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Some Reflections from My Short Trip to Istanbul

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

Istanbul 2018

At the end of October, I spent barely 48 hours in Istanbul — too quick, but I saw a lot of stuff in a short time. When planning this trip, I had a lot of different thoughts about places I could go — the American Southwest, Barcelona, London, Edinburgh, Seattle/Portland, Miami — but the thing that really sold me was a relatively cheap plane ticket that would take me to both Berlin and Istanbul. A two-fer? Sign me up. I’d been to Berlin before, but I was a bit nervous about Istanbul because it seemed so culturally different than other places I’d been. I needn’t have worried.

Just after I had checked into my hotel room, I heard a chanting voice over a loudspeaker coming from outside. I opened my window for a better listen — it was the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) for the sunset prayer (probably from the Hagia Sophia, which was quite close). As I walked around the city for the next day and a half, I heard the adhan several more times. Watching the sunset in Kadikoy, you could hear the call ringing out from several mosques across the city, nearly in unison. I’m not Muslim or even remotely religious, so I was surprised at how much I liked hearing it. As with tolling European church bells, the calls to prayer knits cities together in an auditory way that secularism has yet to manage.

The nightstand in my hotel room had a sticker on it pointing the direction to Mecca. (There are apps to help with this as well.)

There are cats all over the place in Istanbul — I must have seen a dozen inside Hagia Sophia alone. My friend Jodi investigated why there are so many cats in the city.

Istanbul 2018

My first morning in Istanbul, I headed to Van Kahvalti Evi for breakfast on the strong recommendation of a reader. What greeted me was an amazing breakfast, the best I have had in quite some time (annotated above). As I was dining solo, I wasn’t able to get full breakfast (it was for 2+ people only), but I did pretty well. My favorites were the braided cheese, kaymak & honey, and the saltiest fresh cheese. The couple sitting next to me ordered the full breakfast and the waiter’s tray was like a magical clown car…he just kept putting little plates of delicious cheeses and pastes and fruits onto the table until it was completely covered. The freshness of everything was underscored by that morning’s food delivery coming in through the front door and streaming past me, a seemingly endless procession of fresh fruit, vegetables, and such. Highly recommended.

Everything I read about Istanbul taxis basically said to avoid them at all costs because they try to rip you off (and I’m not a huge fan of taxis on a good day), so that’s what I did. Upon landing, I bought an Istanbulkart to use the metro & ferries the whole time I was there. Getting from the airport to my hotel was pretty easy on the metro (thanks Citymapper), didn’t take too much longer than a taxi would have, and cost a lot less. Tip: machines are cash only, so you’d better have some Turkish lira on hand before exiting the airport.

Istanbul is not a bicycle city, at least not in the areas I visited. I saw maybe three people on bikes the entire time I was there? For starters, the city streets in the oldest parts of town are so small there’s nowhere to even put bike lanes. And then there are the hills, which made walking challenging at times, never mind biking. Even where there are dedicated lanes, they can be overwhelmed by pedestrians. In a park in Kadikoy, the balık ekmek (fish sandwich) vendors set up their carts right in the bike lane.

Although the interior was being renovated when I visited, Hagia Sophia was staggeringly impressive. Originally built in just under six years by Emperor Justinian, ruler of the Byzantine Empire (aka what was left of the Holy Roman Empire after the fall of Rome in the 5th century), it was completed in 537 as the world’s largest building and largest cathedral, retaining the latter title for almost 1000 years. Justinian wanted Hagia Sophia to be the biggest church in the world, partially for the glory of God and partially to best his peers. At the building’s dedication, he was recorded as saying, “My Lord, thank you for giving me chance to create such a worshipping place” followed by “Solomon, I have outdone you.” in reference to Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. IN YOUR FACE SOLOMON!

Hagia Sophia was Byzantine until 1204, Roman Catholic for more than 50 years, and Greek Orthodox for about 200 years after that. In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror of the Ottoman Empire — wait for it… — conquered Constantinople and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It became a museum in 1935. Walking around inside it, you can see and feel all of this history, layered all around you. The marble floors are worn down from centuries of devoted foot traffic. The wear pattern is uneven due to differing hardnesses of the rocks in the marble, giving the floor a marvelous wavy quality. The Christian aspects of the church were covered or destroyed when the church was converted to a mosque, but now they peek through here and there again. A remarkable experience of time travel through cultures, mirroring Istanbul’s own long and varied history as a crossroads between East and West.

I pretty much had the They Might Be Giants cover of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) on repeat in my head the entire time I was in town.

Istanbul 2018

Along with many of its tourists, the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s population is Muslim, so it wasn’t surprising to see women with headwear like hijabs and niqabs all over in Istanbul. I have lots of thoughts about this religious and cultural practice, but mostly it made me think about how the dress of women in the US and other western countries is also restricted by our culture in many ways.

As I had less than 48 hours to spend in Istanbul, I mainly stayed in the central part of the city where most of the tourists were. Walking around was unpleasant at times because it seems like almost everyone is trying to sell you something. In the busiest areas near the top attractions and restaurants, someone tried to sell me a tour, a rug, a meal, or some sweets about every 30 seconds. It was oppressive. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and she said, “Now you know how women feel all the time walking around pretty much everywhere.”

