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Dragons of Istanbul

by Mihajlo Bozovic, ANAMED PhD Fellow (2017–2018)

Doing research in Istanbul is usually very fruitful for all the scholars who dedicate their work to the themes of the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, the historical, artistic and literary richness of the city can many times sway the overwhelmed researcher to neglect his primary work for a while and stray away following some mysterious symbols that he can suddenly find everywhere. A similar thing happened to me as I was doing my research at ANAMED. Concentrated mainly on pre-Ottoman popular narratives of Medieval Anatolia, my work abruptly came to a stop as I suddenly found myself in search of dragons all over Istanbul.

My peculiar journey started, as all unorthodox journeys do, unexpectedly. As I was enjoying myself, drinking my morning coffee in the close proximity of the awe-inspiring Dolmabahçe Palace, my gaze fell on a black smear on the pavement. At first it looked as a shapeless drawing, but on a closer look I gathered that it was an image of a dragon. Not far from there I saw another similar image, now of a gecko or of a lizard of some kind, so I started following the trail. It led me to another world, a world “Behind Mount Qaf.” (1) I was transported to the realm of myth and legend were a dragon and a phoenix flew freely above the eternal flame of Love. Following the flying drake, I passed through Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, exiting this wonderful domain and founding myself right back into the busyness of the Istiklal Street.

Still under impression of the unearthly experience I hurried back to the library with the intention of returning to my work. Reopening the book of “Battalname,” (2) the famed medieval narrative, brought me back to the familiar fighting scenes and the heroes of the old. Even though I was completely immersed into the story of death of Mihran, one sentence threw me right back to the mystical realm. “He (Mihran) took his mace and marched against him like a dragon.” In an instant my imagination transformed Mihran and all the other heroes into dragons that were heading straight into a fierce battle. With a feeling of profusion of draconic imagery in my head, I decided to leave the library and find haven in Topkapı Palace.

“It has been some time since I visited Topkapi Palace,” I said to myself as I was passing through “Bab-üs Saadet.” After walking for a while around Baghdad Kiosk and enjoying my view of the Bosphorus from the Palace terrace as I usually did, on my way back I walked into the Chamber of the Sacred Relics. Seeing the artefacts deposited in the Chamber always excited me, but this time I was overwhelmed by the imagery on the swords of the Prophet and some of the Companions. Again, there were dragons. Dimmed lights in the room made the golden creatures dance across the blade. I did not expect to find any dragons in the Palace, so I left the museum with my head deep in thoughts about the dragons of the Middle East.


Dragon on the sword in Topkapi Palace, taken by the author

I strolled down the hill and followed the coast line for a while. Because of the sun and the sea, I forgot about the time and the road carried me away from all the dragons that I had left behind me. Still, a strange feeling that someone or something was following me was always in the back of my mind. Somewhere around Yedikule, the old seven-towered fortress prison, I finally realized what was causing the unusual sensation. As I was going down the winding road, the great serpentine walls of Constantinople were always by my side. I took a long look at the city walls and smiled. At least some dragons of Istanbul are sound asleep.


Yedikule walls, taken from accessed 21.11.2017.

1)  Exhibition “Behind Mount Qaf” by CANAN on display at ARTER until 24th Dec. 2017.

2)  Dedes, Yorgos. 1996. Battalname. vol 1, p.144.