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Echoes of the Ottomans: Asian Istanbul

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Waking up for the third morning in Istanbul my excitement hadn't diminished in the least. Every day thus far had been a new adventure with little in common with our previous experiences, and I expected Tuesday to be no different. Our mission today was to visit the part of Istanbul to the east of the Bosphorus. generally considered to be on the continent of Asia. So far we had only been on the western side of the Bosphorus, considered to be Europe. Of course the argument could be made that Europe and Asia are not separate continents at all as they are obviously part of the same land mass. It was the Ancient Greek mariners who originally divided the world into the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa and from their perspective the Aegean Sea and Black Sea must have appeared to be a clear separation between the lands. They were totally unaware that north of Crimea there was no continental division whatsoever. However, over time it became clear that Europe and Asia were two different continents culturally in almost every way possible. The enduring behemoth of Russia served the same purpose as the water barriers to the south in resisting the encroachment of one population on another. The city of Istanbul along the narrow Bosphorus Strait is a rare exception to the Euro-Asian separation, a place where Eastern and Western concepts of religion and society have met and interacted and conflicted for centuries. I was curious if we would feel a cultural shift on the Asian side or if the continental divide between the two sides now existed only in individual minds.

On the previous two mornings we had brushed off the lady inviting us to her little breakfast cafe next to the hotel. It seemed like a tiny operation that wouldn't be capable of supplying much more than a coffee and a pastry. This time Mei Ling thought we should give it a try and we were pleasantly surprised with an excellent and filling breakfast of omelets, menemen, and lavash bread.

Before slipping over to Asia we had some unfinished business in Sultanahmet. The previous day we had been frustrated in our attempt to see the Basilica Cistern by a long line. This time we arrived shortly before the nine o'clock opening time and found hardly anyone waiting. Once the doors opened and we descended the staircase to the subterranean chamber there were just a dozen other people sharing the space with us. We had a breathtaking view of the enormous cavern from the platform at the base of the staircase. The Byzantine emperor Justinian constructed the cistern in the sixth century as a water reservoir for his great palace, a structure that no longer exists. It derived its name from its location underneath the public square outside a Roman basilica. The cistern is supported by three hundred and thirty-six marble columns, about nine meters in height, that each support the meeting point of four brick arches at the ceiling. With the illumination alternating between red, white, and green it was like standing in the center of a giant optical illusion.

A metal walkway allowed us to travel through the entire space, just above the stone floor that held a few inches of water and innumerable coins that had been deposited by tourists. I had the kids hunt for some special features of the cisterns I knew of from my research. The first was the cubical sculptures of Medusa heads that formed the bases of two of the columns, which Ian found and immediately recognized from the novel he was reading. Ian had recently started consuming books at an alarming rate for a nine year old and while packing for the trip I had impulsively grabbed some very challenging novels from my own bookcase that I thought would slow him down a little. One of them was Umberto Eco's Baudolino, a book I've read twice that I might describe as my favorite novel. I was captivated by the way the book explored deep issues of human frailty and fallibility through an entertaining historical story. Nevertheless I had completely forgotten that the book opened with its main character fleeing from an attack by crusaders on medieval Constantinople and it was completely by chance that Ian happened to have read this chapter shortly before we retraced the very steps Baudolino took in his underground escape. For a few moments I was speechless, not just because of this remarkable coincidence but also at the realization that my nine year old son was enjoying and thoroughly processing novels that would be considered unpalatably complex for the vast majority of adults. I also felt a sense of validation in our unwavering commitment to travel. Mei Ling and I decided a long time ago that we wanted to make worldwide travel our life's goal and since then we've been on autopilot to some degree. The question of whether it somehow benefits the kids at their young ages seemed unanswerable. At this moment I was seeing clear evidence of the connection between experiencing the world first hand and a general broadening of perspectives on life. It's the same idea that led me to read novels and memoirs about Istanbul before our visit, an approach that enhanced our experiences substantially. I reminded myself to research literary connections with any major cities we planned to visit in the future.

