When we touched down on the Istanbul airport, it was about 12 in the night. Before we descended, I was looking out of the window and Istanbul looked like a rich Sheikh’s bride – every part of her was lit up, as if gold baubles covered her from head to toe, the light of a hundred summer suns sewn into her veil.
I was eager to get to know her – what would she be like? In the morning when the veil lifted, she appeared to my Indian eyes as if she were old Delhi’s cousin. Boisterous and busy, full of bustling bazaars, winding streets and mosques, with traders selling spices, nuts, soaps, kebabs, fruit juices, chestnuts and corn on the cob – it seemed she was exotic – of mixed parentage – Asian and European.
We decided to take a walk from our hotel to the Sultanahmet area. This way, we thought, we could take in the sights and sounds of Istanbul, for as relatives surround a new bride to size her up, we were eager and curious and knew that we had but a few days to spend with her. Our first stop was a street-side shop to buy ourselves freshly squeezed fruit juice. I had pomegranate (about 25 liras) and he had apple juice (about 20 liras). My husband also bought a simit from a vendor – it is a sesame crusted donut-shaped bread.
I looked around me – every part of the pavement was taken. Little boys sold cooled bottles of water; there were vendors selling ‘genuine fakes’ (T-shirts, purses, panties..), shops with lots of gold jewellery in their display windows and a baby doll placed in the centre with gold chains hanging down the delicate plastic wrists, as well as bakeries with different types of Baklava and Turkish delights. On our way, we passed by the Turkish shoe-shine men – sitting down with their ornate stand, looking dignified, old worldly and slightly melancholy. We also passed old men sitting down with their backgammon boards and cups of Turkish coffee and cigarettes. And hordes of tourists. Women in headscarves, in shorts and summer dresses, in tight denims and sun hats, with babies, without babies, with men, without men.
‘It looks like India,’ I said to my husband. He nodded.
Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia. It was already hot, and going inside the beautiful once-a-cathedral-then-a-mosque and now a museum was a welcome relief. I spent a large part of my time looking at the ceiling and the murals and trying to find a good spot to soak it all in – there were a lot of tourists and everyone was Instagramming. I imagined what it would have been like – in the Byzantium and Ottoman times, especially when I went to the Imperial gallery in the upper part, which was used by the Empress and other women of court to watch the proceedings below.
We also went to the Blue Mosque – and I understand that it isn’t the mosque’s fault that so many people try and crowd in and it was rather our fault to be there in the peak season but I think I found a lot of peace and beauty and enjoyed the Suleymaniye mosque more in comparison.
I found a baby kitten in the Suleymaniye mosque complex – it was two weeks old. There was a marble fountain nestled between between the flower bushes and the setting made me feel as if I was in the secret garden. While my husband wandered about the complex with his camera, I perched on the steps to Roxelana’s tomb and read the inscription plate. It gave you a glimpse of just how much Suleyman the Magnificent loved his wife. It is believed that she came to his harem as a fifteen year old from Poland and the sultan was absolutely enamoured by her, writing poems to her under his pen name.
Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”
There’s a citation near the tomb which quotes a part of this poem (the source for the full couplet is Wikipedia) and I sat there on the steps, thinking of love and passion and what it does to all of us – emporers and commoners alike, and the little kitten mewed in the background, and a cool wind circled the tombs, and water gently made its way from the fountain head to the little basin.
Nearby, a man with a skullcap prayed at the tomb enclosure that housed the tomb of Suleyman. I went there to have a peek but he encouraged me to pray. So I stood there next to him, while his eyes overflowed and his voice broke as he read out a prayer from his mobile phone. I thought of him, and of Suleyman the Magnificent and of the different passions that move different men.
And although it is a touristy thing to do – you must like us, also visit the Topkapi palace. Mind you, it is huge, so have a good breakfast and be prepared to walk a lot.
For me, one of the best parts of the palace was the library. The crowds did not matter. I felt transported – and I became a man – for I believe only men in those times had access to this library (also known as library of Ahmed III). I took in the blue tiles, the long big windows, the beautiful doors and cabinets, the seating arrangements and wondered what I would have read?
