A Travellerspoint blog

Taste of Turkey #3

The Gestalt of Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey
April 2 - 10, 2011


We arrived by ferry to Istanbul on April 2nd, still cold temperatures for us, but Turkey’s beloved tulips bloomed in a fiesta of colors. Turkish TV news featured a segment (from what we could tell) on a group of women volunteers, wearing the patterned, loose-fitting “Turkish trousers” and bright-printed head scarves, up to their elbows in dirt planting tulips along roads, sidewalks, and other public areas.

The city of Istanbul strides two continents: Europe and Asia. The historical section of Istanbul is surrounded on three sides by water: on the south by the Sea of Marmara, the east and North-East by the Bosphorus Strait (leading up to the Black Sea), and the north by the Golden Horn estuary. This topography destined Istanbul to become a great ancient city, which was the capital of two world empires over a period of nearly sixteen centuries.

From our B&B we watched ships passing along and dolphins swarming in the Sea of Marmara. Morning, noon, and night the call to prayer from loudspeakers atop minarets was accompanied by howling dogs, creating an unusual, albeit humorous, songfest. Trains speeding along the coast below our window followed tracks built for the Orient Express.


With over 2000 years of continuous human habitation and its mix of East and West, Istanbul is a complex fusion of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and civilizations. We appreciated Istanbul best in the context of its three distinct periods and cultures:

1. The ancient Greek city-state (founded in c. 675 BC) was called Byzantium for almost a thousand years before Roman Emperor Constantine the Great conquered the city in 330 AD and made it the capital of the Roman Empire (in place of Rome); the city was then renamed Constantinople, the City of Constantine. Under Constantine and other Byzantine rulers Christianity became the dominant religion.

2. The Byzantium Empire continued until 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Turks under Sultan Mehmet II (thereafter known as Fatih Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer) becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire, named Istanbul. Islam became the dominant religion (although the sultan, probably to encourage repopulation of the city, Western diplomacy, and trade, issued edicts to protect the rights of people to worship other religions).

3. The Ottoman Empire emerged defeated after WWI, and ended in 1923 with the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey. At the end of WWI the Allies planned to divide up the lands of the Ottoman Empire. However, the so-called Young Turks, a growing nationalist movement of people attracted to the democratic ideas of Western Europe, led by army officer Mustafa Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk), fought off the invading Greek army with help from the Allies. Long story short, by October 1923 the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the Allied occupation forces had departed Istanbul. A parliament and constitution were established, Ataturk was elected the first president, and a broad set of reforms (including women’s suffrage) and secularizing legislation were enacted.

So, today, Istanbul feels like a gestalt of these three periods, mixing ancient and modern, religious and secular, spiritual and commercial, East and West—just as it links two continents.

Most of the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire is still buried under the Ottoman-era and modern buildings of Istanbul. Yet, many of the labyrinthine streets and market places follow their original, ancient footprint. How winding are the streets of Istanbul? Well, for example, the night we arrived our taxi driver could not find our B&B, not even with the help of GPS, a dispatcher, and directions from another driver we passed in our searching. (And our driver was motivated because we had negotiated a flat fee for the trip.) We finally stumbled upon the B&B (literally) when the driver stopped the taxi to check the front bumper after it scraped across a high edge of the cobblestone. While he checked for damage we saw a sign on a side road that might be our B&B, which it wasn’t, but as luck (or just narrowing the odds after a half hour of driving around) would have it, our B&B was across the street. Many of the alley-like Istanbul side streets lack signage and are winding, which challenges even the best map reading and sense of direction. Fortunately, we learned to navigate via the ups and downs of the seven Istanbul hills and familiar landmarks. With this strategy, we would head in the general direction and hone in on our target. Plus, we’ve adopted a laissez-faire/let’s-see-what’s-interesting attitude about being lost as a result of travelling in 20 cities in three-plus months.

