Reunion in Istanbul
When we were planning our trip to the NESA Teachers’ Conference in Istanbul, I wrote to the Tohs and the Nemlis on the possibility of reconnecting. To our delight, the connection was a go. Unfortunately, it was Girls Getaway week for them, so we would not see Toh and Sarper, who would be kid caring while the wives would play. On the upside, we would see Monique and Filiz.
Filiz and Sarper are ethnic Turks. Filiz grew up in Bulgaria, but moved to Turkey with her parents as a young adult. She met and married Sarper in Turkey, and they consider Istanbul their home city. Some time ago Filiz had written that she would like to show us her Istanbul, but we really didn’t expect it to happen. Lory and I initially met up with Filiz and Monique at a restaurant on the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel on Saturday evening March 21, 2015. The venue offers a beautiful view of the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s treasured inlet harbor. Lory was recuperating from pneumonia the whole time we were in Istanbul so we were lucky that she was strong enough to go out for dinner.
Filiz chose the restaurant to share both the geographic beauty of Istanbul, and the tantalizing Turkish cuisine . We were a group of seven. Monique’s friend Maura had come from Colorado to celebrate her 46th Birthday. Two other friends from the US were with us as well – Bill, a childhood friend of Maura, and Barbara, who works with Bill in the State Department, both currently posted in Turkey. For dinner, I wanted to try something authentically Turkish, and Filiz recommended the lamb’s neck. I never would have thought of ordering lamb’s neck, but it turned out to be melt in your mouth delicious. My best dining surprise since my horsemeat steak in Atyrau on my 68th Birthday! Lory had giant shrimp in a beautiful presentation with various sauces, every one delicious.
Filiz invited us to join the group for a cruise on the Bosphorus the following day. Lory had to decline because if she felt healthy enough the next day she wanted to attend some conference sessions. But she strongly encouraged me to go, guilt free!
Filiz picked me up by taxi at the Hilton on the Bosphorus, and we set off for the Ortakoy district, where our cruise would begin. Filiz apologized profusely for the traffic and the mad pace of city life in Istanbul. The city has changed greatly since she lived there. I had noticed the increase in tourism when I spent Friday afternoon in Sultanahmet, the center of the old city. Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazar are all within a stone’s throw in Sultanahmet. It is packed with tourists even in off-season March! Sultanahmet is just south of the Golden Horn inlet, and Ortakoy is north of the inlet near the first Bosphorus Bridge.
Ortakoy is a very trendy district that Filiz wanted to share with me, probably because I am such a trendy guy. It reminded me of Granville Island in Vancouver, and Pike’s Place in Seattle – cool little bistros, bars, and coffee shops on the waterfront. Later we would participate in an Ortakoy street food tradition of eating a huge baked potato with your choice of toppings. Several food stalls along a cobble stone street compete for baked potato sales with barkers who shouted, “Hey slim, get your baked potato here!” Sounds the same in Turkish. The passenger ferry tour starts from right next to the beautiful Ortakoy Mosque. Monique and friends joined us at a bistro near the mosque, and we boarded the ferry.
We happened to get the warmest, sunniest March day for our cruise. It was still a sweater and jacket day, but the bright sun was most welcome for this Kazakh tourist, fresh out of winter.
The Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait is a critical link in the sea passage route that connects Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. It directly connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which in turn leads through the Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea of the Mediterranean. This passage has been the focus of many wars throughout history, including two world wars. Since Medieval times, the Bosphorus was vital for strategic naval control of the area. Istanbul, then Constantinople, was a major trade center of the Silk Road.
Today the Bosphorus is a critical warm water route for Russia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other oil exporting nations. But on our tour, my focus was on the late medieval period, and the transformation of Christian Constantinople to Muslim Istanbul. There are two suspension bridges that cross the Bosphorus: the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, also known as the Second Bosphorus Bridge. Our cruise was north from the first bridge on the European shoreline, and south from the second bridge on the Asian shoreline. It is a relatively short afternoon cruise that for my money was just right.
The Ortakoy Mosque
The view of the Ortakoy Mosque from the water is spectacular. Built in 1856 it was designed in the Neo Baroque style by Armenian architects, father and son Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigogayos Balyan. The Balyan family designed the Topkapi Palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace and many other religious and public buildings in Istanbul. Filiz informed me that the mosque is slowly sinking into the Bosphorus, but would still be here when we returned from the cruise.
