and Yeniköy. These days yali’s are generally inhabited by film stars, industrialists and footballers but some are still kept ticking over by aging aristocrats. The latter, frequently through lack of money, generally retain these properties in their original form - in other words with separate men’s quarters, known as the Selamlik and the ladies area, known as the Harem. A yali in its original form, just like an English country house, has more nooks, crannies and secret wotsits than you can reasonably shake a stick at. Tiny servants rooms no bigger than cupboards, steamy, marble dressed hamams (Turkish baths) and mean and pathetic dormitories in which the gentleman of the house would keep his lesser, disregarded concubines. Bodies could turn up in all or any of these locations or indeed anywhere in a yali out of season. Yali’s are only, traditionally, occupied in the summer and would be locked up tight for the entire autumn and winter months. A friend of mine who was born into the ‘yali class’, has described to me the process whereby the yali and its fittings would be packed up and put away at the end of the summer. Basically all the linen used during the season (curtains, bedclothes, table-cloths) would be washed and then packed away in large trunks which would then be stored in a ‘box room’ for use the following year. Afterwards, the yali would be shuttered, locked and left. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always thought that it would be most advantageous, provided one has to do such a thing anyway, to commit that country house homicide just before those shutters go up for six months or so.
I’ve saved my oddest if, by no means, my definitive Istanbul location until last. If you cross the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge you will come to a district known as Beyoglu. Basically the southern reaches of this area consist of a steep hillside packed with mainly 19th century apartments, shops, churches, synagogues and dervish monasteries. Galata as this hill part of the district is known is also famed for its brothels and, although the local authority has tried to ‘clean it up’ from time to time, a wonderful air of seediness still pervades the streets.
But it was not always this way. In the 18th and 19th centuries Galata was the centre of the Ottoman banking business with one street in particular, Voyvoda Caddesi at the very heart of the trade. Still lined with darkly impressive banks and commercial buildings, Voyvoda Caddesi also plays host to a very curious piece of architecture known as the Kamondo Steps. Named after the local Jewish banking family who paid for it to be built, this ‘thing’ is both practical (staircase up part of the hill) and arty too - or rather people think that it is without really being able to articulate an actual style. See what you think from the picture. It’s always had a sort of Art Deco resonance for me, although what the thing with a bush growing out of it in the middle is for, I don’t really know. I can, however, suggest one possible use.
I don’t know why I so frequently see a lifeless figure folded up in this centre-piece, but I do. Propped up like a puppet, dumped in the night ‘it’ is, I always imagine, discovered in the early hours of the morning by some poor soul just trying to get to work without too much bother. Not so much hidden, as displayed, this manner of disposal would indicate a very confident exhibitionist extremely secure in his or her own abilities. Maybe I just think that someone who could do such a thing would make a marvellous adversary for Ikmen. Or maybe I’m just tired of seeing that poor bush struggle for survival year in and year out. The Kamondo Steps are half way along Voyvoda Caddesi, on the right proceeding towards the Galata Tower, and are free, open and deeply strange.
I could, of course, go on forever if necessary. Ruined hamam’s, lesser known palaces, the church (complete with sacred spring) that exists beneath a friends place of business, the hotel, and its owner, frozen in time - about 1890 - etc., etc., etc. But nothing beats going to the place and seeing if for yourself which, if all of this frivolity has piqued your interest, I would suggest that you do. There’s plenty of historical crime fact to keep most crime fiction devotees amused and maybe you’ll even see me scrambling about in search of new and ever more exciting locations. Istanbul, which is as much a character in my books as any of my police officers, has been and continues to be a very generous and quirkily lovely host.
Barbara Nadel Bibliography:
- Belshazzar's Daughter
- A Chemical Prison
- Deep Waters
- Deadly Web (2005)
- The Ottoman Cage: A Novel of Istanbul (2005)