Summary of My Trip to Istanbul

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul » Sultanahmet
June 6th 2019
Published: June 2nd 2019
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Somehow, these emails were not sent, and were actually "lost" until I retrieved them here at home. I apologize for sending them all at once. As I may have mentioned, Istanbul is a great city, perhaps a top ten in my personal book of cities. I hope to return some day and see more of this wonderful country. They are most welcoming, love Americans, and have a strong infrastructure to support all types of tourism. And of course, my favorites, among many favorites, was the Grand Bazaar, a total feast for the senses.
Only in Istanbul
II have been waiting for many years to visit. The visit is upon me. What to see and do? How about these for a start?

I want to try the famous street food, particularly the Döner kabab, which is famous throughout Europe, and parts of Asia. A few I have tasted in Europe were quite tasty, and go quite well with a cold beer. Some other dishes to try: dolmas, koftas, and of course, the ubiquitous baklava.

Side note: the traditional Turkish meatball is ground lamb, braised and served as about a 5 inch by 1 inch long patty, with some mild green chili peppers. The doners are better here, according to the Turks, since they allow more fat into the meat. The meat is moist and flavorful, and better than doners I have had elsewhere in the world.

The Hagia Sophia is the only place in the world to serve three religions. Of all the religious buildings I visited, this was the best and most interesting.

Uniquely, have breakfast in Europe with a view of Asia, then lunch in Asia with a view of Europe. In other words, a trip on the Bosphorus, often called the heart of the city. I went to Asia three times on tis trip, once by land, and twice by sea! Where else in the world is it so easy, and so very close???

Witness a unique form of meditation, the whirling dervishes with their Sama ritual.

Visit the Blue Mosque by morning, party on the Bosphorus by evening. Experts say, “Istanbul is the new Berlin!” The Blue Mosque, like many older buildings in Istanbul is undergoing renovation. Too bad we encountered so many Chinese tourists here!

Go shopping in the most visited tourist attraction in the world, the famous Grand Bazaar. I can’t wait. I love this concept the world over, whether Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market, Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium Flea Market, or the famous Night Markets throughout SE Asia. The Grand Bazaar was the highlight, for me, of Istanbul, along wit the beautiful Bosporus. I could spend days there.

Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. Today it is a museum, holding, among other things, Muhammed’s cloak and sword. For me, it consists of too many little, specialty rooms, and did not seem befitting of the great Sultans.

Stroll down Istiklal street, with streetcars, Ottoman era buildings, nightlife, and Cicek Pasaji (drinking raki and eating fish). This is a wonderfully busy, and upbeat area down by the Galata Bridge. I spent the better part of a day here. The fish (mackerel) sandwich is grilled on a boat, and sold to patrons, who can then sit at little tables next to the boat. Other vendors sell drinks, hand wipes, and tasty Turkish pickles.

While we are trying new food, how about the famous kumpir, Istanbul’s preferred street food. It is a baked potato loaded with appetizers (olives, hotdogs, pickles, corn and secret sauce). It looked a little too fatty for me.

Another one is tasting the palm ( a type of dessert) of Buyukada Island.

The Prince islands can be toured by bicycle. Sounds right up my alley.

They say that I need to wrap a rag around a tree near Aya Yorgi Church to make a wish.

Tasting the lemon ice-cream in the Ice-Cream Maker Prinkapos’ place which is on the right-hand side while climbing the Büyükada Dock. The ice cream here is fabulous, much better than gelato or our ice cream back home. They really know how to top it with fresh fruit as well.

Having a Turkish coffee at Bebek cafe. Turkish coffee is thick, strong, and black. It is good, but.....the best part was I learned to love Turkish delight!

Try more desserts like keskul (almond pudding), ekmek kadayifi (bread), ayva tatlisi (quince dessert), and more baklava, of course. The baklava is sweeter than ours back home, and not as crispy. But it is quite good, with a cup of Turkish coffee or tea.

I will let you know what I enjoyed the most. Hint: The Grand Bazaar!!!!!

