Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.


Aimless wandering

Between spells of rain, we walked aimlessly through the streets of the Eminönü and Fatih districts of Istanbul. Only Rome may come close in the juxtaposition of many different styles of architecture spanning a couple of millennia. Only Kolkata comes close in terms of the astoundingly capable sweet shops at every corner. Nothing matches Istanbul in how laid back businesses are. During a brief rainstorm, when a large number of people rushed into cafes, the service shut down until people left. In other cities cafes might make a windfall (really!) profit serving coffee to cold and damp people.

There are parts of Istanbul where people on the streets are so relaxed and friendly that you are reminded of Porto. Other parts are lined with carpet shops where you might not want to stop to chat with every friendly shopkeeper (although we enjoyed the chat every time we stopped). I have a very small bucket list of places which I want to go back to, and Istanbul is on it.


Istanbul is cat city. In 2017 there were 125,000 cats in the streets of Istanbul. I wonder whether the featured cat from Hagia Sophia counts as a street cat. It was proud of being a museum cat, and disdained all tourists. The three in the photo below were not inside a building, so I guess they would certainly count among the 125,000. Unless there are more by now. They are proud street cats, and would not spare a second glance at someone who had no food for them.

There were no signs of the packs of dogs, which, according to Orhan Pamuk, were “mentioned by every Western traveller to pass through Istanbul during the nineteenth century, from Lamartine and Nerval to Mark Twain”, and which “continue to bring drama to the city’s streets.” Instead, there are the cats, bringing a regal touch to the everyday lives of Istanbullus.

The street cats are not the thin uncared-for foragers which you see in Indian cities. Someone has laid out a pallet for this one to sun itself on. Elsewhere, after I took a photo of a cat walking along a wall, a passerby affectionately rubbed its fur, eliciting a purr in response. Istanbul lives at peace with its cats.

The Golden Horn

We were lucky with our choice of a hotel in Istanbul. It was close to the ferry terminals in Eminönü and to the Topkapi palace. When we tired of the history of Constantinople, we could immerse ourselves in the everyday life of Istanbul. Waking up in the mornings, above the sounds of the streets, all you could hear was the deep and mournful honks of ferries and the mewing of gulls as they floated past our windows.

After the stormy weather of the first evening and the next morning, it was wonderful to walk in the sun next to the Golden Horn, called Halic. As we stood and looked at the sea, we saw dolphins. This was not something we were expecting! Dolphins are hard to photograph, even with The Family’s patience forcing mine. They would hump up in the air briefly, and then disappear, only to reappear meters away. It seemed to me that they were feeding, and probably leaving bits of fish uneaten, because gulls had begun to sweep down into this area. I tried to keep photographing the gulls, hoping that I would catch a dolphin surfacing by chance. I didn’t get the dolphins, but I did get a lot of activity on the Golden Horn.

The library of the inner palace

The early 18th century was called the Tulip Period in the Ottoman empire. This era was the rule of sultan Ahmed III, a peaceful time where many changes began to take place. Printing presses, art, culture, trade, and a turn towards Europe are now not as easily remembered as the craze for tulips which gives the era its name. The Library of Sultan Ahmed (Enderûn library) in the third courtyard of Topkapi palace is said to be one of the outstanding examples of the architecture of this time. When I entered, my first impression was of light and openness, perfect for sitting down and reading (featured photo).

The number of shelves was not very large. This probably means that printing was not yet a major industry. In England at that time, the Bodelian library had entered into an agreement with printers by which a copy of every printed book came to the library, resulting in a rapid increase in its holdings. My audio guide told me that the sultan collected all the books in the Topkapi palace and brought them here to safeguard them, while making also making them easy to access.

The dome stood on an octagonal base, and was beautifully decorated. The large expanse of white and the gold paint was part of what made the library look so full of light. Apparently the extensive use of flowers in the painted patterns is a hallmark of the Tulip Period (1718 CE to 1730). It is not impossible that the library, built in 1718, influenced the art and architecture of this era fairly strongly. The light fixture that you see in the photo above was also very distinctive.

