Istanbul #2- the last days

October 4-9, Istanbul

Friday night was the most riotous of the entire tour.  Nineteen of us made our way to Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul hipness and Youth Central.  Among the 18 million people living in the metropolis, it seemed like a million of them were there that night, streaming along the pedestrian spine of the hill.  Big, brightly lit windows full of western-brand global clothing, (perhaps manufactured in Turkey, one can at least hope), in fancily renovated old buildings, alongside blingy watch stores and sweet shops, bejeweled with mounds of lokum (Turkish delight), helvah, walnuts coated with syrup, pistachio-laden baklava, and more more more.

Weaving through the crowds and streets we arrive at Feraye, a supper club up a spiral flight of iron stairs, and into a room jammed with music and people.  A gypsy Roma band is playing at full tilt, and our party is seated right in front. This makes conversation impossible, so the best thing to do is groove and watch.  At the next two long tables of mostly young people, the conversation is lively, occasionally interrupted by spontaneous bursts of singing along to the chorus of a recognized tune.  They get up to dance together, dances maybe learned at school, maybe YouTube.  It turns out it is a going-away party for a colleague, a woman slightly older than the 20somethings, and beloved by all.  The raki is flowing.  Waiters are doing their own dance among the tightly packed tables, bringing us olives, and bread, and humus, and fava bean paste, and a cucumber tomato salad, followed by crispy sardines, and finally our entrees.

The clarinetist, two doumbek players, saxophonist, and kunanist all appear related; they drive the place crazy.  We dance, we stop, we listen, they play, and all is repeated until 1 am, and then, too energized for bed, we walk the 3k or so home, down Ishtiklal, still seething with people, to the Galata bridge, still lined with fishermen, up the sleeping tram tracks, with cafes open and lively, to Sultanahmet, where there are still folks out, strolling and selling.

Staggering to a breakfast of coffee, simit (a twisted soft bagel but better, coated in sesame seeds), feta, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, yogurt, dried fruit, and maybe a little pastry or two, we review the trip to the Chora Church, which we will do with a portion of the tour group. Traveling smaller is a relief, and it proves good for the others going to Galata as well, as their guide has more time for their questions and can accommodate them in his home for a delicious meal.

We head out in taxis to visit the 11th century church, home to some of the most exquisite Byzantine mosaics,  no small number of them depicting the life of Mary, mother of Jesus (according to the 2nd century Apocryphal Gospel of St. James).  Mary’s parents, so the story goes, were old and childless, until visited by an angel, who told them their barren days were over and they were in for Someone Special (a preview of What Was to Come). Our earnest guide Serdan (hired on the spot by the quick-thinking and thoughtful Frish) enhanced our experience with his focus and energy.



The mosaics and frescoes of Chora were added in the early 14th century, by Theodore Metochites, theologian, philosopher and official in the Byzantine government. An interesting observation: the mosaics have brilliant gold or yellow backgrounds, and are in the worshipping parts of the church.  The frescoes are in the parecclesion, or place of burial, and have a black background. They stand out against it. The most prominent fresco shows Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs, an act that allows them to be eligible for the Judgement Day. The message is clear: so too will the residents of the parecclesion, currently occupying their own underworld, be brought to Divine judgement.

Fortunately for the world, when the church was converted to a mosque, the mosaics were not destroyed, but preserved with a coat of plaster. Imagine the revelation when these were uncovered!

Lunch at Asitane was overrated and pricey, but pleasant nonetheless, in the shaded patio, sampling “Ottoman cuisine”: some of it tasty, but nothing mindblowing.  The pomegranate syrup drink, however, and the lemonade, were refreshing and distinctive.

We wanted to get to the Asian side early, so we decided to walk to the Golden Horn and catch cabs to the ferry. As elected map-reader, I charted a course down the hill, in the hopes of sighting a synagogue on the map (note-do some research beforehand, the Ahrida Synagogue is quite prominent, we were a street off).  That not found, we meandered through the Balat, an old Jewish neighborhood vibrant with people and small shops, and buildings in various states of decay, disrepair, and remodeling. Very friendly people, lots of children running about, through the streets, into the alleys, and up hidden staircases.

Scenes of Balat

Established by Greek Jews in Byzantine times, Balat became the home to Sephardic Jews following their expulsion from Spain, then Armenians, and now is largely working class. It may also be doomed by land grabbers and redevelopers attempting to tear it down and rebuild for a wealthier clientele.  If required to rebuild in the historical style, will we see a Disneyfied Balat in the future? Yuck.  Signs put up by the CHP, The Republican People’s Party (Kemalist, center-left opposition party), in Turkish, were perhaps announcing an event we witnessed later, or perhaps decrying the  landgrab, or maybe none of the above.

