The last Lokanta

It was our last day in Istanbul and we’d done a long walk through Eminönü. Now, late in the afternoon it was time for a small indulgence with a çay (pronounced chai). Just as I was about to say this to The Family, she indicated a lokanta in front of us. We’d eaten at lokantas before, but hadn’t looked for one after coming to Istanbul. Going into one would be a nice way to say goodbye to our experience of Turkish food.

The food that we’d eaten in lokantas ranged from wholesome to stunning. This one must have been somewhere within this spectrum judging by the number of people who were having a large meal at this odd time, halfway between lunch and dinner. We found our last baklava with the çay. This looked like it was a self-service restaurant, but there were some waiters around. We were told that our order would come to us at the table, and it did very quickly. We looked around the tiled interior, the mirrors on the wall, the interesting lampshades, the railing on the upper floor where there was more seating, and elegant marble-topped tables and spindly chairs. “Nice way to end the day,” The Family said. I agreed.

Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

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.

Down to a sunless sea

Constantine founded the new capital of the Roman Empire in a promontory jutting into the Bosphorus because it could be defended so easily. Draw an iron chain across the Bosphorus and you deny ships access by sea. Build a defensive wall at the western end of the promontory, and you deny access by land. This was impeccable military logic, and it was a thousand years before an enemy could enter the city.

The lack of drinking water did not trouble Roman engineers, who were experts at building networks of the gently sloping aqueducts which would bring water to a city through a system powered only by gravity. While rebuilding Constantine’s city two centuries later, Justinian built huge underground reservoirs to store water even if an enemy could break the aqueducts. The immense cistern (it can store 800 million liters of water) had a water filtration system, and remained in use until late Ottoman times.

We walked across from Sultanahmet square, stood in a short queue, and then walked down the damp and slippery steps to the bottom of the cistern. Fortunately there is anti-skid bump tiling, and railings on the steps. In the past you could take boats through the cistern, but that more romantic custom stopped in 1985. The two Medusa head columns have become minor wishing wells, as you can see from these photos. The vaulted roofs, the dim lights, the occasional sculpted “hen’s eye” columns, all make this piece of Roman engineering a very photogenic place. So it is not a surprise that several movies have been shot here.

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.

Fifty shades of blue

The best view of the exterior of the Sultanahmet mosque of Istanbul comes from the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia (featured photo). This is the last of the great works of classical Ottoman architecture, completed in 1617 CE, just at the beginning of the three century long decline of the empire. You can see the main dome and two of the four semi-domes supporting it, as well as several of the lower supporting domes, and four of the six minarets. You can probably see more of the structure from the ground, but then the building looms over you and distorts the perspective of the domes.

This is a working mosque, which means that there is no entry charge, but you have to be dressed appropriately. When we reached the mosque it was time for prayers and tourists were being asked to come back in an hour. That gave us an opportunity to walk along the hippodrome, and walk downhill to see the little Hagia Sophia. When we came back from the charming district of Fatih the gates had opened again. Tourists enter through gate B next to the Hippodrome. You can’t wear shoes into a mosque for a very good reason, but you are handed plastic bags to carry them in. We were happy to see that there is a bag collection point at the exit.

The first view of the inside is stunning. There is a sense of light everywhere which is quite different from the experience of the Hagia Sophia. The classic Ottoman style skillfully blends older Turkish architectural styles with Byzantine to produce a light and soaring architecture. This is a prefiguring of modernity, like the two centuries of Ottoman political dominance in the Eurasian continent. This mosque was built at the precise point in time when Ottoman society could not make a transition from the medieval into the modern. The Ottoman army had been reorganized, the navy had fought down the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, and controlled the spice trade, but the infusion of large volumes of silver from the Americas destabilized the Ottoman economy before a mercantile class could rise.

The incredible tile work of the Sultanahmet mosque gives it the name that tourist guides use: Blue mosque. (In a conversation on a tram I found that Sultanahmet mosque is what Istanbullus say). I would have liked to lie down to look at the ceiling carefully, but that was impossible. We had entered at a time when the interior was really crowded: people were still coming in late to pray but tourists were also inside. The photo above shows the main dome (mainly blue) and the western supporting semi-dome (mainly gold) with a soaring arch between them.

When you look up, it is like falling into a drawing by Escher. The multiple domes and their pendentive arches create a confusion of persepectives, deliciously enhanced by the repeating patterns of tiles. These are hand-painted tiles from Iznik, and I believe that this was the first large-scale use of such tiles. I wonder whether the extreme decorativeness of the interior has anything to do with the fact that the chief architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga trained in inlay work before becoming a pupil of Mimar Sinan. Interstingly, this was his first large commission, obtained at the age of 69. He, and his patron sultan Ahmet I, died within a year of completion of the mosque.

I had museum eyes by this time, and could not give this place the attention it deserves. I walked out and sat under a tree waiting for The Family. She managed to take a much more leisurely walk through the interior. I keep missing one of the major things about Turkish mosques, the deeply comfortable carpets needed for prayers. I would not have remembered the glowing red carpet with its interlocking blue and white flowers (notice the tulips among them) if it was not for the photos that she took.

Clouds gathered as I waited. The sporadic rain and shine of the day was building into something dramatic. I was prepared with both a raincoat and an umbrella, and I took them out. The umbrella provided the camera with some protection as I took the photo of dramatic clouds gathering over the mosque. It started pouring within seconds of The Family coming out of the mosque.

