Istanbul – A stroll in the old city

DSCF0025Turkey’s been going through some difficult times in the last year or so. Fortunately for Turks, their economy is not dependent on one factor: oil, like Venezuela, or tourism, like the Maldive Islands.

Nevertheless, tourism is a big earner, and that sector took a few hits in recent years. A trigger-happy Turkish pilot (let’s call him that) shot down a Russian Mig  – and in retaliation, Russian holiday-makers were ordered to stay home in their frozen wastes instead of flocking to the beaches on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Then various wealthy Western governments (including my own beloved New Zealand) started advising their citizens to avoid visiting the country – though I think the annual Anzac Day pilgrimage was relatively unaffected.

Well, the Turkish Lira’s not doing so well at present, but (or maybe, so) the tourists have been flocking back. The people at Bloomberg published a piece of research showing that Turkey ranked 4th this year in a list of ten countries “where tourism is skyrocketing”. Then the “editors and experts” of Time Out produced a list of the “Fifty Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World”, and Istanbul’s Kadıköy was on it.

Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about the effects of tourism on a country’s economy, not to mention its natural environment. And I have some doubts about the taste of people who would rank Los Angeles at No. 9 and Istanbul at No. 43. I was also a little surprised to see London’s Peckham come in at No. 11. When I worked there briefly as a high school teacher 20 years ago, “cool” was not a word I ever heard applied to the district, but clearly times have changed.

Still, these days, I think most Turks will be grateful for any encouragement they receive from western news sources.

Anyway, I was moved to get out on an overcast Tuesday and check out some of what Istanbul has to offer. I took a ferry over to Eminönü in the old city, and headed for the Archaeology Museum.

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One of my favourite trees, a plane tree by the tram station at Gülhane. Not as big as our Tane Mahuta, but it must be a few centuries old, and seems remarkably healthy.

 

 

 

 

DSCF0028Model of a Byzantine-era trading boat in the museum garden. One of 37 ships dug up from the ancient Harbour of Theodosius during excavations for the Yenilapı Metro Station. It was a 10-metre-long and 2.30-metre-wide cargo ship, and is supposed to be the most accurate example to date of a small commercial ship once used in the Middle East.

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One of a group of votive statues dating from the 3rd century CE found during excavations beside the Golden Horn in 1949-50. Believed to have been part of a nymphaion (commemorative fountain) or a museion (a building dedicated to the works of the Muses).

 

 

 

DSCF0007A sarcophagus dating from the Imperial Roman period. There was a vast necropolis in the city of Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) that was used between the 6th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.

DSCF0009Sections of pipe used to bring water from forests outside the city of Constantinople to cisterns in the city which then supplied the fountains and public baths.

DSCF0010DSCF0037Part of the head of one of the serpents forming a column in the centre of the Roman hippodrome. The headless creatures can be seen entwined outside the gates of Sultanahmet Mosque.

 

DSCF0012A mosaic panel discovered in the Kalenderhane Mosque, formerly a Byzantine Church dating from the 12th century.

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DSCF0042A fountain presented as a token of friendship to Sultan Abdülhamid II by the German Emperor in 1895. Abdülhamid is generally condemned in the West as one of the more evil Ottoman sultans (“The Red Sultan”), accused of slaughtering thousands of helpless Armenians in what are often labelled the “Hamidian Massacres”. Well, clearly Kaiser Wilhelm viewed the matter differently. I’d strolled past that fountain many times before without making the connection.

DSCF0057A recently restored Roman underground cistern built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century CE – opened to the public with free admission!

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The large building behind is the home of an organisation calling itself the World Academy for Local Government and Democracy! It seems this NGO is actually based in Istanbul! You can visit their website:

http://wald.org.tr          Turkish

http://wald.org             German

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The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

The Golden Horn has a special association in Western minds with the magic of a city some still insist on calling Constantinople. As a geographical feature, it is one of the main reasons that city has been settled for more than 6,000 years, and that it was the centre of three major world empires for more than a millennium and a half.

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

In physical terms, the Golden Horn is an estuary of two small rivers some 7.5 km in length, 750 metres across its widest point, and 35 metres deep where it flows into the Bosporus as it joins the Sea of Marmara. With that sea it forms two sides of a roughly triangular peninsula on which the Emperor Constantine established his New Rome in the third decade of the 4th century CE. Twenty-two km of massive defensive walls, mostly still in existence, surrounded the city, and the Golden Horn was the main harbour, port and centre of shipbuilding until well into the 20th century.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, and became the capital of their 600-year empire. The Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, but Istanbul remains the financial, commercial and emotional heart.

Surprising then that the Turkish name for the historical waterway is simply Haliç – derived from the Arabic word for estuary. There is some debate about how the Golden Horn acquired its name in Greek and English. One theory says it symbolises the wealth that entered the legendary city through its waters. That may be so, but it was equally true for the Ottomans. The second explanation, which I prefer, refers to the colours that bathe the harbour as the sun sets in the west – a sight only visible from the north-eastern shore where was located the satellite city housing merchants and ambassadors from Europe. For a thousand years or more, attracted by the city’s fabled wealth, they built their towers, warehouses, churches and palaces, and watched the setting sun enflame the waters separating them from the imperial capital.

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

Last week the adventurous new driver of our staff shuttle bus took a lengthy detour to avoid the deadlocked traffic through Istanbul’s new financial centre coming to be known informally as ‘Mashattan’. Istanbul is a huge city, and there are undoubtedly many areas with which I am not familiar. Our circuitous route brought us to the bank of a medium-sized stream flowing down a surprisingly verdant valley interspersed with sports facilities and amusement parks. The slopes of the valley were lined with modern high-rise apartment blocks, office buildings, and the ostentatious campuses of several new universities. The area is Kağıthane, and for the first time I felt motivated to visit it.

It’s not a very accessible area for those of us residing on the Asian side of Istanbul – but there is a ferry, departing hourly from Üsküdar that crosses the Bosporus and follows a zigzag course up the Golden Horn ending at Eyüp, a district popular with the Muslim faithful. Its second-to-last stop is Sütlüce, my point of disembarkation.

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Whatever doomsayers may tell you, Istanbul is a more salubrious metropolis in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the old millennium. Fish thrive again in the Golden Horn in sufficient numbers to encourage a forest of fishing rods on the Galata Bridge. The water at least looks relatively clean, and certainly doesn’t stink as it formerly did. The industries that lined its banks and the Kağıthane valley have been relocated, their buildings demolished, derelict or converted to new uses.

A prominent landmark near the jetty at Sütlüce is the Haliç Congress Centre, a sprawling complex whose central feature is the old city slaughterhouse, built in 1923 and finally closed in 1984. I am too squeamish to begin imagining what flowed from its bloody operations during the 61 years it served its original purpose.

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

Further along the shore is the campus of Bilgi University, located on what had been the coal-burning Silahtarağa thermal power station, established in 1911, and the sole supplier of Istanbul’s electricity needs until 1952. Electricity generation continued until 1983, and I can only guess at the contribution it made to the city’s air and water as it leached its poisons and belched forth its toxic clouds of smoke. I am assured that there is now a Museum of Energy on the site – but yesterday being a holiday, it wasn’t open to the public. It’s not the first time in Turkey I have been offered this reason for a museum’s being closed. Does it strike you as peculiar?

