The Taş Han

Do you know what a han is? I didn’t, but I found out, thanks to an invitation from Tania Chandler to join one of Edda’s Walking Tours last year. That connection has opened a door for me: a door into the historical magic of Istanbul’s back streets. Even more, it’s fostered a partnership with Edda Weissenbacher, with whom I’m writing a book of walking tours around Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

This would be Edda:

Now back to the han. A han was once an inn for merchants and craftsmen who traveled from city to city to sell their wares. They were a bit like the caravansarais, huge inn-like stops along camel trading routes. The main difference is that the hans were smaller and located within city walls. Most hans around Constantinople (now Istanbul) were two stories built around a porticoed courtyard. Each story was a collonaded archway; the craftsmen stored their wares downstairs and shared upstairs sleeping cells with other travelers. Animals were kept in the courtyard, and the entire structure was made secure each night by closing and barring huge iron-studded gates. Most of the hans were eventually turned over to commercial use, and the majority are now workshops and retail stores, though many retain the charm of their ancient heritage.

The Taş Han Courtyard
The Taş (Tosh) Han is one of my favorites, for numerous reasons. First of all, it has an interesting history. It was built on the site of an ancient Byzantine underground cistern (or so I’m told). Sultan Mustafa III had it built in 1763 as a part of the Laleli Mosque complex, originally intending it as an inn for his guests. According to tradition, visitors to the hans were accorded free meals and lodging for three days, then they were expected to move on (sort of like the guests and old fish proverb, I guess). The han was then known as the Sipahi Han, since “spahee” means a place for donkeys, and the underground cistern was converted into a stable. Later the han was used as a Janissary station (for the sultan’s soldiers), an inn, and eventually a bazaar. It went through a number of name changes, finally ending up with the very unassuming name Taş Han (stone building).

Kemal Ocak, Owner and restorer


Over the years the han fell into disrepair, but it was purchased in 1987 by Kemal Ocak, a Turkish leather merchant. It took Ocak years to get permission to restore the han, which he did at his own expense, envisioning shops, restaurants, a night club, and eventually a hotel within the han. He finished his monumental task in 1993. The restoration was gruelling, completed by a team of 30-40 experienced restoration specialists working day and night. Ocak paid close attention to detail, and his project was endorsed (though not funded) by the Ministry of Culture, which required mountains of paperwork as well as careful attention to historical restoration.

The results are impressive. This is the second reason I find the Taş Han charming: it looks much like hans must have looked hundreds of years ago. Its modest arched entrance and stone corridors lead to an open courtyard topped with as many chimneys as the original structure would have had—one for each upstairs sleeping cell. The courtyard is graced by a fountain, near which groups of men sit around tables shaking backgammon dice and smoking water pipes (nargile) in the open tea house.

Leather, fur, and clothingl shops ring the courtyard, many with signs in Russian as well as Turkish. Not much English here! Across the courtyard is another passage to the second entrance as well as to the charming Taş Han Restaurant, which has another fountain and indoor as well as outdoor seating.

– – – – –

Beneath the main courtyard is a night club restaurant, the Arkat, where asome friends and I enjoyed a lavish meal and floor show last Saturday night. The mezes (hors d’oeuvres) were fabulous, and the dinner just as delicious. The show was over two hours long, including a gifted violinist, three VERY impressive belly dancers (two blondes and one brunette–hmmm…), a traditional Turkish folk dancing troupe (successful at getting people up to dance with them), a magician (yes) and two talented vocalists. After the show, the packed house migrated onto the dance floor. How often do you get to dance in an ancient cistern? I mean, really!

Turkish folk Dancers

My first BLONDE belly dancer!

I’m impressed with the charming ambiance of the newly restored Taş Han, both day and night. I’m particularly impressed, though, with the kind, unassuming, and visionary Kemal Ocak, without whom none of this would have happened. All this and a taste of history as well. Who could ask for more?

