Turkey: Turkish delights

Well, knock me over with a feather! I have receiving regular dire warnings from my countryfolk at the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara advising me to stay away from Turkey in general, and Istanbul (where I have been living safely and happily for more than 15 years) in particular. So, credit where credit is due, I want to share with you this article that appeared in the NZ Herald today, 25 April.


Pretty magnanimous words, don’t you think?

The day is significant because hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders are currently in Turkey to commemorate the Gallipoli Campaign when our grandfathers, loyally following orders from their British Imperial masters, invaded the Ottoman Empire and spent eight months doing their best to kill its young men and capture its capital, Istanbul.

As happens every year, local people are extending customary hospitality to their former enemies, and local authorities providing security to ensure commemoration services proceed in comfort and safety.

Read Ms Wade’s article. Once you get past her opening remarks about a young man’s traditional circumcision operation, you’ll find that she and her fellow tourists had “an unforgettable . . . wonderful time.”


Beyond the war graves and remembrance is a vibrant land with a rich history, writes Pamela Wade.

Apr 25, 2017

It’s not the sort of thing you’d share with strangers, but after 10 days together and over 2500km of travel in a grand circuit around Turkey, we all felt like friends. There were 39 of us, Kiwis and Aussies, on this Insight Vacations tour and although it was the Gallipoli centenary and Anzac Day services that had brought us all together, the bulk of our time was spent exploring an older history.


Photo: NZ Herald

Tour director Barcin has a university education that gives him an effortless command of not only the seven complicated centuries of the Ottoman Empire, but thousands of years of Greek and Roman history before that.

Literally thousands: five, in fact, at Troy, where nine levels of settlement have been excavated down to its beginnings in 3000BC. Wandering around the site, past walls, ditches, foundations, columns both standing and tumbled, and a theatre of tiered seats, the age of the place was hard to grasp, despite Barcin’s best efforts. What was obvious, however, was the sheer beauty of the ancient stone, softened by feathery fennel and bright red poppies against a background of the distant Dardanelles.


Photo: NZ Herald

Some on the tour were deeply into history and the literary and religious connections, and everyone was impressed at Ephesus to be walking on polished marble pavers once trodden by Cleopatra, Mark Anthony and St Paul. For many of us, however, the visits to such sites, including Pergamon and Assos, were more about appreciating what remains rather than studying their origins. Pictures rather than words, perhaps, and no less legitimate for that. After listening to the explanations about what we were seeing – temples to Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, a towering library, a 10,000-seat theatre on a steep hillside, Roman baths, an Acropolis, the home of modern medicine, statues and so much more – the temptation was irresistible to use it all as the most glorious photoshoot ever.

The tour isn’t all archaeology, legend and history. There was shopping, too. Astute stall-holders, knowing their market, shouted “Kiwi! Cheaper than The Warehouse!” as we walked past; others went for flattery: “Beautiful rugs! Like you!” or pathos: “We have everything but customers.

Few, in the end, held out against the pretty scarves, the “genuine fake watches”, the evil eye pendants or the tapestry bags; but the serious shoppers waited for the visits to the factories. Fabulous fine lamb’s leather made into truly stylish jackets displayed in a catwalk fashion show; dozens of colourful wool and silk rugs unrolled with a flourish as we drank perilously strong raki; gorgeous decorated plates at a pottery visit that began with a mesmerising kick-wheel demonstration.


Photo: NZ Herald

Then there was the culture: an evening of traditional dance in an underground theatre began deceptively low-key, but wound up to an exciting climax that sent us away buzzing. We saw real Whirling Dervishes spinning unfathomably long and fast; and met a friendly lady who lives in a house burrowed into the rock, where Helen Clark’s signed portrait hangs (at least during our visit) in pride of place.

This was at Cappadocia, the scenic high point for most of us, which is saying something in this country of bays and beaches, forests and farmland, white terraces and snow-capped volcanoes. Pillars of sculpted tufa capped by gravity-defying slabs of basalt make for a fantasy landscape, and to see it in low sun as a hundred hot-air balloons float overhead is unforgettable.

