I have been home from Turkey for a bit over a week now. I’m still not yet on Calgary time and so one thing I have been doing at 5:00 AM is writing a bit on my last stop in Turkey. Istanbul was probably the favourite stop on my year-long Europe, North Africa, Middle East walk-about in 1964/65 so I looked forward to returning. It is my habit to save exploration of the fly in/out city until the end of the trip. In small part this is pick up a few souvenirs or memorabilia should I be so moved. I also really enjoy having a few more days to spend in one place than I give myself when I am moving about. And so I spent six days in Istanbul, seeing if I could re-ignite memories of 55 years ago and creating new ones. (It is nice to write on a proper machine after struggling with a tablet)
The first morning, after a leisurely breakfast in my four floor walk-up hotel, I headed up the hill to Sutenahmet Square. Sultenahmet is the centre and focus of many of the prime tourist attractions in Istanbul. I would cross the square a number of times in my six day ramble around a tiny part of this enormous (15 million) city. I had chosen to stay near Sirecki Station. This is the historical station where the Orient Express of Agatha Christie fame ended its journey. My hotel proved to be ideally situated for my interests. In my six days I walked much of Fatih (the old city) and Beyoglu (the newer and more upbeat part of the city). There are 34 more districts to Istanbul that I would not see much of, other than in passing.
My walk up to Sutanahmet only took fifteen minutes but still I was too late to get into
Aya (Haiga) Sophia. The line-up was too long for my impatience. I walked around to the Topkapi Palace entry. Same thing. I would have to be here earlier on other days. So I will come back to them later. I continued on down steep narrow roads off of the peninsula on which old Istanbul sits. Crossing a busy road I got onto a sea wall walkway.
I was now overlooking at the Sea of Marmara, which I had crossed by ferry seven weeks earlier. If I had turned right I would have got to the Yenikapi Terminal where I had left from, and further on I might have found the hotel I had stayed at. I turned left, heading for the inlet called the Golden Horn that separates Fatih from Beyoglu. As I walked Marmara narrowed into the Bosphorus, the historic strait that separates Europe and Asia and makes Istanbul the only large city in the world that spans two continents. Lots of people were out walking on the walkway on this sunny Saturday morning. Still quite windy and about 15C at 11:00 in the morning so nice for walking, fishing and even sitting on the rocks with a bit of a picnic. But to my surprise a brave soul took off his clothes and jumped into the forbidding water. And to my further surprise he was swept rapidly back towards the Sea of Marmara. I have no idea where he ended up, but for sure he would not be swimming back to where he jumped in. No one seemed to pay much attention to this so I guess it was not completely abnormal. But it did raise a significant marker in my mind. Of course the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, had rattled around in my head since social studies days and had been brought a bit forward on this trip. The current I observed indicated that it was not just a static piece of sea water. Research was necessary. I will get back to you on the Bosphorus.
As I walked I passed hundreds of young and old, mostly male but a few females, fishing with long rods. I had not seen anyone catching anything; not unusual for fishermen. But that changed the closer I got to the Galata Bridge, the first bridge across the Golden Horn, replaced a number of times over it’s history I am sure. People were now pulling in lines with possibly 4 leaders from which tiny silver fish wiggled. Many had pails or coolers brimming with their morning’s catch. I suspect many of these fish would find their way to markets lining the nearby streets. The top level of the Galata Bridge had a couple of car lanes, two rail lines and wide sidewalks on which walkers had to watch out for fisherman casting their lines. Hanging under the bridge, except for a channel in the middle to allow ships to pass are expensive restaurants serving mostly seafood of course. Near the beginning of the Galata Bridge are numerous city tour and boat tour kiosks. At an Information Centre I got some good information on things I wanted to do over the next days. I found a better Airport Shuttle stop and was assured that a shuttle ran 24 hours and did come to the Sultanhamet side. Last night I had ended up on the bus that went to Taksim Square in Beyoglu, followed by a long walk and a train ride to get to Sirkeci Stn and my hotel. Critical information gathered I continued across Galata and into Beyoglu a short ways before re-crossing the Galata and back to my hotel where I had a short rest before finishing the day with some street walking. A good day.
