The Constantinople street is drenched in pure sunlight, saturating almost all color from the scene. The tall, alabaster stone building that zigzags and narrows the passage casts a Payne's grey shadow onto the ocher cobblestones. Despite its disparity in hue, the street is made interesting by the people who populate it. In the background, children escorted by an old man are wrapped in tattered rags. In the midground, two women wearing blue and white çarşafs steady themselves to march past a female family of ill repute who catch the eye by leaving their marigold, emerald, and ruby silk brocade entaris uncovered.
The shrouded women also pass and ignore the dozen or so British tourists who stare at them wide-eyed and in awe. The concubines, however, leave the street and beckon these Westerners inside. It is with these women that the image transitions and the tourists who have been viewing this scene are escorted into the realm of Turkish delights without taking one actual step into the vice den.
Of course, they don't realize that. As far as they are concerned their bodies are being propelled. The tourists are so enthralled with the scenery around them they don't notice it is nothing but light streaming from the Şehrazt's orbs, and that they are standing and static around her in the diorama gallery of the Imperial Ottoman Museum.
The immersion begins the moment they enter the building.
Waifs hired from off the street usher them into an empty and barren gallery. The only artifact in the room is what appears to be a life-sized sculpture, but is, in fact, the main attraction: the Şehrazatın Diyoraması.
Dressed like a sheik's daughter with only her face and forearms exposed, she wears a beautiful variegated turban knotted at the side of her temple, and an aigrette of gold coins adorns her brow. She wears ribboned amulets and pay-i-çifts of pearls and turquoise, and underneath her kaftan flashes the violet embroidered, rose dusk silk of her shalwar. Her flesh is carved from ivory, and upon close inspection, was delicately put together with bronze ligaments and socketry. This allows for some movement—her head can swivel and her arms gesture and rest—but she is for the most part immobile. Her face is completely inanimate; her pulchritude is composed of general features, high cheekbones and full lips. She has solid glass eyes sans pupils and a face with a frozen, pensive gaze. Special attention has been given to the earlobes, which are carefully carved and inlaid with bronze to better capture the gallery's acoustics. Sound is her only means of collecting information and receiving commands. Other than that, she does not mimic any of the other human senses.
She stands on a stage in the middle of the gallery with one arm extended to the door wherein entered her creator and master, Werner von Froeschner, a charismatic German scientist who before his renown as the Şehrazat's creator had gained repute for his achievements in Genevan Galvanism, von Kemplen mechanics, and advances in scaling down difference engines while optimizing their performance. Because he insists on being the only one who operates the machine, he has stayed in the capitol and become the master of ceremonies to the diorama tour.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Constantinople!" Waifs circle the tourists with tea and biscuits. "I know you are all eager to begin our trek, but first I want to introduce you to our guide.
"Now I know what you all must be thinking: here is just another Chess Player. But I assure you, this is no chess player. This…this is the future of—well, everything—but we get ahead of ourselves. But, today—for today—this is the future of travel, yes? How many times have you seen a Delacroix set outside of Constantinople and thought that you too would like to see that scene? Be a part of that exact scene? Ah, but you come to the Empire and you no longer see that exact scene." There are a few agreements among the audience. "We live in an Industrial world now. There is not much room left for Romance—no, my friends, I am afraid the visions of Gêrome and Delacroix are quickly becoming nothing but dusty relics hanging on an aristocrat's wall, and the experience you so longed for is ever fleeting…until now!
"You see, my friend Abdul Hamid is a traveler as well. He understands the romance that fuels such excursions, and as he visited my homeland he had his own vision—why not use all of this industry, all of this progress, to make a new thing of beauty? To make a new experience for the worldly traveler? To keep the East as it was without having to stay stuck in the past! His vision—the Şehrazatın Diyoraması!
"What you see before you is the marriage of art and science—the brainchild of some of the best minds in both the East and West. He hired me to oversee the Şehrazat's design and construction. Osman Hamdi Bey, the Turkish painter who was one of the first here to embrace the French techniques and was so well acquainted with the style we needed, curated and created the synthesized images you will shortly see. Louis Majorelle, the French furniture maker who can often be found in a Constantinople cafe, was commissioned to design her body, but would you believe the Sultan himself—a great carpenter—constructed it!" He pulls her flowing costume away from her abdomen to reveal the elaborate Marjorelle cabinet made of juniper wood inlayed with beech and ivory crocuses. Although it is shaped in the voluptuous style of a de Milo torso, its realism is blemished by two oblong doors inlaid with bronze knobs, which Von Froeschner opens to reveal the contents within: a plethora of mechanical intestines that intertwine so densely that one cannot fathom what any of it is for.
