Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul not Constantinople
Been a long time gone
Old Constantinople still has Turkish delight
On a moonlight night

Every gal in Constantinople
Is a Miss-stanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've got a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks....

Istanbul (not) Constantinople, Lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy, Music by Nat Simon. Recorded in 1953 by the Four Lads, a Canadian group. 


We were in a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie.  We sat in the dim light of the Orient Bar in the stately Pera Palace in Istanbul in the tradition of Agatha Christie, the author of Murder on the Orient Express.  Christie stayed in the hotel for several months in Room 411 back in 1934 as she wrote the mystery.

A chamber music combo played sad Turkish tunes on the violin.   A few others, Europeans perhaps, late night types, lingered at the bar, sipping their cognacs.  Some may be famous also, but it was too dark to tell.  Smoke no longer wafts through the air because the Turks have also become health conscious.  Over the past 120 years, the hotel has served the likes of Ms. Christie as well as Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Kennedy, Greta Garbo and Mata Hari.

We reflected on the past two weeks we spent with new friends touring this exotic country.  The Pera Palace was the last stop of the famed Orient Express from Paris and Venice.  It was known as the Train of Kings and the King of Trains.  Today, the legendary train doesn't run anymore, a casualty of the Cold War.  It was a long walk from the train station, but wealthy matrons were carried by porters on Sedan chairs.  In 1892, when the hotel was built, the Ottomans ran the country as they had for over 400 years.  The hotel boasted the second elevator in Europe (after the Eiffel Tower). The ornate iron elevator is still there but not used except once a year or so for ceremonial purposes.

The elevator was described by British writer Daniel Farson, "It is the most beautiful elevator in the world made of cast iron and wood.  This elevator ascends like a lady who curtsies."  

Istanbul today is a world class city of 16 million.  It is the only city located on two continents--Asia and Europe.  Most of the city is on the European side where we stayed, first at the Intercontinental Hotel, and later at the Pera Palace.  The Asian side is called Anatolia or Asia Minor.  Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, and the city has over 2500 mosques, each with towering minarets.  However, it also has Christian churches and even several Jewish synagogues.  Many Americans perceive Turkey as a backward country.  They tend to confuse it with other Middle Eastern nations.  They have greatly underestimated with Turks.

A recent poll in the U.S. disclosed that only 23% of Turks view Americans in a favorable light.We are skeptical of that poll.  In our experience touring Turkey, we found the people to be hospitable and friendly, but then we didn't hang out with Muslim fundamentalists.

There is so much to see in Istanbul.  It used to be called Constantinople, named after the Roman Emperor who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire.  Before that, the city had been called Byzantium, after the Greek general Byzos who founded it in 667 B.C.    Emperor Constantine moved the capital there from Rome.  He had actually favored the site of Troy, 220 miles to the Southwest, but his advisers persuaded him that Byzantium had a better location for trade and defense.

The Bosphorus Straits bisects the city, and the Kennedy Caddesi (Kennedy Expressway) runs along the waterfront 8 kilometers to Ataturk Airport.  As in Chicago, the Turks decided to honor the late president with a superhighway shortly after his assassination, although I suppose it could have been named for Jimmy Kennedy who wrote the lyrics to the song, Istanbul, not Constantinople.   The European side is bisected once more by the Golden Horn, an inlet or estuary off the Bosphorus.  It is so-called because its shape resembles a horn.  The oldest part of town, and most expensive real estate is along the Bosphorus, especially near the Golden Horn.

Just to the South is the Sea of Marmara (marble) where tanker ships are lined up waiting for their turn to proceed to the Black Sea.  The authorities made the Bosphorus a one-way strait.  They switch directions every eight hours.  The Bosphorus is about a mile wide, and has three suspension bridges spanning it.  They are choked with traffic, and many of the people crossing over instead use the ubiquitous ferries that ply the water. 

On our first full day in Istanbul, we were warned to stay clear of nearby Taksim Square where riot police were assembling in formation to put down massive protests.  Disregarding the warnings, we hung around.  So what were they protesting?  Islamic rule?  Attacks on Mohammed's good name?  No.  the authorities were planning to chop down some mature trees in Taksim Park to build a shopping mall.  They are beautiful trees.  Heck, I'd protest that too!

