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A Concise History of Istanbul

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If ever a city were in a need of a concise recounting of its history, it is Istanbul. Properly told, its story fills multiple volumes of heavy tomes. But we’re too busy for detail or nuance, and so have distilled the past of one of the world’s most historic cities into a ridiculous list of easily digestible highlights. Students of Mrs. Dent’s sixth-grade history class: you’re welcome! Academics and graduate students: you might want to look elsewhere.

6500 BC The earliest traces of humanity in Istanbul date to the Neolithic Period, and were found during a 2008 dig for a subway station.
676 BC Greek settlers found Chalcedon on the site of present-day Üsküdar. Chalcedon was known as the City of the Blind to later generations, who couldn’t otherwise explain the original settlers overlooking the defensively superior European peninsula right across from them.
513 BC – 196 AD Coveted for its strategic location at the mouth of the Bosphorus, the city-state of Byzantium is continuously conquered by the various powers of the classical era: Persia (513 BC), Athens (478 BC), Macedonia (334 BC) and Rome (196 AD).
324 After defeating the Eastern Emperor Licinius, Constantine the Great reunites the Roman Empire, choosing Byzantium (henceforth called Constantinople) as the new capital.
6th Century With Rome having fallen to the Goths, Constantinople enters a golden age and takes its place among the world’s great cities. Emperor Justinian builds a new Hagia Sophia, constructs the Sunken Cistern and conquers much of northern Africa and southern Europe.
1071 The Selçuk Turks arrive on the doorstep of Constantinople, and succeed in wresting most of Anatolia away from the Byzantine Empire.
1204 The Fourth Crusade, ostensibly launched to liberate Muslim-held Jerusalem, decides instead to ransack Christian Constantinople. The city is devastated and, amidst the carnage, Emperor Alexius V commits suicide by throwing himself from a column. The Byzantine capital is temporarily moved to Nicea (İznik).
1453 After a slow, 130-year encroachment onto Byzantine lands, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II “The Conqueror”, finally succeed in taking the capital. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople, as the song goes, and the Ottoman Empire is born.
1529 The Ottoman Empire reaches its peak under Süleyman the Magnificent, stretching its borders from Persia to Poland, and conquering Northern Africa. In 1529, it very nearly succeeds in conquering Vienna.
18th Century After centuries of power, decadence sets in. Ottoman sultans become complacent, allowing the feared Janissary Corps and the scheming women of the harem too much power. Although arts and architecture flourish during this Tulip Period, the Empire becomes ever weaker.
1839-1856 Hoping to westernize his country, Sultan Abdülmecid pushes through the Tazimat Reforms, which fundamentally alter every level of Ottoman society. Christians are granted equal rights, homosexuality is decriminalized, and modern innovations like post offices, factories and a census are introduced.
1903 Educated in the west and wearied by the excesses of the empire’s sultans, the Young Turks stage a military coup and assume power. But they side with Germany in WWI; a costly mistake that results in the Allied Powers (chiefly Britain, France, Italy and Greece) carving up the defeated Ottoman state.
1923 Led by Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, Turkish nationalists wage a successful War of Independence against the occupying powers, and establish a new country known as the Republic of Turkey. The capital is moved from Istanbul to Ankara.
2002 The Islamic AKP Party wins a firm majority in national elections, and although fears arise that Turkey will become a religious state, the party only grows in popularity, owing to both its stable governing and a period of economic growth.
… and beyond Already one of the world’s most-visited cities, Istanbul is growing at an unprecedented rate, and has big plans for the future. It’s presently at work on a subway link between Europe and Asia, and hopes to build a “second Bosphorus”: an artificial canal which would ease strain on the real strait. As a Muslim-majority metropolis with a secular foot planted firmly in Europe, Istanbul is uniquely situated to influence and serve as a model for the awakening democracies of the Arab Spring. Clearly, history isn’t done with this amazing city quite yet.
April 16, 2013 at 9:04 am Comments (6)

After One Month in Istanbul

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Wow, that went fast. Our first month in Istanbul flew by way too quickly, leaving us a little nervous about our remaining time. We’ve prepared a gigantic list of things to do and see and, although we’ve accomplished a lot, the list doesn’t appear to be getting any smaller. Still, it’s been an amazing month, which has just left us eager for more. Here are our initial impressions about living in Istanbul.