The next day, Sunday, had me out a bit earlier heading to spend the day on the Beyoglu side. I had bought an Istanbul Kart the first night to help me get to my hotel on a train and I could have used it to get up to Beyoglu but I wanted to walk. I would possibly use my card to get back. A running Marathon was in progress. The trains were not running, the roads were blocked but I found my way through pedestrian underpasses down to the walkway along the Golden Horn and then across the Galata. As I walked runners were coming by. Apparently they had started and would finish in Taksim Square. More than a few thousands must be taking part.
Once across the bridge a set of stairs looked promising. I could have chosen a steep street as well. When, in the 4h Century AD, the Romans chose the small Greek town of Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople to be the centre of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire one of the similarities with Rome was that both were built on Seven Hills. I am sure that now there are many more than seven hills upon which these cities rest. For sure hills abound and my daily workout on the streets of Istanbul benefitted from almost continuous hills to scale.
I was headed towards a street marked on my map called Istikal Avenue. This 1.5 km long car-free street is where much of the action of Beyoglu takes place and it would also take me to Taksim Square the centre of Beyoglu. My first stop, half way up the hill, was at the Galata Tower where I hoped to get a vantage point over the lower city. No luck, the lines were long but also not moving much. I stopped for tea and a bathroom break and continued on up the hill passing many shops that were just now beginning to open. It is fairly obvious when you reach Istikal. Lower down the streets feeding into Istikal were very narrow, steep and not entirely car-free, although why anyone would try to drive on one of those streets is beyond me. Istikal broadens significantly and has a tram line running down the middle. The shops became larger, there were more cafes and more people were beginning to show. When I walked down Istikal sometime later it was very much busier, more street performers and all the shops were jumping. I understand it is at night that Isitkal really jumps, but that is not in my sphere of interest anymore, particularly since it would involve a long trek to get here from my hotel.
I continued onto to Taksim Square. I took a few pictures and walked around for a while, but didn’t find too much of interest. I have seen flute players with North American Indian headdresses before. I headed back down Istikal. I was headed for Galata Mevlevi House, where if available I would buy a ticket to a dance by adherents of the Mevlevi order of Sufism. This took an hour, but I did get tickets and would be back at 5:00 pm for the performance. This means that I had a few hours to kill and would not head back to my side of town. I went down and got into line to walk up the Galata Tower. This tower has had a number of functions in its 1500 year existence. Situated on a promontory looking over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus it had been part of the control of ship traffic, had a role in defence, acted as a fire lookout station and who knows what else. It pokes up above the surrounding buildings in a number of my shots. Today it has an elevator that goes up to a restaurant and then a few flights of stairs up to a tea house and where there is a narrow walkway around the perimeter from which you can see out onto three bodies of water that meet here, across the Horn to the old city sky line, across the Bosphorus to the Asian side and down onto many of the buildings of the city.
I had not initially planned on watching the Mevlevi perform their “Whirling Dervish”, but I had the time and my readings had convinced me that it was more religious than tourist shtick so I was there. I guess I was a bit too far back in line and so when they opened the gates and we all rushed to get seats I was back in a second row seat with pillars blocking much of my view. I was hoping the get some introductory talk about the Islamic sect and their particular beliefs but they began right in with their ceremony. I had read that the focus was on peaceful thoughts through music, mediation and dance and that circular motion enhanced attaining their spiritual attainment.
A group of about ten men came slowly into the room wearing their white flared gowns, covered with maroon goats and topped with tan conical hats. Music was provided by another five or six playing mostly flutes and ancient looking stringed instruments. Doffing their coats they performed possibly three or four whirling dances. Two major impressions were left on me. “Whirling” as a description is wrong. Their rotating motion, both around their own axis and around the room is continuous but it is slow and peaceful. The second similar impression came from the faces of the men involved. To varying levels they all appeared to be in a trance or a state of bliss. After thirty minutes they donned their coats and slowly walked out. The doors were opened and we all went our way. I guess I am glad I went; I am not sure what I expected but it was not what I experienced.