The constant selling also put my guard up far more than it normally is (which is admittedly pretty high). In Taksim Square, a guy asked me for a light and we struck up a conversation. Super friendly guy, said his name was Ahmed, hailed from Qatar, in town for the day on his way to London, was a computer programmer, wasn’t particularly religious, liked travlling alone because his girlfriend (a lawyer) worked and talked too much. He was pleased to find me because this meant us two solo travellers could hang out for the evening. He’d asked at his hotel where to go and was heading towards this place with whiskey and belly dancing. Now, this is the point in the story where I’m supposed to head off into the evening with Ahmed and have an adventure. But because of the constant barrage of selling (plus I was sick and tired and wasn’t drinking), I mostly felt like I was being scammed and that “Ahmed” was actually pals with the guy who owned this belly dancing establishment and was tasked with suckering tourists like me into the place to spend money. Was he just a friendly guy or just another salesman? I still don’t really know, but I bid Ahmed a firm goodbye and still have not crossed “see belly dancing in Istanbul with a stranger” off of my bucket list.

But the next day, I finally succumbed to the relentless pressure. As I was contemplating joining the longish line at the Basilica Cistern, I made the mistake of looking contemplative, as if I were perhaps confused. A man came up to me, asked me if I spoke English, and then said I should come back later when the line is shorter. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not trying to sell you a tour. I’m just on my way back to work from lunch.” Thus disarmed, we started chatting. His name was Musa and he had a business just up the street…perhaps he could give me his card and I could come for a visit tomorrow? Maybe, I said, wanting to be polite. We chatted some more, about other things. I agreed to go with him to get his business card; he still had not mentioned what business he was in…something to do with art, he said.

When we got to his place, it was a rug store. Musa’s friendly onboarding process had worked to get me into the store, penetrating my defenses by using my midwestern politeness against me. We sat down on a nice sofa and Musa served me apple tea; it materialized seemingly out of nowhere, part of a practiced routine. We chatted for about 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes about rugs and sometimes about other things. He told me about watching a TV program that featured this strange street food from NYC: hot dogs. At this point, I was feeling totally suckered, helpless under the thrall of this master salesman. But then I had another thought: this guy is not actually in control of this situation because I’m never in a million years buying a rug from him. Emboldened by my newfound power in our relationship, I thanked Musa politely for the tea, accepted his card, and left to join the line at the cistern.

Istanbul 2018

For dinner on my last night, I sat down at an outdoor table at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, figuring that one of the few restaurants where no one was trying to get me to look at a menu was actually a good place to find delicious food. It’s a tiny place on a small street with several other restaurants filled with what looked like locals, another good sign. I asked for a menu but the owner shrugged me off with a friendly gruffness. “We have köfte,” he told me. “Meatballs. Someone like you orders nine. Nine meatballs. Salad to begin. What’s not to like?” I gave him a thumbs up and he yelled something to the chef, an older man who I never saw without a cigarette and had probably made about 10 million köfte over the course of his life.

While I waited for my food, I noticed an order of köfte going out of the kitchen…to a diner at the restaurant across the street. When he was finished, the staff at that place bussed the dishes back across the way. Meanwhile, my meal arrived and the köfte were flavorful and tender and juicy, exactly what I wanted…no wonder the place across the street had outsourced their meatballs to this place. I’d noticed the owner, the waiter, and the cook drinking tea, so after I finished, I asked if I could get a tea. The owner nodded and started yelling to a guy at the tea place two door down. A few minutes later, a man bearing a tray with four glasses of tea arrived, dropping one at my table and the other three for the staff. Just then, a server from the place across the street came over to break a 100 lira bill. Me being a big nerd, this all reminds me of Unix and the internet, all of these small pieces loosely joined together to create a well-functioning and joyous experience. There’s only one thing on the menu at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, but you can get anything else within yelling distance. I declined dessert…who knows where that would have come from.

I also visited the Basilica Cistern (impressive ancient infrastructure), The Blue Mosque (under construction and so underwhelming), Topkapi Palace (underwhelming, but I was pretty museumed out by this point so perhaps an unfair assessment), Taksim Square (very crowded on a Friday night), and walked the length of Istiklal Avenue (very commercial in a Western sort of way).

Getting to my departure flight from Ataturk Airport was the tightest security I have ever gone through. To even enter the airport, you go through a metal detector. Then in the line to check into the flight, my passport was checked by three different people before my boarding pass was issued. Passport & boarding pass were checked again to get into the security line and then went through security, where most people’s bags got searched (but not mine). At the gate, my boarding pass was checked by at least six different people, who each put a different mark or stamp or signature on it, and then my carry-on luggage was searched (mandatory search…everyone got this treatment). Only then were we allowed on the plane. (Upon arrival in Boston, after waiting in a massive line, the border control officer barely glanced at my passport before waving me through.)

Istanbul 2018

I only posted a couple of Istanbul photos on Instagram but posted a bunch of Instagram Stories (collected here). And big thanks to everyone who offered advice on where to go and what to eat. I really enjoyed Istanbul and hope to make it back someday.