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Turkish soccer mania: the derby match

Talk about a cultural experience! I attended my first soccer match last night, and WHAT a match it was! Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point!
I have students who live for soccer, often launching into chants at the hint of a team name. I asked Murat, my most avid Galatasaray fan, to let me know when there would be a game and how I could buy tickets. (He’s never missed a Galatasaray home game.) His parents generously offered their extra season tickets, which I shared with two fellow teachers. When I asked David, he was hesitant, and Duygu’s first reaction was, “Are you crazy?” Once I explained they were season tickets, though, they were happy to join me for my maiden voyage into Turkish Soccer-dom.

The boom of distant cheers filled the air as we stepped from the metro, though the stadium was blocks away. We went through two stages of security at the stadium, the first an outdoor police gate where we were frisked, and the second an electronic gate and secondary checks with wands. Female guards inspected our bags and grinned at us, saying “Yabanci” (foreigner). They don’t expect problems from foreigners—only Turks.

The stands were packed, and I learned that most of the fans had been there for hours, standing on their seats and revving up with chants and cheers (like they needed revving). Our seats (padded) were down near the field near what I would call the 20-yard line. The field was ringed with security.
Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe (Fenner-BAH-chay), both Istanbul teams, are arch-rivals. In the past few years Galatasaray has been stronger, but this year has been Fenerbahçe’s year. They just won the national championship, and this game was a derby match (between rival teams from the same city). Apparently there are similar rivalries in Madrid and Rome, and these derby matches are often hot events (pardon the pun).

That’s why the field was ringed with police. Most were helmeted, and many had riot shields. It was otherworldly. I noticed immediately that the stands teemed with red and yellow-shirted Galatasaray fans except for a small section on one end reserved for Fenerbahçe fans (yellow and black). Their section was ringed by a 12-foot chain-link fence, and helmeted police surrounded the enclosure three and four deep. There was an empty section of seats to the side of the Fenerbahçe enclosure, and another legion of helmeted police insulated the Galatasary fans in the next section. WOW!
I knew then that my soccer experience would not be as much about the game as about the fans. I was right.
When the game started the field was clear, though within moments people started pelting players with water bottles. Regulations say that the officials will call a game if anything is thrown on the field, but the behavior continued. It wasn’t long before the field was strewn with water containers.

A few minutes into the game, Fenerbahçe scored. The small enclave of yellow and navy blue went wild. Galatasaray chants redoubled, but to no avail. The next goal went to Fenerbahçe. The red and yellow just couldn’t get the ball past Fenerbahçe’s goalie, who made some spectacular saves. I was awed by his kicking, too, nearly the distance of the field every time he thwarted a goal. Galatasaray played with near frenzy to make a goal before the half, but it didn’t happen.

After half-time, police formed a tunnel with their shields to protect the Fenerbahçe players as they reentered the field. I was shocked that they had to provide that kind of protection. After all, it’s only a game (famous last words).

The frenzy in the stands increased. Everyone in the upper decks stood on their seats. More water containers exploded on the field (many on players), and soon a few fans lit flares in the crowded upper balcony stands. I couldn’t believe it! They threw flares onto the field, yet play continued. The air reverberated with chants as the entire arena seemed to explode into flame. There were firecrackers, rockets and flares everywhere, and play stopped, though the clock kept ticking. I was sure they’d call the game.How could officials allow behavior like this? The hazards are horrendous, for both players and fans.
After about ten minutes of this chaos, the smoke lifted, there was a warning on the loudspeaker, and the game continued. Unbelievable. (I later learned that terminating a derby match means a guaranteed riot.)

Not long afterwards, all the police ran to one end of the field, and there was another delay. Apparently the referee had been attacked somehow (a water bottle?). Players donned their warm-up suits and kicked balls around the field as the rest of us wondered what was happening. Again, there was a warning that teams and fans would face serious consequences if officials were attacked again. This might mean clearing the stands before the game continued, fines against the team, or the termination of the game.
Wonders never cease. The game continued, and the fans were a little better. Not much, but a little.
Galatasaray finally scored, and the game ended 2-1, a Fenerbahçe win. By the end of the game, people were ripping up their plastic seats and throwing them onto the field. “Seat shrapnel,” , my friend Allana called it.

