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Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi

With their heads slightly tilted, arms raised in exaltation and spinning in graceful circles, the whirling sufi dervishes are among the most enduring images of Turkey. Istanbul boasts a number of places in which to catch a ceremony, but we chose to attend the twice-monthly performance in the Galata Mevlevihanesi; the city’s oldest tekke.

Dervish Dance

Before the sema ceremony, I wasn’t sure what to expect apart from men in tall hats spinning slowly. And as it turns out… these expectations were spot-on. The performance is uplifting. Very spiritual and strange, and very moving. But it really is just dudes spinning around to strange music, for almost an hour. And I’ll confess that I started getting bored, after spin #235. (Everybody’s got a dervish spin limit. At 235, mine is acceptable. Those who are more mystically inclined might have a higher tolerance. 5000, say. But everyone has a limit.)

Dervishes are adherents to sufism: a mystical interpretation of Islam, which aspires to a perfectly pure state of worship. Each dervish order is based around an exalted teacher or saint, and each has different practices. In general, dervishes ascribe to an ascetic lifestyle of extreme poverty, and are fairly similar to Catholic monks. The Mevlevi Order was based around the teachings of the Persian mystic Rumi, and was among the most prominent dervish sects in the Ottoman Empire. Even sultans would come to watch their ceremonies in Galata.

Established in 1451, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is the oldest surviving tekke (dervish monastery) in Istanbul. It’s now been converted into a museum dedicated to the Mevlevi Order, with exhibits that illuminate their way of life, rituals, music, and beliefs. The brothers of the order didn’t spend all day whirling; they were skilled in calligraphy and art, and masters of specialized professions like watchmaking. The museum does a good job of introducing the dervishes, and their beautiful old tekke.

The sema ceremony is held in the Galata Mevlevihanesi on the second and last Sunday of each month. It’s probably the most authentic possible setting in Istanbul to watch the Dervishes do their thing.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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June 11, 2013 at 11:05 am Comment (1)

The Jewish Museum and Kamondo Steps

Under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the world’s great ethnic smorgasbords. Greek, Armenian, Albanian and Turk all got along relatively well and lived peaceably, if not equally, under Ottoman law. So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Jews fleeing persecution in Europe found a permanent home here, and have long been part of the city’s cultural fabric.

Kamondo Steps

The Ottoman Empire wasn’t just one of the world’s greatest powers, but also among its most tolerant. Ethnic and religious minorities were treated with much more respect by the Ottomans than by the countries of Europe. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued their execrable 1492 decree expelling Jews from Spain and Portugal, Sultan Beyazit II formally invited them to resettle in Ottoman lands.

Still, it’s silly to pretend that the entirety of Jewish history in Istanbul has been one of roses and sunshine. Antisemitism flared up throughout the centuries, depending on the views of the reigning sultan and the tolerance of other minority communities… Istanbul’s Christians were particularly hard on their Jewish counterparts. But the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had it relatively good, and eventually reached half a million in number. They settled mainly in the neighborhood of Balat, but the city’s most important Jewish Museum is found in Karaköy, inside a converted synagogue.

The museum is small but interesting, concentrating on artifacts like traditional clothing and religious relics. There are detailed accounts of the Jewish migration to Istanbul, and the experience of living in the Ottoman Empire. And the synagogue itself is so beautiful that it’s almost worth the cost of entry, alone.

Near the museum, you can find the curvy Kamondo Steps, built in 1860 by Istanbul’s foremost Jewish family. The gorgeous staircase has become one of the most photographed landmarks in Beyoğlu.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Jewish Museum | Kamondo Steps

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June 7, 2013 at 5:01 pm Comments (0)

The Historic Arcades of İstiklal Caddesi

I’m beginning to think that we could have dedicated 91 days to just Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. In fact, a blog devoted entirely to the city’s main shopping street isn’t inconceivable. İstiklal Caddesi For 91 Days. The number of bars, restaurants, shops, theaters and galleries along “Independence Street” is overwhelming. We spent an entire day exploring just its historic arcades. What follows are short descriptions of our favorites, with links to their exact locations.

Flower-Flower-Passage

The most famous of İstiklal’s arcades is the Çiçek Pasajı, or the Flower Passage. This is one of the prettiest locations in Beyoğlu, and among the most popular with tourists. As such, its prior function as a home for florists has long since vanished, and the passage is now monopolized by expensive restaurants. [Location | More Pics]

Atlas-Pasaji-Bar

The Atlas Pasajı dates from 1871 and centers around a cinema of the same name, where we attended a screening during the Istanbul Film Festival. Apart from the excellent theater, the arcade is a good place to shop for affordable alternative clothing. [Location | More Pics]

Avrupra-Passage.

The Avrupa Pasajı (Europe Passage) is ornamented by classical statues and topped with a round roof that allows in plenty of light. Most of the stores here today focus on jewelry and upscale souvenirs. This arcade runs parallel to İstiklal Caddesi and is a little difficult to pinpoint without assistance. [Location | More Pics]

Hazzopulo-Best-Tea-Istanbul

Perhaps our favorite spot of the day was in the courtyard found at the back of the narrow Hazzopulo Pasajı, which was packed with students drinking tea and playing backgammon. As soon as we emerged into this very cool corner of the city, we felt ourselves leveling up. Drinking tea in Hazzopulo advances you from Istanbul Level 3 (beginner) to Level 4 (novice). [Location | More Pics]

Aslihan-Books

The hardest arcade to find was the Aslıhan Pasajı, but it was worth the effort. This long, narrow, multi-floor passage is dedicated entirely to second-hand books and comics. I enjoy comics, and especially browsing through stacks of old, used copies. I’ve noticed that, in Istanbul, the most popular comic by far is Conan the Barbarian. Do Turks have a thing for Conan? [Location | More Pics]

Suriye-Vintage-Cloth

Found at the southern end of İstiklal Caddesi, the Cité de Syrie was built in 1908. Hidden within this arcade’s basement is an incredible second-hand clothing and costume store called By Retro. Otherwise, besides a single sofa sitting alone in the hallway, this beautiful arcade is almost entirely empty. [Location | More Pics]

Other arcades we visited on İstiklal Caddesi were more forgettable, but still fun to hunt down. Rumeli has a great cafe called Mona Lisa, decorated with posters of old film stars. Aleppo is home to another cool theater, and Aznavur feels very dated and has shops selling handmade trinkets. Pasaj Markiz was our least favorite of the day; behind a lovely facade, it’s occupied entirely by a Sears-like department store called “Darty”.

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More pictures from the Çiçek Pasajı and 1 video

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More pictures from the Atlas Passage

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More pictures from the Avrupa Pasajı

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More pictures from the Hazzopulo Pasajı

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More pictures from the Aslıhan Pasajı

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More pictures from the Cité de Syrie

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Suriye-High-Fashion.
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Pictures from the Rumeli Passage
Rumeli
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Rumeli-Cafe-Mona-Lisa
Rumeli-Mona-Lisa-Bling
Pictures from the Aznavur Passage
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May 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm Comments (2)

Ciğer &#350iş – Liver Shish Kebab at Canim Ciğerim

At the last second, I nearly lost my nerve and ordered chicken. But I stayed strong and, in a confident voice, ordered the “Ciğer &#350iş”: 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.

Turkish-Feast

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

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.

Istanbul-Strassenbahn

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)

Atop the Galata Tower

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”… ?
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March 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm Comments (10)

Merhaba Istanbul!

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)