It was a cold and blustery February day and I had just been bitten by a golden retriever in İstanbul’s Gülhane Park. To say that I was a tad shaken up would have been an understatement.
But the doctors had staunched the flow of blood. They’d bathed the bite and injected me. They’d explained about anaerobic wounds and how they must be left uncovered. There was nothing to do now but steel myself for a course of jabs and wait for the wound to heal.
Nursing my injured pride I made haste for the Koç Anatolian Civilisations Research Institute on İstiklal Caddesi. It was hosting an exhibition developed around the contents of the visitor’s book kept by archaeologist and museologist Osman Hamdi Bey’s youngest daughter, Nazlı Hamdi. By getting everyone who came to see the family between 1907 and 1911 to write in it, she had provided a rare glimpse into the family life of one of the foremost intellectual households of the day.
Since I’m British I suppose it was hardly surprising that the name that most leapt out at me was that of Gertrude Bell, the super-talented fellow Brit best known for her travels in the Middle East and sometimes blamed in part for the now all but lost boundaries of modern Syria and Iraq.
Into Nazlı’s book Bell had inscribed a quote from the 10th-century Arab poet El Mutanabbi: “The most exalted seat in the World is the saddle of a swift horse and the best companion for all time is a book.” A photograph taken by Bell was also on display. It showed Osman Hamdi’s summer house in Eskihisar and had been taken from a boat on the Sea of Marmara after Bell called to see him only to find him out.
I read the quotation. I studied the photo and thought of my friends living just down the road. To be honest though I was mainly thinking about the damage to my arm. It wasn’t until months later that I began to consider that exhibition again.