Taking books out of the library was forbidden. So a major purpose of the library seemed to be to bring together, and maintain, an imperial collection of books. To this end manuscripts were brought here from the harem, the inner treasury, and the privy room treasury. The large number of windows and doors ensured rapid circulation of air, and controlled damp. One has to climb a short flight of stairs to get to the library. If you step back to look at the building then you notice that the lower floor also has many windows. This well-ventilated basement is another technique for keeping the library dry in order to preserve the holding. Subsequent sultans kept adding to the collection, and all of it was removed to the Palace Museum Library in 1966.

I was surprised to find that sultan Ahmed erected the library over a structure called the Pool Pavilion. This had been designed and built almost a hundred and fifty years earlier by the Ottoman genius of an architect: Mimar Sinan. Istanbul is studded with buildings ascribed to him, so this was not a disaster. Nevertheless I had a faint twinge of disappointment when I read this.

In front of Enderûn library is a drinking fountain. This was built at the same time as the library. The elaborate blue and orange decorations are also said to be typical of the Tulip Period. Unfortunately it was blocked off for tourists. I needed some water, and it turned out The Family had not forgotten to carry a bottle.

To eat like a Sultan

We’d decided to take an audio guide to the Topkapi palace, but the kiosk in the second courtyard had run out of them, and took a while to get a few back from the return area. The kiosk was near the kitchens, so we decided to walk into them. There are parts of a palace which a minister or sultan would never have set foot in. The kitchen is likely to be one of these. I took perverse pleasure in spending time in this area, first built along with the rest of the palace by sultan Mehmet, and later expanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. It turned out to be an interesting place.

Posters in the kitchens told us how formal and regimented life in the palace was. Sultan Mehmet had laid down very strict rules, including one that said that the sultan has to eat alone. There were also laws about the hierarchy of servants who conveyed the meals from the kitchen to the Sultan. Amazingly no sultan is known to have eaten with another person from 1477 CE until Abdülaziz dined with crown prince Edward VII of England sometime in the 1870s. The result is that the preferences of various sultans can only be inferred from account ledgers. The cooks who worked away in these kitchens with the tall chimneys above them probably passed on details of the sultan’s likes and dislikes orally, because no written recipes have been found.

Although we know little about what the Ottoman sultans ate, on display here one finds a lot about how the sultans ate. The glazed Chinese plate with the 18th century gold Ottoman cover of the featured photo was one of the striking pieces displayed here. The clutch of ewers on display was definitely Ottoman. They were used to wash hands before and after meals. Note the bowl and the towel in the display. Hands had to be placed above the bowl while an attendant poured water over them.

I was struck by this beautiful leaf-shaped plate. If it was Indian it would definitely have held palate cleansers like paan or candied fennel seed. I don’t recall an explanation of what the plate could have been used for in the Topkapi palace. Could it have been sweets: the syrupy lokma, or the forerunner of Turkish delight, macun? The 18th century food carrier brought up a question of who it would have been used by. The population of the palace was large, and some of the lower officials could have been served from this. Food which was taken from the kitchen to the royals was re-heated before serving, if needed. I’m sure that was carried in larger amounts. It would not do to run out of food if the Sultan wanted more.

The city of dead ghosts

Our hotel in Pamukkale was very helpful. The chap at the front desk drove us up to the north entrance to Hierapolis, and brought the car back. The plan was that we would just walk through the ruins and down the white cliffs back to the hotel. From the plateau here we could look down on the graben of the Büyük Menderes. Spring was in full bloom here, a phrase I’d not really appreciated until I took the featured photo. It turned out that from here we had to walk through a large Necropolis to reach the gates of ancient Hierapolis, and the cliffs which were our main target.

Ancient Greek and Roman funeral customs centered on cremation. From Homeric poems we know that the denial of cremation was shocking in archaic Greece. We also know from written laws of the early Classical period that these cremations were to be performed outside of city walls in areas called Necropoli. The custom of burial of the whole body began to become more popular from about the 1st century CE, with the spread of Christianity. So I suppose that most of what one sees in the Necropolis today comes from this later period.

The beginning of the path we were to take passed many individual sarcophagi, coffins made of marble. I suppose these came from well after the founding of Hierapolis during Seleucid times. As we went further we began to see larger structures within which these sarcophagi were placed. Apparently they are family graves. Some of them had been reduced to a few stubs of wall. Others still stood almost complete. Some were extremely elaborate, with multiple rooms containing many sarcophagi. Others, like the one in the photo above, had just one room with a couple of sarcophagi.