Most Memorable

Mike: Stepping foot for the first time inside the Hagia Sophia. For a thousand years, this was the largest and most impressive church on earth, and it’s still unparalleled in many ways. The huge dome, the history seeping from every rock, the mystery of how 6th century architects were able to construct it… I could spend days here.

Jürgen: Climbing the Galata Tower on our second day for the sunset, and being overwhelmed by the sound of Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, all at the same time. Overlooking the city, we had our first real sense of what Istanbul is all about.
Favorite Food

Mike: Too much to choose from! But, I think that I’ll never have a better plate of döner in my life. And I especially like the iskender variety — a huge plate of meat, spicy and delicious, and covered in both french fries and yogurt sauce. Undefeatable!

Jürgen: I’m in love with Turkish food! We have a lot of Turkish culture in Germany, but I was only familiar with Döner Kebabs. A real shame, since Turkish cuisine has so much more to offer. But my answer to the question, without any doubt, is: Künefe!
Most Surprising

Mike: How varied the city is. You can go from ultra-hip and stylish Cihangir, to devout and headscarf-heavy Üsküdar… from the tourist swarms of Sultanahmet, to the quiet Armenian neighborhood of Kumkapı, all within a single day. Istanbul has a lot of faces, and they’re amazingly segregated.

Jürgen: That Instanbullus use the city ferries as a real transportation option. It’s not just for tourists. I always have a wonderful time taking the ferries… drinking tea, feeding simits to the seagulls and taking ever more photos of the amazing skyline.
Most Disappointing

Mike: I understand that Istanbul is an ancient city, and renovations are often necessary on these centuries-old buildings, but almost every day we’re foiled by yet another mosque or museum closed for repairs. Just the other day, we tried visiting St. Stephen of the Bulgars (closed), the Zeyrick Mosque (closed), the Caricatures Museum (closed) and then the Fethiye Museum (closed on Wednesdays). Fine, that last one was due to our own poor planning, but still!

Jürgen: So far, I’ve been frustrated by getting permissions to special areas. But I’m not going to leave Istanbul without climbing a minaret! Or finding a way to get on top of the Grand Bazaar and the Aqueduct. I will never give up. Do you hear me, Istanbul? Never!
Funniest / Weirdest

Mike: I don’t know how funny it was, and it’s such a well-known experience that it’s hard to classify as “weird”. But from my point of view, a visit to the hamam is at least strange! I don’t know how else to describe the sensation of having (almost) my entire body soaped and scrubbed raw by an old, half-naked Turkish guy. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Oh, I liked it.

Jürgen: My first visit to a Turkish Barber. I should have thought twice before saying “yes”, when he asked if I wanted the “full treatment”. I never thought I’d be getting my ears waxed or be leaving the shop with a perfectly trimmed goatee… which I definitely didn’t ask for! Apparently, the barber thought I’d look good with a goatee. He was wrong.
How Expensive? From 1 (cheap) to 10 (expensive)

Mike: 7. I just expected things to be cheaper here, but the prices are about equivalent to the rest of Europe. Alcohol is very expensive, which I hate. You can save cash, though, by eating at local joints, which are usually very good quality. And staying away from Western-style department stores. Istanbul is expensive, but since most of the locals don’t make a ton of money, the city is forced to offer affordable options… you just have to know where to look.

Jürgen: I would give Istanbul an 8. We never paid that much for a furnished apartment during our travels! Eating is reasonable and of very good quality if you stay away from the main touristy spots. And even then, you can find places where the locals eat.
People from Istanbul are…

Mike: … impossible to pin down to a specific group. You get everything from hipsters to completely head-scarfed conservative women, gay couples, Armenians, and long-bearded Koran students… sometimes all in the same cafe!