The harems in the Topkapi palace are a world into themselves as well and after I got back to Ireland, I read a lot on the harems and what life was like for the women who lived there.
But once you have seen the sights of Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, and the mosques and the palace, and have had the Turkish ice cream and the koftes, your heart longs to go somewhere far away – far away from tourists like yourselves.
My husband found a perfect spot. It involved taking a tram and then a ferry and walking until the tourists fade away and the local people begin to appear – with their mats and flasks and dabbas full of flavorsome food.
My husband took me to Uskudar. We came to a local park by the sea, young families had brought their toddlers, a woman had brought her own reading chair and a book, several cats had brought themselves, and men – mostly with enviable paunches had flung themselves in the sea for a swim and emergerd nice and red. (Several had hairy chests and they reminded me of the Indian actor Anil Kapoor.)
We spent a couple of hours there – taking in the sea, the views, waiting for the sun to set, eyeing the picnics that the families had spread out, our ears attuning to the chatter in Turkish around us.
There was a lone fish stall/restaurant there. He only sold tea and coffee and a cold drink and a fish sandwich. It turned out be the best tasting (grilled) mackerel tucked between a huge loaf of bread, and slices of ripe, large tomatoes and onion rings. The two sandwiches, a bottle of water cost us only 26 liras.
We returned to our hotel, happy and satiated. We had the sea in our hair and skin, the sunset in our cameras and decided to buy more of mackerel when we were back home in Ireland.
Over the next few days, we sauntered around the Istanbul University campus, sitting down on a bench where the bees suddenly started buzzing, on the steps outside the university where several cats joined us, at a local bazaar, at the old books market, at Balat (to take in another local park and neighbourhood and a shisha joint) and to one of the Princes’ Island (Buyukada).
We ate a lot – koftes (meatballs) with salads, tavuk sis kebap (grilled chicken kebabs), chorba (lentil soup) always served with a basket of bread, lamb sis kebap (grilled lamb kebabs), chestnuts and corn on the cob, chicken pilav – rice with shreds of chicken and chickpeas and served with pickled Istanbul green chillies, tavcik iskander (chicken donor kebabs served over soft slices of roasted pide bread, with gravy, yogurt, salad and french fries), kunefe (a cheese based dessert served with ice cream and pistachio nuts), firin sutlac ( a baked rice pudding served in a clay dish), baklava and uskumru sandwiches (remember the mackerel tucked in a loaf of bread?). And we drank several several glasses of Aryan (it’s Turkish buttermilk or salty chaas and helps a lot with the heat).
(PS – There is a very old (1920) kofte restaurant in the Sultanahmet area called the Sultanahmet Koftecisi – minimal, bare decor, very Irani cafe type of ambience and a very minimal menu. The beef Izgara kofte are delicious – since I don’t eat beef, you must take my husband’s word for it. A second, counterfeit restaurant modelled on the Sultanahmet Koftecisi is just three or four doors away – it has the most succulent chicken kebabs – and since I eat a lot of chicken, you must now take my word for it. On our first day in Istanbul, we went to the counterfeit (for the lack of a better word) koftecisi and realising our mistake, we headed to the original one on the second day but enjoyed both for what they offered!)
The four sultry days in Istanbul, our feet clocked about 35 km in walking, and we would at least walked another 10 km more but then my husband caught a sunstroke and we decided to rest a bit. We gave up on our plan to go to the Galata Tower and few other walks but in hindsight I am glad we did that because we had to take a flight and travel to Cappadocia next.
As the flight took off from Istanbul airport, various images swirled around in my mind – a mosaic of blue began to form – the designs of the tiles in the mosques, harem and palace chambers, the cool, comforting waters of the Bosphorus merged with the fragments I remembered from Suleyman’s love verse. And as my tired husband dozed through the flight, a Turkish man seated next to me struck up a conversation, telling me that my eyes and ears would be soothed by the sights and sounds of Cappadocia – how the landscape changes, the crowds thin out, and how different it is from Istanbul.