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The Cats of Istanbul

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It was a common sight in Istanbul. You’d be standing in front of some amazing building like the Hagia Sophia or the Galata Tower, and all the tourists would be completely ignoring it. Their cameras were trained on something cuter than some ancient old structure: a playful pack of mewling kittens.

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Istanbul’s street cats are a phenomenon. They’re everywhere in the city; balancing on windowsills, cowering beneath cars, slinking between gravestones, sunning on benches, even relaxing in churches. And despite yourself, despite having sworn that, today, you would not be taking any more cat photos… that the 50,000 pics you’ve already snapped are quite enough… and that, to be honest, your cat picture obsession is starting to alarm you… you see another! And it’s chasing a butterfly, or making a grumpy face, or wrestling with its equally cute little sister, and you just can’t resist.

The city loves its cats. Almost as frequently as the animals themselves, you’ll find little plastic containers of food that people have set out for them. You’ll run across tiny cat houses built to provide shelter during storms. In many other cities, they’d be considered a pest and “dealt with” in some nefarious way, but Istanbul focuses its efforts on caring for them.

During our three months in the city, we must have photographed hundreds of cats. We got to know our neighborhood crew fairly well… there was Stink Face, Whitey and Scab Licker. In May, kittens started appearing, and we even rescued a baby who’d been abandoned by its mother. We have so many cat pictures, we started a Tumblr photo series called Daily Cat Istanbul.

The cats were an unexpected highlight of our 91 days in Istanbul. If you’re in the city, make sure to play with a few… and if you swing by Çukurcuma, say “hi” to Scab Licker for us. He’ll be the one licking his scabs.

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July 12, 2013 at 11:13 am Comments (21)

Smoking Nargile In Istanbul

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A hookah pipe is called a nargile in Turkey. It’s a surprisingly popular activity among Istanbullus of all ages, and we partook in quite a few smoking sessions ourselves. You can order tobacco in a variety of flavors, and spend hours lounging around, smoking and drinking tea.


The nargile has long been a prominent part of Turkish culture, although the introduction of cigarettes led to a serious decline in its stature. Lately, though, it’s been making a comeback among young people. It’s completely different to smoking a cigarette. You take your time with a nargile, and usually smoke with a group of friends. It’s social, and a lot more tranquil than hurriedly puffing down a cigarette as you rush off down the sidewalk.

Besides which, it tastes great. Apple is the mainstay, but you can try cherry, banana, coffee, orange or melon flavors, in addition to many others. Our personal favorite was a mix of a apple and mint, and we had a few favorite places in which to smoke it: the Perla Kallavi rooftop cafe off Istiklal Caddesi, the cafes at Tophane, Erenler Nargile near the Grand Bazaar, the courtyard of the Re Cafe in Kadiköy, and the Ağa Kapısı near Süleymaniye, which has a view over the Golden Horn. But in just about any corner of the city, we could find a good spot (and invent a good excuse) to sit down for a couple hours with a pipe.

Locations: Perla | Tophane Cafes | Erenler Nargile | Ağa Kapısı | Re Cafe

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July 7, 2013 at 9:24 am Comments (5)

Breakfast in Turkey

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During our first Turkish breakfast, I surveyed the table with fear and doubt. Every conceivable inch was occupied by a plate, bowl or cup. It was a ridiculous amount of food! Had the waitress misheard our order? When I said “breakfast for two”, had she understood “A merry feast for my hungry horde of Vikings”? Because this… this couldn’t possibly be right.

Turkish Breakfast

But no, it was a normal Turkish breakfast. Bread, olives, honey, jams, eggs, cheeses (old and new, cow and goat). Fluffy, filled pastries called börek. Omelets, sausage, tea. Everything you could possibly want. Turks really enjoy their kahvalti (literally, “before coffee”), and can sit around the table for hours. Newspapers are read, friends pass by and sit down, politics are discussed, more is ordered, and a lot is eaten.

We had a few wonderful breakfasts during our time in Istanbul. Aşşk Cafe in Nişantaşı, for example, served us a meal we’ll be fondly remembering for years. It was the first time I’d eaten chunks of sweet, chewy honeycomb. And did you know you can mix tahini and grape molasses? Well you can, and it’s delicious.

