The Old Galata Bridge is less of a bridge than a roadside fishing market where a jumble of fishermen convene along the stretch of sidewalks at one of Istanbul’s major intersections. Overlooking the Karakoy and Eminonu neighbourhoods on either side, the bridge shadows over the Bosporus Straits which, aside from being the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, connects rhetorically the West and the East, the New and the Old: Europe and Asia.
On one side of the Galata Bridge – the Eminonu neighbourhood – I observe the delightfully placid locals walking slowly, munching their doner kebabs, content to scream Merhaba at each other at frequent intervals while keeping an understandably edgy eye, not suspiciously but with more than an ordinary interest, on the tourists embarking and disembarking from the Bosporous tours. The Blue Mosque, in Sultan Ahmet Old Town, rises in prominence amidst the other domes, minarets and crescents that constitute Istanbul’s more conservative, Islamic neighbourhood.
On the other side, the Galata Tower is the face of the more upmarket suburbs – Galata, Cihangir, Beyoglu and Karakoy – towering above the mildly cosmopolitan bents of the sloping streets Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk calls home, demonstrating through every pixel the eye can capture as to why Turkey is indeed the most secular among all Muslim states. There is an honesty to both sides of Istanbul that is the backbone of a judgement that depicts the future as much as the past. And in the middle, stands the Galata Bridge trying to witness a compelling marriage between domes and discotheques; the working-class boy and the archetypal dodgy geezer.
I came to Istanbul expecting to experience what every foreigner hopes: sights of Ottoman roots, stand at the continental divide, taste Turkish tea and coffee, and haggle over the price of a Turkish carpet at Grand Bazaar, among others. I arrived on a cold February morning and was put up in a hotel on the shores of the Marmara Sea in the city’s Zeytinburnu neighbourhood, having chosen it because of its relative proximity to the Ataturk International Airport.
The first, and perhaps the last cliché you would hear about Istanbul is that it is so historic, and that its continental borders aren’t furtive. This is a city of mighty, historic monuments and a discordant clamour about its various districts. The neighbourhoods around the Bosporus Strait bustle with a wealth of human density that would shake the foundation of Iceland’s bucolic resolve and send its volcanoes erupting in no time.
I proceed down a cobblestoned road housing an array of newly constructed guesthouses, crumbling souvenir shops and arrays of street-side kebab-selling diners in Sultan Ahmet towards the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (otherwise known as The Blue Mosque), an iconography that adorns travelogue and guidebooks trumpeting Istanbul. Sultan Ahmet, or the Old City, is the area that used to be called Constantinople. Istanbul, like Cairo or Rome, is actually not so much a single city as a collection of townships founded on adjacent sites by various empires and rulers: the perfect embodiment of the utter chaos that encapsulates urban Turkish life.
I navigate with relative ease through the narrow lanes (there are plenty – some cobblestoned, others not) towards The Blue Mosque, the last great mosque built during the decline of the Ottoman reign in the 16th century. A public announcement system in the mosque leads the dominoes to a call for prayer across mosques in the city. Spirit seems to vibrate through the building, and the spaces in between.
Rivalling the mosque for its beauty and magnificence, right across the Sultan Ahmet square, is the Hagia Sophia built during the 6th century under Christian influence, a structure that remains the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Having served as a Church, Mosque (after the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople) and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is one of the more unique experiences I’ve had in life – on entering, a picture of the American President Barack Obama, with his head bowed, greets me. Legend has it that the Blue Mosque was built using the Hagia Sophia as a reference, but with an Islamic touch to it.
Although, at times, the crowds that gather here as part of guided tours makes Istanbul lose its sense of history, and after a customary stop at the Topkapi Palace soon afterwards, something inside compelled me to avert tourist routes within the city in search of not-so-frequented sights. Demonstrating this is one of Istanbul’s most under-rated sight: Constantinople’s Old City walls. Because it is so obvious, it can easily escape one’s attention. Fortified to defend itself from attacks, a guide book tells me that these walls were breached only twice in the empire’s 1600 year old history. I was told by an acquaintance while sipping Sahlep, a Turkish drink made with cinnamon and milk, that these walls had been partially destroyed during an earthquake in 477 AD, and quickly had to be rebuilt anticipating an attack from Atilla the Hun.