Call It Constantinople, Please!!!


Istanbul has been Constantinople, and Byzantium long before becoming Istanbul. There is even a song about it:

So, Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

According to Pliny, the Elder, the first name of Byzantium was Lygos, a Thracian settlement. Byzantium was founded by the Greeks from Megara in 667 BC. Greek legend says it I the name of a Greek king who led the Megarean colonists, who founded the city.

Briefly in the third century AD, the city was called Augusta Antonina by the Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus (193-211) in honor of his son, Antoninus. I did not know this.

Before the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great made the city the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, he rebuilt the city and modeled it after Rome. The city was often referred to as New Rome.

In honor of Constantine, Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) made the official name, Constantinople. And I think that is the coolest name of the three that we often refer to. It is also the formal official name during the Ottoman Empire.

They may have used other Byzantine names periodically, and informally, through the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The modern Turkish name, Istanbul means “in the city”. It is based on the common Greek usage of referring to Constantinople as “The City, as we do now for San Francisco.

Istanbul was the common name for the city, even before the 1453 conquest, by regular citizens. Names other than Istanbul became obsolete in the Turkish language about the time of the Ottoman Empires demise. Most modern western languages adopted the modern name, Istanbul during the 20th century.

So, take your pick. Istanbul sounds exotic, but Constantinople sounds other worldly. Cool. And it has a great song with its name in it.

Some famous Turks: Eliza Kazan, Mary Magdalene, Pliny the Younger, St. Paul, Suleiman the Magnificent, Mustafa Ataturk, St. Nicholas, many Sultans, Osman I, Zaza Pachulia, Hedo Turkoglu, and Enes Kanter (NBA).

Armenian Genocide in Turkey


I have mixed thoughts and feelings about visiting Turkey. Not just the current political turmoil, but their past history with the genocide of the Armenians. We grew up with so many Armenian families and friends in the area. They are among my best friends. And the greater Fresno area is home to a large number of Armenian Americans. But I have been anxious to visit, despite all of the issues, even the danger. Last year, as you may remember, I had one of the last visas issued to an American, and was told by the State Department NOT to go!

This time, unless another war breaks out, or open hostility to tourists, namely Americans, becomes unbearable, I am going. I plan to pick and choose my spots, and most likely avoid tour groups, which seem to be an easy target for anti-American trouble makers.

What is it about Turkey that draws one to Istanbul and other major points of interest? For one, I think the Grand Bazaar has always been a draw. And the famous Bosphorus, where the Sea of Marmara meets the Black Sea, and by extension, the Dardanelles, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean. I distinctly remember hearing and learning those names in World History as a sophomore in high school.

But since I should not find today’s Turks responsible for the terrible genocide, I should not find modern day Belgians responsible for Leopold II, or my own modern day Japanese homeland responsible for World War 2. The country has a strong culture, and as part of the Ottoman Empire, led the way of the world for a long time.

For one, Turkey lies in a unique place, partly in Europe, and partly in Asia. Throughout history, it has served as both a barrier and a bridge between the two great continents.

Turkey is also at the crossroads of the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, as well as the eastern Mediterranean. It has the largest land area of any European country, with nearly all of it in Asia. It stretches about a thousand miles wide, and from 300 to 400 miles top to bottom. To the north, is the Black Sea, with Georgia and Armenia to the northeast, on the east by Azerbaijan and Iran, to the southeast by Iraq and Syria (that worries me), and on the northwest by Greece, and Bulgaria.

Ankara is the capital, and the largest city and seaport is Istanbul, where I will start this adventure. The Turkish narrows are a major factor in its relationship with their neighbors. These include: the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, collectively known as the Turkish Straits. Turkey’s control of the Straits, the only outlet from the Black Sea, is a major factor in its relations with other countries.

The modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is a parliamentary democracy, and have multi party elections since the 1950s.