So I had lunch as I revised my plans, which had involved spending an hour or two learning about energy in Turkey, past and present, with maybe some light being shed on the proposed construction of three nuclear-fuelled power plants. Probably because of the universities, there are now a number of tasteful cafes and restaurants raising the tone of a neighbourhood struggling to shake off a heritage of auto mechanics and tyre repairers.

I was now at the point where the two streams, Kağıthane (or Cendere) and Alibeyköy flow into the Golden Horn, and faced with a choice, I decided to follow the former to see where it would lead. Clearly the valley has been beautified since the days when it was Istanbul’s first industrial area, and home to squatter villages erected by displaced Anatolian peasants flocking to the city in search of work. The stream now flows through an extensive park stretching along both banks for several kilometres, further than I chose to explore. The water still looks uninviting, and the metre or so of grey mud at the water’s edge would likely discourage children trying to retrieve a football. At least it doesn’t stink, however, which places it a little higher on the water purity scale than the Asian stream flowing past the stadium of Fenerbahçe, one of the city’s premier football clubs.

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

The name Kağıthane comes, as one might guess, from a paper factory that was one of the first industries to be established on the banks of the stream. In Ottoman times, the district was known as Sadabad, actually a forest frequented by Sultan Süleiman and his court in the 16th century for riding and hunting. In the 17th and 18th centuries the wealthy built mansions and summer palaces along the banks of the stream. It began to attract a wider public in the early years of the 18th century, the so-called Tulip Age, as the empire increasingly opened its doors to Western influence, becoming a popular location for picnic daytrips, weddings and other festivities. Postcards and engravings, often inscribed with French titles, made their way to Europe, depicting Les Eaux-douce d’Europe – the Sweet Waters of Europe.

What remains from the leisured life of those far-off days? A picturesque 18th century mosque known variously as Aziziye, Çağlayan or Sadabad, extensively rebuilt by two brothers of the Armenian Balyan family that contributed much to the architecture of Ottoman Istanbul. Not much else is to be seen from those days; a stable in the process of restoration, and some stone work half-buried in front of the Kağıthane Council building.

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interestingly, a good deal of that palatial grandeur disappeared in the first half of the 18th century. Ahmed III seems to have been one of the Ottomans’ more controversial sultans. He ascended to the throne in 1703 at a time when the empire was past its glorious best. Nevertheless, he had some notable achievements: he turned the eyes of his country outwards towards Europe, perhaps encouraged by his two French wives, and built good relations with France; his armies achieved unprecedented success against Russia; he fostered literature and the arts; during his reign the first printing press in Ottoman Turkish was set up, and an official fire brigade inaugurated; factories producing china, clothing and paper were founded.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ahmed made enemies. His reign is particularly remembered as the Tulip Age, and the pomp, splendour and luxury associated with the wealthy upper classes led to a major revolt in 1730.

Patrona Halil was a Janissary of Albanian extraction who somehow managed to incite a revolt that toppled Sultan Ahmed. The insurgents placed Ahmed’s nephew Mahmud on the throne, but treated him as a kind of puppet until, with the aid of the Khan of Crimea, the ringleader was executed and peace restored. In the mean time, however, most of the palaces and summerhouses of Sadabad had been destroyed in a riot of vengeful leveling.

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

The 1730 revolt was followed by another ten years later – and these events are considered by some historians to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid decline of the empire in the 19th century. While the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite was the ostensible cause, the Janissaries, for centuries the source of Ottoman military power until their final abolition by Mahmud II in 1826, were a force of reaction in Ottoman society, and one of their major grievances was the Westernising policies of Sultan Ahmed, which placed their very existence under threat.

The Sadabad Palace, one of the chief features of the Kağıthane pleasure grounds, was rebuilt twice more after the riots, by Mahmud II in 1809 and Abdülaziz in 1863. After the First World War it was used as military headquarters by the occupying British forces, then served as an orphanage in the early days of the Republic. During the Second World War the area was handed over to the Turkish military and the remaining palaces were demolished. In the 1950s the process of rapid industrialisation began, factories mushroomed, squatter shantytowns sprang up and the Kağıthane stream turned to a turgid black river of foul-smelling ooze.

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Istanbul is a vast and ancient city with a complex past. A trap for Western visitors is the temptation to interpret events in terms of the context we know from our own education and experience. They can lead us to jump to conclusions that may be quite wrong. Just as in our own countries, a knowledge of past events is crucial to an understanding of the present. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.

As I wended my way home to Asia, on a route I probably wouldn’t have chosen had I been more familiar with the area, I chanced on two totally unrelated, but nevertheless interesting sights. The first was in a cemetery just outside the Edirnekapı gate in the old city walls. Normally Turks bury their dead with other family members, but these two adjacent graves, in pristine white marble had something in common other than blood

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

relationship. A stone linking the two bore the inscription: ‘We ask God’s mercy for our friends who were martyred when the Mavi Marmara ship, attempting to end the embargo on Gaza, was attacked on 31 May 2010.’ There is no criticism, or even mention of the Israeli Government – just a verse from the Koran on each headstone.

Inside the walls stands the monumental mosque dedicated to Mihrimah Sultan, beloved daughter of 16th century Sultan Süleiman. Near the recently renovated mosque is a construction site with a notice informing passers-by that another restoration is in progress – an old Greek Orthodox Church and its associated buildings. The government of Turkey and the Istanbul City Council come in for a good deal of criticism these days, from a number of directions, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Some Thoughts on Football – and links to chariot-racing in Constantinople

Football is a game that comes in many guises – and a word that arouses strong emotions. In much of the world it is played with a round ball, propelled, as the name suggests, with the foot; and rules that seek (at least) to prevent players engaging in bodily contact and injuring each other. In American football by contrast, the primary aim seems to be exactly that – launching yourself deliberately and with maximum force at an opponent so that players only survive by suiting themselves in helmets and body armour – and activity involving the egg-shaped ball seems largely incidental. In between these extremes are varieties of rugby football, union and league, preferred in outposts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, former industrial regions of Wales and Northern England, and the playing fields of public school purveyors of education to English aristocracy and sons of Arabian sheikhs. Here pretty much any part of the body can be employed for pretty much any purpose, but rules of fair play demand that you don’t deliberately set out to maim someone who doesn’t actually have the ball in hand. Then there is Gaelic Football; and that peculiar mix of basketball, football and pro wrestling played almost exclusively in the Australian State of Victoria.

Was he fouled or did he dive?

Was he fouled or did he dive?

In my school days in New Zealand, ‘footie’ was very definitely rugby, and the round ball game was for ‘girls’ – by which was meant, not the female of the species, but males whose actual manhood was open to question. A common feature of the ‘girls’ game seemed to be players throwing themselves to the ground for no apparent reason and carrying on as though some medieval Spanish inquisitor was applying hot coals to the soles of their feet. In rugby, on the other hand, it is considered bad form to show any emotion whatsoever even when suffering the effects of the most heinous foul by an opponent. Correct protocol requires that you store the memory and exact on-field vengeance when opportunity arises – thereafter repairing to the nearest pub and forging lifetime bonds of brotherhood over oceanic quantities of ale.