It wasn't hard to locate the "Weeping Column" with a design that has been described as eyes with tears. The popular interpretation of the design is that it mourns the unknown hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the cistern. Knowing what I do about the mindset of its builders I strongly doubt that this interpretation reflects their true sentiments, but likely the real significance of the column is lost in the sands of time. I would never have thought of eyes or teardrops looking at the column, not least because the ball of the "teardrop" is pointed in the opposite direction from gravity. Perhaps there's some scholar who has a better understanding of the meaning of the design but if so it is quite difficult to find amid the multitude of online renditions of the most popular version.

Although my original plan had been to take the Marmara train from Eminönü to the Asian side we decided the ferry would be a better choice given the beautiful weather. It was much easier to locate the ferry to Kadıköy than it had been for Arnavutköy the previous day. There were a lot more passengers and more frequent boats. We embarked right on schedule and headed due east away from the Golden Horn. I stood at the stern on the upper deck watching the receding skyline of Europe, picking out the forms of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı and Galata Tower until they became indistinct. My reverie was interrupted by peals of laughter and the cries of seagulls. Some of the locals on the ferry were hand-feeding bread to the gulls, who carefully matched their speed with the boat to delicately pick the treats from outstretched fingers. From the number of people who were doing this it was clearly a regular part of the commute. Soon afterward the ferry made a sharp turn to the south and not long after that we arrived at the Kadıköy ferry terminal.

As usual I had several different possible locations for the Tuesday market and I decided to start with the one provided by Google Maps. We set off inland along a major shopping street called Söğütlü Çeşme Caddesi and then hooked north. We soon encountered a man in a kiosk outside a cafe brewing Turkish coffee by the traditional method of burying the copper pot in hot sand. Turkish coffee is made by boiling fine grounds with water, which means there will be a thick layer of grounds at the bottom of the cup. At first I thought this meant we were being served badly mixed instant coffee. The Turks generally like their coffee with a generous amount of sugar but I quickly learned to ask for it şekersiz, or unsweetened.

After quite a long walk we arrived at the designated spot to find a grocery store which was inexplicably called Salipazari Market, which translates to "Tuesday Market Market". We poked around a little bit and although there was nothing wrong with the produce this was clearly not the awesome weekly market I had read about. We ruefully retraced our steps and headed in the opposite direction from the shopping street.

South of Söğütlü Çeşme Caddesi we found a much more interesting pedestrian area whose narrow streets were lined with stores selling every kind of food. This was also a Kadıköy Pazari but it was a commercial zone of permanent shops rather than a weekly market. It may not have been the elusive market we were seeking but it was still the most mouthwatering and diverse display of comestibles we had encountered since we arrived in Istanbul. There were a few other bemused tourists here and there but this was clearly an area for local gourmets to do their shopping. The multicolored displays of olives were glorious while animal viscera and sheep heads were on prominent display in the butcher shops. Our stomachs were growling furiously after a few minutes of walking through this cornucopia of colors and smells. When I found a cart offering the beloved Istanbul snack of balık ekmek there was no resisting the temptation. There was something magical about the taste of the savory grilled fish tucked into fresh bread with pieces of sharp onion. Ian and I each wolfed one down but Mei Ling was set on having a real lunch rather than street food.

We didn't have to look far to find a place for everyone to eat. Right across the street from the balık ekmek cart was a beautiful restaurant with outdoor tables. It was a cafeteria style place where we could choose our dishes from the array of bins behind the counter at the entrance. There was no need to worry about how long the food might have been sitting there because the chefs were continuing to prepare it in clear view of the customers.

It was quite a large choice of dishes and we had no problem finding an interesting selection for lunch. I think our favorite was a preparation of ground lamb mixed with vegetables and wrapped in a thin skin that may have been intestine. We still felt as though something was missing and after asking for permission from the manager I returned to the market and bought a beautiful cooked sheep's head which was quite inexpensive. The chef behind the large picture window pantomimed ripping the head in half by spreading the mouth apart which I proceeded to do. There was quite a lot of meat on the head including the tongue and it was quite rich so we weren't quite able to finish it, although Ian helped out by eating the eyeballs and Cleo had most of the brain. As if to punctuate the authenticity of the meal a man walked by us hauling a cart of raw animal parts in plastic bags. The only item I could identify was the bloody brains that filled the two bags tied to the arms of the cart.

