A brief series on my recent Mediterranean trip. Part four: Istanbul.
We were on the top floor of a restaurant on Istiklal, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare in the Beyoglu neighborhood of Istanbul. It was our fourth and final stop of an afternoon eating marathon, and our harried but very professional waiter dropped a plate of baklava and other Turkish desserts in front of us. All of the other tables in the room were full and every diner had food in front of them, but most were not eating. They sat, quietly talking, some with napkins over their plates, waiting for sundown.
Though we had heard the muezzins and the call to prayer in Bitez, it hadn’t sunk in that it was in fact the most important month of the Muslim year, Ramadan (or as the Turkish called it, Ramazan). When we arrived in Istanbul, however, the signs were clear. During the day, restaurants were sparsely populated but as the afternoon wore on, tables would be adorned with bowls of olive and cheese so that there would be food on hand when Maghrib, the fourth prayer of the day, was called at sunset, the signal to all that they could break their fast. Strings of lights were strung between the spindly minarets of the city’s many mosques.
Throughout the day, the Ramadan fast hung over everything. “Forgive me, I am fasting,” said a man, sitting outside his tourguide office near Topkapi Palace, when he got befuddled trying to give us directions. Emre told us to be discrete with our bottled water and snacks, which made sense to me. If I hadn’t eaten or drank all day, I might get a little miffed at seeing tourists walking around swigging drinks and noshing on kebab.
In fact, though, Emre said that Ramadan in Istanbul today is much different from what we might have encountered only 15 years ago. Even though reminders of Ramadan were present everywhere (whereas they had been nonexistant at the seaside), there were still many, many people in restaurants during the day, secular Turks, expats, and visitors among them. However, in earlier times, we non-participants in Ramadan might not have been as easily accommodated.
But then Istanbul, it seemed to us, is a true cultural crossroads, layered with history, and a central city over the millennia for Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Turks. It is also, very visibly, a thoroughfare. The Bosporus, the key waterway that connects Europe and the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and Asia, is in many ways the city’s focal point. It is at every hour of the day plied with ships numerous in size and function, from ferries to fishing boats to oil tankers and container ships to cruise ships large enough to be floating cities. Emre told us that anyone who grows up on the banks of the Bosporus becomes familiar enough with the nautical traffic to be able to see a ship and know its tonnage.
In Istanbul, we took our last boat trip of many on our two week vacation, a ferry ride from beside the Galata Bridge up the Bosporus to Bebek, the neighborhood were Emre grew up. Istanbul has subways, buses, trolleys, and trains all interconnected, but it also makes ample use of ferries, with boats leaving from the busier stops seemingly every 20 minutes or so and laden with commuters destined for parts of the sprawling city.
And Istanbul is huge, over 11 million in the city proper, according to Wikipedia. Like in Athens, pedestrians do not have the right of way, and just because you are on a sidewalk doesn’t mean a motorcycle or car won’t come driving down it. Unlike Athens, however, Istanbul is thronged with people. Istiklal, the big pedestrian (reminder: cars drive on it) boulevard that was near our hotel, was packed with people for its half mile length. Wikipedia claims it can be visited by nearly 3 million people on a weekend day. On its south end, side streets are lined with sidewalk cafes that in the evenings would reach peak capacity. The plentiful waiters, bearing food and raki, darted between the tables. Vendors (including the mussel sellers we had seen at the beach) passed by, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, all the way up to large trucks, squeezed through the narrow thoroughfares between the endless rows of tables. A simple dinner in Istanbul can border on a circus to one more accustomed to an American dining experience that is sedate by comparison.
Interestingly, our dinner on the sidestreet off Istiklal was one of the few we ate in Istanbul with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Istanbul is not unlike San Francisco in that it is very hilly and offers plentiful views of crowded waterways. The minarets, however, make it easy to differentiate the two. Istanbul’s restaurateurs have made ample use of the views the city offers — a fairly recent trend according to Emre — particularly in the Beyoglu district across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, the oldest part of Istanbul. Nearly every meal we ate was preceded by a long climb up five or six flights of stairs or a ride in a slow, cramped elevator. But we were rewarded with spectacular views.
The food was quite impressive as well. We ate fish, cooked whole, and
sliced into cylindrical pieces, on a rooftop in the shadow of the second bridge across the Bosporus. We ate several varieties of kebab on another roof overlooking the Yeni Mosque and the Golden Horn. We ate manti, a Turkish homestyle favorite that resembles tiny ravioli and is served in a yogurt sauce, on the top floor of a building on a bend of Istiklal Avenue. From the window you could see the masses of people five stories below making their way down the street. And this leaves out our frequent stops for tea, or an Efes, or a gin strike (gin, lemon, cucumber), nearly all of which found us on a rooftop, looking over other rooftops, the horizon punctuated by minarets. With an aphonic buzz, the call to prayer would commence, and the wailing, intermingled with car horns, was our soundtrack of Istanbul.
