Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Istanbul Impressions

Flag Merchant
Flag Merchant, Istanbul, 2011

I just got back from a short jaunt to Istanbul. I had never been there before, which is kind of odd, really, because it's not all that far away—closer than Marseilles, for example. It is a quite an amazing place. Clichéd or not, it really is caught between East and West, a Byzantine history, an Ottoman past, a Kemalist present, and an unknown future. You can't help feeling that it's bound to return to its usual position of dominating the Mediterranean, like it did from Constantine the Great to Mehmed VI, with nary an interruption.

Now It's Time For Liberation Of East Turkestan!
Now It's Time For Liberation Of East Turkestan!

In places, it feels like you could be in Beirut, except that it's far more approachable and there's far more stuff you can do on your own, without someone local to show you around. The obligatory sights are truly magnificent; I don't know if I've been anywhere you can feel the weight of history as strongly as in Aya Sofia, and a visit to Süleymaniye Mosque makes it clear why Mimar Sinan is regarded as one of the greatest architects in history. Yet the most impressive thing about Istanbul is, I think, the site itself: the confluence of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Golden Horn. I've never been anywhere geopolitics is so palpably present. Constantine was no dummy when he picked this spot for his capital, with all the Roman empire to choose from.

Halvdan Was Here
Halvdan Was Here. I can see him, a Varyag guard in the Byzantine Emperor's service, scratching his name on the balustrade as he's bored to tears during some interminable ceremony he doesn't understand, or care about.

On that site are layers upon layers of history. A Roman tower lately redecorated by the Genoese. Aya Sofia itself; once a basilica, then a mosque—with a minbar and mihrab askew, angels rubbing shoulders with the names of God, the Prophet, and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs—and now a museum. The aqueduct of Valens, only a hundred years or so out of use, cutting through the city along the spine of the peninsula.

Elephant Pillar
Elephant Pillar, in Sultanahmet Mosque. Sumptuously decorated, but I was more impressed by the spaciousness and lightness of Süleymaniye Mosque.

Mosques. Mosques everywhere, with their needle-slender minarets and rounded domes, and in-between, stately buildings that could be in Budapest or Paris, Madrid or even Stockholm.


The vibe of Istanbul is strangely similar to that of St. Petersburg, I thought. It's as if the two cities are mirror images of each other. So different, yet so precisely opposites that they meet again. Where Istanbul has mosques, St. Petersburg has churches, and vice versa. Where St. Petersburg is rectilinear, spacious, flat, and exhaustingly sprawling, Istanbul is twisty, hilly, and confusing. Yet there is a sameness, perhaps from both being capitals by fiat, even if a millennium and a half separated in time.

Sultanahmet Cat
Sultanahmet Cat.

Cats. Cats everywhere. Sleek, self-satisfied, confident, well-fed cats, who always seem to pick a spot to meditate in that matches the color and pattern of their fur. They help themselves at a bucket of catfood at a pet shop, wait for scraps at a kebap place, or just lounge in the December sun, content to be admired.

Books. Istanbulli love their books. There are bookshops all over the place. Small ones, big ones, religious ones, secular ones. One that sells reproductions of antique maps—and, I think, some genuine antiquest too—and books with photos; another that sells political literature; one that sells Bibles, another that sells Qur'ans. Beautiful books, big books, small books. Even the bookshop at Atatürk Airport is the best of its kind that I've seen—small but with a very carefully chosen collection. Rumi's Masnavi rubs shoulders with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Orhan Pamuk with George Martin, Turkish cookbooks with a general history of the Arabs. I could've bought a dozen titles from there alone, although I only bought two.

Any city that loves its cats and its books as much as Istanbul can't be all bad.

Fresh Fish
Fresh Fish, Kadiköy.

Food. Universally excellent. Simple, fresh, with an almost home-cooked feel. Served in a no-nonsense way, much like in an Italian osteria. You order what you like, and if it's not enough, you order more. Everybody at the table has a bit of everything. Sharing is the default, no need to ask for two plates for one dessert. You can tell which places are licensed by the smell; they're stronly perfumed with the anise fragrance of raki.

Istiklal After Dark
Istiklal Caddesi After Dark.

Istiklal Caddesi. It has to be one of the world's great promenades. Istanbulli must really love to party, because the damn street is packed, even on a weekday night in chilly December. An antique tram forces its way through the crowd, bell ringing. Men sell chestnuts from pushcarts. Music floods onto the street from meyhanes, lilting Turkish and Arabesque notes competing with the thump-thump-thump of disco. An emaciated, elderly man playes a fast, skippy tune on a bowed string instrument; a metrosexual young man dances to it with fierce dedication. We buy some double-pistachio loukoum from Ali Muheddin Haci Bekir's shop, with over 300 years of practice making it. The man behind the counter is surly, but the loukoum is fantastic.

