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Yerebatan Sarnıçı – The Sunken Cistern

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Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it’s survived the ages in remarkable form.

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Descending the stone stairs into the Sunken Cistern, it’s clear that you’re stepping down into a darker, older world. There are modern day touches — raised platforms with handrails, warning signs, audio-guides, hordes of tourists, music playing over loudspeakers, bored attendants cajoling you to dress as a sultan for a picture, and flashing cameras — but they’re easy enough to filter out. After all, one of the ancient world’s most hauntingly beautiful treasures is lit up before your eyes.

There are only a couple feet of water left in the cistern, but that’s enough for giant carp to swim around in, and it nicely reflects both the rounded arches of the roof and the 336 columns arranged in a symmetrical 12×28 grid. These supporting columns, thought to have been pilfered from sites around the Roman empire, are of various styles. Many are completely unadorned while others are capped with Corinthian floral designs. I saw one that was square, and another patterned with teardrop-shaped peacock feathers.

The cavernous cistern with its giant pillars and water dripping from the ceiling would make a great setting for the climactic scene of an old fantasy epic. It’s easy to imagine Perseus slowly advancing through the cistern, aware that danger might be hiding behind any one of the columns. He holds his sword and shield at the ready, while the sound of serpentine hissing echoes through the hall. Behind a few columns, he encounters scowling demons and jumps back, ready to strike. But no. They are only statues; hideous statues of men screaming in pain and confusion. “Where are you, Medusa?”, Perseus screams. “By Zeus’s thunder, where are you?”

Turns out, the Gorgon actually does lurk in the shadows of the Sunken Cistern. Overturned Medusa heads form the base of two columns in the far back corner. One is fully upside-down, while the other has been turned onto its side. They were placed in the cistern for protection — Medusa has often been used as a charm against evil (which we learned while puzzling over Sicily’s flag) — and have been flipped over to counteract the terrible power of her gaze.

We had an incredible time in the Sunken Cistern and, although a comprehensive tour doesn’t need to last any longer than twenty minutes, we stayed for almost an hour to soak in the atmosphere. For the best experience, arrive when the doors open. At 9am, we found the cistern almost entirely empty of other tourists, but it was becoming intolerable by the time we left.

Location of Yerebatan Sarnıçı on our Map

Framed Photos Of The Medusa Head Are Available In Our Online Gallery

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March 14, 2013 at 2:45 pm Comments (8)

Ciğer Şiş – Liver Shish Kebab at Canim Ciğerim

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At the last second, I nearly lost my nerve and ordered chicken. But I stayed strong and, in a confident voice, ordered the “Ciğer Şiş”: the Liver Shish Kebab. At least, I think I sounded confident. I might have whimpered a little, but if the waiter caught it, he didn’t let on.


Jürgen and I travel a lot, but that doesn’t exactly make us Anthony Bourdain. We love trying out the cuisine of different cultures, but neither of us have too wild a palate. When backed into a corner, I’ll steel my resolve and do something like schluck down wriggling, raw octopus in Busan, or munch cow tongue in Bolivia. Generally, though, I stick to offal-free dishes made of normal cuts of meat I can identify.

But I’m trying to evolve. Istanbul has an insanely varied and world-renowned cuisine, and I swore not to be a culinary wimp during our three months in the city. So when we chose to have lunch at a restaurant named “My Liver, My Dear” (Canim Ciğerim), I knew I was going to order the liver. I had to. (“No you don’t!” hissed my inner-coward).

Our meat took a while to sizzle on the shish but when it arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been expecting three, possibly four skewers of liver. This was one of our first meals in Turkey, and I was unaccustomed to the serving sizes. The waiter plopped onto our plates twenty skewers full of meat. Ten liver shish kebabs for me, ten chicken for Jürgen.

