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August 11, 2001
My City (Part II)

OK, let's start with our primer. I'll keep referring to the map below as I write these entries. As you can see, the city is where two seas come together; the narrow strait that connects the two is called the Bosphorus. It's less than half a mile across at its narrowest point, which explains why once in a while some people wake up in the middle of the night to find a ship's nose lounging on the couch in their living room. The shores are home to some of the world's most valuable real estate owing to stunning views. The little dot on the map close to the south terminus of the Bosphorus is not an errant speck; it's the tower shown in the banner photo above. You may remember it from the crappy movie in which James Bond found a submarine hidden underneath it.

Istanbul metro area map

The bright yellow section (marked 7) is the Old City. This peninsula is what Byzantium had been reduced to when an army led by a twentysomething emperor named Mehmet captured it in 1453 after a long siege. There is no single point in time when Constantinople became Istanbul (another Greek word derived from the phrase "to the city"). The names were used interchangeably for hundreds of years until Istanbul became official. The sliver of water north of the Old City is called the Golden Horn, named after the way it looked at sundown. As the map shows, the expansion of the city has turned the Old City into a tiny portion of today's metropolis; much of this took place within the last generation or two. In the 1960s, pretty much the entire metro area could be contained within the arc of the first beltway you see on the map. The villages along the Bosphorus were distinct entities. Today the whole thing sprawls with no end in sight.

Yes, what you may have heard is true: the left side is Europe, and the right side is Asia. You can even run across one of the bridges once a year, when the city holds its Eurasia marathon. Some foreign dude always wins it, so you know you can too. In theory anyway.

This is what the Bosphorus looks like at the end of a nice day. At night the lights give it a magical look, especially if you're drinking merrily.

Bosphorus view from cafe, Anadoluhisari

It's not always this calm. Even when it looks placid to the untrained eye, its currents are strong enough to make swimming extremely difficult and dangerous (another reason why ships have a hard time navigating this body of water). And winter brings such chilly gusts and punishing waves that a lot of the rich people who own homes along the Bosphorus shutter them in the cold season and move to their condos away from the water.

Sometimes the passage of a large ship can create substantial waves, too. Years ago I watched one of these things wash over a little waterside park like a junior tsunami. When it was over, kids were screaming, people had been swept off benches and their bags and other belongings were pulling out to sea with the retreating wave. I'd never seen that effect before--not counting the metaphorical impact of Election Day, of course.

But back to the map for a bit. Number 8, directly north of the Old City, is home to the newer districts anchored by Taksim Square and the 19th century gem of a neighborhood known in the West as Pera, which I'll talk about at some length later. 7 and 8 are often the focus of most commercial maps (like this one) sold in the city today, since that's where most things are. You may want to buy one; it'll make life easier.

There is enough to see in 7 and 8 alone that would satisfy very different types of visitors. We'll cover those sections and branch out in the coming days.


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