Actually, it was all unforgettable: Gallipoli, the poppies and tulips, the cats, the food, the friendly people. There were mosques, markets and museums; a cruise, calligraphy and coloured glass lamps; sacks of spices, pyramids of Turkish delight, tiny cups of atrocious coffee. I had a wonderful time.

Art dealer accepts prized coffin’s return to Turkey

Well, here’s an interesting news item. Apparently Swiss law is clear on the matter of stolen antiquities – but publicly encouraging the assassination of a visiting head of state is a grey area.

“Lawyers say a Roman Empire-era coffin depicting the 12 labors of Hercules is set to go home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over a prized artifact that had mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs-office warehouse years ago.


This undated photo shows a 2nd century BCE sarcophagus in sculpted marble depicting the 12 labours of Hercules. Authorities say thecoffin is set to return home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over an artifact that mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs office warehouse years ago (Ministere public genevois via AP)

The Inanna Art Services, a private cultural goods importer that had legal possession of the three-ton marble sarcophagus, had tried for months to block the restitution before deciding two weeks ago “to contribute to the return” by abandoning its efforts in Swiss courts, Didier Bottge, a lawyer for the importer, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

From his clients’ viewpoint, “the case is closed,” said Bottge. Inanna had appealed a decision in September 2015 by the Geneva’s public prosecutor’s office to hand over what it called the “priceless” sarcophagus to Turkey.

The planned handover, expected sometime in the coming months, marks a successful cooperation between Swiss and Turkish authorities at a time of tensions between their two countries.

Swiss authorities are investigating whether any laws were broken when protesters against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend held up a banner bearing the words “Kill Erdogan,” as well as allegations of spying by people linked to Turkey in the Alpine nation.

The decision follows a nearly seven-year legal saga for the sarcophagus after it turned up in the secretive Geneva Free Ports warehouse. Cultural officials have said the coffin, showing scenes of Hercules strangling the Nemean Lion and killing the Hydra, is one of 12 of its kind known in the world.

It’s been traced to the Roman city of Dokimeion, thought to have been in the modern-day province of Antalya in Turkey.”

Read more

Istanbul: Turkish cuisine at a crossroads

One for the ‘foodies’. I’m passing this on from Al Jazeera:

Turkish-cuisineWe explore how a new generation is keeping Turkey’s centuries-old culinary traditions alive in a modern world.

Istanbul sits at the point of intersection between Europe and Asia and its food has been heavily influenced by its rich history and traditions: the palace food from the Ottoman times, the Armenian and Greek influences and that from Anatolia.

Although Istanbul is often visited for its past, it’s very much a modern metropolis. In a buzzing city with 14 million inhabitants, the food scene is also booming.

Twenty-five percent of the city’s population is employed one way or another in the food business and many young people are creating opportunities for themselves from its rich gastronomic history.

AJEats finds out how food became such a strong part of the culture, and what the future holds for Istanbul’s food lovers in a world of fast food and mass production.


By Gerald Tan

Turkish cuisine was once described to me as the original fusion food. It instantly made sense. How often do we hear that Turkey’s commercial hub, Istanbul, is the only city occupying two continents, the point where Europe and Asia embrace. It would follow, then, that their culinary influences would be prevalent in Turkey.

Read the whole article

Dreams and Buildings have Tales to Tell – in the back streets of old Istanbul

I am often asked what brought me to Turkey. These days I tend to reply, ‘The Hand of God’. People in Turkey can accept that as an answer, and to me it seems as good an explanation as any other. That was the first time. As for the second, I’m a lot clearer on that. It was a dream that clinched my return.

Ahi Çelebi Camii

500 year-old mosque of Ahi Çelebi

I’m not a big believer in the meaningfulness of dreams, and I certainly don’t let them direct my life – except that once. Even then, an objective observer might question the wisdom of basing a life-changing decision on what could be simply the sub-conscious mind playing around. All I can say is, arguments for and against seeming to be in a state of balance, something was needed to tip the scales. And that dream did it – sent me on a 17,000 km journey to a new life.