Following the tram route towards the sea, after grabbing another cup of sahlep, takes me through more bazaars and restaurants, and I soon enter a plaza flanked by thundering commercials on its walls jealously advertising the city’s most coveted tourist sights: the Bosporus tours. Somewhere between the banners are spaces filled with graffiti denoting telephone numbers and names, possibly of those who couldn’t afford advertising their services. I snake through a construction site to get a view of the Bosporus straits.
The queues for the ride are long, very long and I’m comforted by the thought that I’d have had good reason to skip this. The bridges running across the waters get my attention, and the sights beyond that, including the imposing Galata Tower with the blue waters in the foreground keep my camera fixated for a good ten minutes. Walking through the streets of Istanbul provides me its share of myriad fetishes, notwithstanding the colourful graffiti that adorn walls across town.
As I walk along the Galata Bridge, an expressionless fisherman ushers me into trying my hands on fishing. I politely decline his offer, but request if I could take his photograph, pointing to my camera. He acknowledges with a smile, while I ask him not to pose but to go about his business as I take a picture of him engaging in what he does. Although I didn’t sense any debauchery in his intent of asking me to give it a try, as I’d been warned, it could have been less earnestly so.
As you take in the view from Galata Bridge, Istanbul’s lively urban sprawl recedes into a calming rigmarole of blue and brown. It seemed fitting that the city take centre-stage in aphorisms concerning its geographical significance – be it historical, or economical as shown through Angus Maddison charts.
The following morning, I cross over to the other side of the Galata Bridge and have breakfast at a joint in Karakoy that overlooks one of the boarding points for the Bosporus tours. As ships sail through the kaleidoscopic straits connecting continents, besides me, on the streets leading to the Galata Bridge, crumpled mopeds and cars sketch disproportionate traffic in a city notorious for its peak hour traffic. Behind me are the neighbourhoods that I’d soon explore: new, bustling and less Islamic, boasting wealth, development and facets that divide opinion on Turkey’s stand as an Islamic state.
The waiter notices me sitting in one of the tables laid outside, with a map in hand, and a camera flung around my shoulders. He walks towards me and utters “Hindi?” to which I reply “I’m from India, Hindi is one of the 300+ languages we speak.”
“Really?” he asks with his eyes wide open. I nod my head.
He introduces himself as Tuncay, a common Turkish name which means “Bronze Moon”. He is delighted to learn that my name, Chandra, also refers to the moon. On that resonant note, we begin talking about our hometowns. Tuncay hailed from the Van district in South-Eastern Turkey. “Not too far from Armenia, then?” I ask him, before dabbling on my limited history on the region, and the country’s not-so-pleasant relations with Turkey.
He advises me not to get too vocal on my views about Armenia, Azerbaijan or Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory if I were ever in that region. The Armenian genocide in Turkey is a political topic best avoided here, I learn. A quick google search can bear witness to that. We soon move on to travel related topics: Galipolli, Ankara, Lake Van, the Syrian border, Kurds …
“So where are you off to today?” he asks, after bringing my plate of toast and Turkish tea. I’m glued to the map trying to trace the route to be taken for the day.
“Taksim Square and Galata Tower to begin with. And if time permits, the Orhan Pamuk Museum of Innocence. Else I’ll visit that tomorrow.”
“Oh, so you’ve read Pamuk?”
“Of course, I think Turkey must be proud to have a literature Nobel Laureate. Although I understand some of his controversial views are …”
“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupts. “He could have been more careful.” Orhan Pamuk had made controversial statements relating to the Armenian Genocide and Freedom of Speech in 2005 during an award ceremony in Germany, and was sued as a result of that. Traces of his views, although not in its entirety, can be found in his book Snow.
“Isn’t he dating an Indian writer?” he asks. “Is he?” I respond, entirely oblivious to gossip. I’d later read that Pamuk and Kiran Desai were an item.
“Are you heading to the bars at Taksim Square tonight?”
“They are notorious aren’t they? Especially towards the foreigner?”
“Oh yeah, you better be careful. Perhaps I could …”
“It’s all right, I don’t drink,” I interrupt. “Plus even if I did, it wouldn’t be any different from what I experience back in London. I’m not in Istanbul for that.”
