Istanbul, what a place! It has taken me a while to get around to writing about the city because there is so much to say.
I stayed here with Myla, whom I’d met in Prague. We got on well and after there we shared a similar itinerary so she’d train to the next city (backpacking) and I would furiously pedal to catch her before she left for the next. She was very motivating. We parted ways at Budapest but, already planning to see Turkey later in her travels, Myla flew out to arrive in Istanbul on the same day as me. The credit for some of these photos goes to her.
We were staying in Kumkapi, a heaving district on the edge of the old town. To walk from the underground station meant bobbing and weaving through racks of clothes, stands of watches and displays of counterfeit Nikes all shamelessly taking out swathes of pavement. The counterfeit trade in Istanbul is huge (I’ll talk more about it later) but this was not a tourist trap – this was a de facto street market selling to locals who knew what they were buying. Behind this main street were scores of workshops filled with juddering sewing machines presumably feeding this unruly monster.
Also laundrettes. A laundrette here does not contain banks of washers and dryers but just one. You give your bag of clothes to a man there and he washes it with twenty other people’s clothes and somehow sorts all the socks out correctly. When I first entered one of these there was only a rather fat man snoring heavily on a sofa with his face turned away and giving the distinct impression he did not wish to be woken. After dawdling for a few moments a man across the street sitting on a tiny stool drinking çay from a tiny glass set upon a tiny table whistled and gestured into an unmarked shopfront a few doors down. Another man came bustling out, climbed the steps into the laundrette and seated himself behind the desk to conduct my business while the resident of the sofa slept soundly on. The next two times I visited that laundrette the same man was sitting in the same spot still drinking tea, like one of those kids from The Wire that hangs on the edge of a Baltimore low rise and kicks up a racket when the police come by to warn his accomplices inside.
Actually, remarkably more like that was what we experienced buying ‘balik ekmek’ (mackerel sandwiches) by Galata Bridge. The fish are caught on lines cast from bridge and the catch are pretty much reeled straight onto the grill. Coming back a second time, while our fish was being cooked someone shouted down from the end of the bridge and within moments all grills, tables and boxes had been lifted by hands that sprang from nowhere and ran down a side street, our fish jumping on the grill as it disappeared into the distance; the police really had come rolling by and this aparently clandestine operation had to make itself scarce.
The street food in Istanbul is terrific. Another winner is the ‘midye’, mussels stuffed with spiced rice, their lips invitingly parted. The vendor would deftly run a knife into this gap, twist to crack the shell apart and use the top half as a spoon to cut the orange flesh from the bottom half and act as a little serving platter after lemon juice is squeezed on top. After you nod for midye he will repeat this action at an alarming rate as you gobble them down to keep up until you beg for no more.
A little history, perhaps. Istanbul, then named Byzantion, was taken from the Greeks by the Romans in the 2nd century AD. In C4th it was renamed Conatantinople by Emperor Constantine, who was famous for converting and setting the Roman Empire to Christianisation.
Constantine built hundreds of underground cisterns to store water, the largest of which was the Basilica Cistern. 105,000 square feet, it could hold 100,000 tonnes of water. Now there’s just a few feet at the bottom with fat carp pootling about, leaving a huge open cavern.
Constantinople became the capital of the Roman empire, whose Western half fell in C5th. The remaining Eastern half is distinguished as the Byzantium Empire. It was more Greek in culture and became the centre of the Greek Orthodox Church. The city flourished in the following centuries and the Haghia Sophia, then the world’s largest cathedral was built. It looks like a pink fortress. Inside are Arabic calligraphy and Islamic features from when the Ottomans took over the city in C15th and converted many churches into mosques.
The largest mosque in the city was built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan. It is known as the Blue Mosque because of the colour of the Iznik tiles inside, named for the town where the empire’s finest ceramics were produced.
On the livelier side of things is the grand Bazaar, an indoor complex like a series of connecting tunnels lined with little shops carrying wild amounts of stock strung up on the walls and ceiling. Etiquette is to ask the price of an item and then offer half.
The real hard selling happens in the streets surrounding the Bazaar, however. Heading for a post office a man on the street began “Can I ask you a question?”, sometime later said “I’m not selling anything, I just want to show you something” and some time after that sold us several scarves for an inordinate amount of money. I tell myself that they are very nice scarves, at least.
