Istanbul: Notes 1998

Al-Ain, UAE
10 March 1998

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Istanbul is an ancient, very complex city spread over seven steep hills, the shores of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. The best way to see it is on foot and by boat, but that's not as easy in January as in other months.   The guidebooks are written from the point of view of someone going there in summer, and some of the walks in winter can be cold and strenuous.   Istanbul is at the same latitude as New York City (41 N) and the wind off the water makes the wind-chill seem quite low.   We were glad we brought warm clothes and wore every bit of them all the time, but both of us came down with awful colds about half way through the trip, which made for miserable walks in the raw cold.  

Our hotel was in the budget category - $25 a night including breakfast.   It gave us a great view of the ships in the Sea of Mamara and of the historic mosques near Sultan Ahmet Square, but the room heat and hot water supply were sporadic at best.

Our preconceptions of Istanbul were based on years of reading history and literature, but those works generally are set in specific time periods.   But the city is like an amazing onion:   layers and layers of human experience and habitation built on top of each other.   The result is that you can see bits of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires literally everywhere you go. Examples include the pile of Roman columns lying on the side of the street across from the hotel, and the still functioning 16th century Mosque right behind the hotel built on Roman ruins that stuck out here and there.   Whenever we visited a site, we had to imagine what it looked like in earlier incarnations.   For example, Aya Sofia was built by Justinian as the largest Christian church in the world in the 500s AD, then became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 1400's, and finally became a museum after Kemal Ataturk took over in the 20th century.   But there's no way to describe the major sites themselves - the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Sulimaniye Mosque are truly monumental architecture, each huge, imposing, distinctive whether seen up close or distantly on the skyline.

Having read a lot about Istanbul before we arrived, we knew that the good weather that we experienced initially wouldn't last, given that January is the coldest and wettest month.   So we walked and walked those first days, to the point when our legs and feet were just exhausted.   And in those first relatively clear and mild days we took a ferry north along the Bosporus to the furthest point on the Asian side before entering the Black Sea.   Good thing too, because later the notorious Istanbul smog set in and we wouldn't have seen a thing.  

Much of the domestic heating in Istanbul still is from soft coal and the pollution is not just visible, it's palpable too.   Woody and I can both distantly remember the smell of burning coal, but surely it has been outlawed in both the US and Europe since the 1960s or so.   The smog and smoke from the coal and the uniformly gray weather are reflected in the dark Turkish clothing and buildings, so different from more colorful clothes in Greece or Cyprus for example.   We quickly learnt the advantage of dark clothing since it shows the omnipresent dirt so much less.

We tried to limit our visits to one major site each day so we could savor the place and its particular features.   We attempted to learn from South India where we got "templed out" by seeing too many things in a short time.   In that sense, having two weeks to explore Istanbul was about right.   Our hotel was wonderfully situated so we could hike off in any direction towards a major site, spend most of the day exploring that neighborhood and still walk back to where we started.  

As the weather and our health deteriorated, we learned to use the tramway system, including the strange little one-stop funicular (Tunel) and the century-old tram cars along Istikall Caddesi in Beyoglu, to save a few of the uphill hikes. Generally speaking, we managed OK using public transport and walking in the various districts.   Only once, a few days from the end, did we have a couple of guys stage a fight and bump into us in an attempt to pick Woody's pocket.   The reinforced string on his travel wallet held - strengthened after a similar incident in Jogjakarta - and they didn't get anything. But it’s upsetting to have something like that occur in an open square at the end of the Galata Bridge in broad daylight just after noon.

It was Ramadan in Istanbul as well as here in the UAE, but people dealt with it quite differently there. Fasting is a personal decision rather than a societal policy in Istanbul.    Many people do not fast there so restaurants serve food during the day, whereas in the Gulf anyone caught eating in public during the daylight hours in Ramadan is fined.   Restaurants served Iftar meals at sunset for people who fasted during the day, then closed right afterwards when they ran out of food.   That meant that we had to find a place to eat our second meal of the day in late afternoon.    In general, people in Istanbul keep normal hours in Ramadan instead of turning day into night and vice versa the way they do here.   So shops and museums were open there during the day and closed at night, whereas here in the Gulf everything is upside down for the entire month.  

