The Giant who Slept Beneath Istanbul

Once upon a time, there was a giant who slept beneath our fair and fabled city. Seven hills appeared where his shoulders sloped or knees bent and around the contours of his rather large head.

It was not so unusual back then to have a giant that slept underneath your city. They had a special task, these giants. Their job, you see, was to filter a city’s bad dreams. That’s why they were so big; to contain all the darkness they saw.

Human years meant very little to a giant. The giant who slept under Istanbul was little more than an adolescent, about 1675 years old. His was no easy task. This was a city destined to conquests and stormy seas, civilizations met, rose and fell on his breathing. Sometimes, it would all get a bit much for him and he would wriggle or fling a leg out. And though this was very rare, when it did happen, it caused no small amount of damage — bricks flew about, cracks the size of craters ripped through the streets and other strange things like ships that found themselves stranded miles inland from the sea.

It so happened that one day the city elected an ambitious young mayor. It was bad for business, this giant, he reckoned. His annual growth targets were constantly at risk, insurance premiums were through the roof and his city stood no chance in the great game of global commerce. Enough, he decided. He persuaded the city council that they no longer needed the giant to keep watch over their nights. Modernity had arrived. Progress was theirs. The giant belonged to a bygone era, better consigned to myth and legend. We can manage on our own, he declared. To which his people clapped and cheered.

A committee was sent to talk to the giant. The mayor took along an imam, and a rabbi, and a priest too, you know, just in case. Two school children came along, in grey and white uniform and well-polished shoes.

Everyone knew that the giant’s ears were somewhere in the vicinity of Sariyer, up in the hills towards the Black Sea. The water always ran cool up there, chilled by the giant’s rhythmic breaths. If you stood inside one of the caves at the top, and whispered, so the story went, the giant would hear your prayer.   

So it was that this odd collection of people – the mayor, the imam, the priest, the rabbi, and two children – climbed that hill, entered the biggest cave and sat down. The cave rumbled to the giant’s rolling snores.

Ahem, ahem, coughed the mayor. No response. Ahem, ahem, he repeated. Dear Giant Sir. (He was a little nervous.) We are the bearers of good news, he said. The city has prospered. We have done well. We have banished wild wolves, gypsies and bad plumbing from our city. We no longer need a giant to keep watch over our dreams. There is a new city being built, some 50 kilometers down the road, and they could really use your services. So, um, thank you very much for services rendered and all that – I have a certificate right here for you- but it’s time for us all to move on.

Silence. They knew the giant had heard, because there was no more snoring. But still no response came. So they sat and waited. The giant knew nothing of human time, that much they knew. The children sang a gusty rendition of Ode to Progress and other marching tunes. They ate dolma and too many cheese-stuffed borek, fell asleep and woke up to boil tea on the portable gas stove they had brought along.

Eventually, as dusk fell, the giant sighed. OK, he said. I won’t stay where I’m not wanted in any case. (He was a young giant, you recall, and hence sensitive.) I’ll go. Just don’t wake me. I can’t seem to get enough sleep as it is. I’m awfully tired. He yawned, the cave walls shook, and the party tripped over each other in their hurry to get out.

It was a huge operation. Students from the faculty of engineering planned it for weeks in advance. Ten tankers shrouded in dark cloth were joined together in a flotilla to transport him away. The giant left, eyes tightly shut. Builders and diggers from many miles surrounding rushed to fill in and shore up the spaces left by his hefty body.

Life returned to normal.

But things soon began to unravel. With no giant to contain them, an entire city’s nightmares began to spill out into the nighttime air. Random killings began. Money disappeared. Children got sick with diseases doctors had never heard of. People began to dread watching the evening news.

Though at first, nobody made the connection between the giant leaving and the city’s troubles, after a time, protestors began gathering in front of the mayor’s municipal building. They were students and poets, punks and young mums pushing prams. Bring the giant back! they demanded.

The mayor was furious. Sending the giant away had been the highlight of his career. These people were backward and ignorant, he pronounced. They wanted to send the city back to the dark ages. He grew so incensed by the crowds outside his office that it wasn’t long before he unleashed great violence. He sent in tanks and men with gas and guns. People were arrested, some were jailed for months on end. A dark cloud settled over the city, mixing with its polluted fumes.

The protestors, however, were a determined lot. Their numbers included a wise old man who knew what had to be done, for he had heard it foretold by his father, who had heard it from his father before him. He knew this day would come and he had spent a lifetime preparing for it.

A small and colorful band of people came to see him off. Singing and clapping, they watched as he climbed the hills above Sarıyer. When he came to the fountain, he filled his bottles, and when he came to the cave, he bowed his head and went inside.

He spread his sheepskin, sat down and crossed his legs.

To you or I, it might have looked as though he was just sitting. But ah if only you knew what he saw – no matter how brave he might be, he was just a teeny tiny human being, and the evils he saw almost killed him. He wept until his tear ducts dried up. He writhed on the cave floor and bit his nails to their core. And eventually, he lost hope. Seized by despair, he began to think he would never see his home again. Doubt began to eat away at him.

Just when he thought he could not possibly bear another moment, from so many miles away, the giants who kept watch over human destinies stepped in. For they had promised that they would always come to the aid of any two-legged creature brave enough to sit through a dark night on his own. The old man never knew just how it happened, but a sudden breeze blew through the cold cave, an ocean of calm swept over him and his old heart, so tremulous before, found new life and rhythm. The giants, whom he could not see, made sure his limbs were massaged and eased his wrinkled forehead.

His trials were not over, of course.  Mischievous demons came forth this time – they offered him grapes, ripe and bursting at the skin. You seem hungry, they said, have one. And their voice was as sweet as a bubbling brook in spring. And he was indeed starving. But he knew about these grapes; just one taste would send him back into the deepest slumber. So he continued to sit, eyes closed, a gentle smile on his lips. Naked girls appeared and surrounded him. Come play with us, they whispered, pale hips shimmying in the dark. Everyone deserves a little break. Come lie down for a short while, they said. How he was tempted! It had been so many years of lying alone since his wife had gone. They smelt so sweet. His limbs grew heavier and just as he was about to succumb, with the last of his strength he grasped his wooden staff and hammered it on the ground. Three times: tap, tap, tap! And the girls vanished.

Thus did 40 days and 40 nights pass. The moon waxed full and waned again and one evening at dusk, as it appeared a thin sliver in the sky, the old man flew out of the cave, still cross-legged. Though thin he was very much alive. He stood up and walked slowly down the hill to the group patiently waiting for his return. He smiled at them and passed along the wooden staff to the next person in line, a math teacher at a local primary school.

And so it went, from the teacher, to a ballerina, then a carpenter. They were ordinary people, just like you and me. People you might sit next to on a bus or wait in line with at the corner store. That was the chain, and that’s how it still goes. There is always someone sitting there, in that cave.

In time, the city grew calmer and a strange thing started to happen. The bad dreams grew dimmer. As they receded, into the space they vacated came flooding something tremendous and new. The city’s inhabitants began to dream dreams of great beauty and wonder. The air grew cleaner. It rained and the river began to flow again. Fish returned. Birds and wolves too. Great songs, which they had never heard before, began to float through this beautiful city of theirs. Seeing this, from far far away, the giants smiled and they rested.

© Pelin Turgut. Excerpt from Eriyen Ülkenin Sırları (Secrets of a Vanishing Country), published by Ganj Yayınları 2018.

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