By the time we left, most of the plastic seats were demolished. I hate to think what happened afterwards. The streets outside were lined with riot police, some with shields and plastic armor. “Robocops,” David quipped. It’s an odd feeling to be so guarded—ominous safety, I’d call it.
I’m not sure what makes these fans so crazy. Some have suggested that it’s the hot southern European (and Asian) temperament, while others think the sporting arena is where Turks vent all their pent-up frustrations. Life in Turkey isn’t the easiest. Who knows?
I just know I’m thankful I was able to see a match, and even more thankful that I enjoyed it from the safety of the season-ticket section. I think this may be my first and only Turkish soccer derby match.
I’m no fool.

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Campus Birthday (a pinker glimpse of life at Koç)

My Mother’s Day fete was a double-whammy: a birthday party for Carmen and Katrina (Canadians who’ve never lived in Canada). These darling twins are now a whopping FIVE years old! I was tickled to be included in their celebration, probably thanks to my little dog Libby, whom they love dearly.
I haven’t attended a five-year birthday party since my second son turned five, more years ago than I can count (well, maybe not THAT long, but I can hardly remember). I think I made Ross a fish-shaped cake, which apparently makes me the resident cake expert. (Actually, I offered to help.) A fish was a heck of a lot easier than two unicorns, let me tell you. Actually, Sue had done the research and baked and shaped the cakes; all I had to do was the icing: heads, ears, and manes. Sue added eyes and candy bridles, the crowning touch. We both did the sprinkles.

The Pink Unicorn Cakes:

The party was a sweet way to spend Mother’s Day. Serge (the dad) and I delivered the cakes before the children arrived, and I have to admit, I was unprepared for the difference between little boy parties (chaos) and little girl parties (cooperation). I was soon surrounded by princesses, mostly in pink. In fact, as I went through my photos, the overriding theme was clearly pinkness! Pink tablecloths, pink party hats, pink plates and napkins, pink cakes, and of course, pink dresses. Pink, pink, pink. (Faith, though, arrived in a traditional lavender Vietnamese costume, very princess-like.)

Lovely maidens: Carmen, Katrina, Faith, and Sarah:

And the Charming Birthday Girls:

Sue and Serge had planned the classic party, complete with musical chairs and pin the crown on the unicorn (a pink one). The children were darling as they skipped around the one-too-few chairs, and as each was left out, they were cheered and given a small candy bar. No problems with sportsmanship there!

Musical Chairs a la Children:

The children decided to run a musical chairs game for the adults, too, which was interesting. Everyone had a blast, but you have to understand that when adults play games, there’s an element of competition involved. We laughed derisively instead of cheering as each person was left out (I was the first), and things went fairly smoothly except for a few lapses in manners.

And…the Adult Version:

At the end of the game, however, one player pulled a fast one (actually, pulled the last chair out from under his opponent). Oops! Little error in judgment. Luckily, nursery chairs are low to the ground.

Soon Sue gathered the children around the display board for a game of Stick the Crown on the Unicorn (pink, of course). They were wonderful sports, watching each contestant as he or she strove to find the unicorn’s head. Katrina came the closest, but of course, EVERYBODY won.

Next came food, blowing out birthday candles, presents, and time on the playground. What a joy it was to share this exciting, sweet event.
(Libby would have loved it, but she wasn’t invited. She doesn’t do pink.)

People Pics—Istanbul

Since life is quiet lately, I thought I’d share some of my recent favorite photos. Though Turkey has a great number of modern people who look much like the rest of us, it’s the unique characters who attract my attention. Unless they’re performing, I always ask, “Foto cekebilir miyim?” (May I take a photo?)


