All Things Turkish

Since my computer fiasco put me a bit behind in my weekly missives, I decided to share a piecemeal look at the past few weeks. I’ve been exploring the area, connecting with old friends, and making new ones. All in all, life is good here in Istanbul.

I joined a group trek to the Halk Art Copper Factory (my third visit) a few weeks ago and came away with some exciting finds. After exploring the entire three stories of new and antique copper wares (thousands of items), the salesmen carried our finds down to their showroom, which displays just one or two of each item. My favorite find was a project for the future. I purchased 40 assorted tempered copper squares that will become a mirror frame once I get home. The copper factory’s ready-made mirrors are gorgeous, but they weigh a ton (serious shipping expense). My other purchases (mostly gifts) were less heavy, but nearly as beautiful.


Copper warehouse shelves of antiques


Halk Art wares in their showroom

Let’s see—I’ve also been doing daily hikes with Libby, morning and evening. We walk down to the Bosphorus every day, and often we head up to the plateau, arguably the most gorgeous spot on campus. Beautifully manicured trees and lawn surround a new running track, but the highlight is an incredible vista overlooking the Bosphorus.


The spectacular view from the plateau

Last week (March 18th) was a Turkish holiday, Çanakkale Day, which marks the Turkish victory over the allied forces at the end of World War I. It was shortly after this bloody battle (Aussies marked particularly huge losses) that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic. On Turkish holidays every public building is draped with Turkish flags and huge banners of Atatürk, and Robert College is no exception. The patriotism in this country is impressive, in spite of the threat of a growing movement against Atatürk’s secular principles.


Atatürk graces Robert College’s Gould Hall

Last Friday I ferried to the Asian side with a few Robert teachers for a performance of Jean Anouihl’s Antigone at Üsküdar Academy. It which was a fascinating modern version of Sophocles play, adapted to World War II. Afterwards, we ferried back to the European side to catch some wine and spirited conversation (there’s little of the former to be had in Üsküdar).

Saturday I spent the day with Tony and Marnie Paulus, friends who will be leaving Istanbul for a new life in Florida. I showed them around the campus, then we basked in the sun, enjoying the spectacular view of the Bosphorus. Next we headed up to the park at Emirgan to check out the latest development in tulips (lovely—again!)



Not exactly a tulip, but gorgeous nonetheless—

(Actually it’s Fritillaria imperialis rubra maxima, in case you care!) 

From there we headed to Sultanahmet and wandered near the Grand Bazaar. As Koç School Director, Tony seldom gets to explore these areas, and he enjoyed it. We capped off our day with a dinner at the Taş Han’s Arkat Night Club—stageside seats, (thanks to my friend Kemal Ocak) for a floor show for singing, belly dancing, folk dancing, and EVERYBODY dancing. It was great fun, but we old fogies bowed out long before the bulk of the crowd.


Yet another Turkish flower

As you can see, I’m staying busy. I’ve devoted much of the past two weeks to correcting Yearly Homework Projects, poetry projects, and English exams. (I figure about 30 hours total.) I try to keep my paperwork at school, but during exam time, it’s impossible. Ah, well, I chose to be an English teacher, didn’t I? I’m not complaining, mind you. I still love teaching, and heck—it’s my ticket overseas!

Tulips abound in Istanbul

Some friends told me last weekend that I should find my way up to Emirgan to see the spring tulips in bloom—incredible, they said. Spectacular! Unforgettable!

Yup, it was.

Of course, getting there was an adventure in itself. After waiting all morning for my laundry (wash only, as the dryer is hardly better than piling wet clothes in the bathtub and waving a hair dryer at them), I draped sheets, clothes, and sundries around my apartment, then headed out to enjoy the sunshine and 70-degree day. Ah, heaven!

Libby is always game for a walk, though I didn’t warn her this would be a long one. (Not that she’d have minded.) We headed down the hill (puppy poop stop), through the security gate (puppy pee stop), and off to the north along the glittering Bosphorus. Our walk, as usual, was punctuated by curious street dogs, quayside fishermen, simit sellers, a balloon man, and countless Sunday strollers. Sunday is “Pazar” here—it means what it sounds like: bazaar. The traffic was “çok kalıbalık”—very congested; we walked faster than the cars.


After an hour we passed the Rumeli Castle, which I have to visit again, asI’ve lost all my photos in a computer meltdown (actually, a laptop wine-down).

After about two hours of walking, we stopped for a breather, a cup of tea and “tost”, sort of a panini-style grilled cheese, in an open street tea garden in Emirgan. The wide cobbled street stretched up from the Bosphorus, filled with tables, chairs, and happy Turks. I was the only “yabancı” (foreigner) in the whole area, which was nice. I chatted with some older men at the next table who were tickled that I knew some Turkish, and of course they loved Libby. They gave me directions to the park up the hill, and soon my little black buddy and I trekked off.


