Istanbul sights and sounds, Taksim Square, the Bosphorus, Oud Music
Istanbul is a huge metropolis of thirteen million people, and not somewhere you can get to know in four days, especially when three and a half of them are spent working. Nevertheless, I did manage to fit in one decent daytime walk and a couple of evening rambles too, and have brought back a few photos and impressions to share. I hope you enjoy the tour.
Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey (that would be Ankara) but it is by far the most important city culturally, financially and historically. As Constantinople, it was the 4th Century capital of the Roman Empire, then, as Byzantium, it was at the head of the Byzantine Empire for around one thousand years. But all of this is easily found on Google and Wiki. I'm going to focus instead only on what I saw, heard and felt in my very brief visit.
The Turkish Oud (lute)
The 'video' on the right is sound only, no pictures. This duo were performing in a small bar where it was too dark for my phone to get pictures. It was also too loud to get a decent recording. But it's enough to get the flavour of the music. The oud player was exceptional. I suggest letting it run as a background to the photographs below. It all adds to the Turkish ambience. His oud has six strings arranged as three courses (double strings), and is fretless. He was playing with a combination of plectrum and fingers. The scale is not Western and contains intervals not heard in Western music. It is not 'out of tune'!
A walk in Istanbul
OK, here goes...
I flew in overnight, a four-hour sleepless flight from 02:00 to 06:00, about as antisocial as you can get. Then, by taxi (spelled taksi here) to my hotel in Taksim Square. This was all in darkness, so it was a surprise, when the sun came up, to find that my 3rd floor room commanded a view over rooftops and all the way to the Bosphorus. That was something to check out later, but now it was straight to work. Another taksi.
The first couple of pictures are from the taxi. For the whole of my stay, the weather was cold, wet and windy, with a mist that never fully lifted. Only the seagulls seemed to be happy about this. As I had no idea where we were going, I was pleased when the taxi turned down towards the coast. That would have been my choice too, especially when the sea in question is one of the greatest shipping routes of the Old World. Our route took us past one of the old mosques, with impossibly slender twin minarets.
We also passed the National football stadium which reminded me of the old Cardiff Arms Park (home of Welsh rugby) in being built in a hollow and almost invisible until you're right beside it.
My walking route, on my last afternoon, is on the Google Earth view. Starting at Taksim Square, down the steep lanes to the Bosphorus Corniche, the hard climb back to the Square, then the gentler long descent through the old city and across the lift bridge at the mouth of the harbour, and of course the long climb back. The whole thing took about five hours, but this included lunch and a couple of beers along the way, occasioned by heavy rain showers, as if any excuse were necessary.
The Bosphorus is the sea strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and ultimately to the Aegean and Mediterranean). I'm standing at the edge of Europe looking across the water to Asia. Istanbul is literally where East meets West. I've known this from early schooldays but being here brings it alive. Today, the water is grey and choppy, with a fine mist hanging low. It's easy to imagine the sea battles through the centuries, for control of this vital strip of water. But the modern suspension bridge, just visible through the mist, is a symbol of trust and cooperation between nations. The new Istanbul, Europe's Capital of Culture, 2010, is all about bringing people and cultures together in a spirit of trust and harmony.
Istanbul feels safe to walk about. This is because everyone is on the streets. The traffic is terrible, with jams all day long, but much of the old city is simply not accessible by car. The streets are narrow and sometimes so steep that they become staircases in places. The Turkish people clearly enjoy their city. They meet outdoors, walk and talk together, sit outside the cafes and bars, eating and drinking, under canopies. Even in these cold, wet February days, they just wear more clothes and carry on with their outdoors customs.
You'd have to work hard to go hungry in Istanbul. Street vendors are everywhere, selling roast chestnuts, kebabs, olives, hot beans, even fresh mussels as you get closer to the harbour.
Most of the cafes and bars employ one or two 'runners' whose job it is to accost potential custom in the street and persuade them that theirs is the best place in town. As an obvious non-local, I get a lot of attention. If you stop, they won't stop talking, so the trick is to smile and keep walking, as they don't like to venture into the next cafe's catchment area.
