In Istanbul a meyhane is a specialized tavern overflowing with an anise flavored liquor called raki, crowd-accompanied songs, and massive trays of of small dishes called mezes.
I came to think of our trip an Istanbul meze: a tasty appetizer accompanied with cheer and joy, but one that welcomes the addition of several more. It was as exhausting as it was invigorating. 72 solid hours of encounters that saturate the senses. But what a magnificent 3 days! Sultan palaces, sunny weather, sweet treats, serendipitous encounters, surprise musical events, sumptuous meals, sacred mosques, sleepless nights.
We left at 5am from Basel on a Friday and arrived a few hours later in Asia. This would mark Emily’s first time on the continent. We then took a local bus to the relatively infrequently visited Kadiköy district on the Asian side of Istanbul to explore the area and have an early lunch at a recommended restaurant.
Emily at one of the million olive stands. This one stood out though because the owner was such an incredibly friendly and vibrant old man. He kept giving me more and more olives to try, including one that had a long hot pepper that stuck out about an inch on both ends. My taste buds were burnt for about 2 hours thanks to that little round fireball.
Men securing a place on the sidewalk to worship after the call to prayer.
After wandering around the Asian side for a few hours, we headed to a ferry stop and crossed the great Bosphorus strait.
After hunting down our humble old-town hotel, we headed out to the Beyoğlu area and came across a microscopic fantastical parade.
We then met up with some new friends and enjoyed a wildly gluttonous evening. Becoming friends with this collection of wonderful people and then going to a meyhane together was the highlight of our time in Istanbul. Here’s a collage of pics from the night:
Music in the meyhane :
In the wee hours of the morning some of us left and took a lovely hour long walk back to the hotel, finding our way past a still lively Galata Tower.
The bulk of the next day (Saturday) would be devoted to a long self-guided walking tour of the city’s major historical highlights. It included…
The incredible Hagia Sophia
Construction of the current structure was completed in 537, which equates to 1475 years ago! This is an astonishing figure given the massive size of the space and of the dome, and for the fact that it was never destroyed in such a tumultuous city. It remained the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years!
The Hagia Sophia was first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum. When it was converted from a Christian church to a mosque, the bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed and the Mihrab – the niche which shows the direction of Mecca, towards which prayers are directed – was built in the altar apse, just slightly off-centre. You can see the off-centeredness in the photos. The Muslims were fortunate that the church already was nearly exactly aligned with the direction of Mecca rather than being built on an east-west axis like most Christian churches.
Also most of the mosaics were destroyed or covered. This is one of the few that were able to be restored.
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia is a giant underground cistern built by Justinian at around the same time. It provided water to the city in times of drawn out sieges. A wooden walkway winds between the pillars, while the lights and piped music give it an eerie atmosphere.
Shopping in the bazaars
The extraordinary architecture of the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still a working mosque, so you must remove your shoes and women must cover bare shoulders, heads, and legs. The entirety of the floor is carpeted, which seems appropriate since the Turks are generally credited with the invention of carpet.
The Blue Mosque gets its name from the blue Iznik tiles that adorn its walls. The proper name is actually the Sultanahmet Mosque.
Then, while seeking some street food for lunch, we stumbled upon a music concert featuring traditional Ottoman music. Here’s a video of the concluding 4 minutes of the concert [Video]:
Taking some down time to try some intense Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is different than Western European methods since sugar is added to the pot while cooking and the grounds are poured into the cup when serving. So the bottom of your drink is grainy and (for me, at least) wildly strong.
Eating a grilled fish sandwich next to the water is as required of tourists in Istanbul as spending at least half a day dodging carpet sellers near the bazaars. Unlike the latter though, the simple grilled fish sandwich is something you’ll want to revisit.
I must have sampled the grilled fish sandwich from 4 different locations/vendors. Pictures of the most famous sellers are above, where vendors sell them straight from a rocking neon-lit boat. But that sandwich there in the second picture was probably my least favorite of the bunch. In retrospect, my preference was inversely proportional to the size of the establishment. The sandwich all of us agreed was the best, was found by this seller on the NW side of the Galata Bridge with a humble small grill. If you go to Istanbul, avoid the fish from the boats and walk around until you find a man with a small grill. There you will find the sandwich that’s worth the hype.
That Saturday night we met up with some of our new friends again and were introduced to the rows of bars lining the underside of the bridge and more varieties of Raki. We don’t have many pics from that night, but here’s at least one. It’s of the view we had from one of the tables we were sitting at. Music, friends, drinks, views, and perfect weather.