Well, boys will be boys, and violence in one form or another seems to be an integral part of our biological makeup. Perhaps one of the advantages of the semi-licensed in-match carnage of rugby is that it lessens the need for off-field acts of aggression. Soccer football has always seemed more prone to post-match riots, mass tramplings of spectators and street hooliganism – for the very reason, perhaps, that the game itself offers so little opportunity for that kind of masculine self-expression.

I recall being mildly shocked at my first experience of a football match in Istanbul. It was a derby between two of the city’s big three clubs, and squads of police were ensuring that supporters of the two sides were ushered to viewing areas separated by high walls and razor wire. When all were seated and the match began, police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles ringed the pitch with eyes focused on the crowd. I was impressed, truth to tell, by the fact that, far as I could see, not one turned at any stage to see what was happening on-field. After the final whistle, joyous fans of the victorious local lads were obliged to remain in their area while visitors were escorted safely off the premises and sent mourning and rampaging on their way.

 Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace

Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace?

More recently, in the street demonstrations that continued for a month or two after the Gezi Park incident of May/June 2013, many of the participants identified themselves as followers of one or other of the Big Three Istanbul football clubs, perhaps the most prominent being the Beşiktaş group calling themselves Çarşı. It’s an innocuous enough name, meaning ‘market’ in Turkish, referring, I guess to the retail shopping precinct near the Bosporus waterfront where supporters congregate en masse on match days in club colours, knocking back cans of Efes Pilsen and psyching themselves up for the big event. The apparent innocuousness of the name Çarşı belies the intent of its members: the stylised version seen on banners having the ‘A’ of Anarchy as its second letter, accompanied by the slogan, ‘Çarşı, her şeye karşı’ (‘We’re against everything’). Over the summer holiday period, of course, players get a break from their weekly grind of night clubs, fast cars, beautiful women and football – leaving hordes of loyal supporters at a loose end.

The Gezi Park business, it might be said, erupted at a fortuitous time, providing off-season training opportunities for sports fans who joined forces with battle-hardened left-wingers, middle-class youth and head-scarved aunties, united by a common hatred of Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan. There was much talk in news media, at home and abroad, of peaceful tree-huggers confronted, gassed and beaten by faceless hordes of government enforcers. Undoubtedly there were a few genuine nature-lovers amongst the protesters – but political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful, and it’s not easy in the heat of the moment to distinguish a peacenik from a Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchist. I have just received another of the regular mailings sent out by my compatriots in the NZ Embassy in Ankara reminding me: New Zealanders in Turkey are advised to avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as even those intended to be peaceful have the potential to turn violent. Police may use tear gas and/or water cannons to disperse demonstrations.’

And you’d better believe it. I’ve been living in this country for a few years now, and I can tell you, those ‘Gezi Park’ protests were no new phenomenon. I remember George W Bush visiting Istanbul for a NATO summit in 2004. The whole city came to a standstill; public transport including Bosporus ferries was put on hold, and the waterfront at Kadıköy turned into a battlefield. The first ever ‘May Day’ rally held in Taksim Square in 1977 became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after around 40 demonstrators were killed and up to 200 injured by security forces.

Violent public demonstrations against the government have a long pedigree in Istanbul. In fact, the tradition can be traced back to ancient times when the city then known as Constantinople was capital of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the connection between sports fans and political protest was a factor in those days too.

Re-creation of Constantinople with its hippodrome

A major feature of ancient Roman cities

Visitors to Istanbul these days inevitably gravitate to the Sultanahmet area within the walls of the ancient city where many of the most famous tourist attractions are to be found: the cathedral/museum of Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern and several of the important museums. Just in front of the main gate of Sultan Ahmet’s mosque can be seen three intriguing columns that once stood in the centre of the hippodrome – an immense stadium where up to 30,000 singing, chanting, screaming supporters urged on their favourite teams in the chariot races that were one of the main forms of entertainment. Where the Blue Mosque now stands was the Great Imperial Palace with a connecting passage to the kathisma or viewing box where the emperor and his retinue sat to observe proceedings.

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

In Rome itself there had been four teams competing in the races, identified by their colours, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites – but when Constantinople became the centre of empire, just two remained. The Blue and Green charioteers divided the city into two mutually antagonistic bands of fanatical supporters drawn from all walks of life, extending their influence far beyond the confines of the hippodrome into activities normally associated with street gangs and political parties. Betting was, of course, an important feature of the competitions. Drivers, though their lives might be short, could also make good money, and the most successful were enviably wealthy.

Members of the aristocracy generally took an interest in one or other of the teams, and were not above manipulating supporters to exert pressure on an unpopular emperor by street demonstrations and riots. Such activities seem to have been fairly common, but by far the most famous is the event known as the Nika Riots of January 532 CE.

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Emperor at the time (from 527 to 565 CE) was Justinian I, who seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure. Most of our knowledge of this period comes from the writings of a scholar known as Procopius of Caesarea. His official works on the wars and the buildings of Justinian depict an emperor deserving the epithet ‘Great’, despite his humble peasant origins. Justinian, with his general Belisarius, recovered some of the western territories lost to ‘barbarians’ in the previous century. His ambitious building projects included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia cathedral which still stands today. He is renowned for his complete revision of Roman Law and for being the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor; is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Procopius was fulsome in praising the beauty of his wife, the Empress Theodora.

In addition to his official histories, however, Procopius also produced a work known as the Secret History, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library. Here, the historian tells a different story. Justinian and Belisarius were hen-pecked and incompetent, manipulated by ruthless and ambitious wives. The Emperor himself is described as cruel and amoral, fleecing his citizens rich and poor alike, and killing without hesitation any who opposed him. His wife Theodora may have been beautiful, but in her previous life she had been one of the city’s more spectacular harlots, engaging in public displays of obscene exhibitionism, and entertaining a significant sampling of the male population. Which may go some way towards explaining why Justinian missed out on beatification by the Roman Church.

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

But back to the Nika Riots. In an attempt to curtail the political activities of the Blues and Greens, the Emperor had arrested several of the ringleaders and had them sentenced to death, much to the chagrin of supporters who demanded their release and Justinian’s resignation. Rioting broke out in the hippodrome and spilled out on to the streets, with rioters holding the Imperial Palace in a state of siege for five days. Fires were lit and much of the city was burned to the ground, including the previous church of Hagia Sophia. Members of the Senate joined in the anarchic activities and declared a replacement for Justinian, Hypatius, nephew of a former emperor.

Justinian, apparently, had pretty much given up hope of hanging on to his throne, and was getting ready to abandon ship. His good lady Theodora, however, was not ready to give up the life of power and luxury she had worked so hard to attain, saying she would prefer to die. Shamed into action, her husband, by a cunning mixture of double-dealing and brute force, turned the tables on the would-be usurpers. His generals, Belisarius and Mundus led a company or two of regular soldiers into the hippodrome and the resulting punitive slaughter left some 30,000 rioters dead.

Justinian ruled for a further 33 years, rebuilt the city and secured his reputation – at least in the eyes of the Eastern Church. But as far as we know he never played football.

