Impressions of Istanbul

Boat Tour of the Bosphorus – Martyrs of July 15th Bridge

This was my second visit to Turkey, having visited with my family in February of 2014. This time I was here alone on business, for international school meetings. I stayed in the heart of Besiktas, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and many ways, the cultural heart of Istanbul. I loved the proximity to the Bosphorus Strait, the cobblestone streets and the numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. The autumn weather was perfect and I went on a couple of long walks up and down the many hills. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, with a metro population of 15 million. It felt busy walking along the Bosphorus, but the stunning views of palaces, parks and water and most interestingly, the daily life of the citizens of this remarkable city were invigorating.

Dog Walker in Besiktas

It was probably the neighborhood, but I saw many more secular Turks than conservative Turks, with younger people wearing Western fashion and no headscarves on the women. This friction has always been a defining feature of Turkey. I sense President Erdogan’s popularity may be waning. My taxi driver to the new airport was quite critical of him, calling him “a thief and dangerous, similar to your president Trump”. I was impressed with the infrastructure and commercial activity in the city and think prosperity has grown in the five years I have been away. However, in speaking with the director of the international school there, he said their enrollment is down because of the recession. One negative about Istanbul is that it felt a bit like Manhattan in that you could not get away from people. Solitude is something that you will not get in Istanbul. Even in the parks, there were people everywhere. It wasn’t Asian crowded, but the traffic noise and many people made it feel hectic.

Taksim Square

We took a 3-hour boat cruise the last night going north on the Bosphorus Strait, heading towards the Black Sea. The views of the homes and apartments on the hills reminded me of the Mediterranean. The many palaces and forts on the shores were lit up to provide marvelous views. As a former Istanbul resident told me, “The Bosphorus is the main street of the city and to properly see Istanbul, one must see it from the water.”

Neighborhood Cats

I noticed this time the numerous cats that roam the streets and parks. Why so many cats? I guess that they keep the rat population down and they are sacred animals in Islam. They looked well taken care of and were passive and almost affectionate as I walked by. I wonder what their impact is on the birds of the city?

Ottoman Domes are all over the city

Istanbul is such a historic and picturesque city! I was thinking of all the many people and events that have taken place here, from the Romans and Byzantines, to the Ottomans and even today’s political scene with Erdogan trying to keep power. It was a great place to visit but a bit too much traffic and people for me to want to live. To visit though, a marvelous city with spectacular views, great restaurants, entertaining people watching, etc.

Narrow Pathways of Besiktas

Reflections of Turkey

Nadia and Owen share a dunja on our bike ride

We really had a nice holiday this week in Istanbul. I had wanted to visit the city for a long time because of the Ottoman Empire’s long domination of Belgrade. It was interesting to see what the Serbs took from the Turks that can still be seen today. There are many Turkish words that were adopted by the Serbs and customs as well. Istanbul is also one of the world cities that everyone should visit and the Turks are the classic, East meets West regarding its history and culture. I am fascinated with contrasting the liberal, European-type aspects of the city with the conservative, Islamic side of the society. The contrast could be seen in the dress of the people in the streets, with head scarves on some women and tight mini-skirts and flowing hair on others. There also seemed to be a lot of tourism from both European countries and Middle Eastern nations. For example, we met three people from Saudi Arabia on the ferry and there were lots of “ninjas” as the expats call them in the Arabian Gulf region, or women wearing full, black covering seen in the city.

Seagulls chase the ferry with Maiden’s Tower in the background

We saw the secular side of the city in talking with the manager of the Asitane Restaurant. He was complaining about the high taxes the conservative Islamic government puts on wine, making it very expensive and hard for vineyards to make a living. I highly recommend the restaurant, by the way! It specializes in old Ottoman recipes. His team was testing wines to put on the menu. We also met our former colleague Alison, who teaches at Robert College, for lunch, and she told us some stories that illustrated both sides of Turkey. The Turkish faculty working at the school are very secular, with few going to mosque on Fridays. Robert College is one of the oldest and largest American International schools in the world. However, she also said that Islam was put on her children’s birth certificates automatically. Another example is the many beer advertisements, bars, and transvestites in Taksim, the neighborhood where we stayed, while hearing the call to prayer several times per day. The call to prayer is a reminder to all muslims of the main tenets of Islam. It sounds so foreign and exotic to me, and you really get the sense of being someplace different. I don’t know about the 5:44 AM call to prayer that we heard in the mornings. I am sure a mosque in a Christian country would not do this as they would receive complaints from the neighbors. 

Ollie contributes to Istanbul’s daily tea total – Kabatas

I wanted to reflect on the final few days here. On Thursday the weather cooperated and we took advantage of the blue skies and took the ferry to the nearby Andalar (Prince’s Islands) in the Sea of Marmara. The kids were thrilled to feed the seagulls that followed the boat the entire journey. We rented bikes and rode around and stopped at a beautiful park. The beaches off season were not maintained, but we also collected some shells. There are no cars on the island, but plenty of horse-drawn carriages, which were fascinating to the kids. It was a lovely day and I see why the islands are a popular day trip from the city.

Meeting With Friends at the Spice Bazaar

There is so much history to the city! We visited the Basilica Cisterns, which the Byzantines constructed 1,500 years ago. Oliver and Ocean turned temporarily to stone after seeing Medusa’s head, which was used as a base of one of the pillars to hold up a column. We also enjoyed the Spice Bazaar and learned all about Iranian saffron. I was joking with the shop attendants about the Turks’ obsession with tea. One said 99% of Turks drink tea and probably about a billion cups are drank on a daily basis. I would estimate it would be more like 50 million per day, if one assumes 3 cups per day for most inhabitants.

Columns supporting the Basilica Cistern

We finished our shopping with another carpet. Nadia loves Turkish carpets and I like the stories behind them. They will look great in our apartment. The shop owner said the Prime Minister urged Turkish women to have 3-5 children and I was faithful to his wishes. The shop was owned by Kurds, and we got to know them quite well. One brother married a Bosnian from Mostar and the other a French woman who was shopping for carpets at one of their stores. The younger brother is moving to Houston later this month, because their father died a couple of months ago and he wanted his son to continue their business in the US. They have great sales of Turkish carpets there. I can see why people get into carpets, it is a lot like art collecting.

We head back to Belgrade today.  As I write this, I am sitting in Starbucks…Thanks Istanbul for a relaxing and fascinating visit!