Istanbul - "Ah be İstanbul güzel İstanbul
Türlü sevda içinde canım İstanbul " (Istanbul, Istanbul is beautiful ah...I kind of love life in Istanbul)
This page is dedicated to two people who have never met each other, but yet are both instrumental in forever imprinting the city of Istanbul upon my memory and weaving it into my dreams. Without the introduction of O.P. I would never have met Y.A., and without meeting Y.A. I would never have come to hear the real music of Istanbul or to hold Istanbul so dear. Thank you both gentlemen, for sharing your enchanting city with me.
"İstanbul'u dinliyorum, gözlerim kapalı"
When I close my eyes and think of Istanbul
When I close my eyes and think of Istanbul...
The cherry red shirt, sparkly diamond earrings and slender fingers of the musician playing gypsy music
Tankers slumbering on the Bosphorus in the misty morning
The street cats of the Sultanahmet cavorting on a palace lawn
Men washing their feet before prayers
Crowded trams and ferries billowing black clouds of smoke
and I hear:
The call to prayer
The cry of the fruit seller
The shouts of children playing football
Fingers striking a doumbek
Boat horns in many registers
The beautiful cacophony of the city
Kariye Camii (St. Savior in Chora)
The Kariye Camii, a Late Byzantine monastic church whose history begins in the 6th century and extends through the early 14th century, contains frescoes (paintings on plaster) and quite dazzling mosaics (murals composed of tiles) depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I cannot outdo the scholarly examination of the building, its artworks and iconography as documented on the website by Columbia University (you should spend some time there examining the 3-D movies of the interior), so here my photos must speak for themselves. This museum is well worth craning your neck for.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Ceramics, glassware and metalwork, carpets, illuminated manuscripts and furnishings are just some of the items to be discovered within this museum. As I wandered here, some of the college lectures from my Middle Eastern art history classes stirred from their resting places in my brain. The pieces which most caught my eye were (top to bottom, left to right): a relief of two knights with fearsome postures, a panel of script created from mother of pearl, a Sultan's seal along with delicately rendered blooms and a views of a walled city on a wooden panel, an illuminated astrological chart, a domed box inlaid with mother of pearl and designed to contain a Koran, and a green glass vessel.
The splendid home of the family of Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1856, this collection of structures and courtyard gardens situated on a site overlooking the Bosphorus offers many different insights into the life of Ottoman royalty. While the pavillions, bejewelled objects in the Treasury and the relics (one a cast of the footprint of the Prophet Muhammad) are fascinating, I paid the extra admission fee to explore the world of the Harem which was the realm of the Sultan, his mother, his wives, his consorts, and their respective children and servants. Within the cloistered, cool and quiet spaces I imagined the sheltered and private world of many generations of women and their families. It was extraordinary to experience the atmosphere of these apartments. I later felt the same sensations again among the rooms comprising the women's quarters at the Dolmabahçe Palace (see below). Suddenly the activities and concerns of the noisy outside world became muffled and then just slipped away.
Pictured below are:
Several examples of tilework outside the Circumcision Room
Interior of the Circumcision Room (3rd row, center)
A pavillion and details of the surrounding courtyard
The interior of the pavillion lavishly decorated with tiles and mother of pearl
The ceiling of the pavillion
Harem courtyards/apartments and interiors
Pictured below are (top to bottom, left to right):
Courtyard of the Eunuchs, Courtyard of the Concubines, Courtyard of the Queen Mother's Apartments, Imperial Hall with the Sultan's throne (2nd and 3rd rows), a fireplace, and details of tilework.
An administrative center and home of the Sultan's family beginning in 1865, the grounds of this palace abut the shores of the Bosphorus, and even today the property is still guarded by impressive looking members of the Turkish army at each of its gates. Here I primarily enjoyed strolling in the gardens and admiring the exterior of the palace as I was not with a guided tour, which made it difficult to gain entrance to the main attraction. However, the Harem quarters located discretely at the end of the property were open to the curious and donning plastic slippers over my sandals, I peeked into parlors, nurseries and baths with drawn curtains and a heavy stillness.