We hoped to attend several cultural performances, but in the end we went to only two traditional Turkish events.   The first was a performance of the Ottoman Janissary Band (very loud!) at the Military Museum, complete with huge tympani and double-reed zurnas traditionally used to scare the hell out of the enemy when the cavalry charged (we bought one of them!).   The second was a Whirling Dervish ceremony (called sema) at a museum in Galata, accompanied by ney (an end-blown flute), lutes, hammered dulcimer, voices, and drums.   Very beautiful in every way, especially visually with all that whirling.   We also bought about 14 tapes of Turkish music without being able to read the labels or hear what we were getting, and most of them are really nice recordings of traditional music.

The ancient mosque near our hotel was a madrassa for muzzeins, so every night we were treated to a long performance by little boys with big loudspeakers learning to chant the Koran.   We decided that they had an open-admissions policy or at least that talent was not an important criterion for admission.

Many people go to Istanbul for the ancient Covered Market, the Kapala Charsha.   The architecture was neat, but we found it overall very touristy compared with Arabian markets.   We've had the great good fortune to experience two covered markets on the Arabian peninsula that are not generally open to tourists - Jeddah and Muscat - and both have retained a great deal of their traditional flavor, almost literally since both offer highly olfactory experiences with frankincense, perfumes, spices and other incense for sale.  

The Kapela Charsha is filled with pesky touts who constantly harass you to buy their carpets and leather goods.   Again, we are lucky to live in a place that is a real entrepot for carpets from Central Asia and Iran at excellent prices, so it wasn't fun to be harangued by the Turkish touts all the time.   In fact, we have very low tolerance for touts, much preferring to be left alone to discover places for ourselves instead of having someone guide us or try to entice us into places where we can buy stuff.   Some of our worst memories in recent years are of touts in India and Bali who just wouldn't leave us alone to experience the view or the moment.   Suffice it to say that we are probably among the few tourists who have ever left Istanbul without buying a carpet - better to buy them in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

Our major purchase of the trip was the zurna, a double-reed musical instrument about 10 times as loud as an oboe.   It's related to the shawm used in the Renaissance, but you don't need to use a double embouchure since the reed vibrates in your mouth.   We looked at and tried quite a number of traditional Turkish instruments including the end-blown ney, a strange, clarinet-like instrument (mey), a folk lute (saz), and a kind of medieval rebec (kemenice).   After two weeks of dithering, we decided on the zurna. Maybe it will repel moose.   Who knows, but as the mainstay of the Ottoman attack squads it must be useful for something now.   Aside from the sound, it's very beautiful: a swirly fruitwood (maybe walnut) in a classic flaring design.   It came with two mouthpieces and six reeds, although ultimately I'll need to impose on my oboe-playing friends for refills.

Cats in Turkey are numerous and wonderful - massive, large framed, sturdy, very furry.   They are also remarkably friendly and tranquil.   Best of all, they are ubiquitous.   Turks, unlike the folks who live in our neighborhood here in the UAE, like cats and treat them very well and encourage them by feeding and petting them.   We found "guard cats" at most of the important sites such as Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, and the mosques.   The cats go out of their way to interact with people and aren't skittish at all.   The best day was when we took the ferry north up the Bosporus to a small village near the Black Sea.   That village features fish restaurants and we have never seen such a concentration of cats anywhere.   At one time, we counted over 25 as one of the restaurant workers fed leftovers to the local population.   This would seem to be a daily event, because they were all prepared for the handout. Interestingly enough, most of those cats were quite different in coloration, markings and fur length.   You'd think that such a local population would be more homogeneous. While we were waiting there, big cats came up to both of us, begging to be petted and chucked under the chin.   One big yellow cat easily weighed 20 pounds.   The photos of them came out well.