Mad cab ride to Eminonu, where the afternoon rush hours had begun.  Crushes of people through the Galata Bridge underpass, to the Kadikoy ferry, and there was Dore, our tour leader, waiting for the others.  We all made it on the ferry except Bob, who had his own adventure, eventually meeting us at Gitar Cafe. What a wonderful way to get home, the ferry.  I suppose a daily routine of it might get to be just that, but I couldn’t help but feel the heat and pulse of the city sweep off us as we crossed the cool waters of the Bosphorus.

Disembarking, we catch a small but noisy demonstration with CHP banners -“no war!” is communicated very clearly. We cheer them on.

Another adventure on the Asian side,  using incorrect Google map info on iPhones instead of memory to get to Gitar Cafe.  So instead of going through the market of fresh fish, piles of fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, and breads, all displayed with vibrance and hawked voluminously, we wound around the sterile electronics section, then into mostly deserted streets with shuttered modern buildings, to the place where Gitar used to be but was no longer. This gave us the opportunity to recalculate/redirect ourselves and discover the Street of Everything Bridal. Building after building, shop after shop: wedding dresses, formalwear, watches, jewelry.  It makes for a spectacle, as well as good sense.  Why, in a city such as this, wouldn’t you put all of this together?

Across the busy boulevard, ducking unto a side street, up a little hill, and we got to Gitar Cafe the back way, settling down to some tasty food and drinks at the sidewalk Biper Cafe.  Very good french fries, a vegetable crepe, and then upstairs for the Sumru and Cenk concert at Gitar, a tangential and traditional mix. While Dore schmoozed afterwards with his friends the artists, we impatient ones headed to the ferry, enjoying the warm clear evening. The boat ride back was sublime.   Tram and to bed.

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Sunday and Topkapi Palace. Jihan our guide again, knowledgeable and up the task of our insatiable inquisitiveness. We listened and followed more, through gates and gardens, pavillions and exhibitions, the harem, the sultans’ suites, audience rooms,  the Hall of Justice.  Six hours later, too tired to view the golden throne, we stumble to a cafe for sustenance. In a few hours we will have our last dinner as the entire group, where we will share our appreciations of one another.  We are also planning a poem for Dore, which requires some mad composition on the part of a few of us.

Topkapi Palace, the first gate and courtyard

Hall of Justice
Jihan the Patient

Tiles in Topkapi

Sublime dome and courtyard

Back to Galata, through some dark alleys, into Biblioteka, a small community center, where we are fed a yum vegetarian meal by a couple of young women, friends of Dore’s. The after dinner talk is lively, and the appreciations bring a glow of positivity to the trip.  Some of us head back to the hotel, while others follow Dore to a club, where the music is too loud to be enjoyed, so we all decide to retreat to the hotel.  The usual thumb-twiddling confusion as we wait for a van, but all works out in the end.

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Monday morning, we headed for the Basilica Cistern, a vast underground water reservoir built in Byzantine times, to hold water for the city. It is dimly but dramatically lit, with an aura of mystery and spirituality, assisted by the faint echoing music. All is hushed, as hundreds of people tread the elevated walkways, looking up and out at the  tall marble columns laid out in a 12 by 28 grid (the lunar calendar?), and below at the water, not very deep, but inhabited by large fish swimming under the lights. Sacred space.

Returning to the surface, Larry, Clare, and I head towards the Rustem Pasha mosque, by way of side streets that lead us into the garment district. First the underwear section, shops with windows full of bras and panties, briefs and boxers, then the socks and tights, then the suits, dresses, skirts and coats. In the latter, there is a range of styles for women in this Muslim country, from short jaunty blazers to full-length button downs, both  tailored and loose. Full religious covers were not in the windows. People were buying large bales and bags of goods, hauling them off on dollys, to sell in their own stores, or wherever.

This meandering brought us right into the old building of the Spice Bazaar, which we traversed without stopping too much.  Spice is relative, as it also included nuts, jewelry, souvenirs, scarves, etc.  Perhaps we missed the larger part, just as well, since too much viewing can weary the mind. Had coffee in a corner cafe (see photo), then popped out onto a busy street (is there any other kind in Istanbul?), and just by chance found a side entrance to the Rustem Pasha Mosque, which is one flight up from the street. The plaza area around the mosque is small and quieted by the surrounding greenery.  With just 15 minutes until the midday prayer, we slipped in to enjoy this little jewel, another sanctuary of perfect proportions and blue tile wash.