The little boy dressed in what looks like a prince costume is exactly that—someone’s precious little prince. He’s dressed traditionally for the huge celebration before his circumcision, and everyone will be invited. A circumcision is like a wedding reception here. My friend David said they had one in his little town of Yasibey, and the entire populous joined the celebration for this rite of passage. Poor little guy—little does he know what lies ahead…or does he?



The street sweeper is a pretty regular-looking guy, but I wanted to share how the streets are cleaned in much of Istanbul. Workers in rubber boots sweep the street using bucket scoops and twig brooms, and they do an amazingly fine job of keeping things clean. Some areas of the city actually have street-cleaning trucks, but they’re rare, since cobbled, winding streets make it hard for trucks to maneuver.


Last weekend I came upon a group of street musicians in Kadikoy. Three men played instruments and sang, while a small boy in wire glasses performed heartfully before them as he held the donations box (which seemed unnecessarily large). What stole my heart was that this little boy not only sang from his heart, but his voice was beautiful. Clearly the star.



The next day on a walking tour, I snapped a few photos of a gypsy sitting outside the Beyazit Mosque selling jar lids of birdseed. It brought back the bird woman scene from MARY POPPINS: “Feed the birds, tuppence the bag…” I didn’t have tuppence, but I gave her the change from my pocket and happily scattered my seeds.


Later on the same tour, Edda led us through a tiny doorway into an ancient han (workshop). She had called ahead to have her favorite borekci (borek baker) meet us there with a tray of his breads. He bakes on the third floor of a nearby building and carries the tray and a small stand down to the street to sell his wares. He keeps a roll of papers in his apron for handling the hot bread. His sweet apple rolls were to die for, but his potato borek was sheer ambrosia. He wants a job as a security person at a hotel, which would be a boon for him, but a great loss to us borek lovers.


I also caught a photo of a simit seller as he walked by. Simits are a traditional bread sold on the streets everywhere in Turkey. It’s like a huge bagel with sesame seeds on it, and often the simitci (simit seller) carries his wares on his head, as this man does.


In another of the hans I peeked my head into a workshop where three men worked at sewing machines making baseball caps. They joked with me when I asked to snap their photos, insisting that I take a photo of the patron—the owner of the business, who was at a machine set above the other two. There’s a band of ribbing hanging from the wall, and he sews that into the crown of the cap, stitching in the brim as well. Another man had already done the crown, and the last one stitched in the back adjustment strap. BORING work, to be sure.


The boat taxi photo has a story. My friends Chris McClure and Ginny Hahn (and Ginny’s sister Kathy) visited from Grand Marais, and I took them to Eyup on Sunday morning. We missed our ferry back down the Golden Horn for a whirling dervish performance—most upsetting. This man came up to us and offered us a ride in his small boat for a mere four times the cost of the ferry. Did we care? The next ferry wasn’t leaving for an hour. I think he’d been watching Home Improvement, because I’m quite sure his inboard motor (under a wooden crate) was actually a refurbished lawnmower engine. Whatever!


I have little to say about the last photo but that this man was just too sweet for words. Dressed in a sportcoat, crumpled hat, and fingerless gloves, he reminded me of Red Skelton’s Clem Kaddidlehopper. He was chatting on a cell phone when I met him on the street. I like to think it was with his sweetheart who couldn’t wait to meet their new kitten.


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Life in Lojmanlar (campus apartments)-for new hires

I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw my lojman (apartment). In fact, I was actually charmed by it’s sunset balcony overlooking the distant hills of Istanbul. I was soon to learn that there were both ups and downs about life on campus, though I’ve been very happy here.

