Only the tiniest traces of great Constantinople exist today, encased in glass in the Topkaki Museum. (“No photo!”, shout the Topkarmy of kulturpolis)
It’s been burned, buried and swallowed by successive conquerors, including this current Istanbul, this giant of 17 million that stretches all the way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, and deep into her hinterlands on both sides of the Bosporus. Rich in culture, architecture and tradition, the city is even richer in the world’s rarest and most necessary commodities: hospitality, good humour and tolerance. We’ll talk about the food later.
Meet Erkan. In his early thirties, he and his wife live in an apartment on the Asian side, and there he takes us for lunch and to shop for spices, where everything is cheaper and fresher. The fishmongers fold open the gills to demonstrate the freshness of their product. The double-boiled Turkish Delights made by the Bekir Family since 1777 (in the same premises!) is strikingly better than anything in the spice market – and I sampled all but three. Lunch is picked not from a menu but from a sumptuous array of home cooked delicacies just off to the left as you enter the diner. Annette chose a traditional chicken dish. I had a dumpling of rice in the shape of a Dervish’s hat that tasted as subtle and thought provoking as Annette’s meal danced on her tongue. I had the Dervish, she had the Whirling.
Next day we left the museums and markets, and travelled up the Bosphorus. I’d fantasized about standing on the bridge between Europe and Asia Minor since I was a young geography geek – only the bridge has been closed to geography geeks and suicide wannabes some years ago. (Damn you, suicides). So the boat tour was the best I could do. Whenever we plied the middle of the strait (maybe never) I fulfilled a childhood dream by running between port and starboard shouting “I’m in Europe, I’m in Asia”, and in tribute to Robert Towne, one tearful “I’m in Europe AND in Asia!”
Illegal settlements have choked the Asian side of the straight with so many people that the government has built roads and delivered power and water. And that’s nothing compared with the growth of the city to the West and East. Istanbul’s subway now extends throughout the European neighborhoods and is now being built on the Asian side. So why does Rome have a handful of subway stations when the Turks have unearthed far more archeological treasures (and rarer human remains) than the Eternal City? Ingenuity. The Turks have put their subways 75 meters under ground. Can we please import their Mayor? Please?
“I’m eating my country!” Ibrahim said with a goofy smile, eating turkey & rice in his favourite diner in Ürgüp, in Central Turkey. Like many Turks, Ibrahim is Moslem, secular and graced with openness and good humour. He met our plane at Revsihir, our gateway to the Capadocia region, a land shaped by nature and carved by man. Here, millions of years of volcanic rock and ash have provided wind, water and snow with the raw materials from which they have sculpted this moonscape. But even more interesting than that is the human story. Here, the Hittites first carved their caves from the softer rock called tufa. Since then, the caves and underground cities have been continuously inhabited – from 3000 BCE to 1982. The underground city to the right is eight levels deep and connected laterally to several villages in the region. Air shafts double as wells that access spring water below. In fact the vineyards of Capadocia aren’t watered – they survive by tapping the water below. We walked down the four levels that have been restored to date. It’s thought that the caves were also connected through “trap doors” to the village houses, providing an escape for the villagers from the pillagers. For five thousand years these ingenious underground spaces have provided shelter to refugees and religious minorities of every kind. We stayed in Avanos, at a cave hotel dug from tufa and expanded into a wonderful space. This charming room was massive, and home to every kind of regional artifact – and creature comfort.
We saw Ephesus in the driving rain.
This ancient Byzantine city, dominated at the town centre by the library (take note Doug Ford), is a marvel. One could walk right into the lobby of the brothel and find the client rooms arrayed in the same format you would expect today. In the same format, in fact, as that of the Turkish baths we visited in Avanos.
But it was worth the visit, and our double rainbow is proof.
The highlight of the trip was Goreme. These photos, literally ‘stolen’ in the “Dark Church” while no one was aware (photos not allowed) had to be taken at 1600 ISO with shutter speeds as slow as 1/15th sec. With no one knowing! NB: No flash was used and therefore no harm done. (This, by the way, is the main reason to invest in a great camera like the 5D – You can steal shots wide and then straighten and crop.) These frescoes show the height of the development of cave art in the region over about 150 years. Since the people were illiterate, art was the only form of religious education. The frescoes also required a leap in technology, the artists gathering and applying pigeon droppings as the albumen base for these stunning frescoes. The Dark Church also speaks to the wealth of the donor (and perhaps the persuasive powers of the artist), who had indigo dyes brought from far away India (see “The Last Supper” on the right, above).