Standing in the longest queue I’ve yet seen in Turkey, I wonder if it’s a general rule that waiting in lines is easier when you’re inside fifteen hundred year old monuments. I have no experience to compare this one to, but staring up at finely crafted Roman columns and impossibly massive façades of colored marble I think that it must be. I am in the Hagia Sophia, waiting in line for the wishing column.
The wishing column is a structure where Emperor Justinian, when what is now Istanbul was a Roman city, rested his forehead during an excruciating headache and realized that his pain had miraculously disappeared. The stone became notorious for its alleged healing properties, and over a millennium and a half a finger-sized hole has been worn in the stone from the probing digits of wishful pilgrims. Our ebullient tour guide, Serap, whose laughs I now hear echoing from the front of the line where she is engaged in a raucous conversation, told us some supplementary myths:
“When this building became a mosque during the first Islamic Empire,” she explained, “it was obvious that it wasn’t facing Mecca. So when Muslims visited, they would push on this column so that the building would turn further south and eventually the hole was worn. Of course, Christians have been coming to the column to pray that the building become a Church again, and pulling it back towards Jerusalem.”
I guess that we are just here to make a wish. Ahead of me, people are approaching the column one by one, sticking a thumb inside, and rotating their hand three hundred and sixty degrees before removing their thumb. This ritual is part of the column’s apparently robust mythology, but just as I begin to think about what sort of wish I might make to commemorate the beginning of what is to be a four-month foray into the unknown, Serap’s laughs become louder and she materializes in front of me.
“I need four strong… people,” she jokes, not wanting to offend the female majority of our group. “Come with me.” She leads four of us to the front of the line, where a young man, not too much older than me, sits in a wheelchair at the base of the column. Serap had apparently been chatting with this man and his family while the rest of us waited in line.
Of course, it is obvious what she has offered. We are so struck by the kindness of her promise to this man that we wordlessly crouch, and on the count of three, lift the wheelchair into the air. A few soft cries, the flash of a family camera, and Serap’s congratulatory exclamation fall into the background of my mind as I watch four strong fingers trace the perimeter of a circle worn by thousands before them. I am wondering whether we would have offered to lift this man without Serap’s guidance. I hope that we would have, but I fear that obvious acts of kindness somehow feel outside the realm of responsibility for tourists. By the time I place a wheel back on the stone floor my doubt has transformed into a conviction. This is the kind of tourist that we will learn to be: engaged, responsive, and outgoing, seeking to be not only attentive sponges but compassionate actors who leave traces of ourselves behind everywhere that we have an impact.
There is nothing profound or unique about our act. I think of all the people that I am sure have been helped to reach the wishing column over the years: young children lifted to see into the small niche, aged pilgrims requiring the steadiness of an extended arm for balance, other wheelchairs that have temporarily left the ground to bring someone within reach of the marble indent. But Serap’s unquestioning avowal that we do this still strikes me, and when I finally reach the front of the line I realize that I have neglected the entire purpose of my wait: I am wishless. My thumb presses up into the cool marble and my fingers turn a strained circle as my arm rotates in its socket. I do not have a wish to make; I have a feeling that I got what I came for.