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Talking Location With .. author Barbara Nadel – Karacaahmet Cemetery, Istanbul
27th August 2020
TalkingLocationWith… Barbara Nadel, author of Blood Business (Ikmen Mystery 22)
Death in Scutari and the Karacaahmet Cemetery…
I’ve always appreciated a good graveyard. I come from one of those families who would regularly visit the graves of their ancestors to clean them, have a chat, maybe even a sandwich and have a good old cry. I’ve always enjoyed reading gravestones – which can be remarkably humorous and insightful on occasion – and have absolutely no fear when wandering amongst the fields of the dead.
So it was no surprise to anyone who knows me that I would eventually put my Istanbul police detectives, Cetin Ikmen and Mehmet Suleyman, in a situation involving a graveyard. And not any graveyard – the Karacaahmet Cemetery in the district of Uskudar (once called ‘Scutari’) is the biggest in Turkey. Covering 750 acres, the Karacaahmet is 700 years old and is named after a thirteenth century Alevi saint and physician of the same name. A well-known and populous sect of Islam, many of Alevism’s adherents come to the shrine of Karaca Ahmet Sultan which is inside this enormous graveyard, to pray, meditate and pay their respects.
‘Blood Business’ is my twenty-second book featuring Ikmen and Suleyman and, while the former is now retired, he can’t stop himself getting involved in the lives, and cases, that puzzle his former colleagues. As an Istanbullu born and bred as well as the son of a once famous Albanian witch, Ikmen knows just about everyone – inside and outside the law as well as those who live by ‘magic’ – soothsayers, conjurors, storytellers, alchemists.
Also his parents are buried in the Karacaahmet Cemetery.
The book opens with the discovery of a recently deceased body in the grave of a woman who has been dead for five years. No more than two weeks old, this woman’s body is missing its heart. Also where is the body of the woman who was supposed to reside in this plot?
Unlike ‘my’ police officers, I didn’t visit the Karacaahmet Cemetery at night. Fortunately for me I wasn’t engaged in either a legal or illegal exhumation. But I did go in the hours of daylight on several occasions when I was researching this book.
The site is truly huge and a bit daunting when you approach it, as I did, walking up the seemingly endless road from Uskudar Ferry Terminus on the Bosphorus. To put it into context, there are seven entrances, the main one of which is via a very beautiful modern mosque called the Sakirin, which was built in 2009. Out amongst the dead however, we are in another, far older world.
It’s reckoned that there are upwards of a million bodies buried in the Karacaahmet representing 700 years of internment and, while some of the gravestones can be read some, unless one is schooled in Arabic script, are not. This is because when Turkey became a Republic in 1923, the founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, changed the type of script Turks used from Arabic to Roman. And so in large part the Ottoman era gravestones are beyond us. That said however, we can still read the signs on them, if not the details.
Most except for the most ornate Ottoman graves, consist of tall stone columns. These may be topped off with a stone turban, for a man or a veil for a woman. The size and elaboration of the turban will denote the rank that man attatined in life, while the womens columns will record how many children they had in the form of flower-heads.
In common with cemeteries everywhere, the Karacaahmet has neat areas and untidy bits. The whole site is covered with grass and overshadowed by mature cypress trees. In the summer particularly, it’s a wonderful place to go and shelter from the hot, humid Istanbul weather. The ground can be quite uneven in places (as my police officers discover!) but there are well-tended paths for those who don’t want to risk turning an ankle.
It’s good to bear in mind, as I have had to on several occasions, that this is a place of prayer and of burial as well as somewhere for people to walk. Funerals happen all the time and it is best to just head off and leave mourners to their grief should that happen. The Karacaahmet is a place to go to escape the noise and frenzy of a city of seventeen million people. Sit, think, get cool and maybe, if you are inclined, you could read a few pages of ‘Blood Business’ too…
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