So, back to the Bosphorus. No doubt there are many ways to tour the 32 km long strait which averages 1.5 km in width. The two that I had found were a two hour out and back or a six hour ferry that crossed to ports back and forth up to the Black Sea and back again. I chose the latter.
The ferry left a dock near the Galata Bridge at about 10:30. It was quite large, two stories of inside and outside seats. Only about 20% of the seats were filled so there was lots of opportunity to walk around for different looks. Mostly I sat outside near the front. The first stop was across to Uskudar on the Asian side. A few people left and a few more got on and we headed back to European side a bit further up the Bosphorus. Thousands of commuters go back and forth on ferries. The Asian side is largely residential and the three bridges and I think two tunnels cannot effectively handle all of the commuting that happens. Frequent cargo ships and oil tankers add to mix of boats that continually pass. We continued in this way all the way up to the Black Sea, the last stop being on the Asian side. I had a two hour walk-about at the last stop and then caught the return ferry.
The Last Bridge and the Black Sea
I had begun my research on the Bosphorus current I had observed. I won’ t get into the rich history – this time science held sway . So – what creates the significant current that I had observed with the swimmer? — The Danube, the Don, the Dnieper and a host of other rivers drain into the Black Sea bringing significantly more water in than it loses through evaporation. The result is a higher water level than the Mediterranean. How much depends upon rainfall, winds and numerous other factors. One article suggested an average of 42 cm difference, which means that water runs from the Black Sea down the Bosphorus into the Sea of Marmara through the Dardanelles into the Aegean and Mediterranean. Hence the current.
To get further into it we can begin with this formula:
Oh, but everyone may not be that interested. I will leave it for now.
But what might be of interest is that there is also an opposing current that runs from the Aegean up-hill, or at least up-water to the Black Sea. It was known to ancient fisherman and traders who had to get their ships up to the Black Sea. It runs some 10 m below the water surface and it was used to help these ships go towards the Black Sea by dropping a sort of sea anchor weighted with rocks into the up-water current to help counteract the down-water current. The up-water current is only about half the speed of the down-water but it helped a bit.
What creates the up-water current? — Because the Black Sea has an excess of fresh water entering it is of lower salinity than the Mediterranean. And because saline water (Sea Water) is heavier than fresh – heavy sea water flows from the Mediterranean to the Black. Through the Bosphorus this flow is below the fresher water coming from the Black to the Mediterranean, again because saline is more dense than fresh.
There are other interesting facts that relate. One that I will not expand upon is that the deepest waters of The Black Sea do not sustain normal sea life like the other ocean bodies. The waters are called Anoxic, they don’t sustain oxygen. But I will leave it here and continue my researches without dragging you along.
The Topkapi Palace and Museum
I was in line before 9:00 AM and so was able to wander at will. The grounds are the most photogenic part with numerous small buildings serving various functions such as the attractive Library, all with attractive mosaics. The Palace served the Ottoman Sultans who built and occupied the palace from 1460 AD, right after they ran The Byzantium out of Turkey, until 19th century when they built a new palace a few kms up the Bosphorus.
The main buildings house extensive kitchens, and living quarters now filled with artifacts and treasures. I was extremely upset that the main treasury was closed for repairs, an issue with many of the great historical places of the world. One memory from those many years ago were misshapen pearls encrusted with jewels to form facsimiles of people and animals. I really was looking forward to finding them again. However there are countless other things on display in the weapons gallery and the clock gallery to mention a few. I did not pay extra to go into the Harem, perhaps I should have.
Possibly the most significant historical site in Istanbul, this enormous testament to the power that religion has played in the world was begun in 360 AD and completed in basically the form we see today in 537 AD. Haiga Sophia, the Byzantium name, was the seat of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church until 1453 (except from 1204 to 1261 when it was converted by Crusaders to Roman Catholicism) In 1453 it was converted to a mosque by the Ottoman and renamed Aya Sophia. This is also when Constantinople became Istanbul.