Another great experience was at Cafe Privato, where a view of the Galata Tower competes with an overflowing table of deliciousness for attention. As opposed to Aşşk Cafe, where we selected a variety from the menu, here were ordered a set breakfast, adding cigar-shaped börek filled with cheese. The jams were homemade, as were the breads and lemonade, and everything was delicious.

We had scored an excellent table near the window, and stayed for at least an hour after we’d finished, ordering cup after cup of tea. I felt a little bad about hogging one of the restaurant’s best views, but lingering seems to be the norm. Above all, Turkish breakfast is about slow, relaxed enjoyment. It’s hard to put a better start on the day.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Aşşk Cafe | Cafe Privato

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June 29, 2013 at 11:54 am Comments (4)

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace

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The Imperial Harem, the private pleasure palace of the Sultans, is the most well-known aspect of Ottoman royal life. But why has the Harem proven so persistent in the mind of popular culture? What is the secret behind its fame? Is it the fabulous tile-work which decorates its walls? Or is it the concept of hundreds of beautiful concubines with the sole mission of providing pleasure to a single man? Hmm… it’s a toss-up.

Topkapi Harem
The tiles are beautiful! And that’s why we need a harem at home, honey!

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace is amazing. Even the very fact of its existence is audacious. Here, in a sumptuously decorated labyrinth of 400 rooms, lived the Sultan’s slaves, concubines and wives, guarded over by a cadre of eunuchs. Only these passionless, de-manned men were considered “safe” enough to protect the Sultan’s bevy of beauties.

It may have been an extravagant place to live, but the majority of women who lived inside were little more than slaves, kidnapped from far-off lands. There’s a reason the Harem was known as the “Golden Cage”. Thanks to their good looks and femininity, Circassian girls were especially prized, but the ladies came from all across Europe and the Middle East. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, as the ruling class descended ever more into debauchery, there were up to 800 women imprisoned in the Harem.

800… and the Sultan had his pick of the lot! When he got bored with one, he’d just move on to the next. Should one find herself pregnant, she would immediately gain in status. The “favorites” were allowed into exclusive quarters and enjoyed special privileges. An especially lovely girl could even aspire to become one of the Sultan’s kadıns, or wives, in which case she’d find herself nearly at the top of the Harem hierarchy, with access to slaves of her own.

Windows Wood Design Harem Topkapi

The top dog of the Harem, though, was traditionally the Valide Sultan: the mother of the Sultan. She not only reigned over the Harem, but was often the most powerful person in the entire empire, depending upon how much interest her son showed in his job. The ladies of the harem wielded particular influence during a period known as the “Sultanate of Women“.

Today, you can visit the Harem after you’ve entered Topkapı Palace. It costs extra, which is off-putting since the palace is already quite expensive, and you have to wait in yet another ticket line. But the additional time and expense are worth it. The women of the Harem may have been slaves, but they lived in true luxury. The rooms are resplendent, with colorful Iznik tiles decorating many of the walls, and gorgeous furniture on which to while away the days.

You can’t get into nearly all the rooms, but you can see some of the most impressive, including the Sultan’s bedroom, the Courtyard of the Eunuchs and the apartments of the Queen Mother. Leading straight through the Harem is a path called the Golden Road, so named because the Sultan would walk along it on festive days, throwing golden coins on the ground for his concubines to gather up. Sigh… it was good to be Sultan!

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June 28, 2013 at 11:17 am Comments (11)

Jumping into the Bosphorus

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Despite their pleading, we weren’t about to join the group of kids in jumping into the Bosphorus. I don’t care how strong the sun is shining! One by one, these brave young souls ran up to the coast of Emirgan and took flying leaps into the jellyfish-infested water below. They tried to tell us that it was warm, but judging by their incessant shivering after climbing out, I suspect they were lying. Still, it did look like fun…

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June 25, 2013 at 11:56 am Comments (0)

Hidden Corners Behind the Grand Bazaar

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Istanbul is the kind of place which favors bold exploration, as we learned after a day spent in the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar. The city is filled with quiet, secret spots… if you can muster up the courage to go down that darkened hall, into that empty courtyard, or up those crumbling stairs.

Secret Hans Istanbul

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone skip off willy-nilly into Istanbul’s abandoned buildings. We ventured into a couple places that I would never go into were I by myself, or were it after dark. But a cautious exploration of the old hans around the Grand Bazaar can be very rewarding.