Jürgen: This is the hardest question to answer. It really depends if you’re in Cihangir, Fatih or Üsküdar. From mega-hipster to super-conservative and everything in between. But I’ve never gotten into so many random conversations with strangers, as here in Istanbul.
Istanbul in Three Words

Mike: Huge, Hilly, Hectic

Jürgen: Tea, Muezzins, Simits
April 16, 2013 at 8:29 am Comments (7)

Lunchtime in Eminönü

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Hungry for lunch? Then join the throngs heading for the semicircular Eminönü Plaza, on the western side of the Galata Bridge. “Why? What’s there to eat?” you might be asking. Well, try not worry about that quite yet!


This plaza between the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Ferry Terminal is one of the most popular places in the city to grab a quick and cheap lunch. Three restaurants floating on the riverside offer the exact same thing — fish sandwiches. Just step right up, hand over 5 TL and grab a seat at the first available stool. Lather your sandwich with diluted lemon juice and salt, and dig in!

Don’t walk over to the edge and peer into the murky river from which the fish are caught… stop that! Instead, look around you. Look at the funny little waiters dressed in Ottoman-era costumes! Isn’t this fun? Look at the other customers, mostly locals, happily enjoying their fish sandwiches. Hey, I said to stop looking at the water! Just close your eyes and concentrate on the fish. It’s good, right?

Chowing on a grilled fish sandwich really works up a thirst, doesn’t it? You know what sounds really delicious right now? You got it: neon-red vinegary pickle juice. You’re reading my mind! Yes sir, put a cup of that sweet stuff right here. So vinegary, so full of pickles and radishes… so bright! Mmmm, that’s the taste of a new, slightly disturbed, generation.

So, a meal in Eminönü is kind of an adventure, but in truth the pickle juice is not totally undrinkable and does complement the fish sandwich — which is just as delicious as a grilled fish sandwich should be. The experience is fun, and the price is great. You can also find non-fishy foods in the plaza, such as chestnuts, simits, corn ears and döner, and with the boisterous, almost carnival-like atmosphere and the view of the Galata Bridge, it’s an excellent place to grab a quick bite.

Just make sure to save room for dessert. There are stands offering Halka Lokma Tarifi, which are freshly-fried donut balls topped with ground pistachio. Or those with an even sweeter tooth can try out the Tarihi Osmanlı Macunu (Traditional Ottoman Candy): five different flavors of thick taffy spiraled deftly around a stick, creating a delicious lollipop.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am Comments (4)

The Museum of Energy at Santralİstanbul

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After opening in 1914, the Silahtarağa Power Plant was Istanbul’s sole source of electric power for almost forty years. Today, the former plant has been converted into a cultural center called Sintralİstanbul. The original equipment has been refurbished and left in place, and now constitutes the exhibits of the unique Museum of Energy.


Before we even entered, I had suspected that I wouldn’t be seeing a lot of Jürgen in Santralİstanbul. He loves old industrial sites, and here was one guaranteed to be fascinating and legally accessible. The museum was as amazing as we had hoped, filled with the massive old generators, turbines and controls used in the early days of electrified Istanbul. Naturally, by the end of the two seconds I had needed to survey the scene and turn my head towards Jürgen, he had already disappeared. Far off, at the top of an escalator, I could barely make out the clicking sounds of a camera, growing ever fainter.

From the top of this escalator, you gain an excellent view of the power plant. It’s incredible how much machinery was required to light a city at the beginning of the 20th century. And it wasn’t even all of Istanbul which benefited from Silahtarağa — just the Sultan’s palace and some of the city’s more upscale neighborhoods. We were able to visit the upper-level control room, which reminded me of a starship’s deck, and walk down around the incredible generators (built by Siemens).

We spent most of our time in the Museum of Energy, but Santralİstanbul has plenty else to offer, including art galleries, cafes, a discotheque and, within a former boiler hall, the biggest library in Turkey. We had taken a ferry from Karaköy to Sütlüce to arrive, but discovered a super-practical (and free) shuttle bus between the museum and Taksim’s Atatürk Cultural Center for the return journey. It runs every half-hour, and makes the prospect of revisiting Santralİstanbul much more appealing.

