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Emirgan Park

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With its trees, chalets, ponds, waterfall and jungle gyms, Emirgan’s park is one of the best in the city. Of course, since it’s also one of the only parks in the city, it doesn’t have much competition. Istanbul may have a lot of things to recommend it, but an abundance of green spaces is not one of them.

Big Istanbul Sigh

But Emirgan Park is excellent by any standard. Perhaps a bit too hilly to get a game of soccer going, but that doesn’t concern the hordes who turn out for a day in the sun. We visited on a Sunday afternoon, along with seemingly every family and every piece of picnicking equipment in Istanbul. Grills, coolers, cutlery, card games, blankets, radios, pillows… when Turkish families go for a picnic, they bring more stuff than we even own.

Emirgan Park is not for the weak of leg. To even arrive at the gate, you have to complete a wearying ascent, and once you’re inside, the hills just continue. But you’re rewarded for the workout with beautiful views of the Bosphorus. And if you become overly exhausted, you can sit under a tree on the grass, or grab a seat in a cafe at one of the park’s three Swiss-style chalets, painted pink, white and yellow.

In picturesque Emirgan Park, the only group found in greater abundance than picnicking families is bridal parties. This is apparently the top spot in Istanbul for wedding portraits, and the sheer number of couples being chased around the park by photographers was absurd. At one point, we found ourselves trapped on a narrow bridge, between two bridal parties posing for pictures at either end. Not willing to risk trampling a dress, we escaped by hopping over a fence, and received a shrill reprimand from a nearby guard. (Whistle-armed guards patrol the grounds ceaselessly, and are comically aggressive in enforcing even the most minor regulations.)

Despite the hills, brides and guards, we loved our visit to Emirgan Park. It’s hard to to think of a better spot in Istanbul to while away a lazy, sunny Sunday.

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June 25, 2013 at 10:54 am Comments (4)

Turkish Sweet Tooth: Baklava, Lokum and Dondurma

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After a couple months in Istanbul, I started avoiding my reflection. But one morning, I accidentally caught a glimpse. Yep, a little chubbier than normal. And I was thrilled! Considering the rate at which I had been shoveling Istanbul’s infamous sweets into my honey-smeared mouth, “a little chubbier than normal” was perfectly acceptable.

Turkish Baklava

Baklava is the most famous of Turkey’s desserts: a wonderful, honey-drenched concoction invented by renowned sweet-tooth Lucifer, Lord of Hell. Of course, we’re all familiar with the Biblical parable in which baklava was created by the devil to tempt Jesus from the path of righteousness. Jesus had been able to resist the first three temptations, but one whiff of baklava and he was undone.

(Maybe that’s not exactly how it went. But if the devil had thought to tempt Jesus with baklava, the Bible might have had a very different ending.)

Baklava is the quintessential Turkish treat, invented in the kitchens of the Topkap? Palace for the enjoyment of sultans. Layers of flaky dough separated by melted butter are filled with crushed nuts and baked, then drenched in honey or syrup. But such a spiritless description of this wonder-treat does it no justice. Allow me to try again. Baklava is the Beethoven’s Ninth of sweets; a perfect symphony of pleasure in which every ingredient comes together so harmoniously that upon finishing, you want to immediately experience it again. Baklava is so flawless, so beautiful, that it should be banned.

Cutting Tirkish Delight

Lokum, better known as Turkish Delight, is another popular treat Jürgen and I consumed far too much of. These flavored, powdered, gummy cubes were invented in Constantinople in 1776 (the same year, I’ll proudly note, that America was invented), and immediately became a hit around the Ottoman Empire.

It can be made in a limitless number of flavors, with rosewater the most traditional. The best (and most expensive) lokum use honey as the sweetener, flour and water to create the gel, and then a wide variety of ingredients to finish the taste and give it color. We’ve had creamy walnut lokum, orange and lemon lokum, mint lokum rolled in coconut, hazelnut lokum, swirly chocolate lokum with a pistachio coating. And a lot more.