The Yildiz Palace is hard to find. Situated atop a hill among acres of forested park land, it was purposely built far from the possibility of an attack from the sea and was the refuge of Sultan Abdülhamid II whose uncle had been murdered at the Dolmabahçe Palace (this tidbit provided to me by a caretaker who offered me a chair and chatted with me in a most engaging fashion while I waited for enough people to assemble for a tour of the property). On a very hot mid-morning, only three other guests appeared and we were summarily whisked down hallways and tempted with glances of roped-off bedrooms, parlors, and grand reception rooms. There were some beautiful items to linger over here, should the tour guide have permitted: chandeliers, carpets, Lalique crystal, paintings by Dutch and Russian masters, two enormous sugarplum-colored ceramic vases with gold handles at the head of one staircase, and the Mother of Pearl Salon where everything from the walls to the backs of the chairs furnishing the room were inlaid with the iridescent material. We were not allowed to photograph any of the interiors, so I left feeling a little jilted that this enormous box of treasures was so tightly lidded. I hope when President Clinton visited the palace complex during a trip to Turkey in the fall of 1999 he was allowed a few more moments to indulge in admiring all of the wonderful rooms and objects.
In an old-fashioned neighborhood with an esplanade on the water, little shops and restaurants and narrow streets, this baroque-looking mosque sits delicately on the water's edge, gazing at the passing ferries. Near the end of my stay in Istanbul I visited this mosque on a rainy morning and found it to be a place that truly offered sanctuary for quiet reflection. I borrowed a baby blue headscarf from the stack thoughtfully provided for visitors, slipped out of my shoes, and found a corner window ledge to sit on in the interior. The walls of the mosque are not of tile, but rather peach, rose and white marble, which echoed with the light and shadow of the weather outside. There were two men at prayer, and I watched their prostrations and felt perfect happiness with all of the experiences my journey had granted me.
Pronounced approximately like "Ay-yoop," this district may be reached by ferry and is a place of pilgrimage. Here you will find the Eyüp Sultan Camii (the first Ottomon Turkish mosque built in 1458) and the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's standard-bearer, Eyüp Sultan. On the day I visited, arriving shortly after the call to mid-day prayers, there were hundreds of worshippers in the square outside of the mosque as well as pressed against the walls of the cemetary surrounding the mosque, all in fervent prayer. With a small crush of pilgrims I pressed and shuffled past the tomb where the walls reverberated with murmured supplications. Outside again in the fresh air, I made a donation of a few Turkish lira in support of the upkeep of the mosque and watched proud families posing for photographs with young male children celebrating their circumcision ceremonies. The boys were dressed in white or royal-blue satin trousers and capes, wore feathered hats and carried toy sceptres. I observed how carefully mothers and grandmothers folded the finery over their arms and how some of the boys playfully mock battled with their staves. This was one place where I felt most like a outsider, but was also very glad to have witnessed such significant aspects of the Muslim faith and Turkish culture.
Rooftop terraces of the Sultanahmet
The Sultanahmet district is the heart of Old Istanbul, as well as a (largely low-key) tourist center. This was my neighborhood for the duration of my stay and once I had been around for a few days, I was invited by local business people to chat over a glass of tea about matters ranging from literature to politics to what attractions to see and a little daily gossip. I'm not sure how it works physiologically, but on a steamy afternoon, sipping almost boiling bitter tea with one lump of sugar in the shade of an awning with amusing company somehow immediately cools the brain and refreshes the spirit. A side of sweet Iranian watermelon enhances the experience even more. A prerequisite for choosing a place to stay in the Sultanahmet is that your guesthouse have a rooftop terrace. My lodging, the Terrace Guesthouse, was situated on a remarkably quiet street and had a resident golden striped cat usually stationed on the welcome mat. My terrace offered picturesque views of the Bosphorus, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, as well as a marvelous place to read a book or listen to the calls to prayer from four or five mosques at once. Besides being a wonderful vantage point, up there was the best place to feel the caress of the sea breezes.