Some Istanbul buildings have managed to retain parts of their Byzantine architecture. Our B&B is an old Istanbul “wooden house,” which, due to frequent fires in the city and the maintenance expense, are now rare. More rare still, our room on the first floor (called the “cave room”) is all that remains of a Byzantine structure attached to the house. See the pictures below, all showing the thin Roman-style bricks. The first is our “cave room” at the Istanbul B&B; the second is the ceiling in a Byzantine-era part of the Grand Bazaar; the third is from the ruins of a Roman bathhouse along the Appian Way leading out of Rome; and the fourth is from Palentine Hill ruins, also in Rome.


A bit more about the architecture of our B&B in Istanbul, which I think is common in older residences. The building is narrow and tall. The ground floor is comprised of our “cave” room and a small reception area; there are two small rooms on the first and second floors each, accessed by a wooden, single-file, circular staircase rising up the center of the building. The third floor (counting European-style with the first floor being the floor above the ground floor) is a kitchen and breakfast-eating area with views of the Sea of Marmara. The fourth floor is home to the woman who prepares the breakfasts and cleans the rooms of the B&B; although many other homes keep an open terrace on the top floor.

Constantinople’s infrastructure was impressive for its time. Houses enjoyed running water piped in from reservoirs and cisterns, lavatories, private and public baths, and the streets were lit at night. Even then a view of the sea was valued. Emperor Justinian, who reined from 527 – 656 (considered the most illustrious reign in the history of the Byzantine Empire), enacted a law to protect the sea views from being blocked. Here is the Emperor’s decree; isn’t this great?

In this our royal city one of the most pleasant amenities in the view of the sea; and to preserve it we enacted that no building should be erected within thirty metres of the sea front. This law has been circumvented by certain individuals. They first put up buildings conforming with this law; then put up in front of them awnings which cut off the sea view without breaking the law; next put up a building inside the awning; and finally remove the awning. Anyone who offends in this way must be made to demolish the building he has put up and further pay a fine of four and a half kilograms of gold.


Our favorite monuments of Byzantium are the Basilica Cistern, the Haghia Sophia church/mosque, and the Theodosian Walls. The underground Basilica Cistern (so named because it lies beneath the Stoa Basilica) was forgotten by the city for centuries. Legend has it that people in that neighborhood just thought their wells had hit upon a spring. It is the largest underground cistern in the city, originally 139 x 64 meters with 336 columns (246 visible columns are visible today). In the far-back two columns are inexplicably mounted on top of sideways and upside-down Medusa heads (probably recycled from another building). Large fish swim in the clear water and one could easily row a boat amongst the columns in the lake-like cistern. Today, there are raised walkways that enable exploration. The cistern stored and distributed water brought to the city from the Roman-built aqueducts. In Byzantine times the public Baths of Zeuxippus and the Hippodrome chariot-racing sports arena were conveniently nearby. Today, modern multi-story buildings, tram lines, and traffic are held aloft by the columns of this enormous cistern. It’s an amazing, see-it-to-believe-it testament to ancient Byzantine engineering.


The great Haghia Sophia church was built by Emperor Justinian (yes, him again). For almost a thousand years, Byzantine emperors were crowned in the great church. Haghia Sophia served as a church until 1453, when the Mehmet II conquered Istanbul and converted it to a mosque. Four minarets were added outside and most of the figurative decorations were plastered over. In some places you can see what looks like the crosses bleeding through. One of the few remaining figurative mosaics shows the Virgin and Child with Constantine (founder of Constantinople) on the right and Justinian (builder of Haghia Sophia) on the left. The walls and columns are a variety of beautiful marbles—the quantity and beauty of the different types of marble is stunning. Nine doors lead from the narthex to the nave; the central and largest door is the Imperial Gate, and was only used by the Emperor. Nine hundred twenty-six years after its consecration, with the Ottoman canons battering the city walls, the populace of Constantinople gathered in Haghia Sophia to pray for the city’s protection. Constantine XI Dragases, who was to be the last emperor of Byzantium, came to the church and prostrated himself before the high alter, lying there for some time in silence. What promises did he offer in silent prayer if God would save the city and the Byzantine Empire? It was not to be. He left the church for the Theodosian Walls to command the final, unsuccessful resistance against the Ottoman assault of Constantinople.