Our day began in the Subuncu Han, near Eminönü Plaza. This han itself doesn’t have much to recommend it, just a bunch of jewelry stores surrounding a tiny courtyard, but there was a great locals-only spot for lunch on the second floor. Instead of sitting down in one of Eminönü’s döner shops for an overpriced lunch geared toward tourists, we munched on excellent and very cheap lahmaçun (Turkish pizza) with a few guys who work in the han.

We progressed steadily from Eminönü towards the Grand Bazaar, every once in awhile escaping the crowds to duck into another han. We found gold and silver-smiths at work in the Leblebici Han, and watched a couple men train flocks of trick pigeons in the Büyuk Yeni Han. And in the gray, French-influenced Stamboul Yeni Tcharchi Han, we were the only people at all. A young guy witnessed our hesitation about venturing down an long, dark tunnel-like hallway in the Sair Han, and encouraged us to proceed without fear. At the end, we found a nargile workshop. The most well-hidden nargile workshop in the world!

Inside a couple hans, we were able to get onto the roofs for amazing views of the city. The first was at the northwest corner of the Sair Han; before going inside, you can scale a flight of stairs directly to the roof. But the better view was at the massive Büyük Valide Han. Here, we were approached by a key-wielding man who knew exactly what we wanted. “Go on roof, yes?” A small five lira tip later, we were up on top, looking over the city and the Golden Horn.

It was an incredible day out. If you’re interested in doing something similar, check out a great book called Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon: a comprehensive guide to the Grand Bazaar and the streets which surround it, with four self-guided walking tours.

Locations on our Map: Subuncu Han | Sair Han | Büyük Valide Han

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June 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm Comments (7)

An Introduction to Turkish Marbling

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Marbling, or ebru, is one of the most popular forms of Turkish art. We decided to introduce ourselves to the technique, and joined a workshop offered by Les Arts Turcs in Sultanahmet. By the end of the entertaining session, we had managed to create a few minor masterpieces.

Ebru has been a part of the Turkish art scene for centuries, and has long been a specialty of Istanbul’s dervish orders. Contributing to the technique’s popularity is the fact that it’s easy to learn; even an absolute beginner can create an impressive piece of art. Basically, you drip paint on top of water, use needles and brushes to make swirling designs, and then transfer the finished work onto paper. The paints are treated with ox gall to lower their surface tension, allowing them to float, and the water’s properties result in fluid, hypnotic patterns.

Les Arts Turcs is a small gallery and artspace near the Topkapi Palace that both sells and displays original pieces, and offers classes in Turkish techniques such as ebru and calligraphy. And they let you get right to the fun stuff: within a couple minutes of entering the workshop, we were bent over trays of water, applying our first dabs of color. Marbling is something which doesn’t require a lot of prior instruction.

My first painting was going wonderfully. Having chosen a background palette of orange, blue and white, I had used a comb to swirl the colors into a mesmerizing pattern. But then I screwed it all up by adding giant flowers. Somehow (and perhaps my inner artist should have realized this) red and pink flowers on a blue-orange background don’t look good. My inner artist is an idiot.

Luckily, my inner bullshitter is always willing to step up. “Exactly what I was going for!” I announced, proudly displaying my ridiculous pink-on-orange monstrosity to everyone in the room, daring them to call my bluff.

Flowers were the preferred motive during our workshop. We learned to make carnations, tulips, roses, violets and chrysanthemums. And then, just to mix it up, we did some trees. Since Islam isn’t big on the artistic representation of the human form, plants and flowers are popular themes in Turkish art. Anyway, the colorful and geometric flower shapes suit the technique of marbling perfectly.

We had a great morning at Les Arts Turcs; marbling makes for a fun cultural experience, far removed from visiting mosques and museums. For €60 per person, you’re provided instruction, and the chance to make a number of paintings, which you can take home. A more personal souvenir is hard to imagine.

Location on our Istanbul Map
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June 20, 2013 at 10:26 am Comments (24)

The Karagöz Puppets of Bursa

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More from Our Trip to Bursa
Introduction | The Green Mosque and Tomb | Gazi Plaza and the Market | Muradiye and Around

Karagöz shadow puppetry, one of Turkey’s most distinctive art forms, was born in Bursa. And the city is still the best place in the world to catch a regular performance. It might be the only such place. Every day, the Karagöz Museum puts on shows starring the puppets which have kept Turkey in stitches for hundreds of years.

