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Istanbul awash in long, rich history


When my grandfather was a young man he left the island of Rhodes to work as a bank clerk in Istanbul. From his description, the job seemed to consist largely of sitting at an outdoor cafe on an open square or plaza, reading the newspapers of the day, drinking pilsner and smoking cigars. It must have taken him some time to go through el Telegrafo, the journal of the exiled Spanish Jews, as well as the papers in Turkish, Arabic and French. For these and, I must assume, other exertions, he was delighted to be paid "12 gold Napoleons a month.''

That was a century ago, when Istanbul was still widely known as Constantinople. Our name was spelled differently then, but José Capuya had already grown the curved and bushy brown mustache I would know him with, and in photos from that time he wears a dark-colored fez.

From his relayed memories came my first imaginings of Istanbul. Earlier this summer — almost exactly 100 years later — my wife and I went to Turkey to create our own images and experiences. Here are scenes and sense memories of Istanbul, 2010.

• • •

Cats, they're everywhere. Sauntering on the uneven gray cobblestone streets near our hotel in Sultanahmet, the old quarter — streets so narrow that drivers must pull over and let each other pass — and padding confidently in and out of restaurants, they're out in numbers and unrestrained. They're not plump but certainly not starving; I never saw a cat petted or fed, yet collectively, privately Istanbullus care for them, respect them, appreciate them.

Dogs, less so. In Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red, set in the 16th century, a storyteller goes in character as a dog. He laments the contempt men have for his species: "We've been barred from mosques for centuries.'' The undue affection shown cats, the narrator believes, goes back to the Prophet Muhammad, who once cut off a piece of his robe upon which a cat lay sleeping rather than waken it.

On a drizzly and unusually cool June afternoon in the city, Suzanne and I sit down outdoors at the Bodrum Café, a touristy but genial place close to two major tourist sites, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish). Suzanne reaches over to set her camera bag on the chair next to hers, then stops, startled, when the fluffy gray, whiskered seat cushion moves. Our waiter laughs as the cat slips unhurriedly to the pavement. "Ah, there's our friend,'' he says in English. "Our best customer.''

• • •

Istanbul is teeming — something like 13 million people live here. It's busy, noisy, and the traffic's impossible. The public transportation network is vast and efficient; your akbil, or transit pass, gets you on the underground metro, the above-ground tramway or streetcars, and all the ferries. Your taxi driver might be a thief with a meter or berserk behind the wheel. Erstwhile New Yorkers both, we immediately feel at home. We're startled at first by the amplified calls to prayer from the city's 3,000 mosques. But the sound that stays with me is subtler and more constant: the chink-chink of metal teaspoons in small curved tea glasses known as "belly dancers.'' "Cay" is the Turks' essential fuel and ubiquitous ritual.

It's a cosmopolis: sophisticated, global, fully modern. That's best seen in the international shopping on Baghdad Street on the newer Asian side. In this case "newer" means it was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Or, go across the Bosphorus Strait from Sultanahmet to the Beyoglu neighborhood, and walk up pedestrian-only Istiklal Caddesi, lined with music and bookstores, art galleries, boutiques and trendy bar-restaurants.

Yet, like this entire country, Istanbul is also tangibly ancient, operating from rich historic depths: Turkishness layered on top of Ottoman on top of Byzantine, Roman and Greek epochs. The grand and beautiful Hagia Sophia was dedicated in 537 A.D., for Christ's sake — and you are to take that literally — and at that time the city had been in existence for more than 1,000 years. Troy is in Turkey. By comparison, New York seems merely "well established.''

Like New Yorkers, Istanbullus are assured, purposeful; imbued, I think, with the confident knowledge of living in such a potent, significant place. They talk constantly, volubly, and gesture emphatically. To some, and our Canadian friend Aaron is one, "They have a very different idea of personal space.'' True: At ATMs you may feel that the back of your shirt has grown a Turk.

Overall, though, they don't seem aggressive, but rather kind. When male friends greet each other, they kiss on both cheeks while shaking hands. Unasked, these city folk cross streets to help befuddled tourists. Down in the metro one night two high-energy teenage boys abruptly stand up and offer these middle-age Americans their seats.

• • •

"You're a lucky man,'' the fortune-teller begins.

