When I first visited Istanbul, I found myself fascinated.

I mean “fascinated” in the word’s original sense — to cast a spell, through the use of a fixed stare.  All over the city, there were many eyes fixed on me. Blue eyes.

They were hanging from the walls of restaurants, displayed in quantities in the warren of the Grand Bazaar, dangling from the rearview mirror of cars and taxis, from key chains, from the necks of fashionable women. A glance down at a table would reveal a thicket of blue eye beads, braceleting the wrist of a dining companion, just peeking out from under her sleeve.

Photo by ccarlstead via Flickr

These blue eyes are called nazar boncugu, often shortened to nazar – amulets to protect against the evil eye. They’re made of cobalt blue glass, with what looks like a sunny-side-up egg in the center, although the “yolk” is often pale blue.  There’s a black dot in the center, which represents the pupil.

This amulet is meant to protect the bearer from the destructive coveting of the envious, which itself starts with a hard, unblinking stare.  There are apparently other ways to ward off the evil eye if you know for a fact someone has fixed you with it – incantations and so on —  but these nazar amulets protect  against unknown or hidden jealousy – a bit of blanket evil eye insurance, if you will.

There are evil eye beliefs all over the world, but they’re particularly common in the Mediterranean, which in turns offers many means of symbolic protection. Turkey and Greece both have the eye amulets; Italy has horseshoes, horns, a small troll called a gobbo; Jewish folk tradition combats the evil eye with red ribbons, blue ribbons, and blue beads.

Whatever the particular form of protection, the danger stems from one person’s jealousy of another’s success, wealth, or beauty,  which somehow leads to its damage or destruction. The stare is what summons the trouble, the eye being a source of mystical power going back as least as far as ancient Egypt.

There’s a practical reason for seating this power in the eye. “Eye-to-eye engagement is universally a first step to a train of action,” write Vivian Garrison and Conrad Arensberg in their article in The Evil Eye, published after a symposium on evil eye beliefs held at the American Anthropological Association in 1972.:

“On eye-contact, predator and prey, or rival and rival, or lover and loved, are alerted, tensed for what might come next and a move that follows: predators or rivals to the attack, lovers to tactile approach…the gaze initiates further action among both animals and humans…”

Since all of us stare from time-to-time, the evil eye was a handy explanation for all sorts of inexplicable calamities, from mental illness to famine.  To this day,  an amazing number of our habits and customs stem from protecting ourselves from this stare. For instance, there’s using a diminutives as a term of affection – a less disgusting variation on spitting on something or someone that’s received a compliment, rendering it less desirable to the envious. And there’s the military salute — it seems it was meant at first to shield a superior from an inferior’s dangerous and direct eye gaze, writes Joost Meerloo in Intuition and the Evil Eye: The Natural History of a Superstition.

The evil eye is also why many societies, including ours, sustain a taboo against staring.

And that is why, although I swear I had no envy in my heart, I felt somewhat uneasy in Istanbul — with all those blue eyes fixed steadily upon me.