Smiling at the quizzical expressions of those who gaze inside the cabinet, he closes her up. "You see, inside here is the karanlık oda—the darkroom—the camera obscura that projects this tour. This," he knocks on the torso, "this is the pride of the Ottoman Empire, for the diorama was devised and constructed by the Sultan's favored photographer, Bora Fahir Çağlar." He lets the skirts fall over the cabinet torso and walks behind the Şehrazat with a melancholic expression. "Sadly, he disappeared before he could see his genius realized. No doubt, he would have marveled at the illusion he helped create."
On that somber note, the waifs pull shut the black curtains. Someone from the audience exclaims: "Professor, you have evaded explaining how she works."
Von Froeschner wags a finger. "Yes I have. With all due respect, ladies and gentlemen, if I explained how this marvel works, I would destroy the illusion you came here to enjoy. We, here, are not interested in bragging about our scientific discoveries, although we easily could do so and change the world. No, we are here to provide you with an experience—so please, worry not on technicalities, just enjoy your holiday." He bends back down behind the Şehrazat, fumbling with her back as the room turns to pitch.
The tourists hold their breaths as a loud humming begins and exhale in delight as light composing the pale yellow and Prussian blue of Cappadocia shoots from her eyes and fills up the room. They forget about von Froeschner and the inner workings of the machine, and journey forth into the fantasies of poets and painters.
In the Turkish Bath, grossly modeled after the infamous Ingres image, ladies and gentleman are witness to voluptuous women lounging, dining, wading, and ultimately having their decadent ablutions tended to by maids.
Most all of the audience respond in wonder at the scene, some a little abashed to be witnessing it in mixed company, but there is one—there is always one—who mutters: "But that maid there with the perfume. She isn't Moorish like the other maids in the scene." And before their eyes, the blonde maiden who had been powdering another's hair darkens. Other comments follow: "That eunuch's hair is too auburn and her skin still pale."
"Why don't they look us in the eye?"
"They seem too thin. Not voluptuous like the Venus."
And with every comment and observation, the image shifts, hair and skin brightens or fades, and the turbaned lute player who faced away from the tourists now boldly strums while staring them all in the eye.
These effects are so subtle and undisruptive that the tourists who speak out are unsettled at first that the machine seems to hear them, while simultaneously pleased that the machine obeys them. A group jester exclaims: "Perhaps there is a human brain tucked away in her bronze casted skull of hers, hey, von Froeschner?"
"If that were true," Von Froeschner retorts, "she'd still have human thoughts. Were that so, of what do you think they'd be?" The rhetorical question sinks into the merry group who are quieted by awe as the projection exits the Bath and enters onto a bustling marketplace, crosses the street, and enters a café filled with dozens of young bearded men in turbans and fezzes huddled to discuss news of the day in a great vaulted marble establishment with the walls decorated with iznik tiles in the tulip fashion.
The shift is so seamless that the tourists are enthralled once again, and forget that with each critical utterance the projection changes into a more ideal vision—it is so imperceptible they forget they had even thought it, much less muttered it out loud. None of them consider that the image they see may be more romanticized now than it was before, and that the experience they are having is a false one. No, they came here to be comfortable. They especially disregard von Froeschner's retort and have no more notions of the dark rumors that were broached in jest.
Had von Froeschner equipped the Şehrazat with a voice box, she could have addressed the jester herself. She—he—may no longer be able to see or speak, but he can hear and think. He dreams what he can no longer experience. Sometimes, when he hears the tourists ask von Froeschner whether he—she—is "quite the storyteller like her mother, Scheherazade?" an allusion much encouraged by the scientist, he thinks his retort: my mother died of consumption in Girit and told Christian stories to her older children while bedridden, and she named me Nikos Antonakis, not Bora Fahir Çağlar, not Şehrazat.
But he cannot tell the tourists that Bora Fahir Çağlar was a deceit, and instead continues to project the falsehoods that most interest them.
The Sultan was interested in lies as well. They were a grand distraction from rumors, and the Ottoman Empire was becoming full of vile and horrid ones.