Karagöz Puppet Museum Bursa

Karagöz puppetry dates back to the 14th century, when Bursa was still the capital of the young Ottoman Empire. The art form’s popularly accepted origin story tells of Karagöz and Hacivat: two men working on the construction of the Orhan Gazi Mosque in the city center. Rather than work, these two spent most of their time bickering and teasing each other in such an entertaining fashion, that they became a major distraction to the other men. And so the sultan, impatient for the completion of his mosque, had them executed. The shenanigans of Karagöz and Hacivat were so missed by the people, that a new form of puppetry was invented to commemorate them and their already-legendary quarreling.

We visited the Karagöz Museum in Bursa which, although presented completely in Turkish, provided a nice overview. The puppets are made from camel skin, dried and dyed in bright colors. An oil lamp is lit behind the semi-transparent skin of the puppets, whose colorful shadows are thrown against a screen.

Most of the plays recount one of Karagöz’s “get rich quick” schemes, which Hacivat, the wiser and more down-to-earth of the duo, predictably rails against and attempts to foil. Each performance includes multiple puppets, and requires up to four puppeteers behind the screen. Karagöz plays feature a wide cast of characters taken from Ottoman life, including Tuzsuz the drunk, Kanbur the opium addict, Denyo the idiot, and Altı Kariş the angry dwarf. Political correctness was not a concern in the early Ottoman Empire.

The Karagöz Museum puts on two puppet shows every day, and we sat down with a group of schoolkids to watch one. Of course, it’d have helped to understand exactly what Karagöz and Hacivat were arguing about, but even in Turkish the meaning came across well enough, and the hysterical laughter of the kids was contagious. I loved it… here was a group of children raised in the Smartphone Generation, completely engrossed and delighted by 700-year-old shadow puppets. Great entertainment, I suppose, never gets old.

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June 17, 2013 at 9:20 am Comments (4)

Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi

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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.

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June 11, 2013 at 11:05 am Comments (2)

Forza Beşiktaş!

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As in most other European cities, soccer is king in Istanbul. But unlike most other cities, Istanbul is home to not one, not two, but three major teams. Galatasaray is currently the top dog, champions of the 2012/13 season and the league’s most internationally accomplished side. Fenerbahçe is the wealthiest and has the biggest stadium. But we chose to throw our support behind Beşiktaş.

Night Game Soccer Beşiktaş

There are a few reasons we were drawn to Beşiktaş. Its supporters are known to be left-wing and working-class, which suits us. Their colors, simple black and white, are cool. And it doesn’t hurt that their stadium is within walking of our apartment… which was probably the biggest factor in our supporting them.

We joined 35,000 chanting, rabid fans in the BJK Inönü Stadium for a Saturday night match against cellar-dweller Orduspor. From our seats in the “Yeni Açık” section, we had a view of Dolmabahçe Palace, the Bosphorus and Asia in the distance. I’ve never visited such a beautifully situated stadium, and the view distracted us from the action on the pitch, especially as the sun went down.

Also distracting: the crowd. Beşiktaş fans are nuts! These guys were on their feet the entire match, chanting, singing, whistling and hopping. My favorite bit of crowd participation was a sort of “Chant Wave”. Supporters near us would sing something, and the next section over would holler back a response. This continued all around the stadium until arriving back to our section. No idea what they were saying, but it was impressive. Considering the relative insignificance of the match, there was a great atmosphere — I’d love to return for a derby.

Beşiktaş’s supporters group is known as Çarşı, well-known for being politically-engaged and virulently left-wing. They’re anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-corruption and anti-establishment. And a favorite chant sums up their world view nicely: Çarşı, herşeye karşı! “Çarşı is against everything!” Just by itself, that slogan might make Beşiktaş the coolest club in the world.

We had a blast at the game, which, incidentally, ended 2-0 in favor of the good guys. Don’t let the raucous reputation of Turkish soccer fans put you off; attending a match at the BJK Inönü Stadium is a memorable experience.

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June 11, 2013 at 5:58 am Comment (1)

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The Cats of Istanbul It was a common sight in Istanbul. You'd be standing in front of some amazing building like the Hagia Sophia or the Galata Tower, and all the tourists would be completely ignoring it. Their cameras were trained on something cuter than some ancient old structure: a playful pack of mewling kittens.
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