But I’m not here to tell you about my personal journeying. I just wanted a lead-in to a more interesting story involving a far more intrepid traveller. I don’t know how many mosques there are within the twenty-two km walls of old Istanbul. I’ve read that there are 185 in Üsküdar across the water, so I guess there must be more than that, and it’s the larger ones, of course, that tend to attract the most attention.

The mosque of Ahi Çelebi, minding its own business on the shore of the Golden Horn beyond the Galata Bridge, is easily missed. It was in a state of dilapidation until recent restoration, and was possibly more noticeable then for its obvious antiquity. Its original sponsor was a distinguished medical practitioner who served four sultans during the Ottoman Empire’s days of greatest glory. At the age of 90 he made the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all good Muslims, but failed to complete the round trip, falling ill and passing away in the year 1524 in Cairo, where he was buried with full honours.

A century and a half later, another Ottoman gentleman of note, Evliya Çelebi, dreamed a dream in which he found himself beside the mosque of the renowned doctor. On entering, he was amazed to encounter the spirits of the Prophet Muhammed and several other holy men. Wishing not to miss such an opportunity, Evliya begged the Prophet to intercede for him for God’s mercy. Unfortunately, a little overawed by the grandeur of the occasion, his tongue tripped over the Arabic word for intercession, and instead produced a similar sounding word meaning ‘journey’. Muhammed clearly had a sense of humour, and promised to take care of both. Evliya Çelebi henceforth embarked on a remarkable expedition taking him all over the Ottoman Empire as far as Vienna, across into North Africa, and later into the neighbouring Muslim empire, Safavid Persia. He described his experiences in his Seyahatname, one of the great travel books in any language according to the cognoscenti.


Eminönü skyline at sunset

Three centuries further on, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, after a successful struggle to found the Republic, in which Turkish nationalism played a major role, implemented a programme of reforms, one of which was an attempt to rid the language of its extensive Arabic and Persian borrowings. His aim was a pure Turkish language written in a simplified Latin alphabet. Well, the latter was a success, for which modern students of Turkish are grateful – but the former was doomed to failure. Imagine trying to rid English of its words derived from Latin and Greek, in an attempt to return to pure Anglo-Saxon! So when I struggle in Turkish with words like tatbikat, talimat, tamirat, tadilat, tarikat, whose meanings cover such diverse concepts as ‘religious cult’, ‘earthquake drill’ and instructions to my bank for an automatic payment, I remember and sympathise with that wanderer of old.

Across the road from Ahi Çelebi’s mosque are grander buildings which I’m not going to tell you about. You can find them in any good guidebook: Yeni Cami, the New Mosque, completed in 1665; the elaborately tiled mosque of Rüstem Pasha, son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent; and the 17th century Egyptian or Spice Bazaar. Instead I want to lead you into a back street behind the New Mosque to a large, but seemingly abandoned five-storey office building dating from the late 19th century.

Sansaryan Han

Sansaryan Han – Deserted and quiet these days

Known as Sansaryan Han, its deserted state is apparently owing to an on-going court case involving the Armenian Patriarchate and the Istanbul Metropolitan Council. The building was constructed by an Armenian architect, Hosep Aznavour, among whose other works are the old tobacco factory that now houses Kadir Has University, and the Bulgarian church dedicated to St Stephen, an eye-catching structure a little further up the Golden Horn.

Originally designed for commercial use, Sansaryan Han was later bequeathed by its owner, Mıgırdıç Sanasaryan (apparently the correct spelling) to the Armenian church, and functioned as an orphanage and school for children from Erzurum in eastern Anatolia – a fact which may be related to other events involving Armenians in that region around that time.

My Turkish sources, without going into detail, tell me that the Ottoman Government took over the building some time after 1915, but for the next twenty years there was ongoing litigation about its true ownership, which seems to have ended in 1935. At first serving as offices for various government departments, Sansaryan Han was gradually taken over by the police force’s security section, and, by the 1940s, had begun witnessing the activities for which it became notorious in later days.