Location on our Istanbul Map
Santralİstanbul – Website

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April 14, 2013 at 4:55 pm Comments (8)

The Archaeology Museum Complex

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Set atop a hill in Gülhane Park, just meters from Topkapı Palace, the Archaeology Museum Complex boasts one of the world’s most stunning collections of ancient artifacts. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched across major sections of Europe, Asia and Africa, so it should come as no surprise that countless treasures have found their way to Istanbul.


The museum was established in the late 1800s, partially to combat the widespread practice of spiriting off archaeological finds to countries like England or Germany. (Whether this was done to loot or protect them is perhaps a matter of perspective.) The Ottoman Empire was in the process of Westernizing, and the establishment of a Archaeological Museum to protect and display its treasures was a step in the country’s new direction.

Today, the complex consists of three museums. Of these, the Archaeology Museum is the focal point, occupying a massive neoclassical building. The museum wastes no time in impressing, placing its most stunning artifacts in the rooms just past the entrance: The Sarcophagi of Sidon. Found during a famous dig in modern-day Lebanon, these incredibly well-preserved and exquisitely decorated coffins held the bones of kings. The most famous of them is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which depicts the great Macedonian king in battle scenes (though it was not, as originally thought, his coffin).

The museum features objects found across the Ottoman Empire and ancient Byzantine, with mummies and statues joining historic relics like the snake’s head stricken from the Hippodrome’s Serpentine Column. A large exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the archaeological history of Istanbul — a collection so complete and interesting, that it could easily justify its own museum. Another exhibit is dedicated to objects from the regions neighboring Turkey, mostly Cyprus and Syria.

This museum requires at least an hour from even the most disinterested visitor, and we were inside much longer than that. So, our legs were happy to take a tea break at the pleasant outdoor cafe, in a garden decorated with an army of ancient statues.


Right across from the Archaeology Museum is the beautiful Tiled Kiosk, home to the Museum of Turkish Ceramics. Thankfully, this museum was small. The tiles found within are striking, and there was plenty of information about the history of Turkish ceramics, but (for us) the highlight was the building itself, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmet II as a pleasure palace.

Finally, we drug our weary bodies into the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which concentrates on artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. We liked this collection almost as much as the Archaeology Museum’s. It includes the world’s oldest peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed between Egypt and the Hittites in 1297 BC (a copy of which hangs on the walls of the United Nations). There’s also a beautifully preserved, and opened, Egyptian coffin and mummy, as well as tiles from Babylon’s legendary Ishtar Gate.

Given the ridiculous amount of incredible things to see in the Archaeology Museum Complex, the price is entirely fair, at just 10TL ($5.50). I also found the audio-guide to be worthwhile. Despite its proximity to Topkapı Palace, there are relatively few tourists here, so it makes a great place to escape the hordes and lose yourself in the ancient world. In all, a highly-rewarding place to spend a few hours… or perhaps even an entire day.

Location on our Istanbul Map
Istanbul Archaeology Museum – Website

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April 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm Comments (8)

Shopping Fever in Tahtakale

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How much you enjoy the steep, jam-packed streets around the Rüstem Paşa Camii depends entirely on your point of view. Is it an exhilarating and chaotic shopping paradise, or an intolerable maze of pushy, obnoxious vendors? So visit only when you’re in a good mood and well-disposed to both noise and hassle. Because it’s not like Tahtakale is going to change for you. Tahtakale isn’t gonna change for anybody.


Luckily, we visited Tahtakale on one of those rare days when both Jürgen and I were in positive spirits. “Let’s go shopping”, I suggested. “Yes, perfect”, came Jürgen’s immediate reply. I have no idea what had come over us, because we never feel like shopping. Maybe it was the sun. In any case, we made a beeline for the jam-packed streets of Tahtakale, our pockets full of liras, feeling almost eager to get taken advantage of. It’s like we were in a trance.

Soon enough, we were talking to a nargile (hookah) handler, who was so chummy that we instantly felt like old friends. We chatted about his family, our families, our project in Istanbul, our stay in Bolivia, and LeBron James. (Turkish men understand the geography of the USA in terms of its basketball teams. “Ohio” means nothing to them, but “Cleveland Cavaliers” will instantly kindle the light of recognition in their eyes.) It was a fun conversation… but where was our habitual skepticism? Our trusty mistrust of anybody selling anything? In the bewilderingly optimistic haze we were lost in, we felt only warmth and easiness.

