After spending over two years in Turkey, I’ve finally spent a little time in İstanbul. Julie and I did visit this city for a couple days in 1998, but as I recall, we spent more time dealing with visas for Syria than visiting tourist sites.
İstanbul is a huge city, with 14,000,000 people, up there with London and Lagos according to wikipedia. And of course it has an incredible history. As the DK Eyewitness Travel guidebook says, “for almost a thousand years, Constantinople was the richest city in Christendom.” Following that was almost 500 years as capital of the opulent Ottoman Empire. In the week that I spent with my parents here at the beginning of last month, we hit some of the most famous tourist sites, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface.
Ferda and I flew on a Friday afternoon from Antalya and met my parents at the airport after their long, direct flight from Los Angeles. They were on, apparently, Turkish Airlines’ longest non-stop flight. We didn’t have our days specifically scheduled. We only knew that the US State Department and others were recommending staying away from Taksim Square and Gezi Park during my parents’ first day in the city because that was the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests.
Since the weather was good, we decided for a Bosporus boat tour that day to the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. We took the light rail to the Kabataş docks and there learned that because of the police crackdown on expected protests return transportation would be shut down. What to do? We considered a bunch of options and in the end decided to head straight to Taksim to see what all the fuss was about!
Mom kept wondering why, on their very first day in Turkey, we were doing the only thing that they were specifically advised not to do. It was a bit ironic, I suppose. Taksim, it turns out, is a rather ugly concrete square surrounded by unimpressive buildings. We visited a couple nearby churches, walked down the crowded pedestrian-only İstiklal Caddesi, and ended up at the top of Galata Külesi (tower) toward the end of the day when the police started their crackdown.
From our bird’s-eye view we could see clouds of tear gas, hear (rubber?) bullets being fired, and watch protesters stream out of the main street into the square below the Galata Tower. Back on the ground, the police presence was thick, and the atmosphere tense. We made our way quickly down to the Galata Köprüsü with Mom continually asking if we were really going the right way since there seemed to be more and more riot-prepared police officers. Welcome to Turkey.
I’m happy to say that my parents spent another three weeks in Turkey and didn’t have any more such excitement. The following day we visited fantastic Topkapı Palace before Ferda caught her evening flight back to Antalya so she could work on Monday. The incredible tilework at Topkapı is never-ending and the jewel collection must be one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. I’d love to spend more time in Topkapı.
Rich tilework was a reoccurring theme at the Ottoman-era buildings we visited such as the tombs at Aya Sofya, the Rüstem Paşa Camii, and of course the impressive collection at the Archaeological Museum.
In the old Christian (Byzantine?) churches of Aya Sofya and Kariye (Chora) the mosaics were the attraction.
To get to the Kariye Müzesi we took a boat up the Golden Horn (Haliç) and then walked alongside the old city walls to the museum. Mom and Dad climbed right up the wall on some very steep stairs that intimidated a young American woman, Meredith, who I later talked down the same staircase.
On another day we visited the slightly run-down, slightly gentrified, slightly historic, slightly dangerous Tarlabaşı neighbourhood where expensive “cleanup” (tear down, rebuild) projects mean that many of the neighbourhood’s residents will no longer be able to afford to live there. Yep, if the government can tear gas peaceful protesters, they also can relocate residents and tear down historic neighbourhoods in the name of development, Chinese-style. Welcome to Turkey.
During our last day in İstanbul, we finally set aside time again for our boat tour to Sakıp Sabancı. This time at Kabataş, however, the weather was horrible (raining hard and socked in) so we decided to take a taxi instead. In Ortaköy we got stuck in horrible traffic. Why? Tight security because Erdoğan was visiting for the opening ceremony of a new mosque in a shopping center, two things Turkey absolutely needs more of, according to well-connected building contractors.
After our visit to the museum, the weather cleared, and we had super views of the Bosporus during the comfortable return trip on the ferry. Somehow, we managed to spend a week in İstanbul without once stepping onto the Asian side!