For some years the corridors of the former orphanage echoed with the screams of detainees subjected to torture for their political beliefs and/or activities. Prisoners were subjected to falaka (traditional beating on the soles of the feet) and electric shocks in sensitive parts of the body, either to extract confessions, or merely to show them the error of their ways. When not undergoing the tender ministrations of police interrogators, they were kept in cells known someone morbidly as ‘tabut’ (coffins), measuring 150 cm in height by 80 cm square, so that they could neither stand upright, nor lie down. Just when the police left off these practices is not clear – but they occupied Sansaryan Han until 1990, and there is evidence to suggest that political dissidents were still being subjected to physical ill-treatment well into the 1980s.

Hidayet Camii

Another small but interesting mosque – Hidayet Camii

Apparently there were plans to refurbish the building for use as a five-star hotel, but the legal dispute over its ownership resurfaced and is continuing. Perhaps it’s just as well. There must be a few ghosts of former inmates lurking to disturb the slumbers of well-heeled visitors.

Somewhat ironically, quite nearby there is another easily missed, but architecturally interesting small mosque named Hidayet. This is actually one of my favourite words in Turkish, meaning ‘a God-inspired desire to seek the way of truth.’ Evidently Turkish police back in the good old days found the ways of the Almighty too slow, and preferred to rely on more direct methods.

Hidayet is not an old mosque by Istanbul standards, having been first commissioned by Sultan Mahmut II in 1813. Its wooden construction led to its destruction in one of the fires that regularly laid waste to the city, and the present structure was erected by Abdülhamid II in 1887. The latter sultan ruled the empire for 32 years in probably the most difficult period of its 600-year history. It’s not a grandiose edifice, and it’s tucked away unobtrusively in a quiet corner. Nevertheless, the design is interesting, with an arched stairway leading up to the prayer hall, and a passage opening on to the waterfront square at Eminönü. The architect, in fact, was a ‘French Ottoman’ (work that one out!) who founded the first school of architecture in Turkey and taught there for twenty-five years until 1908. Among his better-known works are the Pera Palace Hotel, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Marmara University’s Haydarpaşa campus and the Ottoman Public Debt Administration building (now home to Istanbul High School).


The Legacy Ottoman Hotel

Once again I’m going to by-pass more frequented locations, though you should visit the sweet shop of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, the country’s oldest company, and purveyor of Turkish delight to the discerning since 1777. On the other side of the road you can’t miss the Legacy Ottoman Hotel, five-star accommodation housed in a tastefully renovated building formerly known less pretentiously as the Fourth Vakıf Han. Designed as commercial offices in 1911, construction was interrupted by the First World War, and not completed until 1926. Nevertheless, the unfinished building served as accommodation for French troops during the occupation of the city – until its liberation by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist republicans in 1923. The building was designed by another prominent architect of the day, Ahmet Kemaleddin, one of the pioneers of the First Turkish National Architectural Movement that bridged the final years of the empire and the early years of the republic. Interestingly, he was involved, in 1925, in the project to restore the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, site of much strife these days between Israelis and Palestinians.

If you have an hour or two to spend, I really recommend launching into the labyrinth of narrow streets behind Yeni Cami that will bring you eventually to one of the lower gates of the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). This was the commercial heart of old Istanbul, and modern-day merchants carry on their trade in buildings dating back to the 15th century.

Mahmut Pasha was an Ottoman gentleman of Serbian descent, who served two terms as Grand Vizier in the mid- to late 15th century. It is said that his family had held high rank in the Byzantine Empire, but his prowess as a soldier and his literary talents as a poet won him the hand of a daughter of Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople.

Mahmut Paşa Hamamı

Interior of Mahmut Paşa’s hamam, a little the worse for wear

Evidently Ottoman palace politics continued the intrigues that had characterized their Christian predecessors. Mahmut lost his position as vizier in 1468 as a result of some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by his successor – but was reinstated four years later. This time, however, he made a more powerful enemy. Word has it that Sultan Mehmet’s son Mustafa entertained Mahmut’s wife one night while the vizier was absent from the city on a military campaign. The aggrieved husband made a public fuss, divorcing the errant wife – for which sin he was dismissed a second time, and executed in 1474.

