First of all, thanks for putting up with my lack of posting for a couple days. I was quite sick. Thankfully, my sickness coincided with a break from school for kurban bayramı, the most important Islamic holiday of the year. I celebrated this holiday with my roommate Ruşen’s family. It was a pleasant occasion full of food, pretending I knew what everyone was saying, tea, food, and excellent hospitality. And beef. I’ve been feeling much better since yesterday morning, so I’ve had the chance to do some exploring.
Since the primary posts have been so information-dense, I’ve decided to make this one a little friendlier and base it on photos and descriptions of what it’s like to spend a day wandering around Istanbul. Before we start, I apologize for the varied photo quality. My camera, the iPhone 4S, doesn’t handle night very well, and I took some photos discretely or while rushing to catch a train or kitten.
Let’s start with a map of Istanbul. The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side from the Asian side. I live and go to school in Sarıyer. The most historically-rich part of town is Fatih, which was the city center when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. These days, Beyoğlu, which features Taksim Square, is like Istanbul’s downtown. I spent most of this day in Fatih, which is about 45 minutes away.
A proper Turkish morning starts with a huge breakfast featuring eggs (hard-boiled or scrambled), tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, honey, Nutella (if you’re at the right place), green olives, fruit juice, and çay (pronounced like ‘chai’), strong Turkish black tea served straight or with sugar in a tulip-shaped glass. Poor college students like yours truly tend to eat a more basic breakfast. I learned how to make menemen, a delicious breakfast dish consisting of sautéd onions, Turkish spicy green peppers, and tomatoes, scrambled eggs, and thyme. It’s simple and substantial.
After breakfast, I meandered toward the bus stop and took a picture of a couple impeccable kittens on the way. My ultimate destination was Fatih, sometimes referred to as the Old City, but I stopped at Taksim square.
To get to Taksim, I have to take a bus and a subway. The subways in Istanbul are new, immaculate, and very timely; that is to say, if you’ve experienced New York subways, these are roughly the opposite. Like New York’s subways, they get very crowded, however. This was probably the most empty I’ve seen the Istanbul subways.
Taksim Square, located in Beyoğlu, is the main social hub of Istanbul. In its center is a statue of Atatürk (or four Atatürks in one statue, actually). There are hundreds of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs on the streets surrounding it. The buildings in Taksim are several stories high, each floor accessible by narrow spiral staircases. Because of this, for every door on the street, there are usually five or six unmarked businesses. This makes it hard if you’re trying to meet people in this neighborhood!
While I was in Taksim, I stopped at a free art exhibition on İstiklal Street. It was called Annem, Ben Barbar Mıyım? (‘Mom, am I a Barbarian?’). Most everything in the exhibition was made of litter. It appeared to be a commentary on consumerism. I found it to be very cynical and funny. Here’s a mannequin with a stack of simitlar (Turkish round pretzels), a wildly popular street food snack, where her head should be.
There are always droves of people on İstiklal street. Many are shopping at the many name-brand outlet stores located there. Some are visiting beautiful old international consulates or cathedrals. Some, like me, are just wandering. Many come to İstiklal to make their day’s wages on the street selling snacks like chestnuts or mussels, or by playing music. Most of the music is Turkish folk, but I’ve also seen Gypsy jazz musicians and American buskers á la Hawthorne Blvd.
After walking on İstiklal for a bit, I decided to look for some food. Finding a meal is no difficult task in this city, but I wanted something other than typical quick food like döner kebap (seasoned beef roasted on a vertical spit), “wet hamburgers” (I haven’t dared yet), or fish sandwiches, so I traveled to a place that insiders tell me is the absolute best for a soup called beyran çorbası. While I wasn’t sure what this was exactly, soup sounded perfect since I had been sick, so I tried it out. It was outstanding – a rich and complex Middle Eastern lamb soup, and definitely the spiciest dish I’ve had in Turkey. I hadn’t been this excited about soup since I had pho on 82nd in Portland.
After soup, I wanted to do some sightseeing, so I met up with my roommate to visit one of the oldest churches in Istanbul. Now, before İstanbul was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, it served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. As you likely know, its name at this time was Constantinople. The Byzantines were Christians and left behind some beautiful churches, most of which the Ottomans would later convert to mosques. The grandest and most famous such case is the Hagia Sophia. On my day out, I visited the Kariye Kilisesi (Chora Church), a Byzantine church-turned-mosque-turned-museum that predates the Hagia Sophia by about 100 years. It is a small church in the Fatih neighborhood that was constructed in the 4th Century.
After wandering through this magnificent old church, Ruşen and I walked to the Şehzade (prince) Mosque. This mosque was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and built by architect Mimar Sinan (aka Sinan the Architect) in 1548. Sinan is undoubtedly the most important figure in Ottoman architecture, responsible for typifying the Ottoman style, and one of the most famous architects of all time. He worked under three sultans and designed over 300 structures. Şehzade is one of them, though it’s not considered his grandest. Instead, it’s just one of the numerous breathtaking mosques that cover Istanbul.
Since then, it has remained a mosque, but like all mosques in Istanbul, visitors are welcome as long as they abide by a few rules: no shoes, long pants for men, headscarves for women, and no photos while people are praying. No problem. Istanbul mosques are very hospitable to outsiders, and any religious persuasions aside, they are architecturally and esthetically compelling places that are perfect settings for just sitting and pondering or meditating.
We spent a good while in Şehzade, then had some spicy kidney beans for dinner and split ways. It was getting late, but I wanted to have a lot to post about for you guys, so I continued. I went to another Mimar Sinan mosque called Süleymaniye, but it was closed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed walking around the huge compound, which features mausoleums, a quranic school, and a Turkish bath. It’s considered one of Sinan’s finest works, and its minarets (the tall, narrow towers outside of mosques) can be seen on the Istanbul skyline. The weather was warm, nobody was around, and I felt lucky to be meandering around this peaceful part of town.
On my way back home, I wanted to try some classic Istanbul desserts. One is called boza. It’s a pudding-like dessert made from fermented millet. The place I visited – Vefa Bozacısı – is Istanbul’s only faithful boza maker. The drink reminded me of baby food, slightly sour, not too sweet. Across the street from Vefa Bozacısı is a chickpea roaster. Voza drinkers visit him first so they can add roasted chickpeas to the drink. We could call the resulting confection Istanbul bubble tea. I didn’t love boza, but I’ll come back. There are few things I appreciate more than an exotic drink, really.
On my way home, I walked through a bazaar strip that was closing down. Since it was almost Kurban Bayramı, a big shopping holiday like Christmas, the shopkeepers were cleaning out and getting ready.
The last destination of my adventure was Karaköy Güllüoğlu, reported to be the best baklava maker in Istanbul – a lofty claim! Nonetheless, I must say it’s the best I’ve had so far.
Well, that was my day. I wish you could have all been there with me, but I’m glad I could at least share a bit about what it’s like to wander around this city. In the comments, just share your thoughts or questions that came up when you read this.