Allow me show you what I saw through my lens around Istanbul.
Allow me show you what I saw through my lens around Istanbul.
It was a 15 minute walk from our hotel down Ordu Caddesi (Turkish for street) to what became my favourite place in Istanbul: Sultanahmet Square. There’s so much history that my head was sent spinning a few times. Where else can you sit down for a rest next to a column built in AD330 to celebrate the inauguration of Byzantium? Constantine Column is located in Ҫemberlitaş not too far from the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul has a long and interesting history. According to legend, Greek colonist Byzas founded a colony in 667 BC known as Byzantion. In 64 BC it was incorporated into the Roman Empire as Byzantium. In AD 324 Constantine the Great became emperor and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror invaded Constantinople after a long siege. He later rebuilt the city, which was from then on known as Istanbul.
Further along the street from Constantine Column is Sultanahmet Square on the right and Hagia Sophia on the left. I had been looking forward to seeing Haghia Sophia for a long time. Luckily for us, there were relatively few people queuing up outside (it was late December). We bought a museum pass (MüzeKart) for 85 Turkish liras, which is valid for 72 hours at all public museums and, most importantly, helps you avoid long lines.
The interior of Hagia Sophia (first a Christian church, then a mosque and now a museum) is striking. There are so many amazing things to look at: the calligraphic roundels in golden Arabic script, the upper galleries, the upper galleries, the mosaics, the painted ceilings, the marble columns and the light. It was a sunny day –the only sunny day of our week long stay- and beams of sunlight shone through the windows creating a magical effect.
Haghia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, was built in the 6th century AD and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian and used as an Orthodox Christian place of worship. In the 15th century, the invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque. They added the minarets, fountains and mausoleums. In 1935, President Atatürk decided to convert Haghia Sophia into a museum. 14 centuries of history, art and religion are contained within these walls.
I am thankful that the Ottomans decided to conserve the mosaics –or at least they didn’t set out to destroy them- although they are Christian symbols. Despite the ravages of time, these mosaics are still beautiful. I find it bewildering that someone had the ability to paint such stunning images with small colourful tiles: Byzantine emperors and empresses, Christ, the Virgin Mary. On a personal note, these mosaics reminded me of art class at school. The teacher had taught us the Byzantine mosaic technique using tiny paper squares. We had to draw a picture, cut up the paper squares from magazines and paste them onto the picture to colour it. It made me appreciate the Byzantine artists a lot more.
Where to start? The delicious kebaps? The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice? Or the glorious baklava? My taste buds were in heaven!
The most traditional dish, which I think I ate every single day, is the kebap (spelled kebab or kabob in English speaking countries.) It consists of skewered chunks of lamb or chicken cooked on a grill and served with grilled tomato and green pepper, rice or bulgur wheat and chips.
There are many different types of kebap, like the donner (the meat is shaved and served on a piece of flatbread,) or the iskender, chunks of lamb served on top of pieces of bread with tomato sauce. The lamb can also be finely ground and made into meatballs (kofte.)
Among my favourite kebaps was the patlican kebap: grilled chunks of aubergine and lamb meatballs. One of favourite vegetables and deliciously seasond lamb with a wonderful smokey taste; what´s not to like!
There are fish restaurants on both sides of the lower level of the Galata Bridge. Their specialty is the fish sandwich. The grilled fish (the day’s catch) is served on a big bun with salad and onion. I don´t care for fish but my husband said it was very nice. I ordered a kofte sándwich -lamb meatballs with salad.
I was surprised to find so many familiar desserts in Istanbul. It was a sort of epiphany which really brought home the fact that most of the food we eat in Argentina was introduced by immigrants. The first day at breakfast I tried a little piece of a beige paste-like dessert. Its flavour brought me back to my childhood. I yelled “Mantecol!” As it turned out, it was halva, a traditional Turkish peanut dessert.
Other desserts we eat back home and are really traditional Turkish sweets are candied figs, candied pumpkin, candied quince or dried figs stuffed wuth walnuts. The difference is that Argentineans eat them with a slice of cheese and Turks eat them by themselves of with some yogurt. I felt at home when it came to desserts in Istanbul.
Ayran, slightly salty yogurt, is a traditional Turkish drink. I still can’t decide whether I liked it or not. At least I’m happy I tried it.
We finished every meal with a cup of coffee (kahvesi) or tea (chay.) The coffee is strong and dense and goes down a treat with baklava. The tea is served in small glasses and its flavour is also intense. Apple tea, however, is very refreshing and tastes like you’re biting into an apple.
I must confess I never consume food from street stalls, it seems unhygienic and teeming with bacteria. However, I dared try street food in Istanbul and discovered a new world, both delicious and affordable.
One of the things I tried and loved was sahlep, a warming drink made with orchid bulb starch, milk, sugar and cinnamon. It has a slightly floral aftertaste. Or maybe it was my imagination, I don’t know. Sahlep is like a fluid custard. It retains heat for a long time, so be careful! It’s perfect for cold weather.
Seeing the first freshly squeezed pomegranate juice vendor made me very happy. The pomegranates were as big as my hand, bright red and very tempting. Their juice has an intense flavour, somewhat astringent, not too sweet and very moreish.
Simit was another great discovery. A bagel-like ring of bread, chewy inside and crunchy outside, covered in sesame seeds. Quite cheap (TL 1, about US$ 0.50,) I found it to be a highly addictive snack.
There were roasted chestnuts (kestane) vendors everywhere. The smoky aroma permeated the city and was redolent of cold days spent curled up next to the fireplace.
There are many pastry shops, or rather, baklava shops, in Istambul where you can buy baklava and other sweets made with walnuts or pistacchios, syrup and angel hair of phyllo pastry. I t difficult to choose a favourite. They’re all suprisingly light and not too overwhelmingly sweet. Then there’s the famous Turkish delight –lokum-, a chewy, sticky, very sweet confection. I like the rosewater flavour the best but there are many different flavours to choose from. It was generally served with coffee.
The spice shops are a wonderful experience of colours, flavours and smells. They sell a wide variety of spices, teas, dried fruit, or nuts. They are worth a visit so you can take a pinch of Turkey home .
On leaving the arrivals area at Atatürk Airport, we were greeted by Lionel Messi’s smiley face. The Argentinean international striker is Turkish Airlines celebrity ambassador. Our taxi driver asked where we were from and when I said Argentina, he smiled and said “Messi!” a vendor at the Grand Bazaar said something along the lines of “my people don’t know much about [international] politics but we do know about football.” It was nice to see that people knew about my country even if it’s because of a famous footballer. Sport does bring down all kinds of barriers.
Istanbul is forever straddling between two different worlds. Asia and Europe. The Ottoman culture versus the modernization and Europeanization brought about by Atatürk in the early 20th century. A first class city with traces of Third World problems.
The streets are a hive of activity: people coming and going, vendors touting their wares (and accosting tourists while they are at it), constant car horns, the cries of seagulls and the calls to prayer. What bothered me a bit was the lack of sense of personal space.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a restaurant, or rather, a tourist trap. We went in knowingly; we were aware of this but we decided to go ahead a book a table anyway. The restaurant is located in an 800 hundred year old underground cistern and artistic numbers were included. We saw a belly dancer, who was a bit disappointing, then a folk dance group, which was fun, and then the icing on the cake: a male belly dancer. I didn’t know that men’s hips are capable of such movement. He was absolutely fantastic! Apparently Abdullah from Lebanon is very famous and is even on TV.