The restaurant manager explained to us that the real Tuesday market was in a different part of Kadıköy and we would have to take the bus several stops. Fortunately we were already right next to the bus terminal and after asking several other commuters I managed to figure out where to wait for the number 8 bus. The IstanbulKart works on the city buses as well as the Metro so there was no need to figure out payment. It took quite a while but eventually the bus came and took us to the designated stop. There was no market in sight but we used the old technique of looking to see who had food bags in their hands and walking in the direction they were coming from. Eventually we found the market in a concrete warehouse-like building on Uzunçayır Caddesi. We were immediately impressed by the enormous piles of fruit and vegetables precariously balanced on makeshift tables. The presentation was enhanced by leaves and branches to enhance the impression of produce that had just been picked. There were also large areas devoted to clothing and household products, but hardly any prepared food at all. By now we were expecting this which was one reason we had completely filled ourselves at the restaurant.

Outside the market we gave in to the kids' pleas for more Turkish ice cream, although in this untouristic location it was provided without the theatrical flourishes.

Our original plan had been to visit one or two of the Princes' Islands after the market but we were now so far behind schedule that it didn't make sense to take public transport to another ferry terminal and then a ferry to an island we might only have an hour to explore before dark. Instead we decided to proceed straight to Üsküdar, the large neighborhood that occupies the eastern shore of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. We figured out the route and waited even longer for the bus than we had on the way to the market. When the bus finally arrived a large group of people had amassed at the stop and it was already quite crowded on board. We weren't about to wait another half hour for a bus so we pushed the kids to the front and the locals very pleasantly made way for them to board with Mei Ling. I couldn't bear to shove my way in front of the elderly folks and I helped a couple of them get on before I apologetically shouldered my way inside. The unlucky ones who were turned away slunk back to the stop to await the next bus while our packed vehicle shouldered off down the road. It was an uncomfortable journey at first but most of the passengers had disembarked by the time we reached the terminal in Üsküdar.

The bus deposited us in a busy commercial area not far from the Bosphorus shoreline, not unlike the first part of Kadıköy we had visited. The name Üsküdar is likely derived as a corruption of Scutari, the Byzantine city that stood there at the time of the Ottoman conquest. I find the Turkish u sounds to be the most difficult to get right. The u and ü are often described as the vowel sounds in "mood" and "Hugh" respectively although when I closely listen to demonstrations by native speakers the sounds have a higher pitch, sometimes very close to the o and ö. I think adopting the mood-Hugh approach gets the correct meanings across, even if there's a heavy English/American accent. The city is even older than Istanbul, having been founded by ancient Greeks as Chrysopolis in the seventh century BC decades before the settlement of Byzantium. Once a prosperous city in its own right, Üsküdar was eventually absorbed into the city of Istanbul and is now mainly a residential district. because of the lower cost of living compared to the waterside districts on the European side, many Istanbullus live in Üsküdar and commute across the Bosphorus for work and school.

The central covered pazari of Üsküdar was small and lacked the gourmet flair of the one in Kadıköy. There was still plenty to see, including an amazing honey store which sold mouthwatering combs in every conceivable shape and size. We found an outlet of Hafız Mustafa 1864 that we remembered from İstiklal Caddesi and ascended to the top floor for some tea and cakes. From here we had a bird's eye view of the panorama of activity on the main street and the jumble of apartment houses and minarets ascending a small hill to the west.

The Bosphorus promenade of Üsküdar was quite different from that of Sultanahmet. Here there was no field of boulders separating the pedestrians from the water's edge and in some places there were people sitting on the walkway with their legs dangling over the water. The promenade was also quite wide and open in some areas which made it ideal for musicians and street performances. A group of young locals were learning a folk dance and Mei Ling brought the kids over to join in. I think they were the only foreigners in the group but they were immediately welcomed and shown the steps.