Ipek, whose name means silk, is reading the grounds left in my Turkish coffee cup. Her forecast isn't all giggles: "I think you will have conflict with another man; he is a bit older and perhaps he wears glasses.'' (I know who that is.)

When Suzanne's turn comes and her upside-down cup is lifted from its saucer, nearly all the grounds fall out at once, hitting the dish with a plop.

"Oh!'' the fortune-teller, and the other assembled Turks, exclaim.

"What, what?'' we ask, concerned.

"No, it's good, don't worry,'' Ipek says. "That's all the stress you carry; it's going to fall away from you, just like that.''

Ours is a modern fortune-teller, in her 20s, with a dramatic sweep of long black hair. Ipek is finishing her master's degree at the University of Kent in England. We're at her family's house on the island of Heybeliada, a short ferry ride from Istanbul. And if anyone's stress would ever vanish in the way she describes, it could well be here.

Heybeliada is one of a string called the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, where Turks and some Greeks go in summer. We're guests of Esra and her father, Kadri.

When we get off the ferry, roughly an hour's ride, I take in the row of restaurants and cafes on the wide promenade along the water. Just behind are the shops, and then the land and the staggered ranks of white houses begin to rise very sharply. We wheel our luggage noisily along and it occurs to me that something's missing . . .

Then it's clear: There are no cars on the island, save the occasional municipal vehicle. We're going up the hill to Esra's villa in a horse cart with a fringed top, waiting in front of a grocery store.

Here we'll eat doner kebab, sliced spit-roasted lamb, for lunch at Basak, one of those shoreline restaurants, and take morning tea and borek-filo dough pastries filled with cheese or meat at another. (Though the Turks love all things sugary, they don't take sweets for breakfast.) In between we do the usual summerhouse errands and take in the spectacular views from our hosts' terrace, facing a Greek Orthodox monastery on a distant hilltop, as seagulls dive and moan.

Time also goes by at our hosts' beach club, where the gossip flies mercifully over my head, and attendants scurry around with food and, of course, cay. Another night we get a lesson in making Turkish coffee. There's not that much else to do here, honestly, or to be desired. As Kadri says one evening while we're sitting on the balcony nibbling: "This is our island life.''

• • •

Food — good food — is a big part of life here, and much discussed. Restaurants tend to specialize in either meat or fish. Our best meal (and most expensive dinner at $100) was at the well-known Balikci Sabahattin in Sultanahmet, where memorable mezzes, or cold appetizers, of tender octopus, smoked eggplant and the spicy red pepper spread, esme, were followed by perfectly grilled sea bass.

But the low end, street food, is important, too. After work, especially, Istanbullus grab and go at outdoor stalls and stands. Simit, a soft pretzel dotted with sesame seeds, is a staple, as is sut misir, roasted corn on the cob. Then there's kokorec, sheep's intestines. "You must try it,'' our Turkish hosts decree. "It's our New York City hot dog.'' And, we are reassured: "The intestines are cleaned first.'' Okay, then!

We've just left the Spice Market in the Eminonu neighborhood, near the Galata Bridge, where we snacked on pistachios and roasted hazelnuts, browsing and breathing in aromatic cumin, cinnamon, teas, figs, apricots, mulberries, sweets and coffees. I see a kokorec stand and hand over four lira coins. The coiled guts are chopped fine, then seared on a flat grill, spiced with red pepper flakes and served on doughy bread. The intestine is chewy but not unpleasantly so and the taste is fairly neutral; it's basically a delivery system for the red sauce, which is hot and savory. Beneath that flavor, though, the whole thing is a bit . . . musky. One kokorec will do, we decide.

The "wet burger'' is an easier sell and a happier chew. This two-lira fast snack, touted by food adventurist Anthony Bourdain, is a small, spiced beef burger liberally soaked in an oily tomato and red-pepper sauce. What makes it wet? First, the sauce sops through the roll, giving it a lurid orange color, and then the burgers live their short lives in a steam compartment. The soggy delicacy was pioneered at Kizilkayalar, a small, jammed standup joint on Taksim Square. I inhale two or three, washed down with a thinned yogurt drink that cuts the grease and cools the heat.

• • •

"Won't you come into my shop and take some tea, so I can show you some beautiful carpets?''