Christmas Turkeys on the Road to Perdition

We had a visit from the Pope recently, here in Istanbul. His Holiness doesn’t live too very far away, but he’s not a regular visitor, so there was good media coverage of the event, here and abroad. According to Wikipedia, Christians in Turkey account for a mere 0.13% of the country’s 75 million people – and RCs are so few they don’t even warrant a mention. There are, however, a couple of quite grand 19th century churches in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, and several prestigious schools sponsored by the French government with beatific names like St Benoit and St Pulcherie dating from times when West European states had their imperialist eyes on the declining Ottoman Empire – so the Vatican feels obliged to show the flag from time to time, I guess.

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Anyway, there he was, Pope Francis, joining local Muslims in prayer at the 17th century Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (known to tourists as the ‘Blue Mosque’), visiting the 1,500 year-old church of Hagia Sophia (these days a museum), and meeting with Bartholomew, ‘His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church’. According to a BBC report, Francis and Bartholomew have a strong personal relationship’, and the two were expected to discuss, amongst other matters, the possibility of patching up the differences that led to the two churches going their separate ways amid great bitterness and mutual excommunications a thousand years ago, back in 1054 CE. The matter is further complicated, of course, by the fact that the Patriarch’s city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, since when, as the BBC article notes, it has been known as Istanbul.

Well, I can’t tell you whether those inter-communal discussions bore much fruit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople to reach an amicable arrangement of revolving leadership or some such compromise. There are too many issues of critical importance to the future of the planet, such as what kind of bread should be used in celebration of Holy Communion, and who did (or did not) sneak an extra word into the basic statement of Christian belief back in the 6th century. There is also the matter of a document used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century to justify his claim to universal supremacy. The document was subsequently shown to have been a forgery, but this small inconvenience does not seem to have in any way undermined RC doctrine that their Pope is the latest in an unbroken line of succession going back to Jesus Christ himself.

Poe Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Pope Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Still, it was nice to see those two old guys making conciliatory noises, and rubbing shoulders with their Muslim cousins-in-faith in an Islamic place of worship. To be fair, Pope Francis seems to place less importance on anachronistic fancy dress costumes than his predecessors, and has made some public statements about inequalities of wealth distribution. This may have something to do with the fact that he hails from Argentina – the first non-European Pope, so they tell me, for 1,272 years. He is still, however, holding the line on abortion, artificial contraception and homosexuality – issues on which God Him/Herself apparently has strong views. We know this because the Pope has a direct hotline to God via St Peter and Jesus, and any time he speaks with the full authority of his office he is deemed to be infallible – by virtue of a dogma laid down by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Well, it must be nice to know that, whenever you open your mouth, 1.214 billion people, or 17.5% of the world’s population are obliged to accept what you say as gospel truth. On the other hand, when a guy gets to be 78 years of age, there’s always a chance that he may blurt out something in his role as Pope which is really just an opinion of plain old Jorge Mario Bergoglio[1]. Something of the sort happened just the other day during a general audience at the Vatican when Pope Francis apparently suggested that humans might be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. Other Popes before him have held out similar hope – but unfortunately it flies in the face of official RC doctrine that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

As a result, Vatican officials have been at pains to point out that Father Jorge may occasionally say things that are not to be construed as official RC dogma – which opens the door for some confusion as to when the Pontiff’s pontifications are to be considered infallible and when not. The current Pope took the name Francis, on assuming office, after St Francis of Assisi, whom he is said to admire. The earlier Francis was a monk of the 12th/13th centuries best known as the patron saint of animals – but he is also said to have visited the sultan (which sultan?) in Egypt in 1219 with a view to converting him to Christianity and putting an end to the Crusades. Which may have been another reason for the current Francis’s visit to Turkey – but I haven’t heard that President Tayyip Erdoğan was influenced to that extent.

In the end, I’m not sure what shocks me most about these papal characters: their jaw-dropping self-righteous arrogance, or their determined literal-minded espousal of a belief system rooted in a culture that died out more than a thousand years ago. In fact, I question whether the Popes themselves truly believe the stuff they expect their flock to swallow without question. These are highly educated guys, remember, and yet they can, we assume with a straight face, make assertions like the following: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.’

Our Francis, despite, we are told, bringing personal experience of Third World poverty to the Vatican See, continues to assert that Catholics who remarry after getting divorced cannot take Holy Communion. Just last year he excommunicated an Australian priest for deviating from official doctrine. Possibly his most outrageous claim would be ‘It is absurd to say you follow Jesus Christ but reject the Church.’ Of course, you can understand why he’d say it. You can’t have too many people thinking they can be Christians just by following the words and example of the founding prophet – otherwise all those cardinals, bishops and whatnot would be out of a job.

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

And the sad fact is, they probably deserve to be. Just take a look at so-called articles of faith on which that ‘Church’ is founded. After Christianity became, first accepted by, and shortly after, the official religion of the Roman Empire, seven ‘Ecumenical Councils’ were summoned to determine exactly what ‘orthodox’ Christians should believe. At various venues in the Byzantine Empire (now modern Turkey), bishops gathered together to lay down crucial precepts such as that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. . . who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,’ and that further, ‘he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. . . We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’

To tell you the honest truth, I used to wonder about some of that stuff when I was a little fellow sitting in church surrounded by devout adults mouthing it all dutifully and, I assumed, believing it in their hearts. What was wrong with me, I wondered. It was a great consolation when, after coming to live in Istanbul, I realised that most of the mumbo-jumbo had been formulated by committees of bishops and priests whose main purpose was to get rid of colleagues who refused to toe the party line. There were seven of these councils up to the end of the 8th century. Most present-day mainstream churches accept their decisions, and insist that their members affirm their belief out loud on regular occasions.

The Roman Catholic Church, after setting out on its own, subsequently held fourteen more such councils, the last of which, known as the Second Vatican Council, was held in 1962-5. Each of these councils added further conditions required for membership of the true Church:

  • The Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 formalised the doctrine of Transubstantiation – which states that the bread and wine used for Holy Communion is actually and mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Much of the mystery seems to consist of the fact that to all appearances the bread and wine still looks pretty much like actual bread and wine. That same council also stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians.
  • The First Vatican Council of 1870 was the one that laid down the doctrine of papal infallibility (mentioned above). The Holy Fathers might have done a lot more besides, except that the Franco-Prussian war intervened, and the Number One Catholic power of the day, and defender of the true faith, France, was given a serious beating. This opened the way for Italians to unite themselves into a country for the first time since Roman Imperial days, annex Rome and threaten the integrity of papal power. There was a brief time when it looked as though the Holy See might have to move to Germany for protection. Wouldn’t that have been interesting!

Well, at least Pope Francis seems to be doing his best to heal wounds and promote meaningful inter-communal dialogue. Prompted by a vague nostalgia for Christmases past, I took myself along to a carol service at the Anglican Christ Church in Beyoğlu/Taksim on Christmas Eve. I could have got over the sad lack of organ accompaniment or any kind of choral grandeur in the service, but the chaplain’s sermon was an appalling anti-Muslim tirade hiding behind platitudes about ‘ours’ being a religion of peace and love focusing on the birth of an innocent little baby – in contrast with the ‘barbarians’ who were now murdering Christians in the lands where ‘our’ faith was born. As I walked out of the building I was sorely tempted to call out something about Tony Blah’s conniving in the slaughter of innocent Iraqi babies not so very long ago – but I swallowed the words and left the faithful to get on with their business. Anyway, I remembered, their ‘Tone’ had subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism taking the burden of his sins with him.

