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August 16, 2001
My City (Part III)

I found this throwaway photo of the Bosphorus and its two bridges I took in 1998. It shows how the nutcracker claws on the map translate into slopes and coves. Some of the older homes along these shores are so expensive that people who inherit them sometimes can't afford the property tax and sell them. Or burn them for the insurance money...

Bosphorus and its two bridges at dusk

Anyway, the old city. I don't know how many times I've walked on the bridge across the Golden Horn (Haliç, or inlet in Turkish) as a matter of course, not paying any attention to people around me, and them paying no attention to me. I usually look around lazily, taking in the scenery, the boats, the playful, eclectic rooftops of Topkapi Palace's buildings (the palace was built in bits and pieces over time and has no defining style) in the distance.


Perhaps I'm going to meet with a publisher, or look at cameras. The narrow streets are home to a lot of establishments like that, sticking it out when others in mass media and various trades are moving out to newer, roomier districts. I blend here the way I do in Washington. But a few years ago I was walking on that same bridge with two women easily identifiable as tourists. And with a backpack half-slung over my shoulder, I was one of them all of a sudden, and I had a different thing happen. Three kids in front of us suddenly fell into a fight, and then, onto us. Before I had time to think, one of them had a hand in my left pocket, going for the wallet. As the hand was coming out I suddenly grabbed it and without much resistance he let go. They ran away, but stopped once they were only 20 yards away -- and really started fighting, trying to assign the blame as to who'd blown the operation.

Despite an increase in incidents like this (poverty is on the rise), the Old City and its environs remain ground zero for tourists. You'll see them everywhere, which doesn't mean what they're after is worthless.

Safety? You'll be OK. Stay away from dark alleys or suspiciously deserted areas. You'll be offered tea constantly, especially by carpet sellers. Drink it in the main area of the shop, or outside like everybody else. Do you really need to see the back room or "our warehouse" that requires getting into a car cramped with five strange men? Use common sense. If you won't go home with someone you met at a bar in Los Angelese, follow the same rule here. Go to museums, walk into art galleries in the New City (The neighborhood of Maçka is full of them), old bookstores on Pera's main drag. Old or young, traditional neighborhood or new, the people's eyes will give you a clue.

What should you not miss in the Old City? If you're lucky, you'll be staying in a fixed-up old home B&B in the Sultanahmet district or the hostel (more on that later), both a stone's throw from Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and what tourists call the Blue Mosque (its name is Sultanahmet). Those are, as mobbed as they are, worth it. You can read about them elsewhere, though.

Here are some semi-hidden gems:

Inside the main Topkapi palace gate (and for God's sake don't get on a bus going to "Topkapi"; that neighborhood, dusty and fugly and choked with interstate buses jostling for your business, is several miles outside the town center and has nothing to do with Topkapi Palace, even though it has the same name), you'll find Hagia Irene, the reddish, tiny Byzantine church built in the name of St. Irene. It was never converted into a mosque, a rare case for Byzantine churches. It's not among the city's operating churches today, but there's always something going on there -- an art exhibit, and most weekend evenings, a concert. It's great to stroll up there in the evening (it's in the shade, hugged by the palace walls and tall trees, swishing for your comfort), buy your ticket and enter one of the only concert halls in the world where pigeons add unscripted notes to the music. Of course, if it's a high-profile classical concert, it'll be sold out, but often there are people scalping their tickets. It's worth a try.

Down the street (still inside the palace's outer courtyard), you'll find the old Mint (Darphane), now restored by a foundation working on collecting material for and writing our history from a non-governmental point of view. You can buy some interesting postcards in their gift shop, as well books in English, some of which the higher-ups would not be happy about, such as A Modern History of the Kurds. How does this foundation operate an old Ottoman building here, not to mention their main offices occupying space in another old palace (Yildiz) uptown? It's an uneasy relationship between the academics who run the place and the government. Push, pull, capitulate, rub my back and I'll rub yours, and so on.

Just a few more steps to the palace, next to its ticket office is a government-run gift shop. You can find some very nice artifacts there (those gifts people asked for before you left), reasonably priced. This is the place to buy onyx donkeys, coffee grinders and similar little stuff if you don't want to haggle over at the Covered Bazaar (another tourist trap you'll read about everywhere). A carpet-selling version of this store is tucked behind the Blu-, I mean the Sultanahmet Mosque, by the way. Clearly marked prices based on a knots-per-square-cm system -- you won't be skinned there. (See, government works, sometimes.)

Incidentally, if you make it to the palace itself, the Konyali restaurant (the only one past the ticket gate) is very good, reasonably priced for most tourists, and has a great view. Don't settle for a quick and questionable bite outside thinking you'll starve spending hours touring the palace.

OK, back out, when you're standing with your back to the palace's outer gate (isn't that a magnificient fountain in front of you?) you'll have no problem spotting the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Mosque, facing off across a little park (which is where they hold a light show every night, if you're so inclined). A couple other things are hiding, though. One is the Byzantine cistern, entered through a little building across from the Hagia Sophia (across the street, that is; and be careful, wait for the light and proceed with caution, because everything you've heard about Turkish drivers is true). Don't go home without seeing this one. You'll walk down stone steps once inside, and end up in a cavernous, cathedral-like room with fat columns. At times the keepers play Beethoven or a Turkish oratorio, with the lights synched to the music. There's a wooden walkway so you can get around (otherwise you'd have to take a rowboat); make sure you walk all the way to the end, where you'll see that the Byzantine builder used a gigantic Medusa head as the base of one of the columns. Throughout the land's history people have been recycling monuments and buildings here, sometimes with bizarre results.

And finally, you may want to walk across the old hippodrome (now a square) and check out the Ibrahim Pasha palace. The place usually has an interesting exhibit, and the view from its terrace (see below for a partial shot) is nice. If you're feeling tired, you can sit down at one of the cafes in this area. The flower children at heart should check out the Sultanahmet Köftecisi (a meatball house) around the corner from the cistern. This restaurant was the middle point and a popular regrouping spot on the London-Kathmandu trail in the 1960s, and its message board is still active. The area's best youth hostel is also just around the corner from it. If you prefer tranquility, ask about the Yesil (pronounced Yeshil) Konak (the Green House), an old Ottoman house rather clumsily restored but offering an oasis with plenty to eat nonetheless. It's a stone's throw from the Hagia Sophia, and the staff are extremely polite -- none of that smarmy crap you'll encounter all too frequently in tourist-oriented shops and eateries.

Obelisk and minarets

We'll go down the hill, cross the Galata Bridge in the opposite direction and visit Pera next, with an obligatory nod to the red light district, of course. Tuck that money belt in.


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