A lojman balcony sunset:


What do I like? Well, though my lojman is nowhere near as large as my home in Minnesota, the two bedrooms are very comfortable (I use the small one as an office), the storage space is more than adequate, the living room is bright and cheery, and the kitchen and bath facilities are fine. I got busy decorating immediately, though, to bring my lojman from serviceable to friendly. I found some posters and frames at Ikea, then scrounged for picture hangers at a hardware store, and within weeks my new home was not only comfortable but attractive as well. Add a few candles and a fan (it’s HOT here in August), and it was delightful. It doesn’t take long to amass Turkish brick-a-brack (and rugs) to make your lojman a home.

My lojman–living room, kitchen, and bedrooms…

The family lojmans are more than twice the size of the singles, with three bedrooms, two baths, a huge living room, a dining room, and a kitchen (as well as an upstairs balcony). Some of them even have a sunken living room—very cool!

I was surprised to learn that we also have a social center in our little campus living complex—complete with a bartender five nights a week. The social center is open every night (it’s used for preschool classes on weekdays), and we often have social gatherings there: movie nights, game nights, baked potato night (a weekly potluck affair), and special events like music performances, wine tasting, and holiday gatherings. It’s a great way to connect with people, and on Wednesdays drinks are half price. Such a deal!

Game night at the Social Center:

(Don’t lose sleep anticipating the joys of Turkish wine. You’ll be disappointed.) By the way, the people here are delightful. Reach out to build friendships, and you’re sure to enjoy yourself.

Christmas Party at the Social Center–Mollie and company!

One challenge is that the campus is very isolated. There’s no place you can walk to for groceries or dinner or even coffee. Everything is too far, and the road is WAY too dangerous to walk or bike on. (The driving here is scary.) I’d had visions of biking to the Marmara (which is only 5K away—impossible ).

The Security Gate–you’re well protected!

The good side of the isolation issue is that Ilyen, our saintly liason, sets up service busses to get us off campus many times a week. There are grocery trips during the week, and on weekends there’s a street market bus, a Friday bus to the movies (or to do whatever you choose in the area of the city you visit), a Saturday bus into the city, and a Sunday church bus into Taksim. The options are varied, and if you took advantage of every service bus, you would seldom be on campus.

If you choose to trek out on your own (which you will), public transportation will get you there, but it takes forever. A trip on public transport to the city entails:
1. a 10-minute walk to the road (through the security gate)
2. a 40-minute mini-bus ride to Pendik (after as much as a 20-minute wait)
3. a 35-minute train ride to Kadikoy, the end of the Asian side (after another wait)
4. a 30-minute ferry ride to the European side (after yet another wait)
5. a tram ride up to Sultanahmet or the Grand Bazaar or Taksim or wherever you choose.
In other words, you have to plan about 3 hours to get to or from town on your own. Of course, a taxi is an option if you’re feeling rich.

Istanbul ferries–you’ll love them!

We do have a nearby airport (Sabiha Gokcen), which has many bargain fares to places like Germany and London and all over Turkey (which you’ll want to explore). The ugly side of that is that Koc is in the flight path. The first night I thought my life was over when a plane skimmed the top of my lojman. I’ve gotten used to it, and I appreciate the convenience of Sabiha flights.

Our saintly Ileyn is here to help with any problem that may arise, from medical emergencies to water delivery. Oh, yes. The tap water is pretty bad, so you buy huge 19-liter bottles for drinking water. My friend Terri even uses it for her pets. I’m not that nice. Libby gets tap water.

Many of us walk the 3-K loop around campus every day, which I must admit gets old if you don’t have a walking buddy, and there’s now a fitness center in the new Student Social Center by the high school. Hopes spring eternal for a pool in the future. Hmmm…
Gosh–what else? If you have questions, feel free to email me: I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.

I have to say, I’ve loved my time at Koc. As you know, nothing’s perfect, but this has been a wonderful adventure. I’ll leave still loving it. That’s a good thing.

Political Upheaval in Turkey-May, 2007

“If they come in, we’re screwed. Especially the women.” This sentiment was expressed by my friend Duygu about the inevitable AK party presidency, and I know it’s shared by many Turkish women. Millions, according to a recent demonstration. But why?