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[1] The Pope’s actual birth name

The Zeyrek District – The timelessness of intolerance and hypocrisy

When the Roman Emperor Justinian I presided over the dedication of Hagia Sophia, the great church he had ordered rebuilt in Constantinople, he is reputed to have said, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’ Justinian ruled the Empire from 527 to 565 CE, and is referred to by some as ‘The Great’, for his efforts to reconquer western territories and restore the imperial glory lost to ‘barbarians’ a century before. His reign may also mark the beginning of the confusion over this part of the world that has bedevilled Western minds for a thousand years.

Remains of St Polyeuctus - You may not want to linger

Remains of St Polyeuctus – You may not want to linger

Justinian is said by some to have been the last ‘Roman’ emperor, and to have been the last to speak Latin as his first language. Others prefer to call him a ‘Byzantine’, and to focus on Hagia Sophia’s long history as the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. Roman or Byzantine, the Emperor was justly proud of his new cathedral, completed in 537. So proud was he, indeed, that he compared his achievement with that of the Hebrew King Solomon, whose legendary temple in ancient Jerusalem continues to serve as a powerful symbol of . . . certain things that we needn’t discuss here.

Having heard this tale often repeated, I was surprised to learn just the other day that the great Justinian may have had a more immediate and pressing reason for making his proud boast. With this story we will begin our stroll around the UNESCO-listed historic quarter of Zeyrek.

If you walk from Aksaray towards the Golden Horn, before passing under the great aqueduct of the 4th century Emperor Valens, you will see on your left, or perhaps smell, a large fenced-off area, somewhat overgrown, with the ruins of obviously ancient masonry below the level of the street. What you are seeing is all that remains of the 6th century church built and dedicated to St Polyeuctus by the fabulously wealthy Roman Imperial Princess Anicia Juliana. Possibly because of her Roman connection, this lady may have harboured some resentment towards the Constantinopolitan line, and wished to make a point with the church she endowed.

Büryan Kebap - Vegetarians may prefer to eat elsewhere

Büryan Kebap – Vegetarians may prefer to eat elsewhere

Whatever her motive, the good princess funded the construction of the largest basilica church in town just as our man Justinian was ascending the throne. Little remains of the great edifice apart from vaulted foundations and scattered fragments of marble columns and capitals – but in its day it was apparently spectacular in its ostentatious display of wealth. What may have particularly got Justinian’s goat was Juliana’s claim, expressed in a self-glorifying inscription, that her new temple had been specifically designed to rival or overshadow that of Solomon. What self-respecting emperor could stand for that?

Hagia Sophia is one of modern Istanbul’s major tourist attractions. St Polyeuctus, sad to say, is now little more than a home for the homeless – which accounts for the aroma assailing our nostrils as we pass by. Both churches, however, had lapsed into hard times long before the city fell to its Ottoman conquerors in the 15th century. Juliana’s grand project had fallen into ruin by the 11th century, and much of its gorgeous decoration had been reused in other buildings. Siege and conquest of Constantinople by crusading Christians from the West in 1204 saw Hagia Sophia itself converted to a Roman Catholic church – and many of the city’s treasures carried off to Venice, Vienna and Barcelona. Spare a thought for the passing of once-mighty empires as you pass by.

Molla Zeyrek Mosque - or the monastery church of Christ Pantokrator

Molla Zeyrek Mosque – or the monastery church of Christ Pantokrator

We have some walking ahead of us, so I suggest a hearty meal to build up your reserves of energy. A year or two ago The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled the 10 Best Meat Restaurants in Istanbul. Continue down the main road and just before arriving at the aqueduct, veer left into an open square featuring the statue of an Ottoman warrior mounted on a stallion leaping over the heads of several surprisingly calm-looking gentlemen in robes. The horseman is Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople and namesake of the district, Fatih, where we now find ourselves. Ahead you will see a side road passing under one of the arches of the ancient aqueduct which will lead you into another world of street-vendors, halal butchers, and on the right, our next port of call: Siirt Şeref Kebap Restaurant. Don’t waste time studying the menu – what you want (with apologies to vegetarians) is a dish of Büryan Kebap, small pieces of barbecued lamb served on Turkish bread, and maybe perde pilavı, a miniature castle of rice, chicken, walnuts, currants enshrined in a thin pastry shell. If you have room for dessert, the house speciality is dondurmalı irmik helvası, a baked semolina-based sweet with a heart of ice cream and topped with a squirt of chocolate sauce. What more can I say?

Take your time strolling down the street, enjoy the ambience, buy some honey or dried fruit and nuts if you can carry them. After the shops end and the road narrows, you will arrive at a small, newly renovated but evidently historic building labeled as the tomb of Zembilli Ali Efendi, Şeyhülislam (chief religious authority) at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Efendi was apparently such a venerated character that people were afraid to seek his advice face to face. The preferred method was to place written questions in a basket (zembil) lowered from an upper storey window for delivery to the great man above. Answers would be delivered by the same means to supplicants waiting respectfully on the street below. Some present-day Turks living in upper-storey flats preserve this custom when dealing with their local grocer.

The 11th century church of Christ Pantepoptes

The 11th century church of Christ Pantepoptes

Preliminaries over, we are now ready to visit the main attraction in the Zeyrek quarter which did, in fact, give its name to the entire neighbourhood. Major restoration work is currently in progress, so getting inside is more difficult than formerly – but even from the outside the structure is impressive. The building that Molla Zeyrek took over after the Ottoman Conquest as a madrasah, an educational complex, had been built in the early 12th century as a monastery dedicated to Christ Pantokrator. After Hagia Sophia, it is the second largest Byzantine religious edifice still standing. What remains consists of two churches on either side of a smaller chapel, and the mortal remains of numerous Byzantine dignitaries, including several emperors and empresses are buried here.

You won’t be hungry yet, I’m sure, but it will be worth your while to order a coffee in the Zeyrekhane Restaurant next door. The view over the old city, the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and newer suburbs on the European and Asian shores is not to be missed, and the price of a coffee will also buy you a photo op. If you have an Internet connection you may like to visit Byzantium 1200, a remarkable website showcasing computer reconstructions of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments.

The Zeyrek district is notorious as a labyrinth of narrow tortuous streets and steep stairways, so I’m not going to attempt directions. I came here once by taxi with friends from New Zealand, and the driver had no idea where he was or how to get where he were going. Follow your nose and ask your way to Haydar Caddesi (Avenue). The locals are sure to be helpful.

At least one Ottoman Sultan had a softer side

At least one Ottoman Sultan had a softer side

Not far beyond Zeyrek Mosque is another former Byzantine church, now known as Eski İmaret Camii (Mosque). There is some scholarly debate, but the majority opinion seems to be that this church was part of the monastery complex of Christ Pantepoptes, built around the end of the 11th century by Anna Dalassena, mother of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Few visitors find their way to this secluded corner of the old city. Getting inside the building isn’t a problem, though little survives of the interior decoration other than a marble doorframe or two. It was converted to a mosque immediately after the Ottoman Conquest and its Muslim name refers to the fact that it was the location of a soup kitchen (İmaret) for feeding the poor. Sources tell me that the church stands atop another of ancient Constantinople’s numerous cisterns – though access is sadly not yet available. This must be one of the few mosques in the Islamic world without a minaret – the one it had collapsed in 1955 and has never been rebuilt – in fact, sixty years on they haven’t even cleared away the rubble.