While eating baklava and lokum, I prefer to be at a table by myself, with one arm arched protectively around my plate. So they don’t provide anywhere near the fun factor as my favorite kind of Istanbul dessert: Turkish Ice Cream, or dondurma.

Dondurma

When you order a cone of the extra-thick, extra-creamy ice cream from a street vendor, prepare yourself for some teasing. The sellers, dressed in Ottoman fashion, are experts in the art of trickery. They’ll give you your cone, swipe it away, replace it with an empty cone, spin their stick to make you grasp at air, bop you on the nose with the ice cream, prick you in the side with the cone’s point, and all you can do is play along. I never tire of watching their antics, and have never seen them fail to coax a laugh out of whomever they’re teasing.

And the ice cream? Delicious. It’s the thickest, heaviest ice cream I’ve ever tasted; the kind you can actually bite into. In fact, it might be best eaten with a fork and knife.

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June 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm Comments (6)

The Süleymaniye Complex

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The Süleymaniye Mosque might not be as popular as the Blue Mosque, but it’s arguably more impressive. This massive complex near the university was built for Süleyman the Magnificent and includes a library, a soup kitchen, an amazing courtyard, and the tombs of both Süleyman and his famous wife Roxelana.

Süleymaniye Istanbul

The woman who became known as Roxelana (the Russian) was born as Hürrem Haseki in the Ukraine. Exceptionally beautiful, she was kidnapped during her youth and brought to the harem of the Ottoman Court, where she soon captured Süleyman’s eyes. So smitten was the sultan that he had his son Mustafa executed, in order to start a new family with Roxelana. After converting to Islam, the ambitious and wily Roxelana convinced the sultan to free her from slavery and take her as a wife. Quite a break with tradition: Süleyman was the first sultan in 200 years to marry.

Roxelana quickly established herself as a major political force in the Ottoman Empire, and became even more powerful after Süleyman’s death and the ascension of Selim II, their son. As “Valide Sultan”, or mother of the Sultan, she exercised enormous influence over her boy and the court. Selim had fallen far from the tree of his “magnificent” father, and went by a somewhat less awe-inspiring nickname: Selim the Sot. A drunkard primarily interested in orgies, Selim was happy to leave the business of running the empire to his mother.

Süleymaniye Carpet

The Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest in Istanbul, and the crowning achievement of Mimar Sinan, whose tomb is in a lovely garden next door. Set atop a hill in the middle of the old town, the mosque and its four minarets are visible from all over the city. At 53 meters in height and 26 in diameter, the dome is breathtaking and sits atop a huge, empty worshiping area. Despite the mosque’s size, visitors are restricted to a small section towards the front of the mosque, which is a shame.

Around the mosque are a number of buildings which once constituted the külliye, or complex. Four Koran schools, a hospital and a hamam joined a soup kitchen and an inn. Also present are the mausoleums of both Süleyman and Roxelana. Today, the former soup kitchen houses a fancy restaurant, with an atmospheric tea garden in a sunken courtyard next door. From the mosque’s terrace, you can look over the Golden Horn and the rooftops of Eminönü.

It’s incredible that so many tourists line up to visit the Blue Mosque, while so few make it out to the Süleymaniye. Both are worth-seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque offers the more enjoyable experience.

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June 24, 2013 at 11:01 am Comment (1)

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.

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June 20, 2013 at 10:26 am Comments (24)

Çengelköy and the Beylerbeyi Palace

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There’s no shortage of charming neighborhoods lining the shores of the Bosphorus, but lovely little Çengelköy is among the very best of them. We had breakfast here on a Sunday morning, before walking along the coast to the incredible Beylerbeyi Palace.

Beylerbeyi Palace

Çengelköy literally means “Hook Village”, and was so named because it occupies a section of shoreline that hooks around a bend in the Bosphorus. The layout provides a perfect view of the strait, south to the Bophorus Bridge and into the Sea of Marmara beyond it. On the Sunday we visited, there was a market selling custom-made clothing and jewelry, and a pleasant, unhurried atmosphere in the cafes and restaurants.