Myla had asked him about a closed-door, seemingly invite-only shop we had passed earlier. In Korea (where Myla was born) she told me these shops sell the ‘real’ counterfeit fashion, produced to exacting quality and indistinguishable in every detail from the genuine item. They are not cheap – a handbag might cost $2,000 – but that is less than the $10,000 price tag and twelve month waiting list for the genuine one. My mind reels at this. Mr. Charming Daylight Robbery was vague but more or less confirmed this was the case here too. Then, after fleecing us, he invited us to see ‘the rest of the stock’. We stepped, escorted, into an elevator at the back of the shop and went up a few floors before stepping into what seemed to be an entire apartment block converted into a warehouse/showroom. Room after silent room of brightly lit, immaculately tidy displays of handbags and, well, pretty much a lot of handbags were connected by grubbier corridors, living rooms and kitchenettes of men in wife beaters eating rice, smoking and seemingly minding the shop. It was incongruous, not to say bizarre. A few, very wealthy looking, possibly Persian women were the only other customers around and, feeling a little ill at ease, after a look around we asked at leave.
A decidedly more peaceful experience was watching the Whirling Dervishes dance. Formally known as the Mevlevi, their faith is a sect of Sufism, the more mystical of Islam’s branches. Their prayer is a sort of meditation through dance. We had missed the monthly open-doors demonstration at the Mevlevi lodge in Beyoğlu, unfortunately, but were able to pay to see them perform at Sirkeci train station, once a thriving stop on the Orient Express. The band was introduced with a fluttering flute melody and the dancers began with a somber march and much bowing before dropping their black cloaks and whirling away for the next half hour. How they manage for more than half a minute before dizzily careening into the spectators is beyond me. The formidable gust kicked up by their skirts was a welcome substituents for AC, too.
The Turkish hamam is another famous experience. After sweating off in a sauna you are ladled with cold water, lathered and vigorously exfoliated – an experience I would recommend to any cyclist trying to shed ounces.
Perhaps yet more vigorous, however, was the treatment I received at the barbershop. Hoping for a quick tidy up, I received the full ‘Turkish Coiffeur’ treatment. The actual trimming of beard and hair was accomplished in fifteen minutes. The performance lasted an hour.
First, scissors flashed to and fro at alarming speed and with no discernable pattern of approach. They were snapped open and shut with excessive force and patent glee; their staccato rapid – fire didn’t let up for hair or thin air. I felt like my face was being strafed by a miniature Spitfire. Once he was satisfied and my pulse had returned to normal I was transfered to his colleague. After rolling up his sleeves and cracking his knuckles (I may have imagined this) he set to work on my shoulders. “Ah, I’m having a message…”, I thought, muscles screaming. Next stop was my scalp, then my face. I had never received a face massage before, nor was I aware there was such a thing. It was exactly as you would imagine it. Formalities over, he seized my arms and made as if to clap my hands behind my neck, I believe for the benefit of my spine. For the grand finale he set two sticks ended with large cotton balls on fire and swatted me about the ears.
What really made Istanbul captivating though was the people. Although on the edge of Europe the Turks are of Eastern descent and the difference in general attitude is remarkable. Firstly, there is no reserve or regard for personal space, no embarrassment at curiosity. Sitting by the ruins of the Roman Hippodrome one day two young men working as city guides for a volunteer program came over to ask us where we were from. Conversation followed and before long their friends had joined us and we were nearly a dozen in all. While Myla was interrogated by the girls on the nature and exact details of the relationship between her and myself one of the boys, Ismet, told me of his plaintive efforts to find a girlfriend and asked my advice. A stranger ten minutes ago asking me for my advice on women?! I was flattered. When the time came to peel ourselves away there was much hugging and cheek kissing. As far as Turkish generosity goes there are too many anecdotes to list so I’ll just give one. Sat outside the Blue Mosque one evening listening to the exquisitely beautiful adhan broadcast from inside (the call to prayer is not pre – recorded and its musical quality varies greatly with muezzin of the mosque) we bought çay from a man carrying a tray. He had just taken out a cigarette and the couple next to us asked if he might spare one. He apologised sincerely that it was his last then, holding up a finger for pause, he carefully tore it down the middle and offered one half, lighting it for them. Now there’s something you wouldn’t see at home.
Istanbul really was an enchanting city and I already miss it dearly. There is so much more I wish I’d photographed or were able to put into words. Is there any consolation? Yes, the beer was expensive and bad. And a Berlin kebab is better than a Turkish kebab! Still…