Taksim Square has many shops, restaurants and street performers and vendors.  We ate at a Turkish cafe and enjoyed our dinner of calamari, lamb casserole and aubergine paste.  The Turks love aubergine, which Americans know as eggplant.  They have a recipe book with 1000 creative ways to make aubergine.  I didn't notice if parmigiana was one of the them. In any event, in our two weeks in Turkey, it is safe to say we were served aubergine in some form at every meal.


Like in many other countries, the Turks are rabid football (soccer) fans.  Istanbul has 3 professional soccer teams representing different areas of the city, and everyone in town has an allegiance to one of them.  As a native Chicagoan, I can understand that.  In Chicago, you either like the Cubs or the White Sox--but not both.  It's part of your identity, like your religion.  The Istanbul teams are Besiktas (Carsi), Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, each of which appeals to a certain segment of the Turkish population.  For example, Besiktas (Carsi) is known for its leftist political and social leanings, and its fans are considered the loudest and fiercest in Europe.  Galatasaray is considered the establishment team and it has had the most success over the years.  Fenerbahce plays its games on the Asian side of town and is very popular through the rest of the country.  Like the other teams, Fener's fans are also very enthusiastic, forming fan clubs with names like KFY (kill for you).  These guys are really, really serious about their football teams.  Each team has been in existence for over 100 years.

Their rivalries are legendary.  When they play each other, they are Michigan v. Ohio State; Yankees v. Red Sox; Chicago Bears v. Green Bay Packers:   Generally their fans don't agree on much, but recently, in a remarkable turn of events, they joined hands in a major protest against Prime Minister Erdogan who is seeking to impose conservative Muslim values on a country with secular laws.  Erdogan's policies might work in the Turkish version of the Bible Belt, but the Turks in the large cities won't stand for it.


We walked from the Intercontinental Hotel down to the waterfront to visit the Dolmabahce Palace overlooking the Bosphorus.  The walk could be dangerous after dark, not because of crime, but because there are open manholes on the sidewalk and unmarked steps.   I almost broke my leg where the sidewalk unexpectedly stepped down.  The other danger on the streets are the taksi drivers who often drive on the wrong side of the street in heavy traffic.   We took a taksi ride, and I was relieved to get out and walk.  We learned some colorful Turkish expressions as the traffic poked along, driving $11 per gallon gas. 

Five times a day, beginning at 5 A.M., we could hear the din of the muezzin on the loudspeakers all over the city, calling observant Muslims to prayer. 

The Dolmabahce Palace, built in the 1860's is an enormous structure with Doric columns, ornate gates, a 4-ton chandelier as well as a 2 ton and a 1.5 ton chandelier.  It was occupied by the Sultans of Swing who governed the Ottoman Empire until 1924 when Ataturk took over.  Then it became the presidential palace until 1970.   Kamal Ataturk was the "George Washington" of Turkey.  They built dozens of statues and named things after him all over the country.  The Istanbul airport is named after him.  Down in Antalya, facing the Mediterranean, Ataturk's visage is even carved on the side of a mountain, like Mt. Rushmore.


A separate wing of the palace was built for the Harem.  The Sultan's mother had her living quarters there also. There is another Harem building at Topkapi Palace which we visited the following day.  The word "harem" comes from the Arabic word for "forbidden".  The only men allowed to enter were the Sultan and his sons.  The Harem provided jobs for several thousand women who acted as servants in one form or another.  Many were slaves.  The highest status "favorite" wife was whoever delivered the Sultan his first son.

In the Islamic religion, the Sultan was allowed four wives.  The rest were concubines or slaves whose ambition was to bear him a son and become a full wife.  The "favorite" or head wife was responsible for educating the children.  The women were guaranteed a place to live as they got older.  The head wife could also release them to return to their village with money.  The ladies of the Harem were guarded by African eunuchs who, if one can believe the pictures on the wall, were very big guys.  Poor families in Africa would sell their children to the Sultan for this purpose.  Apparently, having grandchildren wasn't a high priority for these folks.

