One of the most important parts of the journals of Patrick Leigh Fermor is describing Ada Kaleh between the two world war. This little island, drowned in the name of 'progress' comes alive once more. Turkish language fills the summer air with smell of coffee, they linger together on the narrows streets, we can hear the hodja's voice from the minaret stuck in the ground like a sprear, while the old river - the Danube gently embraces the fortress island. This ethereal view can only be observed through Fermor's lines.
I had heard much talk of Ada Kaleh in recent weeks, and read all I could find. The name means 'island fortress' in Turkish. It was about a mile long, shaped like a shuttle, bending slightly with the curve of the current and lying a little closer to the Carpathian than the Balkan shore. It has been called Erythia, Rushafa and then Continusa, and, according to Apollonius Rhodius, the Argonauts dropped anchor here on their way back from Colchis. How did Jason steer the Argo through the Iron Gates? And the the Kazan? Medea probably lifted the vessel clear of the spikes of magic. Some say Argo reached the Adriatic by overland portage, others that she crossed it and continued up to the Po, mysteriously ending in North Africa. Writers have tentatively suggested that the first wild olive to be planted in Attica might have come from here. But it was later history that had invested the little island with fame.
The inhabitants were Turkish, probably descendants of the soldiers of one of the earlier Sultans who invaded the Balkans, Murad I, or Bayazid I, perhaps. Left behind by the retreating Turks, the island lingered on as an outlaying fragment of the Ottoman Empire until the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. The Austrians held some vague suzerainty over it, but the island seems to have been forgotten until it was granted to Rumania at the Treaty of Versailles; and the Rumanians had left the inhabitants undisturbed. The first thing I saw after landing was a rustic coffee-shop under a vine-trellis where old men sat cross-legged in a circle with sickles and adzes and pruning knives scattered about them. I was as elated when bidden to join them as if I had suddenly been seated on a magic carpet. Bulky scarlet sashes a foot wide gathered in the many pleats of their black and dark blue baggy trousers. Some wore ordinary jackets, others navy-blue boleros with convoluted black embroidery and faded plum-coloured fezzes with ragged turbans loosely knotted about them; all except the hodja's. Here, snow-white folds were neatly arranged round a lower and less tapering fez with a short stalk in the middle. Something about the line of brow, the swoop of nose and the jut of the ears made them indefinably different from any of the people. I had seen on my journey so far- The four or five hundred islanders belonged to a few families which had intermarried for centuries, and one or two had the vague and absent look, the wandering glance and the erratic levity that sometimes come with ancient and imbred stock. In spite of their patched and threadbare clothes, their style and their manners were full of dignity. On encountering a stranger, they touched heart, lips and brow with the right hand, then laid it on their breast with an inclination of the head and murmured formula of welcome. It was a gesture of extreme grace, like the punctilio of broken-down grandees. An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island were the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.
Several of my neighbours fingered strings of beads, but not in prayer; they split them between their fingers at random intervals, as though to scan their boundless leisure; and to my delight, one old man, embrowered in a private cloud, was smoking a narghilé. Six feet of red tubing were cunningly coiled, and when he pulled on the amber mouthpiece, charcoal glowed on a damped wad of tobacco leaves from Ispahan and the bubbles, fighting their way through the water with the sound of a mating bull-frog, filled the glass vessel with smoke. A boy with small tongs arranged fresh charcoal. While he did so, the old man pointed towards me and whispered; and the boy came back in a few minutes with a laden tray on a circular table six inches from the ground. Seeing my quandray, a neighbour told me how to begin: first, to drink the small glass of raki; then eat the mouthful of delicious rose-petal jam lying ready spooned on a glass saucer, followed by half a tumbler of water; finally to sip at a dense and scalding thimbleful of coffee slotted in a filigree holder. The ritual should be completed by emptying the tumbler and accepting tobacco, in this case, an aromatic cigarette made by hand on the island. Meanwhile the old man sat in smiling silence, sighing occasionally, with a friendly word to me now and then in what sounded like very broken Rumanian, the doctor had said that their accent and style caused amusement on the shore. Among themselves they spoke Turkish, which I had never heard: astonishing strings of agglutinated syllables with a followthrough of identical vowels and dimly reminiscent of Magyar; all the words are different, but the two tongues are distant cousins in the Ural-Altaic group of languages. According to the doctor it had either drifted far from the metropolitan vernacular of Constantinople or remained immovably lodged in its ancient mould, like a long-marooned English community still talking the language of Chaucer.