After eating, we made a leisurely stroll to Beylerbeyi: another neighborhood about fifteen minutes down the Bosphorus. (You might be noticing an overuse of terms like “leisurely”, “unhurried”, and “relaxed”. But this it’s simply the frame of mind which the area inspires! Everything about it is peaceful and calming. The sound of lapping water, the fishermen focused quietly on their lines, the shade-giving plane trees, the old men drinking tea and playing okey (a Rummikub-like game). It’s a welcome change of pace from the normal mayhem of the city.)

Beylerbeyi is almost as cute as Çengelköy, and known for its amazing palace. Built in 1832 as a summer residence for Sultan Abdulaziz II, the Beylerbeyi Palace sits almost directly underneath the Bosphorus Bridge. Having arrived a little late (our stroll was leisurely, after all), we were compelled to join a Turkish-language tour of the palace. The English tours were done for the day. So, I spent the tour inventing imaginary translations of what our guide might be saying. Such as:

“This vase alone is worth more than your puny lives put together! Bow before it, you filthy swine!”

“Look at this golden mirror. It once reflected the image of a Sultan, but now it shows only an unwashed peasant! That’s you I’m referring to, by the way.”

The palace, of course, was astounding. It was similar to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which we had visited just a few days before. But the fact that this was just meant to be a “summer residence” really hammered home how wealthy the sultans of the late Ottoman Empire truly were. In the reception hall, for example, there’s a fountain and pool — inside the palace! Visiting a place like this can really make a guy feel inferior.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Çengelköy | Beylerbeyi Palace

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June 15, 2013 at 10:11 am Comments (0)

Eyüp: At the End of the Golden Horn

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Found outside the old city walls at the end of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Eyüp is one of the most sacred spots in the Islamic world.

Eyüp Mosque

The best way to get to Eyüp is aboard the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry which leaves from Eminönu. But as luck would have it, water traffic was closed on the Saturday morning that we had chosen on our visit, after heavy fog had caused a ferry collision. So we were forced to reach Eyüp by bus… providing a lesson that we’ll now impart to you: if you have to take a bus to Eyüp, you might as well walk! The traffic along the southern Golden Horn is ridiculous, especially on weekends, and it took 90 minutes to complete the five kilometer journey.

By the time we finally arrived, we were in miserable spirits. But Eyüp made a valiant effort to cheer us up, with its cute, pedestrianized streets and festival-like atmosphere. This has been an important pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Ayyub al-Ansari, the friend and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died here during the first attempted Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and was buried in the location that would later bear his name (Ayyub → Eyüp).

Apart from its lovely location on the Golden Horn, Eyüp’s prominent feature is its enormous mosque. We ducked inside during prayer time, but left quickly; the place was so packed we could hardly find an open patch of carpet on which to stand. Right across from the mosque is Ayyub al-Ansari’s türbe, or tomb. Although closed during our visit, it’s supposed to be amazing; completely covered in Iznik tiles.

For centuries, Eyüp has been the most fashionable place in Istanbul to be laid to rest, and it’s surrounded by cemeteries. The largest of these stretches up a steep hill that eventually ends at the Pierre Loti Café, named for the French novelist. This lovely garden cafe boasts a view that takes in the entirety of the Golden Horn, all the way to the Bosphorus Strait. Breathtaking, and it was the perfect way to end a long day.

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June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm Comments (3)

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)

Haydarpaşa and the Crimean War Cemetery

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Even more “orient” than the Orient Express, the Baghdad Railway connected the future capital of Iraq to Istanbul. The western terminus was the massive Haydarpaşa Station, which is still one of the busiest train stations in Turkey. We spent a day exploring the magnificent old station and the neighborhood surrounding it.

