Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Istanbul (Pt. 2)

I already wrote about the first three here.  One definition of failure is intending to write all ten things in one 400-500 word post, and ending up seven things short in a 600-word post. All of which may be the eleventh thing about Istanbul/Turkey: It’s so complex and nuanced that you can never sum it up nicely. More on that later–maybe even another time.

Anyway, item four: The three  most popular tourist sites–Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque–are all in walking distance of one another. And I mean like a few blocks.

Hagia Sophia
Blue Mosque
Hagia Sophia from the Blue Mosque














The Cisterns are across the street from Hagia Sophia. Topkapi Palace is about two blocks away. The Grand Bazaar is two tram stops but you can walk it in 10-15 minutes.

Ghost of Hercule Poirot inside, maybe

Which brings us to item five: You can visit the terminus train station of the Orient Express. And yep, it’s walking distance from Hagia Sophia. Or three tram stops. It’s across the street (almost) from Eminonu Piers, where the ferries are.  And the Spice Bazaar is across the street from that. And the Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn is a few steps away.

Item six: A lot of what we think of as Greek food is really Turkish food. Stuffed grape leaves (dolmas). Shish kebob. Baklava.  Minced meat, cheese, or whatever wrapped in phyllo-type dough and baked. As an aside–in an entire month’s stay, I can count on one hand the number of fat Turks.

Item seven: Nearly all the young people are attractive and hot. The women’s hair erupts like an obsidian waterfall to wrap angular faces with huge, deep eyes, and a sultry expression. Believe me, no one dies sultry like a young Turkish woman. They make Lauren Bacall seem amateur. The men tend to have a day’s beard growth, dark eyes, and are truly handsome in ways that remind you of Paul Newman or Johnny Depp or James Dean.

Number eight: Turks are whimsical in ways you’d never imagine. Look what the parArtsyTreek staff did to this dead tree in a park. In fact, they did this to nearly all the dead trees. How cool is that?

Number nine: Since what is now Istanbul was originally founded in the seventh century BCE, it’s layers of history are unquantifiable. Sit in an outdoor cafe in Sultanahmet, the neighborhood where the above attractions are located, and you could well be seated next to the remains of a brick wall the Byzantines constructed 1,300 years ago.

Number ten: Segueing, the fault lines running through Istanbul aren’t just geological. They’re social, political, historical, and every other kind of -ical you can imagine. Half the city’s in Europe and half is in Asia. It’s in a Muslim country, but most of the events in the New Testament occurred in Turkey.  Byzantines, Ottomans, Italians, and whoever else fought over this castle on the Bosphorus.

In fact, Istanbul may be the location where the Old Testament flood occurred, as discussed in this National Geographic News article, where submarine explorer James Ballard discovered evidence of cities well below the surface of the Black Sea with relatively advanced architecture and construction. Civilizations have been fighting for it for thousands of years–and still are. But nature bats last, right?

And there you have it. Go see it before it’s too late.


Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Istanbul (Pt. 1)

Some moron trolled me on some site or other talking about Syrian refugees. He said Turkey needs to be the one to take them all in, since Turkey is a Muslim state, and then, by the way, kick them out of NATO.

Ok, so this guy could be just another wingnut, you’re thinking, right? Except he used really good grammar and wasn’t really all that mean. A little bit, maybe, but clearly more ignorant than ornery. His political convictions aside, the real issue I had was his complete and total misconception of Turkey and Turks.

Unless you spend time in Istanbul and Turkey, you will likely have a wrong impression of this city, this country, and its people. No criticism there. I sure did when we came here for the first time in 2004. But it mattered less, then, because war didn’t rage, Syria was calm, and all was right with the world, at least in the U.S., where people were free to go shopping, ignore wars, and form worldviews from cable TV.

Hence, this post.

A Way Cool Side Street

Here’s #1. We were exploring an Istanbul neighborhood by taking side streets, and saw this stairway. How could anyone not want to see where it went? And who would ever imagine a path like this off a side street would be in Istanbul, of all places?

I’m a nut for two things–doors and side streets. I’d never imagined a sidestreet would beckon like this one does.

Which segues to #2: Turkey is an Islamic country in the same way that the USA is a Christian country. To which you’ll say, “It (USA) is not,” followed by, “Well, sort of.” I had no idea what to expect with Islam-y stuff when we first came here, especially on getting awakened at 5 a.m. or so with the Call to Prayer. While there’s not exactly a mosque on every corner, there’re a lot of them, and the Call to Prayer seemed to start at the one across the street from our hotel and get picked up by every one across the city, like an echo in the Grand Canyon.

We heard it gain a few hours later, and guess what? Hardly anyone prayed. Few showed up at the ubiquitous water stations before unrolling the prayer rug and prostrating himself (note the missing herself). More people do it in religious neighborhoods, but by and large, praying five times daily was a collective “meh.”

And now, in 2015, even fewer pray. In fact, I’ve seen none, as in zip. But an anomaly, maybe: I see more covered women than we saw in our earlier trips.

Which segues right into #3: Don’t assume that covered women are repressed or super-religious. A few wear a niqab (full covering with eyes peeking out). Quite a few wear a jiibab, kind of a twill boxy raincoat, and head scarf. Some just wear head scarves. Half or more don’t wear any covering at all. But what they wear (or don’t wear), while maybe expressing a degree of piety, is more likely to reflect a family tradition. Coverings can even be an expression of personal rebellion.