Passing under the Bosphorus Bridge, we noticed workmen high up on the cables. When it was built in 1973, the Bosphorus Bridge was the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,560 meters. It now ranks twenty-second. At the time the bridge was opened, much was made of its being the first bridge between Europe and Asia since 480 BCE. That was a pontoon bridge built by Emperor Xerses I of Persia in his march to subjugate Athens and Sparta. Xerses bridge spanned the Hellespont (Dardanelles), some distance away from the Bosphorus. However, his father Emperor Darius The Great had built a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus in 513 BCE.
Cruising up the Europe side coastline we passed a floating barge that Filiz informs us is owned by her favorite football club. It is called Galatasaray Island. Take a two-minute boat ride and you have a choice of restaurants, nightclubs and a swimming pool. We also passed a riverside promenade and a marina and enjoyed the beautiful architecture of some of the most expensive homes in Istanbul.
For me the most exciting visual experience of the cruise was the Rumeli Fortress wall and towers on the European side of the river. Located just south of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the fortress was built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, in his drive to conquer Constantinople and thus defeat the Byzantine Empire. This was in 1453 AD and it is a huge historical event in world history. When Mehmed II took Constantinople, he effectively absorbed the Byzantine Empire into the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium was no more. Ironically, Mehmet claimed the title of “Caesar of the Roman Empire.” Christian Europe rejected his claim.
Sultan Mehmed II is a national hero in Turkey. By conquering the Byzantine Empire, Mehmet II laid the foundation for the Ottoman Empire to become a supreme world power for six centuries, right up to the end of the First World War, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk would lead the new Republic of Turkey into the twentieth century.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge
Our ferry turned around at the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the second bridge of the Bosphorus, named after our favorite Sultan. It is about 5 kilometers north of the first bridge. The bridge was completed in 1988, and is 1,090 meters long, about two-thirds the length of the First Bosphorous Bridge.
The Anatolian Fortress
On the Asia side of the Bosphorus, directly across from the Rumeli Fortress, is the Anatolian Fortress, which was built by Mehmet’s great-grandfather Sultan Bayezid I in 1394. Anatolia is the name of the territory that constitutes Asian Turkey. Bayezid built the fortress on the ruins of a Temple of Uranus, and I am not shitting you. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) The fortress serves as a backdrop for the beautiful Ottoman era waterfront houses, creating a spectacular visual effect.
Another beautiful Baroque style building caught my eye is the Küçüksu Kasrı. I was unable to identify the building, but Filiz provided me with the name and some history. It turns out that the palace was also designed by the Armenian architects,Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigogayos Balyan. No wonder I was struck by the beauty of the palace! It was built in 1856-57 as a summer hunting lodge for Sultan Abdul Mecit. His predecessors had built wooden kiosks, or just used simple picnic blankets to camp out on this spot, but obviously Abdul was a 5 Star kind of guy. The palace was used in the James Bond film “The World is Not Enough” as a mansion in Baku belonging to the daughter of a rich oil baron.
Kuleli Military High School
A little further down river is the Kuleli Military High School, which I assumed was a high-level government building. My subsequent research tells me that the building was originally the Kuleli Cavalry Barracks, designed by Gabaret Balyan (man, he was busy), and completed in 1843. It became part of the Ottoman Military High School system in 1845. The students of the school have been relocated a dozen times since 1845. It was temporarily converted into a military hospital during both the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and the First Balkan War (1912-13). After the First World War the British occupied the building and used it to house Armenian orphans and refugees, victims of the Ottoman genocide of Christians during the war.
Named for its location in the Beylerbeyi neighborhood, the Beylerbeyi Mosque was built in 1778 in the actual Baroque period. Tahir Aga, the favored architect of Ottoman Sultans Mustafa III and Abdul Hamid I, designed it. Poor Abdul Hamid had a tough life. He was imprisoned for the first 42 years of his life, 17 of those by his brother Sultan Mustafa III. When Mustafa died, Abdul Hamid became Sultan, and commissioned Tahir Aga to build this majestic mosque. So I am thinking, “If my brother imprisoned me for 17 years, would I hire his favorite architect? Is there no question of loyalty here?” Apparently Abdul Hamid valued architectural excellence above any petty grievances. Tahir Aga must have been one hell of an architect!
The final photo I took on the Asia side waterfront is the Beylerbeyi Palace. Also named for the neighborhood, this palace was completed in 1865. It was commissioned by Sultan Abdul-Aziz as a summer home and a residence to entertain visiting dignitaries. Sarkis Balyan, the younger son of Garabet, who designed the Ortakoy Mosque and the Küçüksu Palace. His architectural style is more restrained than that of his father and older brother.
My Historical Research
So that concludes my virtual tour. If you are a history buff, you will enjoy the following articles:
To know more about Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustafa_Kemal_Ataturk
To know more about the Ottoman Empire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Empire
To know more about the Eastern Orthodox Church: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Church