God help me, I ate all of it. After a quick lesson in the art from our waiter, I was ready to attack my liver. You hold a piece of flat bread around a skewer, and pull the meat off into it. Then, you pile whatever you like onto the bread. With the colorful condiments crowding our table (pink radishes, yellow peppers, red sauce, green leaves) this felt a little like painting on canvas. Except that it’s a delicious painting made of food which you immediately roll up and consume.

The liver was rich, chewy and tasted only slightly of iron, and any nervousness I’d been feeling evaporated with the first bite. This tiny restaurant in Beyoğlu was an excellent find, and although I don’t know if liver will make it onto my Favorite Foods list anytime soon… at least it can be removed from the list I’ve labeled “Terror/Puke”.

Location of Canim Ciğerim on Our Map

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March 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm Comments (0)

The Antique Tram of İstiklal Caddesi

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The pedestrianized shopping street of İstiklal Caddesi boasts one of modern Istanbul’s most nostalgic sights: antique tram cars rattling along the mile-long street from the Tünel funicular station to Taksim Square.


The presence of the antique tram in bustling, forward-looking Taksim Square is jarring. You might initially think that it’s a replica, a stationary nod to the past… but then the thing starts moving and people clamber on, fighting for seats. Puttering down the street at speeds barely eclipsing walking pace, the tram proves an irresistible lure for kids, who hop onto the back for a free ride.

These freeloaders have the tacit permission of the tram drivers, who are dressed in period gear and spend as much time waving to photo-taking bystanders as conducting. And so the tram is a curious hybrid; both a solution to the Beyoğlu’s transportation needs, and a wistful tribute to the past. There’s the costumed driver, the rascally scamps hanging off the back, the slow speeds and the antiquated cars. Quaint, but then most of the passengers are serious-looking locals just trying to get home after a long day of work.

After our initial ride, we never used the tram for anything other than a photo op. It runs infrequently, is usually packed full, and you can walk down İstiklal just as quickly. Still, the tram is always full. Walking simply isn’t as fun as sitting at the window of an antique tram, watching the modern world slowly ramble by.

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March 12, 2013 at 5:22 pm Comments (2)

Impending Spring in Istanbul

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The beginning of our stay in Istanbul coincided with the beginning of March, and the slow onset of spring. The temperature was still cold, but blossoms were starting to appear on the trees and every day was milder than the last. And on the streets, we could sense the optimistic, expectant energy which always goes hand-in-hand with the end of winter.

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March 11, 2013 at 9:46 am Comments (5)

Atop the Galata Tower

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Standing 66.9 meters in height, the Galata Tower dominates the skyline of Beyoğlu and is one of Istanbul’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. Anxious for a birds-eye view on our first full day in the city, we visited the tower, showing up just in time for sunset.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower was built by the Genoese in 1348 during the twilight of the Byzantine Empire. In those days, the area presently called Beyoğlu was known as Galata, and was a colony of the Genoan Republic. Genoa had long-established trading ties with Byzantine and, in 1267, took advantage of its partner’s fragile state to claim a prime section of real estate along the Golden Horn. The Galata Tower formed part of the defense walls which were built to protect the community of foreigners.

During its life, the Galata Tower has served many purposes: defense for the Genoese, a 16th-century astronomical observatory under the science-oriented Ottomans, a makeshift jail for Christian POWs, and a fire tower (until it was devastated by a fire). But most memorably, it was used as a jump-off point for one of mankind’s earliest attempts to fly.

Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi was an experimental aviator of the early 17th century. After strapping on artificial wings of his own design, he took a long look over his city, put his faith in Allah, and leaped from the heights of the Galata Tower. The flight was a success, and he landed unscathed on the shores of Üsküdar, six kilometers away over the Bosphorus Strait. Sultan Murad IV was initially thrilled by the accomplishment, but came to view the flying magician as a threat. For his death-defying efforts, Çelebi was awarded with exile to Algeria (which, as far as Ottoman-era punishments go, was pretty light).