And here’s the amazing thing: as we said our goodbyes, our new friend the hookah handler didn’t even try and push a sale. He had been genuinely happy just to talk for awhile.

We didn’t end up buying anything during our day in Tahtakale, but had an incredible time anyway. Chatting with and photographing affable strangers. Sitting on tiny stools set up on the sidewalks, sipping tea. Sampling the lokum offered by the sweets store. Watching the lone and increasingly frustrated taxi driver fight hopelessly through the crowds. Hopping out of the way for bent old men rushing up the hill with boxes strapped to their shoulders.


But the highlight of our day had nothing to do with crowds or shopping. Near the Rüstem Paşa, we encountered the entrance to the Tahtakale Hamam — an old bathhouse which is being converted into yet another marketplace. There were only a couple shops installed inside, but the entire hamam was open to exploration. Here, in the middle of one of Istanbul’s noisiest neighborhoods, we found absolute, almost chilling, silence. The hamam was beautiful, with its star-shaped windows letting in the midday sun and old fountains that have long since stopped flowing. We even managed to access the roof. It was a strange discovery on one of the most enjoyable days we’ve yet spent in Istanbul.

Location of the Hamam on our Map

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April 10, 2013 at 6:46 am Comment (1)

Simits, Pide and Künefe: Familiar Turkish Favorites

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While in Istanbul, our taste buds were exposed to a lot of new sensations. But some of our favorite discoveries were familiar standards, common to every country, given a slight Turkish twist. Simits are Turkish bagels, a pide is a Turkish pizza, and künefe… well, that’s just Turkish heaven.


Simits are usually purchased from roving street vendors who are either pushing carts or balancing towering stacks on their heads. But we were lucky enough to eat them in the best way possible: early in the morning, straight out of the oven. The Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın bakery was found conveniently between our apartment and the tram, and their freshly-baked simits quickly and firmly established themselves as our preferred on-the-go breakfast. These sesame-covered bread rings strike the perfect balance between crunchy and chewy.


Some foods, such as liver kebab, require working up a bit of bravery. And then there’s the pide, which requires no courage at all. It’s just a canoe-shaped pizza, packed with familiar things like meat, sausage, cheese and egg, buttered and baked to crispy perfection, then sliced into horizontal strips and served. Delicious. We’ve had excellent pide at Şimşek Pide near Taksim Square, and especially at Hocapaşa Pidecisi by Sirkeci Station.


Another immediate favorite was künefe, which we first tried at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, but later sampled in many, many other places. Layers of cheese and flour cooked in a copper dish and then drenched in syrup and covered in pistachio sprinkles. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Yes it does, and although we always feel an acute sense of shame while shoveling syrupy, stringy bites of cheese into our faces, we were never able to resist.

Locations: Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın | Şimşek Pide | Hocapaşa Pidecisi

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April 8, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (9)

The Rüstem Paşa Camii

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Built on a steep hill in the middle of a busy market area, the Rüstem Paşa mosque is yet another masterpiece from the ubiquitous master architect Mimar Sinan. If you weren’t carefully looking for the entrance, you would almost certainly miss it: just a narrow set of nondescript stairs leading up from the street. So ascending these steps and emerging into the mosque’s spacious courtyard is quite a surprise.


The surprises continue as you enter the mosque. The Rüstem Paşa is famed for its magnificent use of Iznik tiles, which cover every conceivable inch of the interior. Considering their age (the mosque was completed in 1563), the tiles are unbelievably colorful and the generous number of windows shows them in the best possible light. We loved this mosque — not only was it the most beautiful we had yet seen, but it’s also among the most welcoming to visitors. They even pass out free copies of the Koran… in English! I’ll probably never get around to reading it, but you never know when a Koran is going to come in handy.

On an unfortunate side note, we saw some abhorrent tourist behavior here. I can’t fathom what gets into people’s heads, but mosques are active places of worship which graciously welcome visitors. But an outrageous number of tourists in the Rüstem Paşa were gleefully breaking every rule: stepping over the ropes signed with “Please Stay Behind”, shouting to each other, wearing horribly inappropriate clothing, and groping everything they could get their hands on. And when I saw a couple sneak past the protective curtain up onto the pulpit, I came perilously close to scolding complete strangers. Tourists behaving badly damage the reputation of us all.