The highest point in Turkey is Mount Ararat, at 16,945 feet. The lowlands are located on the coast, while the majority of the country is mountainous. The climate can be described as a dry semi continental Mediterranean variant, with colder winters than most of their Mediterranean neighbors, due to the mountainous areas.

Turkish is the mother tongue, with the remainder speaking Kurdish (about 1/5 of the population), and a few Arabic. More than 90%!o(MISSING)f the country is Muslim, but Turkey remains a secular country. Islam was removed as the official state religion back in 1928.

The population hovers around 80 million, though immigrants arrive daily from war torn neighboring states. Turkey has a mixed economy, having transformed from agriculture (now 25%!)(MISSING) to industry (now 25%!)(MISSING) and services (now 50%!)(MISSING). Turkey has a wealth of natural resources, including coal, oil (limited), iron and other metallic ores. Turkey is the Middle East’s largest steel producer, while textiles are second.

That is a lot to digest for now. More on life here, the culture, the people, and some more interesting things.

What Is A Kebab?

We have all enjoyed kebabs of various sorts back home, including lamb (shish), beef, and chicken. I have even had fish, cheese, fruit, vegetable, and tofu kebabs in some places around the world. But what really is a kebab?

In the Middle East, Asia, and the Muslim world, a kebab is any variety of grilled meats, usually on a skewer, but not always. The meat on the kebab can be ground, cut, or cubed, and may include anything that can be grilled. But rarely pork due to religious reasons. One of my favorites is the doner kebab, available throughout the world, but particularly good in this part of the world.

The “Adana” kebab is quite popular here. It is made of ground beef or a combination of ground beef and lamb. Quite commonly, onion, garlic and Turkish spices are added. Then they are packed by hand onto large, flat, metal skewers. The fat helps bind the meat together on the skewer.

A cook from Bursa is credited with the invention of the doner kebab. It is quite different from the doner, which can be found throughout Europe. Both generally are roasted over a rotating grill or rotisserie. From Istanbul food: In Turkey, the word kebap extends to include any of these dishes that are cooked over, or next to, a flame. It includes both small and large cuts of meat, as well as ground meat. Kebab in Turkey can be served on plates (known as porsiyon), in sandwiches, or even in wraps (known as durum).

Traditionally, the meat used to make Turkish kebabs is lamb. However, as individual tastes evolved, and regional specialties developed, other popular meats used in Turkish kebabs have extended to include beef, chicken and fish. Using vegetables in kebabs has also always been popular in Turkey, and most commonly you’ll find varieties of kebab made with eggplant, tomato, peppers and onion.

It is generally accepted that the first kebabs in Turkey originated from the Erzurum province in Eastern Turkey, as cağ kebab; with meat stacked and cooked on a spit horizontally, rather than vertically as today’s döner kebabs are. These kebabs are first mentioned in Ottoman travel books dating back to the 18th century. The ‘father’ of the modern döner kebab, Iskender Efendi, then wrote that he and his grandfather “had the idea of roasting the lamb vertically rather than horizontally”, and invented a vertical rotisserie. It is this dish that is today most commonly recognized throughout the world as ‘kebab’.

My favorite is, of course, the grilled lamb cubes, that we know back home as shish kebab, from our wonderful Armenian friends in the Valley. My Mom learned to make the shish, along with several dishes, from the Armenian ladies in her Tuesday night bridge club.

Note: the lamb here is lamb, not mutton. And it is among the best I have EVER eaten!

Most interesting to compare these kebabs to the ones back home. I love kebabs. I grew up on kebabs. My Mom had a great recipe from one of her Armenian bridge ladies. It was the best!

The Grandest Bazaar

Probably from the first time I thought about visiting Istanbul, I have wanted to wander around the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s oldest and largest, the GB is over 31,000 square meters, with over sixty four streets and alleys, twenty two entrances, and a mere 4,000 shops. Its origin dates back to 1461 and the days of Mehmet the Conqueror. I guess this would be the first shopping center ever built? It became the center of trade for the entire Ottoman Empire.