I didn't know what to do when leaving; an attempt at payment was stopped by a smiel and an enigmatic backward tilt of the head. Like everything else, this was the first time I came across the universal negative of the Levant; and once more, there was that charming inclination, hand on breast.
So these were the last descendants of those victorious nomads from the borders of China! They had conquered most of Asia, and North Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, enslaved half Christendom and battered on the gates of Vienna; victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground.
Balconied houses gathered about the mosque and small workshops for Turkish Delight and cigarettes, and all round these crumbled remains of a massive fortress. Vine-trellises or an occasional awning shaded the cobbled lanes. there were hollyhocks and climbing roses and carnations in whitewashed petrol tins, and the heads and shoulders of the wives who flickered about among them were hidden by a dark feredjé - a veil pinned in a straight line above the brow and joining under the nose; and they wore tapering white trousers, an outfit which gave them the look of black-and-white ninepins. Children were identically-clad miniatures of the grown-ups and, except for their unveiled faces, the little girls might each have been the innermost of a set of Russian dolls. Tobacco leaves were hung to dry in the sun like strings of small kippers. Women carried bundles of sticks on their heads, scattered grain to poultry and returned from the shore withntheir sickles and armfuls of rushes. Lop-eared rabbits basked or hopped sluggishly about the little gardens and nibbled the leaves of ripening melons. Flotillas of ducks cruised among the nets and the canoes and multitudes of frogs had summoned all the storks from the roofs.
Hunyadi had put up the first defensive walls, but the ramparts all round belonged to the interregnum after Prince Eugen had taken Belgrade and driven the Turks downstream, and the eastern end of the island looked as though it might sink under the weight of his fortifications. The vaults of the gun-galleries and the dank tremendous magazines had fallen in. Fissures split the ramparts and great blocks of masonry, tufted with grass, had broken away and goats tore at the leaves among the debris. A pathway among pear trees and mulberries led to a little cemetery where turbanned headstones leant askew and in one corner lay the tomb of a dervish prince from Bokhara who had ended his life here after wandering the word, 'poor as a mouse' in search of the most beautiful place on earth and the one most sheltered from harm and mishap.
It was getting late. The sun left the minaret, and then the new moon, a little less wraith-like than the night before, appeared on cue in a turquoise sky with a star next to it that might have benn pinned there by an Ottoman herald. With equal promptitude, the hodja's torso emerged on the balcony under the cone of the minaret. Craning into the dusk, he lifted his hands and the high and long-drawn-out summons of the izan floated across the air, each clause wavering and spreading like rings of sound from pebbles dropped at intervals into a pool of air. I found myself still listening and holding my breath when the message had ended and the hodja must have been half-way down his dark spiral.
Surrounded by pigeons, men were unhasteningly busy at the lustral fountain by the mosque and the row of slippers left by the door was soon lenghtened by my gym shoes. Once inside, the Turks spread in a line on a vast carpet, with lowered eyes. there was no decoration except for the mihrab and the mimbar and the black callygraphy of a Koranic verse across the wall. The ritual gestures of preparation were performed in careful and unhurried unison, until, gathering momentum, the row of devotees sank like a wave; then soles of their foreheads touched the pile of the carpet, the soles of their feet all suddenly and disarmingly revealed; rocking back, they sat with their hands open in their laps, palms upward; all in dead silence. Every few minutes, the hodja sitting in front of them murmured „Allah akbar!” in a quiet voice, and another long silence followed. In the unornate and hushed concavity, the four isolated syllables sounded indescribably dignified and austere.