Location of the Rüstem Paşa Camii

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April 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm Comments (15)

Sunday Morning in Kumkapı

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The neighborhood south of the Grand Bazaar, bordering the Sea of Marmara, goes by the entertaining name of Kumkapı. Although it doesn’t lay claim to any major sights or fabulous mosques, we enjoyed the quiet Sunday morning we spent here. And now, we can finally strike “Attend an Armenian Apostolic Mass” from our bucket lists. Another childhood dream accomplished!


Despite the rocky historical relationship between Turkey and its landlocked neighbor to the east, Istanbul has always been home to a sizable population of Armenians; today the number is around 60,000, and many of them live in Kumkapı. Armenians are a strongly Christian people, and part of the reason we chose a Sunday morning to explore the neighborhood was to sit in on mass at the church of Surp Asdvadzadzin.

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest Christian nations; the first country in the world, in fact, to have made Christianity its official state religion. Despite the moderate number of worshipers at the large church, originally built in 1641, we enjoyed the atmosphere: the heavy use of incense, the small choir in front of the altar, and the priest almost yelling at his congregation in a language that sounds a bit like Greek.

After sneaking out of the church, we wandered through a maze of streets packed with fish restaurants. This is one of the most popular evening hangout zones for Istanbullus, who spend their nights eating fish, drinking rakı, listening to music, and having impromptu dance parties around their tables. We swore to return on a Saturday night, because if the mess on Sunday morning is any indication, it must be a good time.

We found a couple other churches in Kumkapı, including the massive Greek Orthodox church of Panaya Elpeda. Built in the 15th century, this looked incredible, but was unfortunately closed to visitors. There was a woman at the gate, but she wasn’t about to consider letting us in. We had to lay on the sweet talk pretty thick, before she would even allow us to snap a quick photo.

Location of the Surp Asdvadzadzin

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April 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm Comments (5)

The Istanbul Modern

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Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Art occupies an old warehouse in Tophane, right on top of the Bosphorus Strait. Downstairs are rotating temporary exhibits, while the upper floor houses the permanent collection along with a stylish cafe that has great-looking food, and an even better looking view.


As is always the case in modern art museums, the quality of the work varies wildly. Some pieces are really cool, but many left us scratching our heads and making depreciative comments like “This is art? My five-year-old niece could do that!”

(I recognize that I’m just revealing the level of my ignorance by scoffing at modern art. A professional curator, educated in various artistic movements, selected this piece for the museum and it must be annoying to overhear some snide, clueless idiot like me saying, “That’s art?” Because, as he very well knows, it definitely is. But any attempt at elucidation would fly right over my snarky little head, since I don’t have the foundation necessary for even a basic understanding of it. Still. It’s a bunch of damn scribbles. My five-year-old niece really could do that.)

So instead of the art, let’s concentrate on the building and the experience of visiting the museum. The converted warehouse is cool, with exposed vents and pipes on the ceiling and a spacious feel. And the views out onto the Bosphorus are unbeatable; it was kind of funny to see groups gathered at every window looking out onto the water, while the nearby artwork was ignored.

We did enjoy the exhibitions, particularly the permanent collection which concentrates on Turkish artists. The three temporary shows were also worthwhile, and we spent well over an hour roaming the grounds. Until now, much of our focus had been on Istanbul’s rich past and historic buildings, so it was nice to be reminded that this is also very much a contemporary city with its eyes set firmly on the future.

Location of the Istanbul Modern
İstanbul Modern – Website

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April 3, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comments (4)

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A Concise History of Istanbul If ever a city were in a need of a concise recounting of its history, it is Istanbul. Properly told, its story fills multiple volumes of heavy tomes. But we're too busy for detail or nuance, and so have distilled the past of one of the world's most historic cities into a ridiculous list of easily digestible highlights. Students of Mrs. Dent's sixth-grade history class: you're welcome! Academics and graduate students: you might want to look elsewhere.
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