For Hundreds of years it was the world’s largest building. For 1000 years the central dome, which has collapsed at least twice due to earthquakes, been re-designed and rebuilt, was the world’s largest free standing dome. The interior has been decorated with Catholic icons, in mosaic and plaster, been destroyed or covered with plaster and paintings appropriate to the time. Mosques have no figurative iconography and so much of what is seen today is calligraphy and geometric design. The building was converted to a museum in 1935. As a result some of the Christian mosaics have been uncovered and restored. I don’t remember visiting on my previous visit.
I am always impressed by the obvious wear shown by the exposed stones that in this case have been trampled upon for 1700 years or so. Strangely there are ramps that lead to the second level, some 20 m or so above the main level. I read that ramps rather than stairs were built to allow horses to take the elite up to that worship and viewing level. Imagine all of the things that must have happened in a place like this. Graffiti carved in a marble banister identified as Runic script was postulated to date from the 11th Century and created by a Viking serving in someone’s army.
The Blue (Sultan Ahmet) Mosque (1609) , Suleymaniye But Mosque (1550 AD)
There are 100s of mosques in Istanbul. You can visit inside when they are not being used for a service which happens a few times every day. Most directions you look in Istanbul there will be central mosque domes and minarets sticking into the skyline. I find it all very photogenic, although it is hard to get a full picture of these big mosques, surrounded as they are by other structures and under continual repair or renovation. I love the juxtaposition of the interior domes and support beams. Photography is permitted inside and I even sneak a few shots of people.
Females pray to the left
The Blue Mosque is one that I remember from years ago. The six minarets and the blue mosaics inside are the most distinctive features. I didn’t remember that the rugs covering the floor were red, possibly it has changed over the years. When I was here those years ago I remember the vast open empty space. It is still vast but not empty any more. This is one of the most visited places in Istanbul in part I guess because it is free, unlike Aya Sophia and Topkapi, which are museums. Like those places repair scaffolding was a significant part of what you see probably for the foreseeable future.
As a mosque I felt Suleymaniye might be even more impressive. Still vast and with wonderful surrounding grounds. There were a few less tourists and more people preparing and conducting their prayers.
The Grand Bazaar and Shopping
I went again through the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, both covered markets, both wonderfully colourful and interesting. At least as interesting to me are just about any street in Fatih and Beyoglu. I will also say with confidence, even though I didn’t get to other areas in Istanbul, this sentiment must be true for those districts as well. I don’t buy much; I did pick up a few things, but it is not buying that attracts me. I talked to quite a few merchants who no doubt are trying to entice you to buy something, but mostly do not seem to mind just visiting. They will often offer tea or Turkish coffee and don’t mind demonstrating or allowing you to taste. But mostly I just enjoy walking and enjoying the visual and auditory cacophony. I take a few pictures and enjoy the camouflage crowds give me. Like in so many Asian cities streets in Istanbul often have a speciality. I was on streets that sold only greeting cards and specialty paper. Of interest to me were areas that specialized in photographic equipment and bicycles. One area sold nothing but toys in large volume, like they were attracting toy buyers from elsewhere. Near my hotel were restaurant streets and every restaurant flowed out onto the street. I had six nights to sample different offerings. Everywhere I went there were people. So dynamic.
Well that’s enough, probably too much. But I do love Istanbul, and this visit extended that love to Turkey as a whole. I am at home now, thinking about but not settled upon what’s next…There is so much to learn and do
Hi Ken: I’ve just finished reading your wonderful blog and have been transported to the markets, mosques and walks you recently travelled. What a wonderful read and I wonder if you should think about a new career as a travel guide to off beat places or maybe write a book. On any of the trips I’ve read, they would become best sellers!
I am presently in Arizona and leave Wednesday on a cruise through the Panama Canal. Somehow I don’t think it would be your “bag”
I miss my friends at yoga but will be back mid december when I shall be in need of the exercise after indulging for 16 days as we cruise and enjoy many ports in the Southern Hemisphere
Hello to you, Lily and Doug as well as Marianne and Constatine.
Best regards. Dorothy
Thanks Dorothy. Have a great cruise.