Our tea clinic
Wooden eiling in the Rustem Pasha

Arches and domes


On to the street, searching for lunch, finally taken on the lower deck of the Galata Bridge, enjoying fried fish sandwiches and french fries, in view of the fried fish sandwich boats, rocking drunkenly in the wakes of tour boats on the Golden Horn.

Fish sandwich boats

Clare savors the view-was that a lemon she just ate?

Eminonu blues

Back across the bridge to the studio of world renown percussionist Okay (ohk-high) Temiz, but first a little more confusion about where to meet up with the rest of the group-Kadikoy ferry building or Katakoy ferry landing? Meet at Galata tower instead, as it begins to look very rainy.  Finally duck into the cavernous studio of Mr. Temiz, who proceeds to amaze and regale us with his collection and then lead us in a drumming workshop, which was lots of fun, and another opportunity to unify the group.

The Tibetan water bowl
Cats on Galata Hill

By now we are hungry, and running tight to the schedule for dinner and our club concert, so it’s a little puzzling, but not really, when our fearless leader ducks into a CD store to fulfill his desire/duty to acquire more music for people in the group. Then we are  actually late for dinner, which is delicious, but must be eaten post haste before we haul off yet again for the babylon club, for the electronica of Werner Hasler and the oud playing and poetic recitations of Kamilyah Jubran. Their collaborative compositions were cutting edge, and this was the first time they had appeared in Istanbul. An adoring audience approved. Our group had mixed reactions, and once again, many headed to the tram, followed swiftly by Dore. And. off. to. bed. Iyi gejeler.

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Today is our last full day in Istanbul.  Some are going to an instrument maker nearby, while others will take free time, and the rest of us are going to the Archeology Museum, established by Osman Hamdi Bey, an artist, archeologist and intellectual of the late 19th-early 20th century, who did not want the antiquities of the Ottoman Empire to end up in the British Museum or the Louvre. The museum is housed in three buildings on the Topkapi Palace grounds. We start with the antiquities, and it is amazing to realize the thousands of years of civilizations that are layered in Turkey and what was the Ottoman empire. There are Hittite tablets with minuscule cuneiform writing: the earliest love poem, the treaty of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites promising peace, mutual support and extradition rights “forever” (I wonder). There are wonderful pots of irregular shape, and magnificent vases that inspired ceramic shapes in Art Nouveau, huge tablets of stone twelve feet high, carved with monsters, angels, and kings.  Tiny fertility statues and prosaic toys of household items. Dolls’ legs of clay, bronze lamps, cylindrical seals. It is apparent that everything we could think of expressing artistically has been done thousands of years ago, and for thousands of years thereafter.  So it’s not about trying to create something new; perhaps it is realizing how connected we are as a species. Several obsessions over the millennia: death and beauty, and winged creatures. Do these latter represent the soul, or the connection between the divine and the earthly? Don’t we all wish we could fly?

For lunch, a teras cafe, offering mediocre food and a beautiful view of the Sea of Marmara, sparkling in the clear air, with views to the Princes Islands and beyond.  Seducing us to return.

Returned from an afternoon of shopping just in time to get ready for our last evening. We boarded a bus, which made its way through torturous rush hour traffic to the Eyup district outside the walls, for a special  meal and concert at the sacred home of the Erdemsel brothers, Sinan and Omer Faruz, Sufi musicians and descendants of Sheik Ibrahim Ummi Sinan, 16th century Sufi master.  This was a most honored occasion, as we were invited into their ancestral compound, fed a sumptuous meal of lentil soup, salads, chicken, bulgur, vegetables, creamy mashed potatoes, and semolina helvah for dessert. But the truly wonderful part of this was the singing and playing of the sacred music they have sung since they were children, and which their own children are now learning. It was serene and profound. As we left, Sinan showed us the tomb of the Sheik Ummi Sinan, his succeeding sheiks, and their wives. This is viewable through a window on the street. There is no current sheik; it is not a matter of direct succession, it is a spiritual succession, according to Sinan.

We returned quickly on quiet streets, and set off to find last-minute gifts of Turkish delight and perhaps more. The evening was fresh and, of course, there were people everywhere. On our way back to the hotel, laden with lokum, here was another tomb, visible through quite a large window, prime real estate in Sultanahmet, devoted to the sacred.