It was about a half-hour before sunset when Jürgen and I showed up at the ticket booth, and we couldn’t have been happier with our timing. Here is a true 360° panorama of Istanbul, with amazing views in every direction. Beyoğlu and our new home of Cihangir to the north, the Bosphorus Strait with its steady flow of tankers to the west, the Golden Horn winding its way inland to the east, and most impressively, the mosques and sights of Sultanahmet directly to the south.

As the sun slowly set behind the Marmara Sea, the city changed color dramatically, from yellow to pink to purple to deep blue. The mosques which Istanbul has in such astounding abundance began to flip on their lights, one by one. And then the chanting started to ring out from the minarets. The sound of so many mournful songs, layered atop each other and echoing from every corner of the slowly darkening city… it was enough to give me goosebumps.

Location of Galata Tower on our Map

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I noticed this stone first, and said to Juergen, “Oh look, a snake”. He was just about to step on it. When he looked down, he momentarily thought it was real, and jumped backward with a squeal of fright. I laughed, of course, but if he were about to step on a REAL snake, why does he think my warning would be to nonchalantly say “Oh look, a snake”… ?
March 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm Comments (10)

Merhaba Istanbul!

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Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, was going to be our home for the next 91 days. Minarets, mosques, harems, hamams, kebab, coffee, Turkish delights, towers, castles, islands, whirling dervishes, Greeks and Ottomans, hills, ferries, markets and music… it’s enough to make the experience-hungry traveler delirious. We knew we’d have to hit the ground running, because there was going to be a lot to do.

Taxi Art Istanbul

It was a Tuesday evening when we arrived at our apartment in Cihangir, a hip neighborhood in the Beyoğlu district which is popular with artists and foreigners. After the long day of travel, we should have been content with an evening on the couch and an early bedtime but, eager to explore, we bundled up and went out into the streets. In Cihangir Square, we settled down at a cafe to do some people watching.

Trendy scenesters with tasseled scarves had occupied the table to our left, while a group of effusive American students were to our right. A couple guys were plastering posters for a rock concert onto a nearby wall, and the decidedly non-Turkish sounds of Depeche Mode were wafting out of the bar behind us. Everyone was smoking, and the liquor store across the street was doing steady business. Were we in the right country? All the preconceptions I had carefully constructed about Istanbul were lying in shards at my feet. (One of these broken shards, for example, was reflecting a man with a bushy mustache and a fez; embarrassed, I kicked it underneath the table before anyone could see it).

But as the sun set, the calls to prayer sounded from the minarets which, I suddenly realized, were surrounding us. Along the sidewalk, a group of women in headscarves pushed impatiently by another, older group of women in headscarves. We were sipping on strong Turkish coffee, and eating rich pastries of honey and pistachio. The kebab-seller on the corner had whittled his döner stick down to the last nibbles. Alright, were were definitely in Turkey… just not quite the Turkey I had been expecting.

Istanbul has always held a special allure to me. The fascinating history, unique culture and world-class food are irresistible draws, and it was just a matter of time before Jürgen and I ended up here. We spent the weeks leading up to our trip dutifully reading about Istanbul and learning stock Turkish phrases (teşekkür ederim!), and I felt prepared. Confident, even! But once we arrived… once we had seen Istanbul’s size and density first-hand, and could feel the enormous weight of its past… only then could we begin to understand how completely overmatched we were. Istanbul in 91 days? Please. We wouldn’t even scratch the surface.

But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t try. By the end of our three months, our fingernails were chipped, and our fingertips bruised and bleeding from all the frantic scratching at Istanbul’s surface. We would meet some Turks, visit both the big sights and less well-known neighborhoods, eat a lot of incredible food, and learn about the city’s complex history and vibrant present. It was going to be a busy 91 days.

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Cihangir Square Night Istanbul
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March 7, 2013 at 6:08 pm Comments (14)

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Yerebatan Sarn?? - The Sunken Cistern Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it's survived the ages in remarkable form.
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