But behind every rumor is a semblance of truth. Nikos Antonakis learned this when he went to work as one of the myriad photographers called upon by the Sultan to document the Ottoman Empire with their lenses. Many of these photos became official tourist propaganda and souvenirs, but none of Nikos' images would be found in foreign scrapbooks; even less likely upon the gallery wall.
He began taking images that showed the classical grandeur and status of the Empire, but rumors of an uprising in his home village in Girit made him aim his lens beyond empirical glory and towards some unacknowledged Ottoman truths. He heard of other incidents and revolts in Armenia, and took his lens there.
The Photography Project had little tolerance for journalism, so Nikos sent his tintype testimonies to certain liberal reform newspapers under the Turkish name Bora Fahir Çağlar, thinking a proper Turkish name would give his work more credit. Even with the pseudonym, he knew he'd be found out and arrested.
So it was no surprise that, a fortnight after the photographs were published, police stormed his home, beat him unconscious, and burned down his hut along with his darkroom, and carted him off to Constantinople to a dirty jail cell.
But he did not awaken in a jail. He found himself on a straw mattress shoved in the corner of a stonewall laboratory, his right foot chained to a ball. Standing over him was von Froeschner, with a reassuring smile and a lab coat splattered in oil. He spoke to Nikos in Turkish:
"You don't know me, my friend, but I know you. While it has earned you the Sultan's disfavor, I admire your work and have heard much about your methods. In fact, it is my admiration that has kept you alive; it can keep you alive if you will help me."
Nikos spat at his shoes. Von Froeschner nodded and gestured for the guards to unchain him.
"See, already you are freer than before. Please, let me show you something; it may change your mind." He held his hand up to the guards to give Nikos over and he led the photographer prisoner over to a slab where lay the Şehrazat.
She was undressed, with her skull and cabinet torso open. Nikos could see how her appendages were attached to her torso cabinet via bronze wired knitting. The inner workings that would confound the tourists when she was displayed were pulled away, and Nikos could see deep inside her guts were three tiny gas lights sputtering cobalt flame, a slanted mirror that optimized and directed the lightening, and a spool on a rotating mechanism. Von Froeschner rummaged in the cabinet, connecting and attaching various things, and pointed to what Nikos would later learn was Bey's tableau scroll on an adjacent table.
"I think you know how to install that here." He watched Nikos place the scroll on the spool and came up behind him to ensure it was aligned. He closed her up, and walked to her skull. He gestured for Nikos to stand next to him. Nikos glimpsed the inside and saw that the skull housed a small brain connected to various internal prongs. The sight startled him, and von Froeschner placed a hand on his shoulder. "Ah, yes. It is disconcerting at first. It was generously donated to us from the Sultan, whose pet capuchin was ravaged by a tiger last week."
Where matter and metal met, blue sparks exploded when von Froeschner pulled a lever beside the slab. A soft hum emanated from her, and a bright light projected from her eyes to the ceiling, creating the pale yellow and Prussian blue of Cappadocia.
"There. You see?" Nikos marveled with mouth agape as the diorama became animated on the ceiling. The image was as clear and sharp as a photograph, but rendered in the palette of the Orientalists, making it the most realistic image he had ever seen. The image itself moved, not by rotation, but zoomed in and out of the scenery like binoculars. As amazing as that was, Nikos couldn't help but think: it is inaccurate, like most paintings. It isn't real; it isn't truth.
"What…what is this? A diorama?" he asked.
"Yes, for now she is a diorama, but she has the potential to become much more. The Sultan terms her a truth machine. People will believe what they see—it will be real to them. It will become memory—like a visceral dream."
"But it isn't true," Nikos muttered.
"The Truth is not real unless it can be seen—as you well know, a picture never lies."
Nikos stared up at the projection as it entered the Turkish Baths. "It depends on the picture. Many pictures lie."
Von Froeschner chuckled. "And there are many truths. There are harmful truths, just like there are beneficent lies. All are just means to an end."
"That is a good question." Von Froeschner turned off the machine and walked around the Şehrazat, running his hand down her cabinet torso. "We are learning that the brain's capacity is grossly underutilized. It is much like a difference engine, you know. It has electrical impulses that process and synthesize information at an uncanny rate, and yet we only use it for quotidian tasks, and it could be argued we barely use it for that. I want to test it—to challenge it. With constant stimulation, its capacity for performance could in theory double exponentially, to eventually maintain a tintype-like memory that could store and recall information and perhaps eventually become clairvoyant based upon patterns and probabilities it perceives."