Find your way back to Haydar Avenue and wander slowly down the hill. You will pass the ruins of an old hamam (Turkish bath) built by the architect Sinan to the order of Haydar Pasha, a 16th century Ottoman general whose name is more famously preserved in the great railway station at Kadıköy.

Elaborately decorated nalin clogs

Elaborately decorated nalin clogs

In fact we are now leaving the Zeyrek quarter and entering Cibali, which runs down to the coast of the Golden Horn. On the way we will come to the 16th century mosque of Atık Paşa (1272-1333) a Sufi mystic, poet and contemporary of Orhan Gazi, son of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty, Sultan Osman. The mosque was erected to the memory of Atık Paşa by a descendant, Sheikh Mehmet Ağa, and the tombs of several other religious luminaries of the time are located nearby. Most interesting to me, however, was a small octagonal stone structure across the road on whose iron gate a modest sign announced that it housed the sacred remains of Asüde Hatun, wet nurse of Sultan Beyazid II. Beyazid, who reigned from 1481 to 1512, is my favourite Ottoman Sultan, and this touching gesture placed him higher again in my estimation. He is better known for opening the gates of hospitality to Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain – thereby, as he is reputed to have said, impoverishing the Spaniards and enriching his own empire at the same time.

A little further on you will arrive at the back wall of the Kadir Has University campus, formerly the state tobacco factory. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially for its small museum, but you need to approach it from the coast road, so it is not on our itinerary today. The street we are now in, however, is of some interest. A sign in Turkish and English informs us that Nalıncı Kasım Street is named after a gentleman who was master of an art peculiar to the Ottoman Empire, the making of a particular species of clog or shoe (nalin) worn by women when walking in rough or muddy roads. The nalin consists of a wooden platform sole mounted on two high blocks, held in place by a leather strap. What made it special was the elaborate design of mother-of-pearl or worked silver with which it was decorated. Needless to say, the level of materials and artistry reflected the wealth of the wearer. The sign mentioned above quotes a saying from Ottoman times: ‘Batılı, Osmanlının nalını bulsa, gerdanlık diye, boynuna takar’ – ‘A Westerner, finding a nalin on the ground, would wear it around his/her neck as a pendant’ – perhaps a condescending comment on the Orientalist passion of Europeans for all things ‘Turkish’.

St Polyeuctus, exemplary Christian - and a hard act to follow

St Polyeuctus, exemplary Christian – and a hard act to follow

St Polyeuctus, to whom that church was dedicated, was apparently a wealthy officer in the army in the 3rd century who became a Christian at a time when doing so was not altogether the done thing in polite Roman circles. With the zeal of a new convert, not content with observing his new-found religion in the privacy of his own home, Polyeuctus made a public statement by forcibly interfering with what he considered a pagan procession carrying idols authorised by the Emperor Decius. Adhering strictly to the words of St Luke (14:26-27), he maintained his stand despite the pleas of his wife and children – and was, predictably, tortured as a prelude to execution by beheading.

I’m not altogether sure what message we should take from the example of St P. It’s pretty clear, though, that, leaving earthquakes aside, much of the destruction of ‘pagan’ art and architecture was carried out by those early Christians once they gained the upper hand. That being so, we may be grateful that the Muslim Ottomans showed a less hostile attitude, such that at least some of the works of their Byzantine predecessors can be visited and appreciated today.

The Vefa District – Centre of three world empires

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Stay in Istanbul for some time, mix with Turks, and one of them will very likely offer you a drink of boza. In fact the beverage is found throughout in the Balkan countries and Central Asia, though the recipe seems to vary from place to place. Essentially it is made from fermented wheat or millet and has a low alcohol content of around 1% – so don’t bother trying to get drunk on it. The boza you are most likely to come across in Istanbul is Vefa Boza – found in most supermarkets but produced by one of Turkey’s oldest companies (founded 1876) whose only authentic outlet is a small unpretentious shop in a back street of the old city not far from the campus of Istanbul University.

The establishment is still operated as a family business from the premises founded by two brothers from Albania, Hacı İbrahim and Hacı Sadık, and their light-coloured, millet-based beverage served with cinnamon quickly became the standard tipple in Istanbul. If you find your way to Vefa Bozacısı, the leblebeci across the road will sell you a portion of roasted chickpeas to complete your libatory experience.

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

Contrary to common belief, the area you are now in was not named after the boza shop. In fact, the opposite is true. The area had long been known as Vefa and its roots go back at least 400 years prior to the business venture of our two Albanian immigrants. Sheikh Ebu’l Vefa el-Konevi was a Sufi master of the Sühreverdi Sect, born in Konya but brought to Istanbul at the command of Sultan Mehmet II after his conquest of the city in 1453. The once-great metropolis of Constantinople, even before the Ottoman victory, was a shadow of its former glory, much of it in ruins, and its population reduced to perhaps 50,000. One imagines the lengthy siege and final capture did not improve matters, and the young sultan was faced with a daunting project in turning Istanbul into a capital worthy of his expanding empire. Although only 21 years of age, Sultan Mehmet recognized that the city would need spiritual guidance as well as major building construction and repopulation, and Sheikh Vefa was one given the task of educating its future leaders.

A külliye was built as a base for the Sheikh’s activities – not just a mosque but a complex containing a school, a bath house, drinking fountain, alms house for the poor and accommodation for teachers and students. Not much remains of the original buildings, apart from an ancient cemetery, but the local council has recently rebuilt the mosque in recognition of the importance of the site.

Interestingly, across the road from the Vefa Mosque and up a side street, but visible from Vefa Caddesi (Avenue) itself is an even more venerable structure that did manage to survive the ravages of time. My guidebook, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’, in both English and Turkish versions, refers to it as the Vefa Church Mosque, a rather oxymoronic title, and signs on the building itself call it the Mosque of Molla Gürani. It is immediately obvious from the exterior architecture, however, that the building was once a Byzantine church, and this is confirmed when you enter and see Roman marble columns and ornate capitals supporting the domes. Carpets in the main sanctum are also a giveaway, their diagonal lines showing that the direction of prayer had to be re-oriented after the building was transformed into a mosque. Surprisingly after such a conversion, the authorities evidently allowed the cleaning and revelation of Christian mosaics and frescoes. The name of the original church has not been clearly determined, but it may have been dedicated to St Theodore (Hagios Theodoros), and was probably constructed in the 10th or 11th century.

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani himself seems to have been an interesting character. Some sources claim he was Kurdish, though this, of course, is subject to some debate – but he was the tutor of Sultan Mehmet II (mentioned above) and became the first Müfti of Istanbul after the Conquest, so the building may have been a mosque for longer than it was a church.

If you want to tour yourself around these lesser-known sights of Istanbul, you will probably want to start from the Süleimaniye Mosque, the grand four-minaretted edifice on the ridge overlooking the Golden Horn and the Eminönü district. I won’t go into detail here because any basic guidebook will give all the information you need. Suffice to say it is more worthy of a visit than the better-known Blue Mosque of Sultanahmet. First, it is a masterpiece of the incomparable 16th century architect Sinan. Second, its garden is an oasis of green peace with a magnificent view of the city; and finally, the restaurants nearby provide delicious traditional Turkish food at very reasonable prices. The barbunya beans on rice (kuru fasulye) are not to be missed!