The Hamam (Turkish bath)
By far the most decadent thing I did in Istanbul (besides eating a side of local, sweet, fried or marinated/grilled calamari for dinner almost every night, swimming in the Sea of Marmara and sampling pistachio baklava for breakfast) was to visit a hamam. If you want to know what it feels like to be scrubbed and boiled like a potato while simultaneously being reborn, the Turkish bath is the place to go. The experience goes something like this (the photos are not mine but do a good job of illustrating the process). Upon entering the reception area of the hamam, I was presented with a checked cotton towel and a pair of flipflops and shown to a changing room. I guess you can keep something on underneath, but that's missing the point, and as my friend who went with me said, "You will get wet." Wrapped in the towel, I entered a domed, stone steam room where wall fountains like fonts streamed steamy hot water into a basin in which rested several shallow bowls for scooping out the water. The female attendant unwrapped my towel, threw a bowl of hot water over me and said, "Wash, wash, wash!" So along with several other women already seated in the round, I doused myself from head to toe, trying to breathe in the incredibly humid air and feeling the hot water course over me. After about 20 minutes of this, the attendant showed me through a little arched doorway to another room and directed me to lie face down (now completely disrobed) on stone slab. Now I was vigorously scrubbed from top to bottom (even between the toes so be prepared if you are ticklish) by the attendant who used a mitt with the consistency of fine sandpaper. This procedure made every nerve ending tingle. Next I was slowly buffed with what I can only describe as a large bolster pillow full of fluffy soap bubbles. For a minute or two I closed my eyes and felt nothing but a cloud of bubbles bursting against my skin. Covered in bubbles, I then received a rigorous massage, followed by a second dousing with more bowls of hot water. The final stage of the bath was a quick shampoo performed by strong fingers, and some final rinses in hot water. At this point it was difficult to stand, my head buzzed, and I ducked back through the little doorway and out into the reception area. Here I was handed another towel to cover my head and I sat about with the other visitors, all of us draped like boxers after a brutal match, and sipped water until my body temperature became something like normal again. After dressing, I watched my always fastidious friend re-gel his hair and straighten his suit jacket, and we floated out into the buttery air of the summer afternoon. Watching my friend return to his workplace, I thought how wonderful it was that in Istanbul you can steal away and be reincarnated over your lunch hour without anyone being the wiser.
Büyükada, Princes' Islands
About a two-hour ferry ride from Istanbul, the marinas and beach fronts of the Princes' Islands offer a remarkable escape from contemporary urban life. Here no car traffic is allowed, so both the locals and the tourists must choose to get around by either bicycle or horse and cart. Here upon arriving at the ferry landing, you will find men with flyers advertising smaller watercraft that will whisk you away to an afternoon of lounging under umbrellas or floating buoyant on your back in the salty Sea of Marmara at a private beach club. Here after a delicious dinner at a waterside restaurant where birds dive into the darkening waves for fish right beyond your table, you can stroll along the seaside and hear the quiet. Büyükada is simply one of the most blissful places I have ever been.
I cannot say enough about Turkish and Ottoman cuisine. It can be characterized as fresh, local, savory, and mouthwatering. Whether it was a breakfast of bread and tea with honeycomb, a variety of salty cheeses, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, hard boiled eggs and yoghurt, or a flaming clay vessel of lamb stew whose tightly capped lid is broken open with a dramatic crack! at the table, food in Istanbul tastes like the love it takes to prepare it. I ate every beautiful thing that was put in front of me and as my favorite foodie Tony Bourdain puts it, I was always "hungry fuh mo-wah." A list of favorite dishes, which I dream I will one day be able to enjoy again in any order:
-The Turkish breakfast. Protein and veggie rich with just enough sugar to get you going and just enough salt to compensate for sweating away half your body weight in the hamam, a really healthy way to start the day.
-Salted and dried little fish with a drizzle of olive oil
-Ezme. An appetizer of finely chopped tomatoes, garlic, onions, spices and sometimes lemon or pomegranate juice, each restaurant makes a slightly different concoction. Enjoy scooped on to good bread.
-Lamb. Grilled, marinated, stewed, and meat-balled. Forget about where it comes from and explore delicacies such as grilled lamb kidneys or liver, which in my opinion is better than the finest grade of fois gras.
-Calamari. Fried in a delicate batter or marinated and grilled, I couldn't stop ordering this stuff. Turkish squid is sweet, white, juicy and nothing like its Cape Cod cousins.
-A fresh sea bass, grilled and served whole at the table.
-Pistachio baklava. I only ate Istanbul baklava three times, and the most heavenly was presented to me in a beautiful box on the plane from Istanbul to Tajikistan by a young mechanic for Turkish Airlines (my seat mate) on his way to two months of training in Dushanbe. Ibrahim, I will never forget this gift and wish you and your family well always.
-Efes. The ubiquitous beer of Turkey. Light and golden and perfect with Turkish food and the setting sun.