For a thousand years the Theodosian Walls protected the western border of the city of Constantinople, the only part not bordered by water. The main fortification was a five-meter thick, 12-meter high inner wall, buttressed by an outer wall, and moat that could be flooded when the city was threatened. The wall was defended by ninety-six towers twenty meters high. Gated openings were designated for public, military, and the emperor entrance to the city. When not in use the emperor’s gate was sealed. Today modern traffic passes through the gates and on the city-side buildings, homes, yards, and streets abut the Walls. As we walked along these back streets we tried not to stare into private yards and animal pens, towered over by the ancient Walls, nor scrutinize how the side of a house or car-repair shop was built into the Walls. In my excitement I felt compelled to exclaim, as if they didn’t know already, “Hey, you’re living right next to the Theodosian Walls!” But, of course, it was amazing only to us; they were busy with the here-and-now moments of their lives and the Walls, as one would expect, blended into the vague background.

On the outer side, a swath of fields, ruin rubble, a creek, cemeteries, and trees in spring blossom separated the Walls from freeways and Istanbul suburbs. For the last leg we passed through a gate and followed the outside of the Walls down to the Golden Horn estuary. Historically, burial grounds are outside the city walls. Note in the picture below the Ottoman tombstones topped with the head-dress that the deceased wore in life.


Our favorite monuments of the Ottoman Empire are the Topkapi Sarayi (palace, now a museum), the Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar), and the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque).

The Topkapi Sarayi (palace) remains today much as it did for almost 500 years as the center of government, and home (harem) of thirty-six Ottoman emperors. The tiled and low-couched rooms with water fountains appear so relaxing. Yet, it was the site of royal intrigue, power struggles, and mahem. In the last centuries of the dynasty, to minimize the rampant fratricide, it became the custom to imprison the siblings the sultan in the Kafes (rooms of the harem also known as the golden prison) for their own safety, until, and if, they became Sultan. It was not unusual for sultans to have been captive in the Kafes for decades before ascending to the throne. Such isolation did not prepare them well for leadership and the Kafes system is considered to be one of the factors contributing to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Mahem aside, I could have spent days exploring this beautiful palace.


The huge Kapali Carsi (or covered bazaar, now called the Grand Bazaar) had been the principal market area during Byzantine times, and was also where Ottoman merchants brought their goods to be sold. It houses more than 3,000 shops, cafes, and workshops, and employs more than 20,000 people. The layout and buildings of the Bazaar are the same as in Ottoman times. We enjoyed weaving our way up to the Bazaar via the maze of streets from the Emenonu ferry piers on the Golden Horn. We never went the same way twice yet we could always, eventually, find our way to the Bazaar (at the top of the third hill). We rarely entered or exited through the same entrance (there are about twenty entrances). Our favorite area was just outside of the Bazaar-proper where we explored the dark, careworn shops selling old copper, bronze, and silver items stacked one upon each other in endless dusty piles of unbreakable relics of the nomadic lifestyle.

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It’s an understatement to say that we’ve seen a LOT of places of worship on this trip. My favorite (so far) is the Sultan Ahmet I Camii, or Blue Mosque (so-named for the blue floral tiling on the inside). It was closed when we first arrived to see it on Friday afternoon, a time of prayer for Muslim men. We waited outside with the women until the mosque was opened for visitors. The exterior hallways led into a large, elegant space beneath painted domes, bright from windows and hanging lights. The lower walls and columns are covered with all varieties of bright blue and green Isnik tiles with lily, carnation, tulip, and rose designs. I think one could ponder the mysteries of the universe in those tiles. The blue tiles are offset by the furniture-less expanse of red and blue carpet.