During his years of ascendancy, Mahmut Pasha endowed a mosque complex that is one of Istanbul’s oldest. Completed in 1462, the mosque is characterized by the architectural style of the earlier Ottoman capital, Bursa. Imperial mosque design changed markedly after the conquest of Constantinople, influenced by the vast domed structure of Hagia Sophia cathedral. Mahmut Pasha’s mosque has been damaged and repaired several times over the centuries, and is currently undergoing a major restoration. Nearby, textile merchants are plying their trade in the 550 year-old hamam that was part of Mahmut’s legacy. Anywhere else in Europe, one imagines, a monumental edifice of such antiquity would have been lovingly restored and put to use as a museum or some other culturally sensitive purpose. In Istanbul, it is undoubtedly on the list of heritage sites, patiently waiting for its turn to come.


Kösem Sultan, then and now

In recent years a major industry has developed in Turkey producing soap operas and drama series for television. A bewildering multitude of such programmes parade nightly across screens throughout the nation, catering to virtually every niche in the socio-economic and religio-cultural spectra. Several of them have even migrated with remarkable success to foreign fields as diverse as the Muslim Middle East and Roman Catholic South America.

One of the big hits of the last three years has been a period costume drama, ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ dealing with events surrounding the reign of Süleiman the Magnificent, who ruled the empire from 1520 to 1566. Well, when you’re on to a good thing, you’d be mad to let it go – and the producers decided it was well worth a follow-up project. The new series is called ‘Kösem’ after the woman who played a significant role through the reigns of four sultans in the 17th century.

Büyük Valide han

17th century Büyük Valide Han

Born Anastasia on the Greek island of Tinos around 1590, she was brought as a slave at the age of 15 to the harem of Sultan Ahmet I, who gave her the name Mahpeyker on her conversion to Islam. She quickly became Ahmet’s favourite, and later his wife, taking the name Kösem. Ahmet himself is not recognised as one of the great Ottoman rulers, having lost a major war with his Savafid Persian neighbours, and earning, perhaps by way of compensation, a reputation for excessive religiosity. He is mainly remembered for constructing the large mosque next to Hagia Sophia, known to tourists as the Blue Mosque.

Ahmet died of typhus at the age of 27, and Kösem had to take a back seat briefly, until her son Murat IV came to the throne in 1623 in rather dodgy circumstances at the age of 11. Kösem exerted considerable power as the sultan’s mother, and regent until he came of age. Murat the man was celebrated for his enormous physical strength, but also died young, at 27, reputedly of cirrhosis, suggesting that he had not inherited all of his father’s strict Muslim practices. He in turn was succeeded by his younger brother Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘The Mad’. Ibrahim’s mental instability ensured that Kösem continued to wield effective power, manipulating her son through his appetite for women. It is said there were 280 young ladies in his harem at its greatest flowering, and, despite his psychological infirmity, Ibrahim managed to father three future sultans.

Yeni Cami+ hilal

Crescent moon setting behind the dome of Yeni Cami

By this time, however, the empire was in danger of descending into chaos, threatened from without by Venetian aggression and the depredations of Maltese pirates, and by rebellion from within. In 1648, Ibrahim was seized and imprisoned by an uprising of Janissaries, and subsequently executed with the consent of his loving mother. Kösem’s consolation in her grief was the accession of her grandson, Mehmet IV for whom, since he was only six years of age, she once again took the role of regent. Her downfall, ironically, came at the hands of Mehmet’s mother, Turhan Hatice, who had the seemingly indestructible grandmother strangled by the chief black eunuch of the harem, using, depending on who’s telling the story, a curtain in her bedroom, or her own hair.

Kösem’s memory is preserved, after a fashion, in the large inn she had built, Büyük Valide Han, said to be one of the city’s biggest. That and, of course, the TV drama series currently screening on Thursday evenings at 8 pm on Star TV. There is less talk these days, of Turkey’s government attempting to establish a neo-Ottoman Empire – but imperial history is clearly back in fashion with the contemporary citizenry.