Nikos could not comprehend what von Froeschner blathered about, but he knew it was momentous, and the excitement of the new, of the truly revolutionary, welled inside him. It made him forget that he was a prisoner and why he had been imprisoned.
"All of that from the brain of a monkey?" Nikos looked away from the diorama to meet von Froeschner's lachrymose smile.
"Perhaps it could," he said. "But I am not speaking of this there." He pointed to the beating rose matter. "I am speaking of that here." He gently placed his pointer finger on Nikos' temple. "This is what I need to help me."
Excitement gut soured into trepidation within Nikos. "Help you? I am just a photographer. What does this have to do with me?"
Von Froeschner nodded with a frown. "You are aware of the extreme disfavor you've garnered yourself? The Sultan wants your head, but he has no use for it other than to make it an example to others. But I have use for it, and so have asked him to give it to me. I admire your mind, you see? I want it to live, to share many truths."
Nikos looked von Froeschner in the eye. Von Froeschner nodded and then turned away. Before Nikos could ask von Froeschner his meaning, he felt a cold prick at the base of his head and entered an unknown darkness.
The café scene is now a distant one. The image pans over the hundred or so men sitting and discussing politics in traditional costume, and goes beyond the city passing the Basilica Cistern and flying over the slate domes and white spires of Topkapı Palace, soaring over the three courtyards until landing on the Bosporus shore.
Underneath the current of the projections, Nikos dreams of his homeland. Eventually, after being encased within von Froeschner's contraption of charms for several months, he was able to achieve what von Froeschner had predicted, and under the constant stimulation and processing of tourist information, which included learning their languages, his mind developed the ability to multitask, to dream and inhabit his internal world of personal memory while continuing to project the faux monde for the tourists, all while processing their cues to synthesize and revamp the diorama.
The Bosporus sea reminds him of the shore where he was born, and he thinks of his mother wasting away.
He is distracted from the dream by the tourists' gasps—not of the usual astonishment—but of distaste and disappointment. The sea's flawless view is obstructed by a consumptive Magdalene, who leans over a bed of sand and seaweed and spews sputum from behind her long stringy hair.
"Why, that woman is dying!" a matron proclaims, and Nikos holds onto the image to make it clearer. The tourists see the shore disappear behind barren stone walls and several newly orphaned children tugging at their lost mother's soiled skirts.
Several of the female tourists wail at the pathos, upsetting their men.
"Von Froeschner!" a male tourist bellows. "This is grotesque. What is the meaning of this?"
Von Froeschner feigns ignorance and asks the audience to bear with what must be a glitch.
To their relief, they are lead out of the woeful house and into an image of a white stone church on the shore, the azul water lapping the pale yellow sand.
"Now that's more like it," says the bellowing Brit. Just then, the image becomes crowded with Turkish soldiers slicing kilijs into Cretan women and children; the church is engulfed in flames. The chiaroscuro haze is so realistic that the tourists panic, and some seek the doors. In response, the image leaves the Cretan massacre and enters the door of the church. The entire room darkens for a moment, and the complaining tourists quiet.
Slowly a stonewall laboratory fades into their vision, and once the image is fully developed they see von Froeschner standing inbetween two operating tables. On his right they can make out the Şehrazat, her head unbolted, brain exposed and blue sparking. It takes several moments for the exposure to reveal the other slab, but eventually the tourists make out the chiaroscuro depth of an open and empty human skull.
The tourists become frantic. The atramentous curtains are ripped from the rods, making the horrid image fade.
Those who haven't fainted or sought escape stare at von Froeschner and the orb shining Şehrazat. The joke made fifteen minutes ago now hangs in the air like a noose.
Ignoring the tourists, who are demanding to be let out of the locked room, von Froeschner grins and saunters over to shut the Şehrazat down. She returns to her default position, her arm gesturing at the triumphant scientist musing over the mob scene unfolding before him.
The Constantinople street is drenched in pure sunlight, saturating almost all color from the scene. The tall, alabaster stone building that zigzags and narrows the passage casts a Payne’s grey shadow onto the ocher cobblestones. Despite its disparity in hue, the street is made interesting by the people who populate it. Several dozen panting and pale Western tourists, sweating in their grey and pastel wools and cottons, faint and gesture wildly at shrouded women who ignore them, dazed by the seen and unseen of their dreams, bewildered by the scenes of Bora Fahir Çalğar and the truths of Nikos Antonakis.