Once I had a chance to get a good night’s sleep and wash off the grime of the past week, I had the mammoth task of figuring out Istanbul in four days. This was part of the reason why I had initially planned to skip Turkey altogether in favor of a Black Sea ferry to Ukraine — Turkey is just too big and I was too interested in it to simply blow through it in a week and change.
But obviously, I decided to go to Turkey and finish the Silk Road once and for all (for now). But then how do I write about a city such as Istanbul? That was another part of the reason why I wasn’t sure. Trying to figure out how to write about this place has been difficult, and an intimidating prospect. It’s not a city that you can realistically see in a week on foot if you’re trying to get a more or less complete picture.
But if there’s two things I’ve been on the hunt for since I first stepped foot in the Muslim world, it’s these — markets and mosques. In a city like Istanbul, setting out to find these two things turned out to be a good way of weaving my way into the neighborhoods on both banks of the Bosporus.
The first order of business was getting onto the European side of the Bosporus. I had spent the morning and prior day walking around Kadıköy, the hip and trendy neighborhood on the Asian side. Thankfully, getting across the Bosporus is a fairly easy task, and all roads lead to the Bosporus.
Eminönü is almost directly across the Bosporus from Kadıköy, so the ferry ride is short. Once on land on the other side, the character of the city changes. It was hard to put my finger on what exactly it was that was different, but the European side of the Bosporus has a different vibe (compared to what I had seen on the Asian side, anyway). It’s busier. The character of the buildings is different, and there’s a lot more tourists.
I didn’t really have a destination in mind, except that I wanted to go inside a mosque or two to take photos. From the ferry, there’s dozens of mosques visible in the neighborhoods near the Bosporus, with minarets piercing up from the rooftops like jagged teeth. However, you just can’t miss the massive mosques that tower over everything. Several of the largest mosques in the world are in Istanbul, and dominate the cityscape as if they were photoshopped in without paying close attention to the scale.
As soon as I stepped off the ferry in Eminönü, I was at a loss as to how to actually get to the mosque, despite being in its shadow the entire time. From the ferry terminal, the roads spiraled and wound up the hills in a totally disorganized fashion, crisscrossing over each other as they spider webbed away from the Bosporus.
I pride myself on my ability to navigate through even the most jumbled of cities without getting too turned around. After all, I knew Kathmandu like the back of my hand and that city is a literal case study in how not to plan a city. Yet for the life of me, I could not figure out the way to any of these places. It wasn’t long before I decided to give up and commit to wandering the narrow streets.
Every single street that snaked away was packed with its own vibrancy that drew me in. It was hard to actually have a destination in mind when I’m so prone to distraction in environments like this. The streets were packed with people, and street vendors yelled out into the crowds from all corners. Amidst it all, people sat back against the ancient walls, reclining and waving away the chaos around them. Once again, I had to stop and admire the way that, even in the heart of one of the world’s densest urban centers, people knew how to just stop and relax. Chilling is an art, and I’ve been impressed in how the Turkish do it.
The more I walked, the more the walls and buildings began to feel old. And I don’t mean old as in run-down or shabby, but old. Places where the ancientness is tangible. Massive stone walls and worn cobbled streets. Now that I’m writing this later, I’ve come to learn that Eminönü was at one time known as Constantine. Y’know, Constantine. The capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Not a museum exhibit, but a living, breathing organism that has survived the rise and fall of empires.
Nowadays, the name Eminönü comes from Ottoman days. I won’t get sidetracked with the history of it all (even though I want to), but it reflects the history of the district. Emin and önü come from Turkish, meaning “justice” and “in front of,” respectively. So Eminönü would be, roughly, “in front of justice.” Contextually, emin would probably have referred to the customs agents at the docks in the district. Historically, Eminönü has been the home of traders and merchants from some of the region’s great trading centers, such as Venice, Pisa, and Genoa.
Even though the golden days of trade in the Mediterranean are passed and the empires that built the area gone, the heritage saturates and permeates everything. From the narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants to the docks lined with fishermen, the entire area is buzzing with activity. And no place is busier than the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar
My zigzagged path through the maze of Eminönü led me right to the walls of one of the world’s oldest covered markets (and the most-visited site by tourists in the world), the Grand Bazaar. There’s a reason for why it’s the most popular tourist site in the world — it’s awesome.
I normally try to search for things that are slightly off the beaten path, but I’ve been learning to make exceptions. If I’m being honest, seeing the Grand Bazaar in a James Bond movie when I was in middle school is what probably kick-started my initial interest in Istanbul. My visit was mandatory, and long-awaited.
Beneath the arched gate, the river of visitors drew me under and into the dark stone hallway. Voices echoed in a cacophonous din that reverberated from everywhere. The ambiance might’ve been mistakable for an average day in the old days of the bazaar, broken only by the modern retail storefronts tucked into the old pockets.