We awoke the next morning at headed to the massive Topkapi Palace. This was the imperial enclave of the Ottoman emperors for four centuries. It’s lavishly decorated, with four courts of increasing grandeur. The next three pics are of the some of the 400 rooms of the emperor’s harem. Perhaps it says something of me that the two areas that were most intriguing to me in this palatial complex were the harem and the library. And while it’s true that this exposes my interests to some degree, it’s also a byproduct of the fact that the palace was overrun with tourists when we were there, except for the harem and the library! The single room library being void of tourists is not so surprising. But the harem? This is because the harem has an additional entrance fee, which tour group companies do not like to pay. Since many people travel by tour group, the harem is relatively free of tourists. Some other rooms in the palace had 30 minute lines just to get in. So, comparatively, the harem seems off-limits and isolated from the rest of the palace today, just like it did in times past. If you’re traveling to Istanbul as part of a tour, be sure they include the harem or give you enough time to explore it on your own. It’s well worth it.
Inside, the complicated hierarchy of the concubines was fascinating. Almost 1000 lived in the harem (sometimes along with their children) and could never leave its premises. Most never even saw the sultan, let alone sleep with him. (Prevented from interacting with the only man they could have, it’s not too shocking that all cucumbers had to be sliced before entering the harem, to help limit the range of lesbian activities.)
Also fascinating was the role of black eunuchs within the harem. They were often Abyssinian slaves who had been emasculated by removal their genitals. From 1587 until the end of the Empire, over 70 Africans advanced to the status of Chief Black Eunuch. Because he and the other 200 to 400 other Black eunuchs worked closed to the sultan and his family, and because they supervised the education of the Sultan’s sons as well as handling the Sultan’s and family’s personal treasury, the eunuchs exerted a lot of influence over the Ottoman Empire. On a couple of occasions, they were involved in running the Empire! In fact, during the 1800s the city of Athens was under the direct control and supervision of the Chief Black Eunuch.
Other things that I wanted to do in Istanbul before leaving was to take a boat ride up the the Bosphorus Strait, see the Bosphorus Bridge that spans the continents, and to see the old city walls. Taking a ferry up the river would be easy enough to do on our own, but seeing the old city walls and some of the outskirts of the old city would be difficult or time consuming if done on our own. So we arranged to be picked up by a small tour company recommended by our travel books. We thought this would also be nice because I had been slowly collecting lots of questions about the places we’ve seen and I could pick the brain of our guide. Unfortunately though joining this tour was a total mistake. While we did get to see some things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and meet some nice fellow travelers, our time could have been better spent and we regretted the decision to join. With such a trip, so much is dependent on your guide. And our guide was terrible. Most annoyingly, he would only give you information if you asked. After realizing he wouldn’t tell us anything at all otherwise, I just started peppering him with questions. I think we all agreed that this helped our group get a lot more out of the experience. Anyway, we tried to make the most of it and that’s how we spent our Sunday afternoon. Luckily the weather was again gorgeous and it felt great just to have so much sunshine.
Here’s Emily just about to go into the more intimate, and finely decorated, Rustem Pasa Mosque. Emily didn’t like having to cover up every time we entered a mosque. But neither of us liked the segregation of men and women once inside. Worshiping men were usually given access to at least 80% of the space, while worshiping women were confined to the very back of the interior space and were often behind some sort of screen. In addition, inside the mosques with tourists, worshiping men are the only ones allowed in the front, tourists can roam in the middle of the space, and worshiping women are confined to the back, unable to see a thing, especially not the imam.
Then we walked up the hill back to the popular Galata Tower. Wonderful views but I would recommend avoiding going up for sunset like we did. It’s beautiful but it’s overcrowded, and either way you turn you feel like a salmon swimming upriver.
We then rushed back to the old city, stole a peek at some whirling dervishes and headed towards a special restaurant where we were meeting a friend. The restaurant is called Asitane and is special because it only serves authentic Ottoman court cuisine. You can eat the same luxurious meals the sultans enjoyed! I can’t recommend this place enough. All the recipes they use come directly from the records of the court kitchen and they try to prepare all the food in the same traditional manners. In addition, all the menu items have descriptions of what year the recipe comes from, and when and to whom each dish was served. We don’t have any pictures that we took, but here’s a picture from their website of a stuffed melon dish similar to the one we tried.
Our plane back home didn’t leave until 2 or 3 am. (!) There was a bus to the airport that left at 11:30pm, so we spent the night walking slowly around, meandering our way to the bus stop, keeping our eyes peeled for adventures. This is sometimes great to do because you go into places and areas that you would have probably never gone to otherwise. For instance, I entered an underground, windowless, and oh-so-terribly bleak mosque that felt like a post-apocalypse worship space. And yet there were people praying, each in their own isolated area, communing in privacy with their God. It was surreal and strangely uplifting at the same time.
When we finally arrived at the nearly empty airport we were exhausted. We made a makeshift bed on the ground and tried to get as many Zs as we could inside the airport and on the plane itself so that we could manage to make it through a day of work once we arrived in Basel, at 6am; coming back to the place we left exactly 72 hours earlier.