Hierapolis was never a big town. It was mainly a spa, and in later times became known as a center for healing because of a large number of doctors. The size of the Necropolis perhaps has more to do with the inevitable failure of medicine than with the extent of the town. Much later I recalled that the town had been destroyed by two major earthquakes, one in 19 CE and the other in 60 CE. So my guess that most of the graves came from the 1st century CE and later had another leg to stand on.

I’d never seen a tumulus before, so when I came across this low circular structure I was quite surprised. One part of the Necropolis holds many tumuli. Some of them, possibly all, have a little opening at the bottom in which I could see steps leading down. A large dose of Indiana Jones movies seen at an impressionable age has made me wary of climbing down into such places. Apparently the tumuli here contain multiple graves.

The place is so ancient that even ghosts, if there were ever any, must have left. I hadn’t realized how large this Necropolis would be, so I’d not researched it before coming. Otherwise I would definitely have wasted some time trying to find the sarcophagus with the oldest known illustration of a crank and a wheel. Soon we passed the last of these graves and came to the gate of the city.

Only Connect

If you thought literature doesn’t move society, you should think again. E. M. Forster’s words have been taken very seriously by almost every living human. “Only connect” is now an epigraph to live by. There is now a clear answer to the ancient question, “What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from all animals?” A cell phone, and a burning desire to post instantly.

This photo was taken an aeon ago (by Instagram time) in the Hagia Sofia. Looking at it I wonder whether the definition of being human has really changed. Isn’t this just another expression of being a social animal? Each of the people you see here is connected to their social network. Connections grow stronger the more you connect.

Spa village Pamukkale

The village of Pamukkale is shaped entirely by tourism. This is historically accurate, since it is the successor to the Greek spa resort of Hierapolis, whose business continued into Byzantine times. When we checked into our hotel in the early afternoon, we were just the most recent of a stream of tourists dating from the the second century BCE. I don’t know how the early visitors traveled to this place, but we’d spent longer on the road than we’d imagined by trusting more to GoogleMaps than road signs. One wrong direction had cost us almost an hour of extra travel. So we had a late lunch of gözleme and lentil soup (the Turkish equivalent of alu paratha and dal).

The balcony of our room looked out on the white limestone cliff which gives its name to the village (pamuk means cotton, and kale means fort). We sat in the pleasant warmth of our balcony, lined with roses, and looked out at the cliffs. It was too warm to walk up there. In fact the warmth was making us feel a little dozy. “Do you want an afternoon nap?” I asked The Family. “No, I might oversleep. Why don’t we walk around the village?” That was a easy suggestion to fall in with. We needed to get some bottles of water too.

The village was clearly built on the tourist trade. On our drive we’d passed through a couple of other small villages, and the back roads of Pamukkale looked exactly like them. A mosque stood among little shops and small clumps of houses, with washing hung out in the sun to dry. It was early in Ramazan, so the warm afternoon was very quiet. I suppose you tend to rest, if you can, while on a fast. Closer to the main road, all the restaurants and shops were open for tourists, although there were very few. We found our bottles of water and made our way back to the hotel.

The pool at the front of the hotel had warm water from the spa. A little garden at the back separated the hotel from the house where the owner lived. I’d noticed earlier that the kitchen was in the house, and our waiter had gone through a single door in the separating wall, with the painting that you see above, to convey our order to the cook, and to bring our food back. It was time to have a çay (pronounced chai) before leaving for the springs.

A weekday evening

One of the great stories of the end of the 20th century is the lifting of about half a billion people from China into the world’s middle class. That is about ten times larger than the middle class in India. When I return from a trip to China, people are always curious about how the Chinese middle class lives. They commute to work in buses and trains, and sometimes cars. Their day’s commute starts at about 5 in the morning, and ends between 5 and 6 in the evening. Dinner is early, so that by 8 they are free to relax.

The video you see here was taken in Wuhan on a weekday night. In most cities in China, when you pass by a housing complex you see something like what I captured in it. Women exercise with dances (there are two groups in this video), parents are out strolling with their children, there is a lot of socializing in the neighbourhood. It looks like a nice and relaxed lifestyle. But, of course, I haven’t lived it from the inside.