Turkey was a big surprise. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect. We were a group of eight, all good friends who had traveled with some combination of each other before. We were booked on a ten-day tour called “The Cuisine of Sultans” through a travel agency called International Kitchen. We were slated to have a variety of Turkish eating and drinking experiences along with a couple of cooking classes while being guided through the cultural highlights of Istanbul, the ancient sites along the Aegean Sea, and the geological wonders of Cappadocia.
The political situation in Turkey has really deteriorated since we were there in 2013. Our travel agent, the International Kitchen, is no longer offering tours to Turkey. The U.S. State Department urges U.S. citizens to reconsider travel there because of the danger of terrorist attacks, especially in popular tourist areas around Istanbul. Laurie, March 2018Riding into Istanbul from Atatürk Airport, I was immediately struck by how good the city’s infrastructure is, as good if not better than any major city in North America, and by the miles upon miles of attractive apartment buildings, most only 3 to 4 stories high and not a single family dwelling in sight, and the lovely public flower gardens visible from the highway. At the time (September 2), Istanbul was still in contention for hosting the 2020 Olympics, so I suppose one could cynically say the floral display was to impress the Olympic honchos, but I’m not a cynic. There seemed to be as many construction cranes as minarets. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, an ancient place but surprisingly new.
We were booked at this end of our Istanbul stay at the Central Palace Hotel located about 100 yards from Taksim Square on the European side of the city. The city is divided into three large areas by three natural waterways – the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. To the north and west is Europe with two of the areas — the old city to the south and the new to the north. The Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus, runs roughly through the middle, making the inlet a perfect harbor.
Our hotel was in the new city. The old city is a peninsula with the Sea of Marmara on the south, the Bosphorus on the east and the Golden Horn on the north. To the south and east is Asia. The Bosphorus divides Europe from Asia and connects the Sea of Marmara on the south side of the city to the Black Sea way to the north.
Most people live in Asia and cross the Bosphorus to work in Europe where most of the businesses are. The only time we were on the Asian side was when we flew into the domestic airport from Cappadocia and had a horrendously long slog of a commute to our final hotel in the old city two days before we returned home.
The Central Palace Hotel is a really good place to stay, late Ottoman style with very modern amenities and large comfortable rooms, good Wi-Fi and well-equipped bathrooms with Jacuzzis (a little hard to climb in and out of if you’re just using the showers). The hotel also gave us adaptors for our electrical gadgets when we checked in. A wonderful breakfast is included with lots of Turkish pastries and fruits as well as the usual breakfast fare. The staff even opened up the breakfast service a bit early for us when we had an early flight.
On our first night we met Seyhun Aktoprak, our guide throughout our journey, and we had a terrific welcoming dinner at Borsa, a large high-end restaurant with a beautiful terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. The food was traditional Turkish cuisine — doner kebab, a wonderful artichoke starter with all the work done for you, lamb, various incarnations of eggplant, a savory baked cheese and phyllo concoction, rice, puréed potatoes, stuffed grape leaves, baklava desserts with various names depending on their shapes (lady’s navel, lady’s lips!), and pudding. It was really too much. I had to learn to pace myself.
The best news was the quality of the Turkish wines, excellent whether red or white. We would learn more about them later, but I don’t believe we drank any foreign wine all while we were in Turkey. The red wines rival any we drank in Argentina and the whites are quite good as well. Our servers were excellent, gave us good descriptions of the food and seemed to be having a good time, so we did too.
Markets and Mosques
The next morning Seyhun and our driver Ishmael picked us up and drove us to a neighborhood farmers’ market in the Levent area. These neighborhood markets are known as pazars and over 200 are held weekly in most neighborhoods in Istanbul usually from 7am to 7pm with the vendors moving from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the day of the week.
You can buy just about everything at the pazars including shoes, t-shirts and fake designer perfumes, but the really impressive displays are the fresh fruit and vegetables, olives of every description, wonderful spices and fabulous assortments of sweets and homemade savories like stuffed grape leaves. It was clear to the vendors at our market that we weren’t really buying, but they were pleased we were there admiring the displays and offered us lots of tastings. We had the best stuffed grape leaves of our entire trip there. Even our guide Seyhun freely admitted he’d be hard pressed to find their equal.
I should mention that throughout our journey we were driven in very comfortable first-class vans by excellent drivers.
From the pazar we were driven to Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s equivalent to Tokyo’s Ginza, to explore a bit before our cooking lesson. Oddly, the street displays year-round Christmas decorations. Our hotel was actually located near Istiklal Street, but at the other end near Taksim Square. This end seemed to have more interesting shops. We immediately zeroed in on Denizler Kitabevi, No. 199a Istiklal Street, a shop specializing in old books, maps, and engravings with a really nice selection of contemporary calligraphy at what seemed to me to be reasonable prices. I purchased several small pieces for gifts.