With a full stomach you can strike out from the western corner of the mosque precinct following a street of old wooden houses renovated as restaurants, Internet cafes and hostels mostly serving the university community. You will pass under an arch of the Aqueduct of Valens, built in the 4th century CE and, for more than a thousand years, a lifeline of the city bringing water from distant springs to fill its reservoirs and supply its fountains and public baths. At this point the aqueduct is somewhat neglected, but restoration is taking place, and it continues for almost a kilometre, one of Istanbul’s more prominent landmarks as it crosses Atatürk Boulevard. You may actually see people walking on top of the aqueduct. As far as I am aware, there is no official access, and city authorities may take a dim view – but, as Turks themselves are often heard to say, ‘This is Turkey’.

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

A short detour to the right will bring you to another sacred pile of some antiquity, the Kalenderhane Mosque. Again, the brick exterior architecture clearly distinguishes it from most post-Conquest mosques. It is believed to have been the Byzantine Church of Theotokis Kyriotissa, which I am told means ‘The Most Holy Mother of God Enthroned’. Historians and archeologists find the site particularly fascinating as it seems to have been in continuous use since its original construction as a bathhouse in the late Roman period. In the 6th century a church was built, subsequently enlarged and modified, briefly taken over by invading Crusaders in 1204 and converted to a Roman Catholic monastery until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. After the Ottoman Conquest there was another switch of religion when Sultan Mehmet gave it to the Kalenderi Dervish sect, from where it gets its present day name. Of special note are beautiful coloured marble panels on the interior walls dating from the building’s glory days as a church. Frescoes and mosaics uncovered during restoration are on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.

From here you can follow GPS directions on your iPhone 😉 to find Vefa Caddesi for a taste of boza and, for the more adventurous, a visit to the church/mosque mentioned above. After leaving the boza café take a left and a right and you will emerge on Şehzadebaşı Caddesi next to the monumental mosque after which the avenue is named. This is one of the early works of the Architect Sinan, commissioned by Sultan Suleiman (known in English as ‘The Magnificent’) in memory of his beloved son Mehmet who seems to have met a violent end in 1543 at the tender age of 22.

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

Ottoman rulers endeavoured to avoid the difficulties experienced by King Henry VIII in England by keeping a bevy of women on hand for procreative purposes. This expedient, of course, sometimes led to the converse situation wherein there was a surfeit of potential male heirs. Şehzade (Prince) Mustafa was Suleiman’s oldest son and therefore first in line to succeed on the death of his father. Apparently, however, Suleiman preferred the younger Mehmed, whose mother, Hürrem (Roxelana) he had actually married. It is not 100% certain that the lady Mahidevran, Mustafa’s mother, had Prince Mehmed murdered – but it seems not unlikely. Sadly for Mahidrevan and her son, Mustafa didn’t live to take his rightful place on the throne, murdered in turn, by strangling with a bowstring, on the orders of Suleiman as a result of a plot hatched by Sultana Hürrem, her daughter Mihrimah and loyal son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha.

The tomb of Şehzade Mehmed in the garden of the mosque is beautifully decorated with 16th century Iznik tiles. Next to it is a stone column, said to mark the geometrical centre of old Istanbul as calculated by Sinan. According to my guidebook, the column used to revolve – but no longer does.

You may be ready for some refreshments after your voyage of discovery, but I recommend one last quick stopover on the way. Cross the main road to Gençtürk Caddesi and a short distance along you will come to a mosque of far more modest dimensions – which nevertheless is said to have the longest name of all the multitudinous mosques in Istanbul: Kadı Hüsameddin Çamaşırcı Hacı Mustafa Efendi 18 Sekbanlar Camii. This Mustafa seems to have been a man of many parts, a laundryman who became a judge in the religious courts and also completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attractively landscaped garden alongside is a small cemetery housing the mortal remains of eighteen soldiers killed in Sultan Mehmet’s siege of Constantinople back in 1453. The Sekban were originally masters of the royal hunt, later incorporated into the Ottoman military as a company of the much-feared Janissary regiment – the name apparently coming from a Persian word meaning ‘keeper of the [hunting] dogs’.

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

It is now a very short stroll to the Taşhan, a renovated inn or caravansaray built in the 18th century as part of the Laleli Mosque complex. The building’s interior architecture is a little masked by displays of leather jackets and erotic underwear for sale to Russian (and more recently Arab) visitors – but at its centre is an open-air courtyard where you can lie back on cushions and sip tea or Turkish coffee to the restful burbling of water in a small fountain. Active smokers may complete their day by ordering a nargile (water pipe) fuelled by a cake of aromatic tobacco flavoured with the fruit of their choice. Their passive companions may actually find the second-hand fumes not unpleasant. Followers of the Turkish soap ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’ will remember Taş Han as the place where Adnan Bey closed some of his business deals.

Exploring Istanbul – The old and the new

I’m a little confused about Turkey these days. It seems I am assailed on two fronts by people telling me, on the one hand, that the country is headed for Islamic fundamentalist disaster, possibly orchestrated by the United States of America with Tayyip Erdoğan as their puppet – while on the other, a large proportion of the population seems to believe that Tayyip Bey is a national saviour, leading the country into a new era of prosperity, tolerance and self-confidence. Who to believe?

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus - soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus – soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Sometimes you just have to get out and see for yourself, I reckon. Yesterday I went a-wandering in the old city. My first destination was that corner of the ancient metropolis where the sea wall on the Golden Horn joins the land walls stretching across to the Sea of Marmara. The area is called Ayvansaray, but in former times it was known as Blachernae, after the palace where the last Byzantine/Roman emperors lived. There must have been quite a complex of buildings here in those days – and what little that survives above ground to the present day is said to be one of the few relatively intact examples of late Byzantine secular architecture in the world’.

When I first came to Istanbul in the 1990s, this area was a forgotten part of the city – most of its residents living in poor quality housing with little architectural merit. The nooks and crannies in the city walls and remains of the palaces were inhabited by an even poorer population with no other fixed abode. No doubt archeologists and ancient historians knew of the palaces, but there was no sign that anyone was taking any serious interest. Since 2010 there has been major renovation and reconstruction going on, and I pay a visit from time to time to see how work is progressing. It’s a huge job, of course, requiring major financial investment. One project is restoration of the Anemas Dungeon, located under the long-gone Blachernae Palace. My old guidebook said you would need a torch/flashlight to explore the labyrinth of tunnels – but it would have taken a visitor much braver than I to venture in. Tourists wandering off the beaten track in less isolated parts of the old city have met unpleasant ends. I’m looking forward to the day when the complex opens as a museum so that I can check it out in safety under more reliable lighting.

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

Nearby, another Byzantine Palace, Porphyrogenitus, is also undergoing renovation – and apparently the plan is to turn it into an exhibition hall and conference centre. While I understand those purists who see this as commercially driven sacrilege, I’m not sure what the alternatives are. Leave it as it was, a slowly mouldering heap of rubble inhabited by the city’s poorest? Wall it off behind glass panels so that a few rare visitors could attempt to recreate, largely in their minds, the glory of a bygone age? In reality, the preservation of such buildings is an enormously expensive business, beyond the means of the Turkish government to fund. Some of the finance inevitably has to come from the private sector, or by re-utilising them in some way that will provide an income. Where would the grand cathedrals of Europe be without their entrance fees and charges for photography? Even in countries where the culture and religion are theoretically unchanged?