I have to admit, I’m still trying to figure it out. The present political situation in Turkey is complicated, and emotions run high. We’re all safe, though concerned.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper

First of all, you have to put things into some historical perspective. Turkey is a young republic—it didn’t become an independent nation until 1923, a few years after women got the vote in the United States (1920). Flappers and all that? Well, that’s when Turkey stepped from the Ottoman Empire into the modern world.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known as the Father of the Turkish Republic, is greatly beloved by the Turks—at least most of them. Every public building, every office, shop, workshop, and nearly every home displays a picture of Ataturk. I have a photo collection of Ataturk statues, and I doubt there’s a town in Turkey without an Ataturk statue and at least one Ataturk Caddesi (Street). We have both on campus.


One of many Ataturk statues

Ataturk instituted monumental changes in Turkey: in addition to establishing the republic, he changed Turkish writing from Arabic to the Roman alphabet; he outlawed the fez; he oversaw a huge population exchange with Greece (Christians to Greece, Muslims to Turkey); he had the people choose surnames; he gave women equal legal rights; and the list goes on. (Turkey had the world’s first female supreme court justice.) Ataturk is the reason Turkey stands as a bridge between the Arab States and the Western world; he was incredibly forward-thinking.

As a secular democracy, Turkey operates with a representative parliament, a prime minister, and a president. The military was established as a separate entity–a “watchdog” to assure Turkey’s continuation as a secular democracy.

Therein lies the rub.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ It’s all about Ataturk’s plan

The AKP (an Islamist-rooted party) presently holds the majority of seats in the parliament, which just began a three-vote process to select a new president. Though the president has little more than veto power, the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, has used that power repeatedly to veto bills he felt promoted a religious agenda. Abdullah Gul, the present (shoe-in) candidate for president, is a member of the Islamist AK Party, and his wife wears a scarf, which concerns many secularists.

In past weeks, Turkish flags have hung from apartment windows to demonstrate solidarity with Ataturk’s secular values. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), calls the presidential palace “the last bastion of secularism” and doesn’t want a president with an Islamist background.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper / All ages and genders are concerned.

Of course, the vast majority (97%) of Turks are muslims, so this battle is not about another religion seeking power. Instead, many Turks seek to preserve their secular government, especially in light of Muslim fundamentalists controlling nearby countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. I can understand their concern.

Last Sunday over a million people amassed for a huge demonstration in support of secularism. That’s ten percent of the population of Istanbul–an impressive showing. These people staged a peaceful demonstration, and we all hope members of parliament heard their voices.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ MILLIONS demonstrated.

As in American politics, each party is trying to outmaneuver the other. Secularist members of parliament boycotted the first presidential vote, which was taken without a quorum. Last night the supreme court declared the first vote invalid. Secularists are jockeying to have a national parliamentary election before the next presidential vote is taken. They also want to lower the minimum age for parliamentary membership to 25.

It’s all very confusing. No one is sure what the next steps will be, but one concern is that if the government shifts toward an Islamist stance, the military will intervene (as it has done three times in the past, in both peaceful and bloody coups). The military General Staff issued “a harsh statement claiming that islamic reationaryism was on the rise and threatened that it had the right to intervene if secularism is not respected.” (Today’s Zaman, 4/30/2007) Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, an AK party member who was expected to run for president until mass protests against him changed the tide, is encouraging people to remain calm and take a cooperative stance in these proceedings. Emotions are just running too high for that. Every new piece of news is disturbing to millions. Turks are an emotive people, and they treasure their freedoms highly.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ It (our rights) cannot be sold!

In this country where women are legal equals, social equality is far from a reality, except in the higher socioeconomic circles. If I were a Turkish woman, I’d have been out there demonstrating.

In the best of all possible worlds, everyone should be free to do what they want.

In Turkey, the reality of Islamic Fundamentalism is too close for comfort.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper
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