Until 2004 or thereabouts, women wearing a head scarf could not attend university or get government jobs, which made the law just another way of keeping women from education or professional advancement. Relaxing the stricture has resulted in far more women in the workforce and in universities, women for whom going out without a head scarf or other cover felt like going out with one teal shoe and one chartreuse one. It was just weird.

DSC_0117So, now we’ve hit 600 words of a 400-word post, so it has to be a to-be-continued. Four through ten will come soon. Meanwhile, here’s another sidestreet.

Dogs of Istanbul

Those who are into such things probably know about the prolific number of sites dedicated to the cats of Istanbul, such as this one. I may do something about Istanbul’s cats at some point, but not right now. I find them overly feline, and besides, it’s hard to get them to act ridiculous, unlike dogs, who really have no problem getting into character. Thus a post on Istanbul’s dogs, or, more particularly, dogs in the Sariyer neighborhood.

The U.S. pretty much doesn’t have street dogs. They tend to get picked up either by a public animal control department or or some dog rescue NGO. In this they contrast with street humans.

In Istanbul, the public at large takes care of the street dogs, such as it is. Someone feeds them, although you can’t say they’re healthy-looking compared to American dogs. Some local agency gives them rabies vaccinations. No neutering, which I suspect is because of some Turkish sex hangup. But the government, for the most part, doesn’t seem to care about the dogs, probably because they don’t vote in large numbers. That could change with the upcoming election, which appears to be tight.

DogsOnStreetHere are some typical layabouts. It’s a warm day, and someone has fed them.

Sarah lives on a third-story walkup flat and leaves dog food on her doormat for the one dog who’s allowed into the building. Why it’s one particular dog and not another has never been made clear to me, but stuff like that happens all the time in Turkey.

The dogs are not at all vicious or mean. They tend to shy away from men, who seem to be the ones who kick the dogs. They seem to “own” territories of, maybe, a block, and will protect it to varying degrees when it suits them. In this, they imitate politicians.

The females get pregnant and have litters of, maybe, three. I don’t know where they nest. Sariyer still has patches of rainforest-like lots with thickets (it’s climate isn’t unlike Seattle’s or Portland’s, except it gets hotter in the summer). Life expectancy is probably seven or so. In this, they do not imitate politicians.

Happy Dog

They have names. This, for example, is Happy Dog, so named because he comes bounding up and acts thrilled to see you.

Old Dog

This is Old Dog, who appears to be impregnator-in-chief as best as anyone can tell.

The Professor

This is The Professor.


We don’t know this one’s name. She leaped off the porch and greeted us through the fence because, well, that’s what Golden Retrievers do. She’s also the only dog who wasn’t the least bit camera shy.

The first time we heard Muslim Call to Prayer was in 2004 in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, the one where nearly every Istanbul Famous Thing is–the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and like that. We could see out over a large swath of the city from our hotel room, and when the Call happened, it seemed as though it had been synchronized in such a way that The Call moved like a wave from mosque to mosque across the city.

The dogs seem to be occasionally moved by The Call. Still jet lagged a few days ago, I was awake before dawn when The Call occurred. A cacophony of neighborhood dogs chimed in and howled right along with it, I guess to express their gratitude.

They’re also bilingual. That doesn’t explain anything, but it’s interesting.

Not Constantinople

When wOldCastlee were in Istanbul a couple of years ago, I noticed this old fort or castle or whatever on the other side of the Bosphorus from Sariyer, where Sarah and Ender (daughter and grandson) live. Maybe the biggest thing you can’t get over not just in Istanbul, but in all of Turkey, are the uncatalogued antiquities from cultures running back 5,000 or so years and maybe even twice that.

No one could tell me if this castle was Ottoman or Byzantine. The Turks expressing an opinion naturally said Ottoman, because they kind of think everything is, but truth be told, everyone was kind of meh on this one.

I determined I had to cross the Bosphorus, climb the hill, and see for myself. No one else was much interested, but I stared at this place every time we went down to the quay, adding it to my bucket list. It didn’t happen until a few days ago.

We took a ferry to Anadolu Kavağı, the fishing village on the Asia side. It’s really a cool little place (you can see theAnadolu Kavağı mystery castle at the top of the photo and if you click on the photos, they get bigger). It turned out to be, maybe, 67% percent Byzantine, but really, this situs has been occupied by various cultures for thousands of years, even BCE ones. In fact, archaeologists still don’t know them all. The Greeks and Phoenicians were there. “Yoros” is the Turkish name, but it’s also known as the Genoese Castle since the Genovese held it for a time in the mid- Fifteenth Century.  Go figure. The Byzantines, which was the Eastern Roman Empire from the 5th eentury A.D. until the Ottoman conquest in 1453, occupied it continuously until the fall of Constantinople.

It’s located at the narrowest stretch of the Bosphorus and overlooks the Black Sea. A similar installation used be across the water, on the European side, so that defenders could stretch a chain across the straits and block invading ships. It’s a fairly steep hike and takes about 30 minutes, but it was kind of worth it after waiting for two years. If you’re lazy, you can take a taxi. It’s in ruins and little restoration work is underway, but the views of the Black Sea are phenomenal. And the castle really is pretty cool.

YorosCalesi1 YorosCalesi2 YorosCalesi3 YorosCalesi4

UnderConstBosBridgeAnd so are the views from the ferry. This bridge is under construction, but you can see the Black Sea beyond. If Sarah Palin were on the ferry, she could probably see the Russians scampering around Crimea on the other side. I couldn’t, though.

And Sarah’s village of Sariyer is really charming, too. She lives, maybe, six blocks off the waterfront.


It’s not Constantinople, but it’s pretty cool.