We visited a pair of mosques in Istanbul, the world famous Blue Mosque and the Nurosmaniye Mosque near the bazaar. As we had been instructed, Lauren and Heather brought scarfs to wear over their heads, and Roland and I wore long pants. We entered the enclosed courtyard of the Blue Mosque in the midst of a cloudburst (the only rain we saw during our two weeks on the Mediterranean), and huddled under the overhang in front of the mosque’s dome. We were accompanied by easily 100 European tourists, the combined mass of several tour groups mingling together.
Having been coached beforehand by Emre and his parents on how not to offend, it was disheartening to see that our fellow tourists had clearly not heeded any such advice. The men and women all looked fresh off of cruise ships (which was likely the case), and the attendants at the mosque handed out large blue swathes of cloth to use as extra cover. In many cases it took more than one, so much skin they were showing. Once inside there was much jostling and posing for photographs as well as a steady murmur of inane tourist chatter. On the other side of a railing were a handful of men in poses of supplication.
Blocking out the tourists, however, the Blue Mosque was remarkable. The building is about 400 years old, but having been in constant use and frequently restored over that time, it looks impeccable and almost new inside. The Bayezid II mosque near the bazaar has a quieter feel. It is frequented by the workers in the bazaar next door. The mid-afternoon sun filtered in and there were a few men in the space having a moment before heading back to the bazaar. Behind a screen near the back was a woman praying.
The Hagia Sophia, meanwhile, has been given over almost entirely to tourism, and in a way I am grateful because we visitors had the run of the place. The Hagia Sophia is perhaps most spectacular in the scale of its interior space, which is so massive — about 15 stories — as to challenge the brain’s ability to fathom it. As it happens, the central dome of the Hagia Sophia is currently occupied by scaffolding, but far from a blemish on the experience, it offered some scale by which the eye could judge the dome’s height.
In Istabul, history is palpable in the architecture all around you, and that’s certainly true in the Hagia Sophia. The bulk of the building was constructed in the early sixth century and it bears many signs of age. On the mezzanine level, reached by walking up a stone ramp that winds back and forth a half dozen times or so, the marble floors have settled into curves and are worn with age and webbed with cracks. The intricate mosaics have been bitten away by time, though what remains is ample suggestion of the Hagia Sophia’s former splendor. The same is true of gold leafed walls and ceilings. Contrasting with the decadence of the building’s original purpose as a Byzantine church are somewhat more austere decorations that date to the Ottoman Turk’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and after. The Turks restored the building, added minarets and other of the architectural elements of mosques, as well as Islamic caligraphy.
More recently, massive disks were hung on the Hagia Sophia’s columns bearing the names of Muhammed and other key figures in Islam.
Though spectacular, the Hagia Sophia isn’t even the best that Istanbul has to offer. That distinction would have to go the city’s famed bazaar, a labyrinth of shops that constitute a city within a city. Emre worked with his father and grandfather in a gold shop there growing up, and so he was once again an indispensable guide, using his connections to find what we were looking for.
The main attraction of the day we spent at the bazaar was the carpets. We hadn’t had any intention of buying one, but realizing this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we quickly decided to go for it. We went to a shop owned by Alender, a friend of Emre’s, where we were offered tea, which we drank sitting around a small table.
Alender showed us a few carpets to get things started. Of the ones we liked, he asked, “More like this?” and with that sent his assistant off to their warehouse just outside the bazaar. Minutes later the assistant returned, weighed down by a stack of carpets on his back, and flung them out one by one, as Lauren and I separated them into our “yes” or “no” piles. He would point to one we liked. “More like this?”
All the while, Alender kept us entertained with steady salesman’s banter. When Lauren and I and our fellow shoppers Heather and Roland were all wowed by a particular carpet, Alender said, “Oh, that one’s not available, we just sold it last week” with a grin, before letting us in on the salesman’s trick for trying to inspire a bidding war. In the midst of all this, Lauren mentioned that her watch battery had gone dead. No problem. Alender, the shop owner, sent his helper to a jeweler elsewhere in the bazaar. Thirty minutes later she had the watch back, good as new.
Eventually, after a few hours, several cups of tea, and hundreds of carpets, Lauren and I had narrowed it down to three finalists. Alender and the rest of our group exited the little shop so that we could discuss. It ended up not being a very difficult decision. We were enamored with a deep red, carpet bearing a vaguely tribal pattern and floral accents, fringed with a bluish thread rather than the more typical white. Alender and his assistant, ever resourceful, managed to pack up the carpet into a surprisingly small bag so that we might avoid paying a hefty shipping charge. After two weeks with our two backpacks, we suddenly had a third piece of luggage.
Ahead of this trip, both Lauren and I had been overtaken by an intense wanderlust. We have both traveled, but not very much and the parts of the world we have seen seem dwarfed by the parts that we haven’t. We had hashed out plans for many potential trips over the last four years or so, but they were too easily swept away by other obligations, not to mention a lack of funds, and the gnawing wanderlust grew.
Just this week we were reminiscing about our trip to Turkey and Greece again, and we both commented on how that feeling of wanderlust is gone, sated by our travels. I expect it will return. We have plenty to remind us of this trip — our carpet, hundreds of photos, these journal entries, and the shared stories of our traveling companions — but I can already see how they will soon become not just reminders of our last journey, but exhortations to go on another one. Once that happens, it will be time to be off again.