According to the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname, by the seventeenth century the Kapalı Çarşı (or the Çarşı-yı-Kebir as it was known at the time) had reached its present size, with over 4,000 shops and nearly 500 stalls known in Turkish as dolap (literally translated to “cupboard”).

The Grand Bazaar is really a city within a city, with its own police station, post office, dispensary, several banks, and a tourist information center. Also on site are restaurants, a hammam, a mosque, and about ten smaller prayer rooms (mescits).

Each and every travel expert tells me that I should expect to get lost, at least many times! Chatting and bargaining, rather than rushing through the bazaar, provides the best experience. The eventual purchase is not as important as the haggling, and the relationship between buyer and seller. I went back several times to the first guy, and he was pretty fair, according to my local guide/friend.

I would expect sensory overload to be my first impression. I was. Maybe the second and third as well. Yes, I was. But I love these markets as I travel the world, but never having been to any this large, or this “foreign” to me. So, putting my hands on the product will encourage the vendor to close the sale. The more aggressive the vendor, the more likely the item is probably not worth my time. They say the most trusted shopkeepers do not harass customers into buying their products. I hope that is true!

Among the items for sale are jewelry, of course, antiques, furniture, leather goods, casual clothing, souvenirs, carpets, textiles, made to order, and eating and drinking. But the common denominator: they all use one liners and attention grabbers to attract customers. If you feel like a conversation, go for it, but beware of giving the merchant false hope that you will buy from them!

With anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 visitors (over 90 million annually) a day, I expect it to be crazy. The bazaar is open every day but Sunday, from 9:00 to 19:00. So, how can I go about buying something, without overpaying, or pissing off the shop keeper? With 25,000 staff people, the place is buzzing!

First, the person waiting on me is most likely not the owner or shop keeper. And he or she is on a sales quota, getting paid only a commission for what is sold. So, much like vendors the world over, the early morning is when the sales person wants to make sure they reach their daily quota. As the day progresses, and they have made their quota, their focus turns to either more commission, or keeping the shop keeper happy by trying to sell excess or unwanted inventory. Between 11:00 and 13:00 are the best times, according to the experts.

On my side of the sale, I must try not too look very eager. And don’t just focus on one item, though make a mental note of it while looking around. Once an item is chosen, make the sales person give the best price first. Then, with a look of total astonishment, leave the item and head to another store with similar items. Either the clerk makes a new offer, buying my bluff, or he lets me walk. Once a new offer is made, the real bargaining starts.

Another trick, is slow and steady is the best course. The clerk’s urge to sell should be greater than my desire to buy. Never rush the bargaining process. Many times they will offer tea, usually in a hidden corner of the store. Why? So nobody else can hear what is going on. And second, the clerk may want to create a need for the sale, a more personal reason, like a family to feed or a sick relative.

Of course, it is all just a story, and his children will still be able to go to college, with or without your purchase. Keep playing his game with nods, and maybes. Without hard and fast rules, I always aim for 50%!o(MISSING)f the asking price. It may require some practice, though I have done it in SE Asia numerous times.

With 18 million people, I am certain there are a few that would like to make a buck or two off of me. They prefer targets who are alone. Bars with overpriced drinks, and under dressed women are a red flag. Single white men are the best target, usually confronted by a well dressed English speaking tout. Shoe shines and pick pockets are another scam.

Now, what really do I expect to buy? Maybe a T shirt or two, some spices and tea, a fridge magnet, that’s about it. I do not need a rug, jewelry, clothing, second hand books, clay pottery, pipe, or leather goods. They probably will not be too happy with me. But the lamp store might be somewhere I could buy, since we have several Turkish lamps at home.

I love the markets around the world here the locals shop. It was a highlight of my trip!

Why Is the Mosque Blue?

The Blue Mosque is blue because of the hand painted, blue tiles (over 20,000) on the interior walls. Built in 1606 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmet I, this Ottoman mosque contains his tomb, a madrasa (educational institution), and a hospice. Still used as a mosque, the Sultanahmet Camii (Turkish for Blue Mosque) is a popular tourist attraction here in Istanbul. But it is closed in ninety minute segments during the five daily prayers for worshippers. Mid morning is the best time to arrive.