Returning to the hotel for much needed rest, we switched on the TV.  After flipping the channels, we decided to watch Police Academy, one of my favorite movies.  I recognized the scenes, but the dialog was in Turkish.   You haven't lived until you've seen Michael Winslow doing a Jimi Hendrix imitation in Turkish.  I didn't know the late Bubba Smith spoke Turkish either.  The Turkish language is a mystery to Westerners because it bears no resemblance to either English or the Romance languages.  It is related more or less to Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Korean, at least in sentence structure.  I'll have to take their word for that. 

Istanbul is known for some really famous sights.  There is popular book called 1000 Places to See Before You die, or something like that.  Istanbul is well represented in that book with Topkapi Palace, the Pera Palace (our hotel), Hagia Sophia, the Suleiman Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and I don't remember what else. 


Topkapi Palace is a sprawling complex covering 160 acres overlooking the Bosphorus on the most valuable real estate in town.  It was built in the 1400's to house the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Tourists lined up to view the collection of jewels and other valuables.  The 86 carat diamond is a popular attraction.  It was said to be discovered in a garbage heap in Istanbul and purchased from a dealer for three spoons.  Americans might recall this place from the 1964 Maximilian Schell movie Topkapi in which he portrayed a master burglar plotting to steal the diamond encrusted dagger.  He got the dagger all right, and substituted a replica, but he was caught by the police.  His sidekick Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the movie.  The real dagger was intended to be a gift to the Shah of Persia, but he died before they could deliver it to him.

In a separate building are the quarters of the Grand Vizier who actually ran the day to day operations of the country.  The Sultan was often out of town on military campaigns, and phones and email were not available.  Someone had to make decisions, so the Grand Vizier was an appointed official, comparable to a City Manager today who could hire and fire people.  The position was usually held by a commoner, not in line for the throne.   Sometimes it would be held by a minority like a Christian or a Jew.


The Grand Bazaar is the ultimate tourist attraction.  It is the world's oldest shopping mall, dating back to the Middle Ages, and it may be the largest also, with 4000 shops.  They are all small businesses.  No anchor stores here!  Most of the shops employ barkers outside to steer people inside their stores.  If you linger more than a second or two to look at an item, somebody will be waiting on you shepherding you into the store.  Many of the stores stock Turkish delight, a sweet chewy candy in many flavors.  Other popular street foods there include borek, which is bread dough with cheese, parsley and meat--a type of lasagna, if you will.

Not far away is the Spice Bazaar where many locals do their shopping.  It is less touristy, so the deals are supposedly better.  There, we met a local spice dealer who calls himself Alpacino Turko, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Al Pacino.   Many celebrities have consented to take their pictures with him.  Dianne did also.

Turks love to eat bread.  In fact, they consume more bread than any other country--by a wide margin.  Many of the street vendors sell simit, a tasty, crusty bread which looks like a pretzel with sesame seeds.  Often they stuff it with cheese or tomatoes.  It is very good and does not taste at all like a pretzel.   It that is not enough carbs, the Turks also love halva and baklava, a sweet pastry of honey and nuts, also popular with the Greeks. 

What I didn't expect was roasted corn on the cob on almost every street corner.  Next to the corn vendors, were chestnuts roasting on an open fire.    It sounds like a popular song, but they really sell them, and they are very popular.  Turkish men with fezzes and long beards sit in sidewalk cafes, sipping apple tea from small glasses. 

One store was promoting "Genuine Fake Watches".  Some of these fake watches are of good quality.  It helps to bring a native Turk with you to find the quality vendors, otherwise you'd have no way of knowing.  Other merchants sold knockoff Gucci and Burberry purses and scarves.  Many stores sell exotic spices by the kilo.  Just scoop up the saffron and other spices into a container.  They also sell Caspian caviar cheap, or relatively so.


We spent nearly a full day exploring the most iconic Istanbul sights, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque which are just down the street from each other.  The Hagia Sophia was built first, in 537 C.E., as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople.  It was the third church to be built on the site--the first two were destroyed by rioters.  The architect was Isadore of Miletus, commissioned by Emperor Justinian.  When it was completed, Justinian proclaimed, Solomon, I have outdone thee!"--in Latin.  This building, like the other mosques,  is enormous.  The massive dome, 102 feet in diameter and 182 feet above the ground is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.  It was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years.  The interior is decorated with colorful mosaics and marble pillars.