Kuzguncuk is a small neighborhood in Üsküdar that most travelers never encounter, but it is well-known locally for its distinguished beauty and its history of religious and ethnic diversity. We decided it would be a good area to look for dinner and caught a number 15 bus from the terminal close to the ferry dock. When we arrived we discovered the neighborhood was small with just one long commercial street lined with cafes with outdoor tables. Mei Ling enjoyed our walk down this street, İcadiye Caddesi, but I felt like it was embracing a hipster vibe a little too enthusiastically. I've encountered streets like this all over the world that seem to be patterned after 1990's Greenwich Village and they all tend to feel the same to me.

The real draw of Kuzguncuk is the colorful wooden Ottoman houses on the quiet side streets. These small lanes were the setting for the Turkish television series "Perihan Abla" in the 1980's that is still well-remembered in the present day. Kuzguncuk means "little raven" but no one is sure how the neighborhood acquired this name. At first glance it seems intimidating to pronounce but when broken down into syllables it is quite simple: KOOZ-goon-jook. The only special letter to remember is the c which is pronounced like the English j.

We tried to find a place to have dinner in Kuzguncuk but most of the places on the main road seemed to emphasize vegan dishes or comfort food like lahmacun and pide rather than solid Turkish cuisine. We decided to take the bus back to the center of Üsküdar and dove once again into the busy commercial zone where we had seen countless restaurants earlier. We quickly came across a hole-in-the-wall type of place that had a kiosk outside to sell midye dolma, another beloved street food of Türkiye. It seemed like a good way to kick off the evening meal and we brought a couple of plates over to one of the folding tables set up in the alley. Ian loved the rice-stuffed mussels but they didn't appeal much to Mei Ling, who noticed the strange-appearing brown tubes dripping grease from a rotisserie inside the restaurant. These were kokoreç, a dish created by winding lamb intestines tightly around a spit and cooking it until golden brown. The roasted kokoreç is then sliced and served with spices inside a piece of baguette. The overall effect is somewhat reminiscent of pani ca' meusa, the Sicilian spleen sandwich. Mei Ling and Cleo loved it and by the time we had finished with the midye dolma and kokoreç there was really no point in looking for more food.

With the last meal of the day taken care of we made our way back to the ferry dock. My IstanbulKart was almost out of credit and for some reason I couldn't reload it. The machines refused to accept any of my lira bills no matter how many times I smoothed them or changed the direction that I inserted them. The station was quite busy and I felt guilty for making others wait while I struggled with the card. The locals didn't seem to mind and even showed me to the front of lines so I could try other machines. Nothing worked and eventually one of the locals insisted I take his card. Later someone told me there is a daily maximum on the cards that I had clearly exceeded but I was never able to find out what this limit was or when it had been instituted. It probably wouldn't affect the vast majority of tourists but I was using one card for five people and we had already taken a metro, a ferry, and two bus rides that day. I suppose I would have eventually figured out I needed to buy a new card but the typical Turkish patience and kindness had once again saved us from an unpleasant situation.

By the time we were on the ferry the sun was rapidly descending. The illuminated mosques of Üsküdar glowed from the shoreline as our boat slowly glided west across the Bosphorus. We hadn't had the excursion to the Princes' Islands we had originally planned but I was very satisfied with the direction our day had taken. One useful thing I had learned was that while we didn't get the feeling that the two sides of Istanbul represented different continents, the Asian side did feel more authentic and natural since the preponderance of tourists are in Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu. I was thankful I had chosen to devote an extra day to Istanbul in our itinerary so that we had the opportunity to visit this fascinating and vital portion of the city.

There were no seagulls on the return trip. After another half hour on the water the familiar landmarks of the European side presented themselves in all the glory of the setting sun. First came the Galata Tower and then the enormous mosques of Eminönü, all magnificently bathed in golden illumination. I was glad we had avoided the Marmara train in lieu of this extraordinarily beautiful mode of public transportation. I was reminded that all my favorite cities, from NYC to Bangkok, have a close relationship with the water but I've never been able to appreciate a major city from a boat the way I could with Istanbul. I felt that if I was able to spend more time here Istanbul could one day become my favorite city in the entire world.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:05 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip family blue_mosque family_travel travel_blog basilica_cistern kadikoy üsküdar tony_friedman family_travel_blog kuzguncuk

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