Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Istanbul was called just “The City” or the “City on the Seven Hills” when it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire... it is a very ancient city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosporus Strait.
This both modern and ancient city has expanded along the Bosporus coast, from the Sea of Marmara to almost the Black Sea engulfing what used to be suburbs and outlaying villages on both sides of the straits. It has been the cradle of 3 major Empires: the Eastern Roman Empire – the Hellenisized Eastern part of the Roman Empire; the Byzantine Empire which was a Greek Mediterranean powerhouse, and the Ottoman Empire, the final evolution and culmination of Turcoman, Seljuk and Ottoman nomadic tribes that dominated Asia and the Middle East from roots in what is now Mongolia and Eastern Siberia.
There have always been various religious influences and they still play a major role in the life of the current inhabitants. There is no longer the Roman or Greek Olympus Pantheon to influence the resident's thinking but the Greek Orthodox Christian Church is still in the city anchored by the Greek Patriarchate; there are numerous, very active Jewish synagogues and of course the Sunni Islamic denomination is now the dominant religion... although Turkey is supposed to be a secular country.
Small ethnic groups still play a considerable role in the local culture. There is whatever is left of the Greek community – once major business owners and state administrators; what is left of the Armenian community; the Jewish community with its remnants still vibrant and a few other groups, such as Ukrainians and Russians fleeing the current war, Syrians, Palestinians, Afghanis, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis fleeing the poverty and turmoil in their regions.
The city has somehow assimilated all those diverse cultural influences to create an interesting mosaic uniquely local. A mélange of customs and lifestyles has been created that make Istanbul irresistible to a modern traveler! It is interesting to see, side by side, old women wearing long black burqas that only have a slit for the wearer to see and modern young girls with short skirts or slacks, but still wearing a traditional hijab which could be either a black or tan semi diaphanous fabric or in many cases an Hermes, Dior or Gucci scarf.
If you are interested in architecture there is a plethora of buildings and locations to explore… starting with the Roman Hippodrome, the Byzantine fortifications, public water cisterns and churches and following with the Ottoman palaces, public buildings, mosques, hammams, public markets (bazaars) and the modern part of the city that includes five star hotels, residential neighborhoods, leafy parks and bridges.
One of my favorite pastimes is walking down Istiklal Avenue, starting from Taksim Square all the way down to the Tünel, the 1875 underground funicular that still operates connecting the residential Pera with Galata harbor, the area nowadays known as Karaköy. Istiklal is now a pedestrian thoroughfare and is Istanbul’s combined 5th Avenue and Oxford Street. I still love looking at the upscale shop windows that fascinated me as a child when visiting family living in the city.
A red tram still chugs along at the center of Isticlal, ringing its bell to force walkers to make way, and some of the most interesting Turkish enterprises have offices and stores in the buildings lining the street, such as the famous sweets emporium branch of Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, the creator of the Lokum, what we know in the English-speaking world as the Turkish Delight, which is still made according to the secret formula handed down from generation to generation. The company is still run by the current descendants of Haci Bekir Efendi (I believe 7th generation) and employs only candy makers and other workers from their ancestral village.
Public transportation is omnipresent with trams, ferries to the “other side” and the islands of the Sea of Marmara, the funicular that connects the residential neighborhood to the port where many of the major offices are located, and the ubiquitous “dolmuş,” white or blue shared taxis or minibuses that operate in and around Istanbul. Plus, of course, plenty of modern yellow taxis with a sign on top “Taksi” since the letter X is non existent in the Romanized Turkish alphabet.
Actually the word dolmuş (and common variant dolma) is the Turkish word for filled, stuffed or full, and refers to the shared taxis as well as some of my favorite dishes called yaprak dolma (stuffed vine leaves) or patlican dolma (stuffed eggplant). Another use of the word can be found in “Dolmabahçe Sarayi” literally translating to “The Filled Garden Palace” the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire until 1924 when the Turkish Republic was established by the “Father of Turkey” Mustafa Kemal. The name was adopted because landfill was used to created the palace’s gardens along the seacoast.
The one thing that has changed since my last visit to “The City” is the traffic. During the working day it takes a considerable time to drive three blocks, as much as 15 minutes, while after hours traffic is at a minimum. Additionally the drivers take traffic signage as “only suggestions” and double and triple park on narrow streets with little consideration for other drivers! But, except for that, it is a wonderful city.
An unusual experience for male tourists would be to enjoy a shoe-shine at one of the traditional shoe-shine stands that can still be found along thoroughfares, street-corners and lobbies of some of the international hostelries.
An architectural complex worth exploring is the Topkapi Sarayi (Cannon’s Gate Palace); it was the main residence of the sultans until the 17th century and was featured in the famous motion picture “Topkapi,” a heist film produced and directed by Jules Dassin.
Other interesting places to explore would be the Blue Mosque (currently closed for restoration), the Hagia Sophia complex, the Galata Tower, the Mısır Çarşısı also known as the Egyptian Spice Market – one of the many enclosed public marketplaces (bazaars) where, if you have the knowledge and desire you can practice your skills in the ancient art of bargaining. And, believe me, you have to be very knowledgeable of merchandise quality and pricing to be victorious. Other possibilities would be the Grand Bazaar or the Balik Pazari (the city’s fish market).
Much of this architectural and cultural cornucopia is located on the European side of the Sea of Marmara, where first the Byzantines and then the Ottomans, had their main city and palaces. The Asian side, has fewer monuments and palaces and many more modern structures.
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