Ayşedeniz Gökçin – Pink Floyd for virtuoso piano at Gümüşlük Classical Music Festival

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

One of the highlights of our summer holiday is the annual Festival of Classical Music held in Gümüşlük. We’ve been following it since its early days of free concerts near the seaside village. In those days the concerts were held in an old church with a special atmosphere created by stones recycled from the ancient city of Myndos, and the chirping of swallows nesting in the rafters.

The popularity of the festival soon outgrew that small venue, however, and a couple of years ago it was moved to a larger and more spectacular location. There is not much to see of Myndos nowadays. The small natural harbour still provides safe anchorage for fishermen and pleasure craft; finely shaped black stones and white marble columns can be seen reused in more recent buildings, half-submerged in coastal waters, or beckoning secretively from farm paddocks – but the city still awaits serious archeological attention. A few kilometres along the coast towards the new billionaires’ playground of Yalıkavak, however, is evidence that here, once upon a time, was a large thriving centre of a vanished civilisation.

8 August concert in the quarry

8 August concert in the quarry

The new venue for Gümüşlük Festival concerts is the quarry where workers of bygone times hewed the black stone to construct ancient Myndos. A sign in the trendy modern village claims that Mark Antony and Cleopatra called in here on their way to Egypt, and it is also evident that sufficient stone was quarried to build a town of some size and importance. The modern festival audience sits with its back to the sea, facing a raised stage whose backdrop is the illuminated rock face carved out by human hands and subsequently softened and reshaped by millennia of wind and water. Even before the music begins, it is impossible not to be affected by the interplay of historical and natural forces that has been shaping this land since the very birth of human civilisation.

Part of the appeal of the Gümüşlük Festival is its down-home flavour. A driving force in its success has been the devotion of Eren Levendoğlu. A highly talented classical pianist in her own right, born in London and educated in South Africa, Ms Levendoğlu has helped to create, on a shoe-string budget, an event where young musicians come to study in a summer camp under the guidance of older mentors from Turkey and further afield. The concerts provide a showcase and inspiration for young talent, as well as bringing acclaimed musicians to an unpretentious holiday audience. They are always a delightful sensory experience – but last night’s was something very special.

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin is a young Turkish pianist/composer who has made a name for herself in the crossover world of rock and classical music. She had already been marked for greater things before leaving Turkey to further her musical education in London and Rochester, NY.

Her programme here featured her arrangements of Pink Floyd and Nirvana, as well as a composition of her own, interpreting the life and death of Kurt Cobain. The young lady won the admiration of her audience with her wholehearted and idiosyncratic playing style – and their hearts with her delightfully natural commentary between pieces. Her playing involved not only a sensitive and highly skilful touch on the keyboard, but some fascinating fiddling ‘under the hood’ as she  made mechanical adjustments to strings and hammers with ‘blu tack’ and who knows what, to create special audio effects. Chatting cheerfully and comfortably with the audience, she noted at one stage that she was the same age as Cobain when he committed suicide, but she had no immediate plans of her own in that direction – which we were all happy to hear.

You can find Ayşedeniz’s website here, and listen to her Pink Floyd arrangement on YouTube. I’m told that the Pink Floyd guys themselves have been so impressed they’ve got links to her on their own website. For my money, though, you really need to see her perform live. In Gümüşlük she played a Michael Jackson arrangement as an encore, leaving her audience whistling and calling for more.

Turkish Coffee Culture – A 500-year tradition

Rediscovering traditional culture

Rediscovering traditional culture

When I first came to Istanbul back in the dying years of the 20th century it wasn’t easy to find a decent cup of coffee. One of the reasons, I came to understand, was that there had been a time, not long before, when tea bags and instant coffee were restricted imports, and according to that invariable rule of economics, desirability had increased in proportion to scarcity on the market. Nescafe and tea were served everywhere in European-style cups, with the option of Turkish coffee of somewhat variable quality.

In fact, European- or American-style, or low quality imitations thereof, pervaded much of life in Istanbul in those days. Traditional features of Turkish culture had been more or less isolated in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, or relegated to the back streets of the poorer parts of town. High school graduation ceremonies were excruciatingly interminable extravaganzas of deafeningly over-amplified Elgar-esque pomp and circumstance with students regaled in gawdy pseudo-academic gowns and caps and teachers relegated to positions of lackeydom.