Now about bridges.   The city of Istanbul is actually divided into three parts that are separated by bodies of water.   The "Old City" (the ancient fortified part, but actually it's ALL old) is in Europe and lies south and west of the Golden Horn, a natural inlet that is navigable for some distance.   North of the Golden Horn lies Beyoglu which contains the Galata section.   Three bridges link these two across the Golden Horn.

Both of the European sections of the city are separated from the Asian part by the Bosporus, which is now spanned by two suspension bridges.   The Ortakoy Bridge opened in 1973 and is the sixth longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring over 3500 feet between towers.   It's about 200 feet above the water and impressive to go under on the ferry.   The second Bosphorus bridge goes across the narrowest part of the strait between Rumeli Hisar on the west side and Anadolu Hisar on the Asian side. At this location in ancient history, Darius made a bridge of boats.   Then, 2500 years later, the new bridge was opened in 1988.

In Roman and Byzantine times, the old city was surrounded by massive land and sea walls that were unbreachable for thousands of years.   When Mehmet the Conqueror finally decided to lay siege to Istanbul in 1452, he built forts on either side of the Bosporus just where the second bridge stands today.   Since the Byzantines had chained off the Golden Horn (the chain is on exhibit in the Military Museum today), Mehmet did an end run and schlepped his ships overland from the Bosporus and put them further up the Golden Horn whence he could attack the land walls.   With a massive cannon, he finally got through at Topkapi (meaning "cannon gate"), which later gave its name to the palace.

The bridges on the Golden Horn have gone through lots of changes over the centuries.   The Galata Bridge of today is not the same as the old wooden one that burned down in 1992.   The wooden one had fish restaurants and narghile (water pipe) parlors underneath and must have been quite colorful, but the new one is pretty sterile.  Today, it’s lined with fishermen who seem to catch anchovies from the Golden Horn and sell them for pennies, one of the few distinctly Third World features that we saw in Istanbul.  

We were a bit disappointed to miss some things we really wanted to do because of the combination of poor weather and our illnesses.   These included taking ferries up the Golden Horn and across the south end of the Bosporus, going to the islands in the Sea of Mamara, walking along the land walls, and going to a mosaic museum near the land walls.   Guess we'll just have to go back some time in warmer weather.

In general Istanbul has remained without monstrous glass skyscrapers.   You wouldn't confuse it with Hong Kong!   In fact, because so many of the more recent buildings of the Ottoman period are constructed around the earlier buildings, you can look at a map from say, 1600, and actually pick out landmarks and major roadways.   Our hotel was closest to the Cemberlitas tramway stop, named for a column raised by Constantine shortly after the city became the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD.   Today the column lacks the statue that crashed to the ground 1000 years ago in an earthquake, but with a bit of support from iron bands, the architecture has withstood the shakes.   Similarly, at the Hippodrome, a 5-minute walk from our hotel, there are several huge stone monuments put up in the same period although one of them was actually carved in Egypt in 1450 BC.   Amazing that they could transport these things by ship and then overland and have them remain intact!

Another nice thing about the city, especially as a visitor in midwinter, is that it generally functions for the people who live there.   Only in the Covered Bazaar and near the Hippodrome outside the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia do you get a concentration of tourists and touts.   We were quite amazed to find "normal" neighborhoods only a few streets away, without all the tourist trappings we've seen in other places.

On our way back to the UAE we carried the zurna and some other breakable things safely in one of our old REI carry-on bags.   Good thing, too, for Turkish Airlines requires passengers to identify their checked bags before they board.   Only problem is that they don't provide any light; you're supposed to do it in the dark out on the tarmac.  A dicey time there, trying to discern the outlines of one's luggage in the dark, hoping you make the right choice.   Fortunately, we seem to have done so.  Security in the airport terminal building is almost nonexistent, but I suppose anything left unidentified beside the plane on the tarmac is blown up.

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