We were fortunate to visit the ancient Turkish bathhouse, Cagaloglu Hamami, with its architecture virtually unchanged from the Ottoman period. There are separate men and women’s entrances and areas. On the all-women’s side, I was escorted to a private changing room and provided with a red-and-white-plaid sarong-type wrap and wooden sandals. The hararet (hot room) was white marble, with a high central dome pierced with small star-shaped skylights that let in filtered light and let out steam. Below the main dome was the gobektasi, the large, circle, heated-marble platform at the center of the hararet. Four women lying on the gobektasi were being soaped, massaged, and oiled by the female attendants. White marble columns and archways supported the main dome. Marble, floral-motif basins with gold spigots and small stools were nestled in alcoves on the sides of the main dome. The attendant filled my basin with warm water, showed me the vessels of soaps and oils, and the metal water-scooper for dousing with water from the marble basin. In some alcoves groups women lounging around the basins washed and rinsed while chatting. The hararet was a warm, steamy, fragrant, marble-smooth, luxurious experience. Water and cares drained away along troughs and holes in the floor. Later, the attendant brought me to the gobektasi where I was scrubbed with a soapy mitt, rinsed, oiled, and massaged. Lying there, looking up through the steamy clouds into the white marble dome of starry skylights I sent up my appreciation to the genius who designed this building and experience—so perfectly that it has operated virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Back to the alcove the attendant washed my hair, more massage, and then she patted the marble indicating I could stay and relax as long as I wanted. Eventually, with supreme mind-over-body determination, I left the hamam to meet Brad outside on the dark, evening Istanbul street. His experience in the men’s side was much the same, but with what sounded like a stronger, muscle-tweaking massage.


Some cities we can slip through, soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells without causing a ripple of reaction. Not Istanbul. The Istanbullus engaged us every step of our way, usually (but not always) trying to sell us something. It was as if they had all graduated summa cum laude from a Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People seminar. The hawkers were personable, energetic, polite, clever, and . . . relentless. We quickly learned that the pleasantries would invariably lead to a request to take us to his brother’s carpet shop or similar venue. “Hello, where are you from?” “California? I have a cousin who lives in Canada!” “I like your shoes.” “Where did you get your hat?” “Would you like a guide? I speak English!” “Where are you going?” “Hey lady, it’s almost free.” “Hello, are you French?” (I must admit, this one almost stopped me: Do you really think I look French?) When we paused to chat, the Istanbullus were charming. We were offered tea that emerged as if by magic. To make that happen, fellows employed by tea shops hustle around balancing trays of glasses of tea. Another time, on the train from Selcuk to Izmir, we sat in front of three older women wrapped in long coats and head scarves. Awhile after the train got on its way I felt a tap on my arm and an outstretched hand squeezed between the seats offering us Western pretzels and cookies. We accepted the treats and, in turn, sent back our bags of Turkish almonds and raisins, that they accepted. Then I turned around, kneeling on the seat to face them, tapped my flat hand on my chest and said “tesekkur ederim” (thank you). A young Turkish woman, watching the exchange from across the aisle, smiled.

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We enjoyed walking across the Golden Horn along the Golata Bridge from Emenonu to the “new district” of Istanbul. Fishermen bobbing poles tried their luck day and night. Street vendors selling everything imaginable were set up on both sides of the bridge. We tried to end the day on the “new district” side of the bridge as often as possible to have a fresh-fish dinner at our favorite ramshackle restaurant behind the fish markets along the waterway, run by our new Turkish friend who “has a cousin who lives in San Francisco!” Up the hill into the “new district” is the memorial statue to the modern reformer Ataturk, beloved by all Turks with whom we talked. In fact, in every mom-and-pop shop or restaurant proudly displays a picture of Ataturk. From the statue of Ataturk we walked down the busy Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), zig-zagging off onto side streets, all the way back down to the Golden Horn.


What I like best about Istanbul is its gestalt: the rich combination of old and new, East and West, religious and secular that is, simply, everyday life in this city.


Posted by bradanddeb 08:40 Archived in Turkey

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