The whole of Beyoglu seems to be one continuous party, with only short breaks to sober up and rest, every once in a while. If the AKP intends to turn Turkey into a properly moral Islamic republic, they have a bit of work to do.

Why? Bye
Why? Bye.

It costs three lira to take the tünel down the hill from Beyoglu to the Galata Bridge, but only two to cross from Eminönü to Kadiköy on the Asian side. Go figure. Maybe they feel that the ferry is a necessity, while the tünel is for lazy people only. Point, that.

Exterior, Süleymaniye Cami
Süleymaniye Cami, Exterior

As we visit the Süleymaniye mosque, the muezzin sounds the call to midday prayer. They don't throw us out, but sit us down to the side where we can follow the proceedings. He has a beautiful voice. It is a simple ritual, not all that different from what goes on in the zendo, actually, especially if there's a recitation. It is strange to think that for over five hundred years, the language of the people they conquered has been chanted here, in the heart of the Ottoman empire.

Inscription, Süleymaniye Cami
Inscription, Süleymaniye Cami. Could this be the architect's signature, of sorts? His name is not on it, but the date is about right...

The streets are clean and many look newly paved. The trams are likewise new. Signs of a rapid rise in wealth and living standards are everywhere, as the new displaces the old. Walk a few steps and turn a corner, though, and you're suddenly in a dusty, run-down street that looks like it hasn't changed much in the past hundred years.

Railway Alley
Railway Alley.

Chickens, In The Street
Chickens, In The Street.

There's a lot of traffic—really, a lot—but it's nowhere near as chaotic as in Beirut, or even Rome. I'd hate to drive in the small streets though; the corners are often so tight even practiced drivers need to go back and forth a bit to get around them and none of the streets appear to be one-way, so if someone happens to be coming in the other direction, someone's going to have to reverse. Plus it's often uphill or downhill, very steeply too.

The dogs have little tags on their ears. Maybe it's a rabies vaccination tag. I hear there's rabies in Istanbul, what with all the cats and dogs. The dogs look sleepy and well cared-for, and definitely don't try anything with the cats. Sometimes they tag along obediently with their masters. I didn't see a single one on a leash. No dog poop anywhere either.

Market Stall
Market Stall.

Market stalls, everywhere. It's as if everything street-level is a shop, and every open space, in underpasses and on squares, has someone selling something.

Bazaar Merchant
Bazaar Merchant.

The Grand Bazaar. It's a building that has its own map in Google Maps. It is enormous, truly like something out of Thousand Nights and One Night. Arched corridors, broad and narrow, decorated in blue and red, with light coming in thrown windows cut in them, going endlessly and fractally in all directions. There are eateries, cafés, drinking fountains, even a mosque in there. Some corridors are broad like avenues, others are narrow like back alleys. And everywhere, things for sale. Good stuff, mostly. I'm sure that if you did some research you could make some real finds there. I'm no expert, but some of the rugs looked fine. It's easy to imagine what it must've been like when goods from all corners of the Empire, and beyond, were on sale there.


Kadiköy, on the other side of the Bosphorus. It has a quieter, less frenetic feel to it. Almost like a small town. Reminded me a bit of Byblos, maybe. Almost no tourists to be found. A friendly local helps us find the place we're looking for. More very good food. An open market street with fresh fish and vegetables. Nearby, a shopping street with a "bio" store. Joanna buys some a jar of carob and a bottle of pomegranate molasses.

And then we're back at the airport, looking at the Departures board. London. Tashkent. Berlin. Doha. Tel Aviv. Helsinki. Tehran. Stockholm. Constantinople, Istanbul. The city in the center.

Golden Horn Sunset
Golden Horn Sunset.


  1. No, I didn't. I won't even ask if I should have, that much is obvious only from the name. Where is it?

  2. Nice. I loved Istanbul when I went there quite a few years ago now. Seeing the above pictures brought it all back. Hadn't seen all those places but many of them.


    We were walking along the wall when my wife said 'there was a man with a pigeon in a box coming up the road'. Well, 300 meters later we just walked in the pigeon market. I did not know there is such a big pigeon fancy in Istambul, but I liked the fact we were the only turists in sight for miles

  4. Looks amazing from the pictures and the text. Now, I want to go there, but I told myself I wanted a relaxing beach holiday for my next holiday, because my last one was visit, visit, visit in Italy...

    Dilemma, dilemma...

  5. You could always combine the two. Go for a beach holiday, say, on the Black Sea coast, then go for an overnight or two-day trip to Istanbul from there.