As I often have cause to remark, Turkey’s biggest problem in being understood – even in understanding itself – is that so much has happened here during its long millennia of recorded and previous unrecorded history. Archeologists and even historians don’t have the facts, and the English language lacks the words to describe, never mind explain, the origins of the people who live in this region today.

The city of Byzantion is said to have been founded by ‘Greek’ colonists in 657 BCE. But who were these ‘Greeks’? Still, if that date is correct, it makes the city pretty near as old as Rome – and one might argue that Rome’s claimed establishment date of 753 BCE owes more to myth and legend than incontestable historical fact. Nevertheless, there we have a city, located on the historical peninsula inhabited by people speaking a language that is a forerunner of modern Greek. Then along came Constantine, Emperor of the pagan Roman Empire, establishing his New Rome (later to be called Constantinopolis in his honour) in 324 CE on the site of Byzantion, and the language of government became Latin.

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

During the course of his reign, Constantine reportedly became a ‘Christian’, and also established the principle of dynastic succession – two serious blows to democracy, sad to say. It wasn’t till 50-odd years later that the Emperor Justinian established ‘Nicene Christianity’ as the imperial state religion – some might say a political rather than a spiritual decision, marking the beginning of that religion’s descent into intolerance, persecution and political manipulation; but that’s another story.

At some point, the locally predominant Greek tongue re-emerged as the language of administration; the western Roman Empire fell, and Constantinople stood alone as capital of . . . what? The Roman Empire, as they themselves believed? Or some other mysterious entity, subsequently, and retrospectively, named ‘Byzantium’ by Western historians. Then the Ottomans appeared, finally conquering the (Eastern) Christian city in 1453 CE, turning it into the capital of their 600-year empire. Certainly the state religion was Islam, but ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Armenian’ Christians, and Jews, were tolerated and given rights of worship, language, education, even administration over their own people. To Western Europe, the Ottomans were ‘Turks’, just as their conquered predecessors had been ‘Greeks’ – but it was a long time, and many generations of inter-marriage with locals, since their ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. However, the power of words is strong to influence minds for good or ill.

But let’s get back to my ramble around that old city, delineated by the majestic walls built by Constantine, and extended by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls enclose a roughly triangular area with a perimeter of approximately twenty-one kilometres, so you can’t hope to see much in your three-day visit. My guide for exploring this huge area has been a handy little publication, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’[1], which has allowed me to concentrate on sections of the old city and to discover gems of historical interest in their labyrinthine streets. Yesterday my route took me along the shore of the Golden Horn back towards the Galata Bridge at Eminönü.

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

Certainly Istanbul is changing. Urban renewal is taking place everywhere. Huge state-sponsored projects are under construction alongside those of private sector commercial interests, great and small. Inevitably there will be gains and losses. We will regret the disappearance of some of the city’s old ‘character’ while at the same time, happily availing ourselves of its modern amenities.

My route took me past two old houses, formerly home to two important Ottoman figures, neither of them Turkish or Muslim – Panayotaki Nikosi and Dimitri Kantemir. Despite the sole online reference I found referring to the former as a ‘magnificent villa’ it has been a neglected shell as long as I have known it. The other, however, is in the process of renovation and being turned into a museum. Dimitri Kantemir was a Prince of Moldavia who lived in Istanbul from 1687 to 1710. According to Wikipedia he ‘became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1714. [He] was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship.’ His writings include works on history, geography, philosophy, linguistics and music. Restoration of his house is a joint project between the Istanbul Metropolitan Council and the Government of Romania.

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

So, whatever people say about the religiosity of the Istanbul City Council, they seem happy to put money into preserving non-Muslim buildings. A little further along the road, work is progressing on the small Orthodox church of St Nicholas. It’s not a particularly ancient building, having been erected in the 19th century – but it stands on the site of a much older Byzantine edifice, its location chosen because of the sacred spring which bubbled beneath it. Another waterside restoration is being carried out on the 19th century Bulgarian church of St Stefan – architecturally interesting because it was made from cast iron sections prefabricated in Austria and shipped down the Danube River.

A chance discovery while I was looking for the Kantemir house was a small mosque with an unusual wooden minaret. This mosque, plaques in Turkish and English informed me, was built by the Grand Vizier Şehit Ali Pasha in 1716 after a certain Ebu Zer Gifari appeared to him in a dream. That gentleman had been a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, and one of the very first to accept the new religion, subsequently bringing many converts.

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

I have been reliably informed that UNESCO has been considering naming and shaming Turkey for allegedly failing to adequately protect and care for the historic peninsula, officially recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. One project that has attracted considerable attention is a bridge recently built across the Golden Horn to carry one line of the city’s new Metro system. The bridge, say critics, is a blight on the historic landscape, disrupting lines of sight on the famous skyline and totally out of keeping with its unique architecture.

Well, I have to tell you, I love that new Metro system. There are some who say it should have been done years ago – but it wasn’t, and now it is. The bridge in question seems to be a reasonable compromise between a living city in dire need of a modern public transportation system, and an archeological paradise containing irreplaceable treasures of several major empires. Without the excavations associated with Metro construction, some recently discovered treasures would never have seen the light of day. Designers of the system have located a station in the middle of the new bridge, meaning that pedestrians can access it from both shores, enjoying, as they do, unparalleled views of the ancient city. I haven’t seen it at night, but I imagine it must be spectacular! And if my calculation of angles is correct, the only part of the city from which views may be obstructed would be the Prime Minister’s very own constituency of Kasımpaşa.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Meanwhile, the private sector too is coming to the redevelopment party. All along the waterside road and adjacent streets, trendy new cafes are sprouting, side by side with refurbished traditional meyhanes and purveyors of that necessary follow-up, tripe soup. Again, despite the local council’s reputation for wowserism, there seems to be no prohibition on alcohol consumption. As well as this small-scale commercial development, larger enterprises are also involved. A foundation set up by the late industrialist Kadir Has has turned buildings of the former tobacco factory into a university campus. Again, purists may object – but the factory was originally built by foreign banking interests who had obtained one of the infamous ‘capitulations’ back in 1884, and had stood empty for twenty years before its current transformation. The old factory also houses the Rezan Has Museum, where you can currently see an exhibition of Urartian jewellery and ornaments dating from the 8th-7th centuries BCE, and a fascinating display chronicling the development of written language, much of which took place in this part of the world.

Next time you are in Istanbul, with a few hours to spare, I really recommend you to follow that route. I can’t say that I am in total agreement with everything the present government of Turkey does – but the evidence of my eyes suggests to me that citizens of and visitors to Istanbul have much to be grateful for. As I wandered slowly around the other day, I passed and was passed by a family of young German tourists, mum and dad with three small kids on foot and another in a stroller. Clearly they were travellers on a budget, as you would be, and not with a tour group. I can’t imagine young parents venturing with children into those parts of the old city ten years or so ago.

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[1] Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.