Well, times have changed, at least in the world outside private-sector education. Opening the country’s doors to globalisation brought the delights of McDonalds and Burger King, Starbucks and Gloria Jeans to a people starved of hamburgers and quality java. Interestingly, at the same time as international, multi-national and transnational fast-food franchises began to invade the streets of Istanbul, they seemed to trigger an offensive/defensive reaction from local entrepreneurs.

Ottoman coffeehouse

Ottoman coffeehouse

Almost overnight, Turks seemed to discover that their own home-grown culture was capable of competing with, perhaps even bettering the imported offerings. Tasteful chain eateries and up-market boutique restaurants began repackaging döner kebab, lahmacun, çiğ köfte and other local specialities. The last-named traditional delicacy, highly spiced raw minced lamb kneaded into edibility by muscular men from the southeast has been reinvented in vegetarian form. Muhallebeci cafes such as Saray, specialising in irresistible local desserts, have appeared all over town. Simit Sarayı and a host of imitators have not only added a touch of class to the incomparable and indescribable simit, but have begun a reciprocal invasion of their own, taking Turkish fast-food cuisine to Fifth Avenue and Oxford Street. The nargile or water-pipe, not many years ago seen mostly in seedy back-street hang-outs of elderly men, has become a ubiquitous feature of tea-gardens, bars and cafes frequented by the new generation youth.

However, it is coffee culture that has responded most enthusiastically to the threat of foreign invasion. Kahve Dünyası, Kahve Diyarı, Gönül Kahvesi and several other local chains have begun emulating and improving on the coffee and ambience provided by better-known international brands. Roasting and grinding their own brews, packaging them for the drink-at-home market, and adding side dishes of chocolates and lokum (Turkish delight), these post-modern coffee-houses are carrying the fight to Starbucks, and have succeeded in driving Gloria Jeans into the niche market of high-end shopping centres.

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Whatever the link between the modern republic of Turkey and the defunct Ottoman Empire may be, and despite criticism of the AK Party government for its supposed neo-Ottoman aspirations, there is no doubt that Turkey’s people have begun to rediscover and appreciate their own traditional roots and cultures, at the same time as the outside world has begun showing greater interest. In 2013, UNESCO added Turkish coffee to the list it calls The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Currently to be seen in the grounds of Topkapı Palace is an exhibition entitled A Drop of Pleasure – The 500-Year Story of Turkish Coffee.

I have sometimes wondered how primitive human beings first discovered certain gastronomic delights. OK, bananas are pretty straightforward. Pick it off the palm, peel it, eat it – a monkey could do it. Coconuts? A tad more difficult to get at, but once you’ve cracked it open, there it is, ready to eat, or drink, or whatever. But what about olives? Pretty unappetising in their natural state. Who figured out how to soak them and salt them etc to produce the tasty little green or black morsels we love today? Then there’s bread, leavened or unleavened, not to mention beer, wine and spirits. There must have been some disastrous offerings concocted before our ancestors hit on the best recipes. And take a look at a coffee bean straight off the tree. You pick it, roast it, grind it and boil it into something unrecognisable but euphoria-inducing. Who figured that out?

Berries on the Coffea plant

Berries on the Coffea plant

According to legend, it was an Ethiopian goatherd who first stumbled upon the magic properties of Coffea arabica. Apparently his goats had been unusually frolicsome of late, and he came to the conclusion that their high spirits came from munching on the berries of a particular tree growing on the hillsides. He tentatively sampled a few himself but was unimpressed, goats teeth and digestive systems being more sympathetic to rough fare such as gorse and blackberry bushes. Still curious, however, he took a handful home to his more enterprising wife who, after a few unproductive experiments, hit on a method of boiling the leaves and beans together to make a kind of tea.