He wishes me luck, and I promise to meet him again the following morning for breakfast as I begin a slow walk towards Taksim Square.
Perhaps the only thing as impressive as the view from Galata Bridge is the view from Galata Tower, a 60 meter tower overlooking the waters which, at one point of time was Istanbul’s tallest structure, a harbour surveillance point. A 360 degree view of Istanbul keeps my camera busy again, with the peninsula getting a lot of attention from my lens. With the exception of graffiti, most things in Istanbul seem prettier from above.
The story of Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi, an early 14th century aviator can be read on one of the walls inside the tower. Urban legend has it that Celebi tried attaching artificial wings to himself to fly across the Bosporus. The result and his whereabouts henceforth are unknown, though sources mention that despite impressing the Emperor, the feat had threatened the Emperor to send Celebi in exile to Algeria.
Much of Istanbul’s newer neighborhoods seems ravished by an extra dose of westernization and cheap consumerism, although Galata Tower does its bit in squeezing a little charm into an otherwise transient neighbourhood. Turkey’s recent past, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, saw a transition from what was once a very Islamic state towards a modern, secular nation that left most children in a quizzical state as to what tune they’d dance to: the call for prayer, or the Beatles.
Most establishments have outer seating, as though to indicate that businesses are conducted in open air. Istanbul’s posh and upper-class neighbourhoods are dotted around this part of town, near Galatasary Square and Taksim Square. A walk down one of Istanbul’s lifeline avenue, Istikal, imitates the overpriced, cultural dream that it imagines its European counterparts to be living: restaurants, tattoo parlours, chic outlets albeit faded graffiti in the walls that surround them, emphasizing a Turk traditionalist’s fear of youngsters forgetting their Ottoman roots. Seemingly not too different from any of the many European cities I’ve visited, I decide to rush through after stopping by a Starbucks, thankfully empty, for a cup of Chai Latte.
The trams in Istikal Avenue carry few people, most prefer to walk. Every now and then, when a tram approaches, people would give way for it, allow it to pass and start walking along the lines again. The avenue opens up in to Taksim Square, and the Monument of the Republic commemorating the formation of the Turkish state in 1923.
Later that evening, I head towards the Cihangir neighbourhood, home to Orhan Pamuk, in search of The Museum of Innocence, a museum created by Pamuk in conjunction with his novel bearing the same name. Objects depicted in the fictional story were collected by Pamuk and displayed in an unprepossessing 19th century house located in a very old, narrow street that housed shops selling worn out rugs and brass vessels.
I pick up a copy of the novel from the store inside as a gratitude towards a professor of mine from college who’d introduced me to Pamuk’s works and the city of Istanbul.
The following morning, I carefully count the spare liras I have in my pocket before heading towards the Grand Bazaar. Men with finely crafted beards and shawls sitting in wooden divans adorn the entrances of the stores that line through the zig-zag of alleys within the bazaar. One of the world’s largest covered markets, the bazaar has sections devoted to selling antiques, jewellery, carpets, leather goods, furniture and casual clothes (most of which are cheap replicas of renowned brands).
In no less than fifteen minutes I’m approached by twenty hawkers and carpet-salesmen, sporting arms of questionable efficacy, who recognize my Indian heritage and yell refrains of random Bollywood names (including Raj Kapoor and Govinda, amongst a more recent sample set) to get my attention. Having had a taste of this in Siberia (yes, you read it right) before, I decide to do what every friendly local would advise the first-timer: ignore.
That isn’t to say that their persistence would end there, if you are lucky, they’d give up on you soon. If you turn back, as Moses might the Egyptians, you will somehow find yourself in one of their stores sipping hot tea trying to dismiss your interests of buying a carpet as they continue to negotiate rates (in truth, a one way transaction because you aren’t uttering any numbers) regardless of your stance.
It isn’t odd to spot a tourist grumbling over such an experience, with a carpet in hand and a wallet lighter by a few hundred liras. But by and large, they are delightful people with cheery dispositions trying to earn a living.
Unless you’d managed to pick up one of the cheap, synthesized Chinese carpets.