Our cooking class was scheduled at the Istanbul Culinary Institute very close to Istiklal Street. [As of March 2018 the institute appears to be closed.] The institute offers a variety of classes for amateurs in English, curricula to train professional chefs and a restaurant to give its students some hands-on experience.
I suppose you would classify us as dabbling gourmands. Nobody wanted anything terribly challenging but some basics of Turkish cooking would be perfect. That’s exactly what we got. We made stuffed eggplant from the dried vegetable using minced lamb (who knew you could dry eggplant), bulgur rice and pomegranate molasses along with other ingredients.
While the stuffed eggplant cooked, we made a bulgur rice pilaf with herbs, cacik (yoghurt with mint and cucumbers) and finally a milk pudding with mastik. Mastik is a relatively scarce resin from the mastik tree that grows on the Greek island of Chios as well as on the Cesme peninsula on the Turkish coast. It has medicinal properties as well as culinary uses. It serves to thicken the pudding and give it a slightly pine flavor. Nothing was baked in an oven, only on a stove top. I must say we made a fine lunch for ourselves.
After lunch, Ishamael drove us across the Golden Horn to the old city and north to the Chora Church (aka Kariye Museum). The original building was erected as a church in the 4th century as part of a monastery located just outside the city walls of Byzantium (as Istanbul was called in those days). The word “chora” means “countryside” in Greek. In other words, the church was outside the walls of the city or in the countryside. In the 5th century the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II rebuilt the walls making the church part of his defenses, but the name “Chora” stuck. It’s unclear what catastrophes happened to the original building but the existent one was constructed in the 11th century. Turkey does have a lot of earthquakes.
Visiting the church is a bit like walking into a geode. The outside of the building does not stop you in your tracks. It’s interesting mostly because of its age. It’s the interior paintings and mosaics that make Chora worth visiting. The amazing frescos and mosaics depicting the life of Jesus and Mary, Judgment Day and Christ’s descent into hell as well as the history of the early church were added in the 14th century. The paintings and even the mosaics are not like the one-dimensional icons I normally think of as Byzantine, but more like European Renaissance paintings, fluid and life-like.
The building is considered one of the most beautiful surviving examples of a Byzantine church. The artwork rivals and, in the opinion of some, outshines that of Hagia Sophia and is definitely easier to view because Chora is much smaller. Considering all the trauma, both manmade and natural, that the building has gone through, it’s amazing it has survived as intact as it is. After the Ottoman Conquest of 1453, the frescos and mosaics were plastered over, the church converted into a nondescript mosque and the art forgotten. In the 19th century, the artwork was rediscovered and partially restored by the Ottoman government. In 1948 it was converted into a museum.
We also saw bits of the neighborhood surrounding Chora where there is a smattering of the old Ottoman wooden houses that made up most of Istanbul’s residences until after World War I. Most of those that remain are in poor condition and every year more are razed. There is a movement to save them and a few have been turned into boutique hotels.
From the Chora neighborhood we went to the Fatih district in the old city where the Spice Market is. Before exploring the spice market, our guide Seyhun recommended that we visit the nearby Rüstem Pasha Mosque. The mosque was built in the latter half of the 16th century by a son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent. It is famous for its Iznik tiles that cover the outside porch and most of the interior. No other mosque in the city, including the Blue Mosque, has such an extensive display of these wonderful tiles.
Iznik potters practiced their craft for 200 years, from the end of the 15th to the end of the 17th centuries. Originally, they were known for their cobalt blue and white pottery, greatly influenced by Chinese ceramics. Later they introduced light green and lavender, followed by a distinctive red color that characterizes the best known of Iznik pottery. The mosque is attached to a Koran school and gives out free Korans in English.
The Spice Market is also called the Egyptian Market because originally when it was built in the 1660’s it sold merchandise imported from Egypt that included spices, dried fruits, and cosmetics made from olive oil. Those items are still sold there but, of course, vendors of tourist trinkets are increasingly invading the market. It’s still definitely worth a visit. We picked up a great brass grinder, but be prepared to negotiate the price. We probably could have bought it as cheap, if not cheaper, in the States, but hey, we were on vacation. It was part of the adventure. I’m a sucker for markets and I love the banter of the vendors.
The Big Three
On our second full day in Istanbul we visited the big three – Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, all within walking distance of each other in a section of the old city called the Sultanahmet Area.
