Istanbul: An Honest City

During our short time in Istanbul, it occurred to me how honest the city as a whole is. What do I mean by that? Well, everything in the city seems to be exactly what it is, with no efforts to mask it or make something be any different cosmetically than whatever it already is. There are buildings as old as the year 500 and buildings as new as just a couple years old sitting happily side by side, with no attempt to make one look like the other. Some buildings are even dilapidated or abandoned right in the middle of a high traffic and otherwise well maintained area. Even the new storefronts added to old buildings are built with the style sense of the time in which they were built, so that walking around you can see additions from the 1940’s, -70’s, or -90’s among original and new buildings. I love this about Istanbul, especially in contrast to a place like Los Angeles where sometimes it seems everything has a facade to make it appear to be different than it actually is (not unlike a movie set).

Our first impressions of the city were from the rooftop of the building where we rented our Homeaway apartment. We were practically next door to Galata Tower, and could see it clearly over the nearby buildings.

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Istanbul struck me as a crowded city with little park space for its size, so it was not surprising that people had added greenery on rooftops and patios wherever they could find space.
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Looking out at the sprawl, it seems old, new, and a little gritty. And I will admit, I hadn’t thought much about air quality before we got there, but there was a noticeable amount of exhaust in the air. Istanbul018

Near our apartment, we came across this car. It seemed to fit in quite naturally with the cobblestone streets.Istanbul027

With little sidewalk space and extremely narrow streets, I was surprised at how easily people and cars were able to manuver around each other. With little need for car horns, people would part to allow the cars to come through, and then fill in the road again once it had passed. Both pedestrian and driver were aware of each other and their surroundings, and with a little patience could work together to allow passage.

Istanbul030 Some of the streets were so narrow it was hard to imagine a car would even fit, presumably a result of the original city being built long before cars and the subsequent sprawl that came after. But somehow it worked, and the cars got through. (No huge SUV’s here!)

Istanbul671 It was not uncommon to see the Turkish flag flying, or even a flag for Istanbul. It struck me that people were proud of their home.Istanbul040 And perhaps even more frequently than the Turkish flag, we came across buildings that were no longer fit for use, just left to breakdown right in the middle of the city’s commerce.

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This one struck us as particularly interesting. We could still see the decorative paper on the ceiling and even though it was falling down, I could almost imagine what it must have been like inside in the 1800’s. Istanbul289

Some of our favorite moments were while wandering off the beaten path, just exploring the lesser travelled pockets of the city.Istanbul413

This woman happily posed for a photo, and then immediately ran inside to tell whoever was in the house with her. We couldn’t understand her Turkish, but we heard her excitedly saying “California” to her family inside. Maybe we’ll be able to return one day with a copy of the picture for her.Istanbul414

Closer to the more tourist-travelled parts of town, I notice the colors of the buildings became much more vibrant.Istanbul293

Some of the greenery in the area seemed to have been there forever, like these trees that almost seems to grow right out of the sidewalk.Istanbul424

Roman structures still stand in the middle of the city.Istanbul080

And of course, let’s not forget the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the year 537 and was the third structure to stand here. It was a church first, then was converted to a mosque. Now it’s a museum where both Christian and Muslim symbology are displayed side by side. (More on the Hagia Sophia on Thursday!)Istanbul509

And right across the park is the Blue Mosque, built in 1616.Istanbul511

On more than one occasion we came across chickens like these, which belonged to someone nearby and were presumably used for eggs and food. Istanbul104

And there were loads of stray cats around the city. It seemed that the people take pretty good care of the feral cats in the area. Frequently we would see food left out for them, and the adult cats all seemed very healthy (although they definitely looked more like wild cats than the domestic kitties I’m more familiar with).Istanbul291

Every bridge we crossed over was heavily lined with fishermen. They seemed to just camp out for most of the day trying to catch whatever they could.Istanbul064

And there were always men pushing carts around the city selling baked goods or cooked meats.Istanbul071

Day and night.Istanbul263

At night there seemed to be another world of commerce altogether. Individuals selling all sorts of food and goods anywhere where they could find an open enough space to do so.Istanbul258

We drank loads of Turkish coffee, which is offered after every meal. I loved that this cup embraced the beautiful patterns seen all over Turkey. They do patterns so well in this part of the world!

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We drank loads of Turkish tea, also offered after every meal, as a social drink, and even in some shops while you’re looking around. Istanbul493

We played backgammon, and smoked shisha. (It’s just tobacco folks, don’t get too excited.) Both are traditional middle-eastern pastimes that we found incredibly relaxing after a long day of walking around.Istanbul630Cafes seemed to pop up out of nowhere sometimes. This one was in a small, open area and even had tables set up on tiers that looked more suited as a mini amphitheater. Vines had made their way up over the electrical wires and seemed to have been there for years. (We saw this often around the city, and sometimes they were even grape vines!)Istanbul497

Istanbul is also home to Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. It has been restored to its original glory, including these fabulous skylights and decorative details.

Istanbul673 This cabinet, made of wood and inlaid mother of pearl, houses original copies of all sorts of great classic books by Christie, Hemmingway, and more.Istanbul677

Even the apartment we stayed in held true to its original history. While I don’t know the exact age of the building, the walls were clearly original construction, the bathroom  and kitchen seemed to be afterthoughts (presumably because running water and electricity came well after the building was built), and winding staircase leading up to our 2nd floor apartment had marble steps that had been worn down so much over the years that they seemed to bow, and the edges had rounded over, so that we really had to be careful not to slip coming down the stairs.Istanbul506 The shop owners in the area were so proud of their businesses. (This one was my favorite!)Istanbul686 People walked down the area’s pedestrian street, Istiklal Avenue, even early in the morning before most of the shops had opened.Istanbul681Because of the timing of our trip with the beginning of the protests against Turkey’s Prime Minister, we encountered a few peaceful marches. These people made themselves known by chanting and shouting their cause.
Istanbul035 This one held us up for about 20 minutes on our way to the airport as we were leaving Istanbul. This was the day after they had received union support, and another 240,000 people for their cause. These were happening all over the city that day.Istanbul690 Istanbul692And the views of Istanbul were dreamlike in the evenings. There was a whole level of activity that started aorund the city once the sun went down. And with the glow of the lit-up mosques and the sounds of the call to prayer, it was somehow peaceful, even among such a crowded, bustling city.

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What are your thoughts or impressions on Istanbul?

4 thoughts on “Istanbul: An Honest City

  1. Pingback: This Week I Loved… | The Anecdotal Goat

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