In the main drag, Turkish flags hung from the ceiling and fluttered in the dusty light that filtered through the small windows above. People milled around from shop to shop, and every few meters, the crowd flowed into narrow passageways like water into a crack. It was hard not to get swept into it, and thrown back in time the deeper the passage wound.
I’m normally pretty apprehensive about taking photos in and around large groups of people. I think I’ve said that once or twice here. I’m a lot happier perched on a rock with my camera pointed at mountains. But every so often, there are environments where, for some reason, the apprehension melts away. People are just receptive to the presence of a camera, which isn’t always the case. The Holi and Shivaratri festivals in Kathmandu were some such environments.
The Grand Bazaar, to me, was another. Maybe it’s because people are just used to cameras in the most popular tourist site in the world. But I’d be lying if I said that receptiveness was confined to just the bazaar. Sure, I’ve gotten more comfortable with taking photos of people, but Istanbul in general is receptive. People are nice in a much more overt way than I’ve been used to in some of the places I’ve previously been. I left feeling much more relaxed about Istanbul, which was exactly what I needed — cities that large make me anxious.
Winding Down to the Golden Horn
Eminönü is directly across the Bosporus from Kadıköy, the neighborhood on the Asian side where I was staying. Eminönü occupies a peninsula that is formed by the Bosporus on the east, and an offshoot of the Bosporus on the north called the Golden Horn.
My path wound down from the back entrance of the bazaar towards the Golden Horn. The uneven coast that Istanbul occupies effectively turns it into a terraced, multi-layered city. Roads often switchback their way up and down the steep hills while “cross streets” cut between them in the form of steep stair cases.
However, these cross streets aren’t always between the roads. Instead, walkways can lead to a dead-end fenced ledge that overlooks the Bosporus. In my sunset effort to find my way down to the Golden Horn where the nearest ferry terminals were, I often ended up standing atop a 20-foot wall, looking for the nearest stairway that would allow me to cut my way through the narrow streets.
The effort led me into mosque courtyards, across train tracks, through the campus of the University of Istanbul (gorgeous by the way), and on rooftops looking down on the open-air portions of the Grand Bazaar. After being on foot for hours, trying to make my way up and down the levels turned into an exhausting effort. Native Istanbul-ites had no problem overtaking me whenever I had to stop to catch my breath. I’ve no doubt that living in Istanbul would make one’s legs absolutely jacked.
For me though, I contented myself to move slowly through it all and absorb the vibe of the city.
The sun was low in the sky by the time I found my way down to the water, and it was time to head back. I was due to return to the area the next day with my two friends who lived in Istanbul, so I was in no hurry to squeeze things in.
Morning came the next day and it was time for my tour of Karaköy, the neighborhood directly across the Golden Horn from Eminönü, and probably one of the most-visited areas of Istanbul. My friends had a specific place in mind — their favorite coffee shop, Petra Coffee Co.
Having spent the bulk of my alone time bouncing between coffee shops in Kadıköy, I was more than happy to get to visit another. And Petra might be one of the coolest coffee shops I’ve ever been to. It’s kind of a commitment to get to as, to my observation, there’s not a lot else going on in the area.
After a couple hours, we got back on the bus to head back to central Karaköy, where I got to learn more about the area.
Just as in Eminönü, the architecture of the area reflects the unique history. Where in Eminönü the walls were built up into Constantinople, Karaköy was built up into a settlement originally called Galata. At its founding, it was actually separate from Constantinople, and the Byzantine emperor granted traders from Genoa, Italy permission to settle and built up a port. Karaköy’s most prominent landmark, the Galata Tower, is one of the most lasting pieces of the area’s Italian legacy.
Historically, Galata always looked like something straight out of Italy. It was built and fortified by Genoan traders, and was their hub in the area for a long time. However, the city’s makeup changed drastically when Byzantium fell to the first Ottoman Empire.
Ever since then, the area was known as Karaköy — probably a reference to the Turkish-speaking Jewish community that lived there before the area became even more diversified. The Ottoman conquest, Crimean Wars, Spanish Inquisition, and Russian Revolution all spurred emigration and diversification of Karaköy until it became the cosmopolitan center of commerce we know today.
Even with just a single walk through Karaköy, its history is readily apparent beyond the old architecture. Beyond the main street of higher-end shops and tourist boutiques are alleyways lined with metalworker’s shops, selling everything from electronics to cookware to mechanical hardware.
Any given bridge leading into Karaköy is lined with men, women, and children, fishing shoulder-to-shoulder. Below the bridges are underground markets and docks lined with boats.
Where in most areas, any given religious building is a mosque, Karaköy features the only synagogue I saw.
Down in the alleys between warehouses near the water, street vendors buy fish straight from fishermen and fry them up for passersby. There’s just a lot going on in Karaköy, and I wish I could go back and get lost in the alleys again.