Waking up to Istanbul: A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to the city of his dreams

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By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, October 26, 2001 - 11:51 pm: Edit Post

Waking up to Istanbul - A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to the city of his dreams

Waking up to Istanbul - A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to the city of his dreams

This piece by former PCV Stephen Franklin was in the Chicago Tribune Travel section Oct. 21, alongside the previously nmentioned piece by Alan Solomon.

Waking up to Istanbul

A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to the city of his dreams

By Stephen Franklin
Tribune staff reporter

October 21, 2001

ISTANBUL -- First the birds, shouting in the early morning sunshine from their perches in the thick greenery amid the massive monuments and mosques. Then the ferryboats' whistles--long, low moans, echoing across the Bosporus as the commuter-filled boats busily scurry by.

Soon a breeze picks up, pushing back the lace curtains in my tiny, rug-and-antique-filled room.

In the sleepy, tree-shaded garden below my window, they have just turned on the water for the large marble fountain, and set out breakfast trays--fresh strawberry and apricot jams, cherry juice, fresh cherries, thick black olives, luscious, light-tasting white cheese, Turkish tea and, of course, Turkish coffee.

My hotel, the Yesil Ev (pronounced Yeshil Ev), is a restored Ottoman era house that sits on a quiet cobblestone street between the enormous, six-minaret Sultan Ahmet mosque and the towering, rust-hued Aya Sofya, a Byzantine church that is now a museum. Staring down from my room, I wonder.

How much did I know about this kind of beauty when I lived here more than 33 years ago? Not much, I think.

How much did I appreciate the gems hidden away on Istanbul's back streets or buried at the edges of markets or waiting around the bend of an unbelievably steeply inclining street? Not much, though I suspected it was there. Then I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, and the ancient Istanbul that I breathlessly encountered was passing scenery largely. I was too young and I had neither the time, nor the money to do otherwise. My wife, Suzanne, and I ran an orphanage, seven days a week from sun-up until long after everyone was in bed.

Now, many years later, I return in quest of the Istanbul I never knew, or at least, the city I dreamed about. Not the large palaces, but the jewelers' workshops buried in centuries' old stalls above the Covered Market. Not the giant bazaars, but the winding alleys that take you past dusty time-weary churches with elaborate icons and rich dark woodwork, steamy, ancient marble-lined bath houses and antique shops stocked with so many items that it seems nothing was thrown away in all the years the Ottomans ruled.

Nor am I determined to just poke around in musty places. I want to re-record pictures in my head of the scenes that make Istanbul so unique. So, at dawn I jog along the road lining the Bosporus just below the Topkapi palace. The Sea of Marmara's nearby islands seem mystical. Across the way the sleeping city, rising up from the Golden Horn, looms like a historic excavation.

Wandering along Cukurcuma Caddesi, a crooked street in the old Beyoglu neighborhood, where one quirky antique store rubs up against another, I come across Tomas. He has no last name, he tells me. That is because he is unique, he explains. Indeed, he is the master repairman in Turkey for old gramophones, and the one playing loudly in the doorway caught my ear. The record is at least 60 years old, he says, rumbling about in his helter-skelter-like store.

Late one afternoon I am sitting at the water's edge in Karakoy, munching a simit (a Turkish pretzel) and staring back across the Golden Horn at the sprawl of mosques and markets in the oldest part of Istanbul. In front of me is a young couple embracing. Next to them is another couple, doing the same. But the young woman is wearing a long scarf, and long dark skirt. She apparently is one of the growing number of Turkish women who seek greater modesty for religious reasons.

Emerging from the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, a small 13th Century Byzantine church on a hilltop in the Fener neighborhood, I notice a woman totally covered in black like most ultra-devout Muslim women. In the 15th Century, Sultan Mehmet II issued an order forever protecting the church named for a princess who was the widow of a Mongol leader.

At the doorway, the church's custodian, a Christian from southeastern Turkey who speaks Arabic, rushes up to me and asks in Arabic for help for the church since only a few families pray there nowadays. I agree to help out and, before I do, a friend hands him a donation.

"What a city of contrasts," hollers that friend, David Edgerly, as we speed along narrow alleys on his motorcycle, racing from the old Greek neighborhood into Fatih, a community where ultra-devout Muslims abound. He has an unbridled love of Istanbul, having returned here to settle 16 years ago. He has spent time ever since exploring the city. A volunteer himself and then my boss in the Peace Corps, he is now a high-ranking official for a prominent Turkish bank.

He has a tour in his head that he clearly relishes. And so, we dash, on foot, through the Covered Market, climbing steps to reach obscure stores filled with endless amounts of ancient copper or ceramics. We chat with a Kurdish rug dealer in a modest stall in the Covered Market, who has become an expert on the best of the Central Asian textiles flooding Istanbul nowadays. But the best of my friend's finds is his luncheon tour.