The park was filled with plots of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other blossoms unfamiliar to me, all in superb displays.


I recently learned that tulips originally came from Turkey. (News to me!) They were cultivated as early as 1000 A.D., and they became a symbol for the Ottoman Empire during the 1500’s when Sultan Süleyman popularized them. The bulbs (seeds?) were exported to Europe later that century, though it wasn’t until the 1700’s that tulips became a symbol of wealth and prestige.


The first tulip festivals are charmingly depicted on a gardener’s web site, Tesselaar:

“It was during the early 1700’s that the Turks began what was probably the first of the Tulip Festivals…held at night during a full moon. Hundreds of exquisite vases were filled with the most breath-taking Tulips, crystal lanterns were used to cast an enchanting light over the gardens whilst aviaries were filled with canaries and nightingales that sang for the guests. Romantically, all guests were required to wear colours which harmonised with the flowers!”*

It was during that era that the Dutch began experimenting with tulip bulbs, though the Turks outpaced them in their love of the blossoms for years to come.

Well, our wanderings through the park at Emirgan were enchanting—that is, until my camera batteries wore out. After that, we succumbed to the attentions of countless children charmed by my little black Libby. It was darling. I never cease to be amazed that Turks either love dogs or they’re petrified of them; there’s no middle ground.


Friends for Libby Lou

After four hours of walking, I decided a bus ride home would be in order. Unfortunately, bus drivers aren’t particularly enamored of dogs. Bummer! Plan B was the ferry, scheduled to arrive at Emirgan at 5:15. At 5:30, those of us waiting for the ferry realized that there was tiny red writing at the bottom of the ferry schedule: “begins April 15th” ARAUGHHH!!!


Maybe a private boat?

So—Libby and I began the long trek home, me feeling a bit chilled and hoping to make it before dark, Libby no longer straining at her leash. After about a half hour I gave in to a taxi driver who honked as he approached. It felt GREAT to sit, though it was a slow trek, probably nearly as slow as walking. It was a treat to chat with the driver in my limited Turkish. He’d had a rough day, but he was happy to be down on the Bosphorus. So were we.

“Yavaş, yavaş” (slowly, slowly). My Turkish is improving!

– – – – – – –

*”The History of the Tulip.” Tesselaar gardening at its best. 20 Mar 2008

Ortaköy—gem of the Bosphorus

Last weekend my quiet (NOT!) world on the Bosphorus was sparked by two delightful young women: my Australian niece Laura and her friend Anna, university exchange students in Vilnius, Lithuania. When I arrived home Friday they were happily ensconced in my apartment, thrilled to be in Istanbul. Needless to say, their visit was a whirlwind. Friday afternoon we caught a bus and tram to Sultanahmet. The bus was PACKED—sardines-ville. And HOT. (They don’t believe in opening windows here, but that’s another story.) What with an evening of restauranteurs, shopkeepers, and carpet sellers, the girls got a good dose of Turkish hospitality, making Anna a new convert to Turkey. Laura and I already love it.


Anna and Laura Marie

After a huge dinner and a trek to see the Blue Mosque in its night-lit glory, we hopped back on the tram to head home, collapsing exhausted into our beds after the steep hike up the infamous Robert College hill, a fair trade-off for a great location.

Saturday the girls slept in, and after a late breakfast we headed off on foot (with Libby) to Ortaköy, one of the the Bosphorus’ glittering treasures. Just a half hour walk from my lojman, it offers an artisan’s market, tantalizing street foods, a striking many-windowed, water-side mosque, and a Bosphorus ferry. What else could we ask?


One of many jewelry displays

After an hour browsing displays of jewelry, linens, clothing, and trinkets along the cobbled walkways, we relaxed with a cup of tea, watching children feed and chase pigeons on the cobbled square. The sun brightened every cranny of this quaint waterside village. Actually, Ortaköy feels much smaller than it is—with about 200,000 people stretching up the hill from the Bosphorus, it’s one of the most popular spots in Istanbul.


Pigeon chasing can’t be beat!

After tea, we ambled over to where a Bosphorus ferry departs every 20 minutes. Ours was a smaller ferry, a quaint, friendly vessel for our one-hour water tour to the Rumeli Castle and back. Libby loved it (of course), and we all reveled in the stunning early-spring sunshine, in spite of the occasional chilly breeze. Thank goodness for clear plastic zip-down windows. Homes on the Asian side were significantly larger, newer, and better kept than those on the European side; it’s cheaper to live in Asia. Of course, homes anywhere near the Bosphorus are at a premium. I shudder to think what I’d pay for my little campus apartment.