This is the offer I've been dreading, issued as soon as we enter the Grand Bazaar. One guidebook describes shopping here as a "crazed, chaotic crush'' — three states I strenuously avoid. But here we are, and now, raising my level of alarm, Suzanne accepts the first invitation we hear, obediently following the personable young man.

And, you know, it's BTE: Better Than Expected. The shopkeeper is extremely knowledgeable, explaining the differences between Caucasian and Anatolian, wool and silk. After his assistant drags out carpet after kilim, we thank him and make our exit without any pressure to buy, as promised. (That held true at a second rug stop also). Guard down, I'm free to be impressed by the quality of the materials and craftsmanship on offer. A few junky souvenirs and synthetic "silk'' scarves aside, what you find at the bazaar is the best of Turkish culture. Locals — not just tourists — buy rugs, silks, linens and gold jewelry here. I pick up a fancy copper Turkish coffee pot at Tombak (about $20), Suzanne goes for some simple linen towels and we call it a well-shopped day. It's not crazed; it's civilized. And much BTE.

John Capouya is a professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa. Suzanne Williamson is a photographic artist and journalist living in Tampa. See her work at


Visiting Istanbul

When to go: September or June is ideal, with temperatures in the high 70s during the day, 60s at night. October's a bit colder and wetter; July and August hotter.

In 2010, Istanbul is a Capital of European Culture, offering a rolling series of arts exhibits, events and performances based in Turkish culture and others.

Flights: From New York, take Turkish Air or Delta overnight, a roughly 10-hour flight. Round-trip tickets are about $1,000.

Money: The Turkish lira, or YTL, is currently worth 65 cents, making Istanbul affordable for U.S. tourists.

Lodging: The Armada Hotel is a full-service, four-star hotel within walking distance of major tourist sites, with pleasant, good-sized rooms and a lavish breakfast buffet. Ask for a view of the Sea of Marmara. Rates range from roughly $140 a night to $240.

The Aruna Hotel in Sultanahmet, the historic quarter, is cheaper, but clean and efficiently run, with a terrace restaurant. About $100, including breakfast.

Must-see sights: The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) was built as a Christian Church of the Divine Wisdom in the first century and remained the world's largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years. Converted to a mosque in the 1400s, it melds striking Christian and Islamic elements under the massive dome. It is open 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; closed Mondays.

The grand Blue Mosque, with its signature six slender minaret towers, was built under Sultan Ahmet I in the early 1600s. The intricate blue tilework on the domed ceiling gives the mosque its name. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except during prayer times (less access on Fridays).

Topkapi is a vast complex of ornate palaces with quarters for eunuchs, a harem and sultans' chambers. The Treasury holds the famous emerald-inlaid Topkapi dagger and other, well, treasures. The Archaeology Museum here has beautifully carved sarcophagi and cuneiform writings on clay tablets. The restaurant on the grounds, Konyali, is quite good. Palaces are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Tuesdays.

Just off Sultanahmet Square, descend into the underground Basilica Cistern, which held Istanbul's water supply in the sixth century. It's dark, cool and eerily lit, with more than 300 marble columns rising out of the water. Open from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.

Food: For fish, try Balikci Sabahattin in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. You choose from trays of mezzes, or cold appetizers, including octopus and smoked eggplant; entrees feature grilled sea bass and other balik (fish). Good wines by the glass. Dinner for two, with wine, is about $100.

If you are hungry for kebabs, try Hamdi in the Eminonu neighborhood at the foot of the Galata Bridge. It is authentic food that is popular with Turks. Make reservations for the top-floor terrace. Dinner for two with one raki (the licorice-flavored liquor) is about $65.

Also, Ipekyolu, near Taksim Square, offers dinner for two, without alcohol, for $70.

For an authoritative, fun primer on street food, see They offer guided gnoshing tours, called Istanbul Eats Walks.

Tipping: At restaurants, 10 to 15 percent of the bill is normal. In taxis, no tip is expected, but round up the meter, or give a lira or two. Give bellmen a dollar or two (2 to 4 YTL). For bartenders, none is expected.

Getting around: Buy an akbil or refillable transit token and get to know the excellent public transportation system. Do not attempt to drive yourself around Istanbul. Traffic is horrible and the roads are not well marked.

John Capouya

Istanbul awash in long, rich history 09/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 1:41pm]
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