Construction of Topkapi Palace began in 1459 by Sultan Mehmed II and was the home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. It consists of four main courtyards and numerous smaller buildings. At its peak over 4000 people lived in this complex. Unlike palaces like Versailles, for example, there was no master plan. The sultans just changed and added to it as needed.
Most of the changes and additions were made by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire was expanding the fastest. The sultan wanted his palace to reflect the power and glory of himself and his empire. Its location is on a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara with a great view of the Bosphoros. Unfortunately, the harem was closed while we were there.
Life inside the palace was full of intrigue and could be very short. The Ottoman sultans did not recognize the rule of primogeniture. Until the 17th century the sultan traditionally killed all male relatives to insure that his throne passed to his favorite son. In 1595 all 19 of Mehmed III’s brothers were murdered at the instigation of his mother. Lady Macbeth on steroids! In 1666 Selim II stopped this practice and instead decreed that all princes should be locked away from public life.
The treasury section of the palace houses some of the largest and most beautiful precious stones and objects in the world. It’s quite overwhelming and my eyes glazed over at a certain point. It’s hard to really take in this kind of material wealth. One display alcove actually contains a bowl full of emeralds.
The highlight is the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond,” an 86 carat gem that is surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds. Needless-to-say, stories about it abound. One says that the uncut diamond was found by a beggar going through some trash in Istanbul. Not sure what it was, he offered it in trade to a spoonmaker who told him it was just a worthless piece of glass, but because he felt sorry for the poor beggar, the spoonmaker would give him three wooden spoons for it. Spoons being more useful to the beggar than a pretty piece of glass he accepted. The wily spoonmaker took the gem to a jeweler who then got into a to-do with some of his colleagues over the stone and the grand vizier got involved. The sultan found out about the quarrel and confiscated the gem, thus ending the dispute.
We had lunch at the Konyali Restaurant which is located on the palace grounds sharing the palace’s view of the Bosphoros. It’s an extremely busy place and we found the food good enough but the service wasn’t and the lines for the ladies’ room were awful. But there was this very formidable matron stationed outside the men’s room who would physically block the men from their facility and allow women into it when the line got really long. She reminded me of the female traffic cops at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. She kept everything moving and no one messed around.
Right outside Topkapi’s main gate is Hagia Sophia. It was constructed between 532 and 537 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and it served as an Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly 1000 years until the 1453 Ottoman invasion when Sultan Mehmed II converted it into a mosque. He removed the few Christian objects and relics that remained after an earlier plundering by Latin Christians during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Many of the relics are now in various European churches and museums.
Hagia Sophia is most famous for its large dome whose construction is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” Twenty years after it was built the dome collapsed during an earthquake and was rebuilt by the nephew of one of the original architects. He reconstructed the dome making it narrower and 30 feet higher by using lighter materials and changing its shape. But its size and weight remain a preservation problem. Later during the Ottoman era the mosaics icons were defaced and plastered over, minarets built around the exterior and flying buttresses added for additional support.
In 1934 the secular government of Kemal Atatürk converted it into a museum. The mosaics are the expected beautiful but flat and stylized Byzantine icons. To me the most interesting are the four seraphim mosaics. The seraphim are angels with six wings who serve as God’s bodyguards. Their faces were also plastered over by the Ottomans because of the Islamic ban on human representation, but one seraph face has been restored. The others are covered with gold metal masks.
On our way to the Blue Mosque, ore properly called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, we passed by the Hippodrome, an arena for chariot races left over from the Roman period. In the middle of the arena are monuments erected by the Emperor Constantine and his successors. Some of the monuments are columns or obelisks sacked from ancient temple sites in the empire. The metal Serpent Column was removed from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Obelisk of Thutmose III was appropriated by Theodosius the Great from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor.
The Blue Mosque is still a mosque and is closed to visitors for 30 minutes or so during the five daily prayers. It was built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I and incorporates some of the Byzantine elements of Hagia Sophia. It is the last great mosque built by the Ottomans. The blue in its popular name comes from the blue Iznik tiles that line its enormous interior. At the lower level the handmade tiles are decorated with traditional blue and white Ottoman designs but become more flamboyant and colorful toward the gallery. There are over fifty different tulip designs on the tiles. Not a graven image in sight. The quality of the tiles then decreases gradually until they are dominated at the upper level by blue paint. As a visitor you are only allowed to stand in a roped off section apart from the central prayer area. The interior is completely covered in carpets that are regularly replaced by donations from the faithful when they wear out.
The next morning we caught an early flight from Atatürk Airport to Izmir on the Aegean Sea.
NEXT WE TRAVEL TO PERGAMON AND EPHESUS