Hamsi (anchovy) fisherman with the Ortaköy Mosque in the background

We disembarked famished from the ferry—eager to try the kumpir (stuffed baked potatoes), gözleme (Turkish-style flat stuffed crepes), and waffles (filled with fruits and sweets of every kind). Yum. Again—YUM! I hadn’t been all that excited about the kumpir, but take a baked potato, mash it together with butter and cheese, then add pickles, olives, tomatoes, cream cheese, and whatever else you love, and it’s sheer ambrosia. I’d walk to Ortaköy just for kumpir. The spinach gözleme was nice, and the fruit-and-chocolate-filled waffle was nothing to scoff at. Another YUM!


The delicious, inimitable KUMPIR!

Finally we visited the mosque. Lovely from the outside, I’d never been inside. Big mistake. Laura took Libby so I could go in to take a few pictures, and I was entranced with mosque’s natural light. Though its exterior is striking, its interior is beyond description. A number of men were at prayer while a small group chatted in a window near the pulpit. I peeked into the women’s area, a totally separate room with windows overlooking the Bosphorus. Far less than what male worshippers enjoyed, but sweet in its own way. I have a hard time with that, though; it strikes me as unfair.


Ortaköy Mosque, interior


The women’s room—Ortaköy Mosque

A little girl named Selin walked Libby around the shopping area on her leash, totally enamored with her. Such fun for both! Finally we headed home—on the bus, then succumbed to a well-deserved nap.

That was just the START of our day. We dined and danced in Taksim, catching the last bus home at 2 A.M. It was packed (of course), so we stood all the way home, then climbed the long Robert College hill yet again.

But you know what? It was a great day.

Istanbul ROCKS!

Exploring the Rumeli Castle

On Saturday afternoon I took Libby for a long walk up the Bosphorus to the Rumeli Castle, one of the most picturesque sites along this historical waterway. The sky was clear and the air brisk, a perfect day for a stroll. It took us about an hour to get there, weaving between hamsi (anchovy) fishermen along the walkway. The screams of gulls, the booming of ship horns, and the sparkling chatter of children punctuated our walk as well. No doubt, I live in the most beautiful section of Istanbul.


Stretching up the hill from the water’s edge (now from the road’s edge), the castle is an imposing sight from any vantage point. It’s three medeival towers feel more European than Ottoman, though the very name Rumeli means “belonging to Anatolia”—a certain reference to the once-growing Ottoman Empire on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.


The Rumeli Castle was built by Mehmet the Second, known as Fatih—the Conqueror. It was constructed in the spring and summer of 1452, 40 years before Columbus’s famous voyage across the Atlantic). Built on a European hillside at the narrowest section of the Bosphorus (about 750 yards across), it was built to help the Ottomans conquer Constantinope, now Istanbul. A smaller castle across the water, the Anadolu Hisarı (Anatolian Castle), also helped Mehmet to achieve this ultimate goal of cutting off communication and aid from the Black Sea. Actually, according to historian John Freely, “the castle was originally called Boğas-kesen, a sort of pun which means both ‘cut-throat’ and ‘cutter of the strait.” (The Turkish name for the Bosphorus is “Boğaz”, which means both strait and throat.)


It is believed that Mehmet himself drew the general designs for this medeival fortress, which measured up to 275 yards long and 135 yards wide at its greatest points. The construction of each of the fortress’s three main towers was supervised by a different Pasha (vezir/advisor) of Mehmet the Conquerer, with his Grand Vezir in charge of the main one at the water’s edge. In addition to the three major towers are fifteen subordinate towers of various shapes and sizes. The walls of the larger towers range from 21 to 30 feet thick and the walls range from 16 to 50 feet high. It took 3000 men to complete the project in an amazing four months.


The Ottomans conquered Constantinople within a year after the construction of this castle, toppling the Byzantine capital and claiming it for the rising Ottoman Empire, which was to rule for nearly 500 years until 1923, when the Turkish Republic was established.


We climbed the stairs to the castle entrance, a little uncertain of our fate, but fortunately, the castle welcomes dogs as well as tourists. Whew! What met us inside was spectacular; LOTS of stone stairs up to the towers and ramparts—with NO railings. ARAUGHH!!! Libby’s balance is far better than mine, and she was eager to explore every inch of the castle.


Inside the fortress there is a huge amphitheater, now used for outdoor concerts in the summer. There is also a minaret from a mosque built by Mehmet the Conquerer, although the mosque was destroyed by fire in 1907.


After scrambling around the ramparts for an hour, I decided to stop at a restaurant just outside the gates for a snack of tost (grilled cheese) and çay (tea)—for about five times the usual cost. Live and learn. Of course, it was lovely to relax in the sun by the Bosphorus, and the waiters made a fuss over Libby, bringing her enough cheese for five tost sandwiches.

A good time was had by all.


This photo of the Rumeli Castle at night comes from:

This web site has incredible photos of the Rumeli Castle, though I can’t find a name to attribute the photo to. Check it out!

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