The structure was sacked in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade, organized by the Doge of Venice.  Many of the priceless artifacts were carried off to Venice.  It has also withstood other calamities like earthquakes, and has required extensive remodeling over the centuries..

Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans took over in 1453.  After Ataturk modernized Turkey in the 1920's, it was made into a museum.  The Muslims had plastered over priceless Christian icons on the walls.  In the Muslim religion, it is considered blasphemy to show human images.  Many of the icons have been restored to a semblance of their original glory.  Incidentally, the word Sophia means "wisdom" in Greek.  Think of the word "sophisticated".  This Hagia Sophia means "holy wisdom'.


Shortly after the Ottoman Muslims came to town, they constructed the nearby Blue Mosque in a similar style to the Hagia Sophia in an effort to surpass it.  The mosque is known to the Turks as Sultanahmet Mosque, after the Sultan who completed it in 1616.  The mosque is not blue, but the interior decorations have a blue motif.  All mosques have at least 1 minaret--this one has 6--essentially to stick it to the Hagia Sophia.  That provoked controversy at the time, because the 6 minarets was considered a sacrilegious attempt to rival the architecture of Mecca.  Apparently nobody at that time considered the practicality or cost of having two superstructure mosques within a quarter mile of each other.   As Al Capone one said, "if one is good, two must be twice as good."

The mosque has a dress code.  Although the weather was very warm when we visited, women (and men) were warned not to wear short skirts, shorts, uncovered arms, etc.  Women must wear head scarves.  Everyone must remove their shoes and place them in plastic bags upon entering.  Because it is an active mosque, it is closed to non-worshippers during the 5 daily prayers which begin 2 hours before dawn and end after sunset. 


We crossed the street from the Hagia Sophia, dodging the trolley cars, to visit the underground roman cisterns.  The Romans built these cavernous structures under the buildings to capture rain water to supply the city in event of siege.  They hold 20 million gallons of water.  On the 336 columns (each 26 feet high) are beautiful carvings of mythological figures like the Medusa.    They are difficult to see in the dim light.


We captured more of the flavor of Istanbul by taking a boat ride on the Bosphorus in a boat chartered by Tauck Tours.    We went to visit a Turkish family in their home on the Anatolian side.  The house, on the edge of the water, is a red wood house fully furnished with fixtures from the 1800's.  It was the fourth generation of that family to live in the house.   The patriarch of the family who built it had been the physician of the Sultan, and he eventually rose to Health Minister in the Ottoman government. 

Salih Efendi, born in 1816, outlived two wives and his four sons.  He was living out his retirement when, in 1879 his neighbor, the Sultan's sister brought a 16 year old Circassian girl into her household.  She wanted the girl to learn French and summoned the 63 year old Salih to teach her.  Love (or lust) got the better of him, and he persuaded the Sultan to allow the girl to leave the household and marry Salih.  A devoted wife for 16 years, she bore him three daughters who inherited the house and grounds. 

Today, his descendants are sitting on valuable real estate but in need of cash.  giving tours like ours helps pay for the upkeep.  On the day we visited, the house was set up for a dinner wedding, later in the day.  We found it very enlightening to talk to the locals.

We left the house on the boat and sailed down to the Del Mare Restaurant, also on the waterfront, where we enjoyed a Turkish feast.  For mezes (appetizers), we had auburgine puree, yoghurt with chives, red pepper in oil, baked Lima beans served cold, dolmades in grape leaves, salad.   Mezes were introduced by Suleyman the Magnificent after a trip to Persia, to insure his safety.  He would give "taste slaves" a small portion of his meal before he sat down to eat.  If they didn't die, the food must be OK to eat.

For the main course we had a choice.  I had seafood paella, and Dianne had filet.  For dessert was more baklava, dates and other goodies.

We returned on the boat after dark under the brilliant light shows of two suspension bridges.  We were almost too tired to notice.

NEXT:  Ancient Ruins of Anatolia 


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