One noticeable difference from the Hagia Sophia is the four “elephant foot’ pillars. It has a central dome, flanked by four semi-domes, making it nearly square in shape. The mosque was designed as an imperial show of strength to complement the Hagia Sophia across Sultanahmet Square. It also has six minarets, where most mosques have two or four. The controversy surrounds the fact that Prophet’s mosque in Mecca is the only other mosque with six minarets. The Sultan solved this by adding a seventh minaret to the mosque in Mecca.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever set foot in a mosque before. And I did not know it is free to visit. Women, of course, must cover their heads when entering. For men, pants must cover the knees. No mention of what else needs to be covered. Shoes are stored outside, in plastic bags, at no charge. Donations are not required.

With a capacity of ten thousand, this place is more like a city than a mosque. It is considered the most famous landmark in Istanbul. And just my luck, the mosque is being renovated, to be completed by 2020.

The mosque’s interior has 20,000 blue tiles that line its high ceiling. The oldest of these tiles feature flowers, trees and abstract patterns that make them fine examples of sixteenth century Iznik design. Many have been broken or stolen, the reason for the restoration.

The Blue Mosque’s interior is lit with two hundred and sixty windows which were once filled with stained glass of the seventeenth century. Unfortunately they have been lost and replaced with replicas far more inferior.

Two Popes have visited the Blue Mosque: Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, and Pope Francis in 2014. President Barack Obama toured the mosque in 2009. BTW, the Turks do not call it the Blue Mosque.

What Rhymes with Bosporus?

I can only think of one word, a chemical element, P, number 15, Phosphorus, never found as a free element on earth. (Actually, I came up with another while visiting. It is prosperous!!) But Bosporus, the strategic waterway, is the strait between the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. With the Dardanelles, it separates Europe form Asia. Or should I say, it connects Asia and Europe? It is only 19 miles long, and from 2.3 miles wide at the west, and only 2450 feet at its narrowest.

And it is grand, and blue, and beautiful. And so busy!!!!

The current here flows from north to south, but with a strong subsurface undercurrent, making navigation difficult for beginners. The strait is busy with oil tankers, and commercial ships (over 48,000 annually), along with local fishing and sightseeing boats. One hundred and forty ships take the 90 minute voyage daily. In addition, the Bosphorus has two tunnels that run underneath: Marmaray which runs the subway system, and the Eurasia tunnel, a double decker for cars and minibuses only.

The Bosporus is one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery in Turkey, with the best way to see it by boat. I took the boat cruise, almost three hours, and visited Asia twice by boat, once by land. On the surrounding shores that rise upwards of 200 feet, Ottoman wooden houses, fortresses, palaces, ruins, villages, and gardens can be seen. Also, some of the best hotels and restaurants line the straits as well.

The water seems much cleaner than San Francisco Bay. The fish from the water here are said to taste better, since they live in a "sea", and not the ocean. I tried several kinds of fish, including mackerel and sea bass. I would agree.

Back in high school, I remember a geography quiz in World History. The Bosporus was always one of the questions. Little did I know I would one day see it for myself. And Istanbul is the only city in the world that crosses two continents. But you knew that?
Quick final observations:

The people of Istanbul are so friendly and welcoming. I always felt safe.

The Grand Bazaar and the Bosporus were my two favorite experiences.

Having a local guide is important for learning some of the finer parts of Istanbul life and customs.

The streets are narrow, one car wide, but open to traffic both ways!

The lamb here is tasty and delicious.

I fell in love with Turkish delight!

Their cafe and coffee culture here is grand.

Istanbul is a very underrated city.

My hotel in Old Town was walking distance to the Haya Sophia and Blue Mosque.

I strongly suggest that you visit!!!

I may have left a few things out. Once I get back in California time zone status, I will figure it out and send.



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