Istanbul and Islam
From the number, size and grandeur of Istanbul's mosques, it is obvious that Islam is the predominant religion. But the country is strictly secular. Religion is a personal matter and not in any way enshrined in law. This is no Islamic republic. The people on the street look almost like a Mediterranean populace. Men and women in more or less equal numbers, mixing freely together. Some of the women choose to cover their hair with a headscarf, but most don't. The dress code on the street is largely Western, and if anything slightly more colourful. There is an official Islamic opposition party, but that is just part of the balance of the political scene. It is impossible to imagine this place succumbing to clerical government. The people wouldn't have it.
Spoiled for choice, I eventually selected Istanbul Art Cafe, a small establishment with seating for about six inside and twelve outside, under an awning. In spite of the weather, I was reasonably warm from walking, so outside was good. Occasional beggars asked for change and a small family of cats milled around my feet taking turns to make me feel guilty by staring soulfully at my food. A river of rainwater flowed down the central gutter of the narrow cobbled lane. Just another Thursday. Chicken, flash fried, diced and served in a cream sauce with some unidentifiable aromatic herbs, and a mixed green salad enlivened with fresh mint and balsamic vinegar. Freshly baked crusty bread. Enough, with a local Efes beer for the final touch of authenticity.
Apart from Efes beer which comes in varieties from a light pilsner right through to a black stout, Turkey produces some excellent wine, especially the rich reds, and a local spirit called Yeni Raki similar to an absinthe in style taste and effect. But that's not one to try at lunchtime.
Taksim Square is the centre of this old part of Istanbul. It is more of a clearing in the dense buildings around than an architecturally designed square in its own right. It is dominated by the Independence Monument, celebrating the life, generalship and statesmanship of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic.
If thinking of visiting Istanbul, I would recommend choosing a hotel on Taksim Square for easy walking access to everything I've described in this hub. It is also a place known to every taxi driver in the city, so there's no risk of getting lost among the thirteen million!
Music in Istanbul
My walk down towards the harbour took me through a narrow street where every second shop was a music shop, by which I mean a shop selling instruments for people to play, not CDs to put on a machine. There must have been at least twenty such shops, including a few instrument makers and repair services. This to me is the height of civilisation. And in the spirit of cultural diversity that is Istanbul, the range extended from Western orchestral, jazz and rock instruments to traditional Turkish ouds, schaums, tabors and many more that I have no names for. There was even a shop selling Chinese bowed instruments and Japanese kotos.
It was shortly after leaving this music quarter that I first saw the harbour in the distance. I hadn't intended to walk so far, but any distant bridge, once seen, has to be crossed. There's really no alternative. It's the story of my life as a wanderer.
The harbour bridge is a lift bridge, like London's Tower Bridge. The central section can be winched up to allow high vessels to pass from the Bosphorus into Istanbul's great natural harbour. Unfortunately I didn't see it in action as no large ships were queuing for access. People were fishing along the whole length of the bridge and bringing in large numbers of small pilchard-like fish. There seemed to be no shortage.
On the far bank there was, unsurprisingly, another great mosque and an even greater one high on the hill above the town, but I was running out of time and if I'm honest, maybe a little tired. I wandered around the floating market for a time, seeing plenty but buying nothing, simply enjoying the privilege of being here, before the long climb back to Taksim Square to collect my bag and grab a taxi to the airport.
I hope I've shown you something to enjoy in this brief tour of a great historical capital. My memories will be of a lively, diverse, friendly city, much loved by its people and visitors for its wealth of culture. freedoms and opportunities.
Thank you for reading!
same bar, different musicians
I'll leave you with another bad recording of good musicians. This duo comprised one singer and oud player and one percussionist, playing a variety of traditional drums. The rhythms are very similar to flamenco (which is no surprise, given the common roots of both genres). The bar was so small that the musicians had to sit inside the stone fireplace. Enjoy the performance, and have a virtual Yeni Raki on me!
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