At first the resulting brew was treated largely as medicinal, and a local doctor acquired quite a reputation for curing just about everything from heart disease to chronic depression. Soon, however, the populace, discovering that coffee beans, unlike money, actually grew on trees,  began bypassing the middleman. The craze spread from Ethiopia to Yemen in happier days before the Saudi Arabs started bombing the bejabers out of them, and the Yemenis are said to have been the first to roast, grind and boil something resembling our modern brew. The drink began finding its way into the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century and before long coffeehouses were springing up Istanbul like mushrooms . . . or Starbucks franchises. Coffee drinking and the ritual surrounding its preparation and consumption are credited with exerting a civilising and socialising influence on Turkish culture with its traditional male focus on horses, camels and warfare.

The Topkapı exhibition contains around 800 pictures and artifacts illustrating different aspects of this 500-year story: from potted Caffea bushes to carved stone sarcophagi of Kayseri noblemen depicting the paraphernalia associated with their favourite beverage. Originally the roasted beans were ground to a fine powder with pestle and mortar. Even today, the old method of cooking the coffee on charcoal embers is experiencing a revival. Connoisseurs maintain that coffee needs to be slowly brought to the boil over a period of five minutes or so to bring out the best flavour.

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

The cezve (djezveh), a small specially designed pot in which coffee is cooked, was made from copper, tinned on the inside, narrowing towards the top with a spout for pouring – nowadays available in a left-handed version. Turkish coffee cups are espresso-sized in an infinite variety of designs and decorations. The older style china or porcelain handle-less cup fitted inside a sleeve of worked silver is also staging a comeback, in less-precious metals for general use.

The coffee is measured and prepared according to the number of guests – cold water, ground coffee and sugar (if desired) are mixed together and slowly brought to the boil, at which point froth forms on top. The presence of froth is indispensible, and disappears if the coffee is allowed to continue boiling. Your coffee should be served with a small glass of water and a cube of lokum. According to Turkish culture, drinking coffee is synonymous with friendship. A well known rhyme goes:

Gönül ne kahve ister, ne kahvehane;                       The heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouse

Gönül ahbap ister, kahve bahane.                The heart wants friendship, coffee is the excuse.

Traditionally it was associated with tobacco-smoking, in nargile or long-stemmed pipes. Formerly public coffeehouses were a male domain, but a recent resurgence has seen the water-pipe culture cross the gender divide.

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

The joys of coffee do not end with the drinking. The cooking process results in a few millimetres of sludgy sediment in the bottom of the cup. For the novice drinker this can create a problem and turn some off the beverage. If you persist, however, you will learn when to take your last lees-free sip, thereafter turning your cup upside down on its saucer while intoning a kind of spell: Neyse halim, çıksın falım (Let the cup show what life will bring me). When the mixture cools, the resulting unique pattern of dregs in the cup can be interpreted by a falcı – usually a woman skilled in the arcane arts of fortune-telling. Which may help to explain why personal psychiatric analysts are less common in Turkish culture.

Afiyet olsun!

The Simit Comes to London

London simits

This ad appeared in our local newspaper the other day. I couldn’t resist translating and sharing it with you . . .


It’s a well-known fact the English love their 5 o’clock tea. Every day, as evening approaches, they set the table with little snacks and fill the teacups. That’s fine, we said, but wait a minute; the best thing to go with freshly brewed tea is a simit.

What’s more, the most delicious tea and the tastiest wheat are grown in our soil. Every flavour is enhanced by the touch of our sun and our water.

So we felt a responsibility to introduce our tea and our simit to the English. Besides it’s our mission to ensure that the irresistible flavour of the simit reaches every corner of the world.

First we treated our guests all over Anatolia. Then, moving beyond our borders, we spread to all points of the compass. We offered our tasty delights from Holland to Saudi Arabia.

As if that was not enough, we crossed the oceans to other continents. We opened a Simit Sarayı on New York’s famous Fifth Avenue.

And we haven’t finished. We rolled up our sleeves to make new dreams come true.

174596_simit-cayWe have now opened a Simit Sarayı in London.

We haven’t changed our name or our taste. We want the name and the flavour of our land to be known everywhere! Turkey’s Simit Sarayı is now a growing world brand.

381 Oxford St, London