Haydarpaşa Station

Completed in 1910, Haydarpaşa Station was designed in a neo-classical style by Prussian engineers, at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Germans were big sponsors of the struggling Ottoman state, and were pursuing every tactical advantage before the onset of World War I. But the project, which would have given them access to the Persian Gulf, wasn’t done nearly in time… the first train between Baghdad and Istanbul wouldn’t roll out until 1940.

Though damaged during the war, the impressive station was restored and has become one of Asian Istanbul’s most striking landmarks. Aside from the station, though, the neighborhood of Haydarpaşa is a traffic-heavy zone with none of the charm of nearby Kadiköy. Even here, though, we found a couple worthwhile highlights, including the giant central building of the Marmara University and, behind it, the British Crimean War Memorial.

One of history’s first “modern wars”, the Crimean War pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of French, British and Ottoman over control of the Crimean Peninsula and basically resulted in a stalemate. Over 20,000 British soldiers died in this war, and many of them have been laid to rest here. The cemetery is peaceful in its way, but we felt chills while reading the names and ages of the soldiers, on gravestone after gravestone … 21, 23, 19. A memorial statue in the park, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth, honors the “brave men who gave their lives for their country”. But you’re left to wonder whether this obscure cause in a faraway land was truly worth so many young British lives.

Locations on our Map: Haydarpaşa Station | British Crimean War Memorial Cemetery

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June 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm Comments (0)

Lost in the Grand Bazaar

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With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s one of the world’s largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.

Main Entrance Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar, it’s not so much “whether” you become lost but “when”. The jam-packed streets curve confusingly and the shops all look the same. There’s no sky or sun to point the way, and the mad jumble of people, whether they’re shoving by or trying to win your business, will spin you around until you’ve lost your bearings. Enter a store, engage in a bit of haggling, spend too long admiring an oil lamp, and it’s already too late. Good luck trying to remember the direction you came from, or where you were going.

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, the victorious Ottomans set about Turkifying their new capital. The Hippodrome was razed, churches became mosques, and the Grand Bazaar was established near the newly established university in Beyazit. Despite recurrent earthquakes and fires, the bazaar grew and thrived, and was soon famous across Europe as the Mecca of shopping.

Today, an estimated 400,000 people visit the market daily. Over 27,000 people are employed within its walls. The bazaar, in almost every meaningful sense of the word, is a city unto itself. There are restaurants, barbers, banks, a police station, even a mosque — everything a decent-sized town of nearly 30,000 might need to sustain itself.

Souvenir Shopping Grand Bazaar

We love the Grand Bazaar, and invent an excuse to dart inside anytime we find ourselves nearby. Of course, in the wrong mood, or on a Saturday when the number of visitors increases dramatically, it can be stressful. And though the great majority of vendors are respectful, a few are unbearably pushy. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all; we found identical nargiles in nearby Tahtakale for less than half the price as in the Grand Bazaar. And if you’re not proficient in the art of haggling, you’ll leave with either empty hands or an empty wallet.

But somehow, none of that subtracts from the experience of visiting. You don’t have to buy anything to have fun, and we almost never entered the gates with the intention of shopping. We’d go to explore the hans, have lunch, watch gold-makers and silver-smiths ply their trades, and lose ourselves in the maze. Photo opportunities are everywhere, and many of the shopkeepers are happy to chat even if you’re clearly not planning on buying. We were once invited to try some çiğ köfte one guy’s wife had made for his lunch. And a carpet seller took us to the top floor of his shop for a view of the roof. Turkish people, in general, are friendly and welcoming to strangers, and this seems to be even more the case within the Grand Bazaar.

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June 9, 2013 at 8:37 am Comments (7)

The Jewish Museum and Kamondo Steps

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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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Galata Steps
Kamondo Steps Istranbul
Weird Stairs Istanbul
Kamondo Steps Galata
Design Istanbul
Istanbul Portraits Series
Synagogues Istanbul
Jewish synagogues Istanbul
Jewish Museums Istanbul
Jewish History In Istanbul

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