Up and down steep streets more suitable for mountain goats, we wander until we are near Edirnekapi, one of the gateways to the walls for the old Byzantine city, Constantinople. Here is a stunning relic sleeping in a quiet neighborhood: the Kariye museum. It was a church and then a mosque. Now it offers a breathtaking view of Christian mosaics as old as 1320.

An almost-as-pleasant discovery is the small, carefully restored Ottoman-era inn beside the museum, Hotel Kariye, and its restaurant, the Asitane Ottoman Restaurant. Asitane is one of the old Ottoman names for the city, meaning "the house of the state." We eat lunch in a cool, leafy garden, dining on elegantly prepared items that are copies of dishes served to the sultans. Once again, I let my obsessions rule. I indulge in a rich dessert built around rose water. Some days I decide to eat only desserts: baklavas and rice puddings. Some days I swear I will drink only freshly squeezed juices. After a bath and an incredibly exhausting massage at the 260-year-old Cagaloglu Hammami, I swear I will seek a different bathhouse daily. But I don't. Nor do I abide by my vow to explore every side street that leads down the hill from Taksim Square.

In my wandering reverie, I discover more old books stores than I had imagined. I am stunned by the wealth and appalled by the poverty. The crowding repels me, but I am drawn by the crowds meandering along the pedestrian walkway on Istiklal Caddesi. The fish served in the restaurants in Tarabaya, a beautiful little cove along the Bosporus where years ago I had both dined and swum bravely in the Bosporus, seems more delicious than I ever remembered. So, too, raki, the anise-flavored Turkish alcohol drink, seems more seductive and more potent than ever before.

That is the problem with nostalgia and especially with remembering things only partially grasped. The reality can be both tantalizing and despairful.

After dining at a very modest curbside restaurant and schmoozing over endless cups of tea with newly made Turkish friends at a tea garden, I return to my hotel. In the garden, an accordion player is performing for the dinners. He stops briefly as the nighttime calls to prayer ricochet loudly from mosque to mosque. When they end, he goes back to his songs. I listen to him and then drift off, wondering on.


Stephen Franklin is a former Tribune foreign correspondent now on assignment in Tajikistan.



Sultan Ahmet will stun you: such a massive, looming place of worship. Topkapi Palace's opulence will steal your imagination. So, too, will Dolmabahce, the gaudy palace the Ottoman sultans called home after Topkapi.

After all of that you might consider some more intimate, more special places, where you won't find yourself marching in lockstep behind tour groups.

You can find some of these places on a map or guide book or you can wander upon them. I prefer the joy of educated wandering--the rush of discovering a place you suspected was somewhere out there.

Istanbul is not a difficult city to cover on foot except for some places at its extremes. Taxis are cheap, too, and if you are watching your money, you might make sure the driver turns the meter on. Likewise, ferryboats are a bargain.

If you take Taksim square as your starting point, you can meander down Istiklal Caddesi (avenue) toward Karakoy and the Golden Horn.

Half way down Istiklal Caddesi is the Cicek Pasaj, a collection of inexpensive restaurants. They might be a bit noisy. Turn right, meander through a fish and fruit market and you'll find some more restaurants where average Turks eat. Forget Western food, embrace Turkish cooking.

If you stay on Istiklal Caddesi, it dead ends in a small square. Take the first major street on the left and you'll notice a row of stores selling Turkish string instruments and drums. A few musicians may be trying the equipment too.

The Yesil Ev hotel (about $100 single, $140 double) sits on Kabaskal Caddesi Number 5 in Sultanahmet (517-67-85; if calling from the United States, add 011-90-212 to all Istanbul phone numbers listed here). Most taxi drivers won't know this tiny street, but they will know the area. It is ripe with similarly restored hotels. Perched among them are a number of outdoor teahouses that offer groups playing typical Turkish music.

At most exits to the Covered Bazaar are small courtyards or steps leading to tiny workshops where many of the items sold in the bazaar are made or stored. The Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is located on a hilltop in Fener at Tevkii Cafer Mektebi Sokak. You might call to see if somebody will let you in (521-71-39).

The Kariye Museum, which is also known as the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, is on the near western edge of Istanbul. Down the street is the Kariye Hotel and its elegant Ottoman style restaurant, Asitane (534-84-14).


Guidebooks to Istanbul abound. Not all give a feeling for the city's complex soul. I like "The Black Book" by the popular Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (Harcourt; $16). The Turkish consulate in Chicago can direct you to government information about travel in Turkey. They can be reached at 312-263-0644; www.trconsulate.org.

--Stephen Franklin

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Turkey; Return to COS



By bardaha on Thursday, June 05, 2003 - 2:49 pm: Edit Post

I'm looking for marmara's email of fish markets in turkey

By hassan on Thursday, June 05, 2003 - 2:54 pm: Edit Post

we are looking for dalgicozer's email of fish markets

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