We will bury you

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across an open space towards the Sultanahmet mosque. Amazingly, this space has been open since the founding of the Roman city of Byzantium in 330 CE, when it was called the Augustaeum. Entrance to the mosque was temporarily barred to tourists because it was time for midday prayers. We decided to walk off to one side to see the remains of the ancient hippodrome. Standing just to the east of the now-buried grand palace of the emperors, and west of the Sultanahmet mosque, it is now simply an open space, as you can see from the featured photo.

This late-Ottoman style water fountain at the northern end of the hippodrome was intriguing. It turns out that it is called the German fountain for a good reason. It was financed by the German government to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. This was the first thing we saw as we reached the area. We admired the beautiful mosaic work on the inside of the dome before moving on. This juxtaposition of new and old disturbed me, until I realized the tragic hubris behind it; Kaiser is cognate to Caesar, and the same hubris would fester for forty years in a dream of a doomed “thousand year empire”. Planting this fountain here in the center of Constantine’s city must have been a political statement.

At the founding of Constantine’s city, this was the stadium where the emperor watched chariot races along with the rest of the city. It was said to be decorated with statues of the Roman gods, wild animals, and creatures out of legends which were brought from across the empire. Interestingly, in medieval times, after the custom of chariot races had disappeared, this place was still a center of social life, and people began to attribute supernatural powers to these statues. The famous gilded bronze statues of the horses which once stood here were looted by Venetians in the 13th century, and now stand in St. Mark’s square in Venice. Interestingly, this was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and placed atop the arch of the carousel, before being returned after his defeat at Waterloo.

Only three decorations from the early centuries remains in the Hippodrome. One of them is the serpent column which you see in one of the photos above. It was first erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 BCE over Persia in the Battle of Platea, and brought here around the end of the 4th century CE. It wasn’t erected in a sunken pit though. The pit is part of the normal process of building up a city over centuries. The bottom of the pit is the level of the chariot races of the 4th century CE. The past is always buried under a new layer. We got a better feel of this gradual burial of the past when we walked down a sloping road at the north-eastern end of this vast plaza and passed the curved south wall of the old hippodrome. The second decoration is an obelisk from the Theban temple of Amon, which is one of a pair. One was taken by Constantius in 357 CE to be erected in the Circus Maximum in Rome, the other was brought here by Theodosius in 390 CE (photo above). The third is called the Built Obelisk, and is the one in the foreground of the featured photo. An article by Sarah Guberti Bassett explains very lucidly the symbolism of political power expressed by these.

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.

All that you need to know about Hagia Sofia

“Just crowds of tourists.” I was told. “Needs about 20 minutes.” The Family reported being told. “The sense of the sacred has long fled this place.” A famous travel writer would be the first to know. Take the advise, and don’t spend the couple of hours inside that we did. All you will get is a view from the inside of an engineering marvel from 537 CE, which was the center of the Christian church for a thousand years, before it became an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and eventually, in 1935, a museum.

Instead, take up position between the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, and take a photo. Pay special attention to the 32 meter main dome, it was designed by Anthemius of Trelles and Isidorus of Miletus. You don’t really need to know that the dome was too grand for its time, and that it collapsed in an earthquake in 558 CE, was rebuilt in 562, collapsed again twice, and was eventually rebuilt on a smaller and more manageable scale in the 14th century CE. Ignore the fact that the present structure was sacked several times before the arrival of the Turks: once by Vikings in the 8th century, and more famously by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. Definitely ignore the minarets; they were added by the Turks (the two that you see on the left in the featured photo were designed by Mimar Sinan, an architectural genius in the time of Suleyman the Magnificent, and the red brick one on the right is the oldest, possibly from the 15th century).

If you really have an urge to go in then briefly take up a position in front of the central door. You have a clear view of two mosaics, one of Christ Pantocrator in the narthex, and the other of the Madonna over the altar. The mosaic of the Pantocrator stands above the 7 meters high Emperor Door, with a bronze frame and wood said to have been salvaged from Noah’s Ark (oh how I Want to Believe), so this is a great place to stand. Another advantage is that you will hear every language in the world as people stream past you.

The murder of the Orient Express

A day when the ether is humming with forwards about the Turkish ancestry of the American citizen who is to be the British prime minister, overseeing its exit from Europe, seems appropriate to dust off memories about how London and Istanbul were connected through Europe. In October 1883 Wagon-Lits (Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits) created a train which ran from London to Istanbul through Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, and Varna. The names enchanted me when, as a child, I heard my grand-aunt talk about her travel on this train. I looked at atlases and decided that I would change trains in Istanbul, and come home through Teheran, Kabul, Lahore, and Delhi.

Unfortunately, economics and international politics closed off this route by the time I was old enough to have a shot at doing it. The Istanbul service was closed in 1977. But when I lived in Europe, there was still a truncated service from Paris Gare de l’Est to Vienna Westbahnhof, with a through coach to Budapest and Bucharest. This was eventually discontinued in 2009. There was also a service which ran from Paris, via Lausanne, Milan (through the Simplon tunnel), Venice, Belgrade, and Sofia, to Istanbul which was also called the Orient Express (it was on this that the famous fictional murder happened). There are also various modern nostalgia services which come and go (talking of Michelangelo?).

So this whole thing about the Orient Express had dropped out of my mind until I passed Istanbul’s Sirkeci railway station and a bulb lit up in my mind. This was the building designed by August Jasmund which served for nearly a century as a terminus of the Orient Express (featured photo). I had very little time that day, so I just took a couple of shots to record the place, and promised myself that I would come back later to see it.