Turkey: Istanbul and the South

The End Of The World

Just over 400 years ago, in the year 1000 in the Islamic calendar, the world didn’t end. This was contrary to the message that the foremost prognosticators, seers and doomsayers in the Ottoman Empire were spreading in the streets and in the ears of the religious ruling class.

The end of the world has been predicted in recent times, too (Y2K, Rapture 2011, Heaven’s Gate ’98 — coincidentally all good names for Christian rock festivals), and The End has time and again been thwarted by the frustrating continuation-of-life-as-it-has-always-been. Of course, this does little to prevent the would-be prophets from retconning their predicted date or simply offing themselves in a bid to get to that big spaceship in the sky.

Back to 1591, year of the would-be apocalypse: Sultan Murad III, head of the Ottoman Empire (and whose official title, “His Imperial Majesty Grand Sultan, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe”, is almost too long to tweet) didn’t off himself or change the date when Armageddon didn’t happen. He instead took it as a sign that God thought the Ottoman Empire was just too friggin’ sweet to go down with the rest of His forsaken planet. Sultan Murad though the world not ending was Allah giving him the highest of fives and the advice, “Don’t go changin’.”

So he didn’t. And while Europe was getting dressed up for their big Renaissance fair, the Ottomans played backgammon and smoked hookah for the next two centuries. Glancing up from their tea in 1908, they saw a revolution was upon them. 14 years later, all that remained were the hacked-up pieces of a once-great empire being gnawed at and pissed on by the dogs of war. The most grievous result was their capital, Istanbul, being occupied by not one but three foreign militaries simultaneously. Truly an ignoble end for one of the most expansive empires of the millennium.

The story about the Sultan and the apocalypse may be apocryphal, but the demise of Istanbul remains a sad fate no matter how much sugar you take with your history. Istanbul used to be a world city (really the world city for centuries), but has since fallen massively out of favor. These days, rankings of world cities place Istanbul well behind cities like Zurich and Sydney in terms of political and economic power, connectedness and general influence. Occasionally, it doesn’t even rank at all.

Historic Istanbul

Turks still consider Istanbul to be their crown jewel, though, and there is still much going for it that would support that claim. The city is (obviously) host to some of the greatest history in Western civilization; you can’t walk down the street without tripping over some Roman or Byzantine hazard marked by a plaque. At the Basilica Cistern, moody medieval music and yellow-red illumination around support columns lend the old place an artificial if not appealing atmosphere (little doubt that back then, like today, they weren’t bumping tunes in their water reservoirs). Similarly, the hawkers and shop-owners of the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar provide for an entertaining haggle, and the panic they strike in tourists wearing backpacks on their chests is undeniably comedic. Hagia Sofia, Sultanahmet and all the rest of the standards have been poetically praised by better writers than me, and deservedly so, so I’ll save you my rhapsodizing.

Aya Sofya


Basilica Cistern

Friendly Istanbul

Waiting as we were in Istanbul for an entire month (for our blasted Iran visas), the friendliness accorded us by Istanbulites was unexpected and surprising in its generosity. Within a a week or two of living there, the guy in the corner store was letting me buy things on credit, and Jae was getting a special discount on Marlboros. Our host for what was supposed to be a couple days had no obligation to put up with us for a whole month, but she did without reservations. One night, I missed the last dolmuş (minibus) from the middle of nowhere, and waved one down that turned out to be out of service. The driver and his friend were happy to give me a ride for free to their home, where they parked the bus and walked with me for 15 minutes in a monsoon rain to a bus that would take me home, pushing cigarettes on me the whole time. Two beautiful people we met one night tolerated my bad jokes for a whole day to give us a tour of the Princes’ Islands and the Asian side.

I could go on with stories like these. For a city of 12 million people, Istanbul’s inhabitants respond to the crush of humanity with Flanders-like neighborliness.

Modern Istanbul

On a sunny day, smoking nargile in the sun and gazing out at the Bosphorus, it’s easy to forget that Istanbul is a city defined in the past. But when the rain comes, a living gloom permeates the city like the wet. The spirit of the city sulks with its citizens in the knowledge that their beloved Istanbul will probably never again realize the prestige it once knew.

Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most famous and controversial sons, uses the word ‘melancholy’ in almost every second paragraph in his Istanbul: Memories and the City to describe the city he grew up in. The guy won a Nobel Prize in Literature, so it’s not a lack of verbosity that has him using the same word over and over: It’s simply the most apt adjective to describe the city. Melancholy is the city suffering the realization that it is past its prime, the muscles and bones of authority and influence slowly deteriorating. It’s the feeling of witnessing the citadel of an empire devolve into a living museum. And it’s the depression of generations of Istanbulites who have learned to live with it.

Drive Istanbul

Turks drive with an indifference in direct proportion to their hospitality. The aforementioned dolmuş duo switched drivers as we were rolling down a hill at 30 mph, and we were about a shoe size away from intimate congress with a cement wall when one of them tried to drift a residential street corner (on the equivalent of a mini schoolbus, let me remind you).

Istanbulites avoiding death in Taksim.

The Battle Royale-style tolls that you have to fight through to access the city also deserve a mention. In some instances they are about 60 lanes wide, the only indications of which are the young Turkish boys hawking giant pretzels and turkish delight in rough ranks among the cars. I freely admit that I don’t know how the tolls work here, and I stubbornly refuse to find out, as I’m pretty sure I owe a nontrivial amount to the Turkish Highways Administration. The sirens and flashing lights that go off as we fly through a toll now give me and Jae a giddy Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feeling. This is about as hood as I get, folks: fleeing automated toll gates, gas pedal quarter-way to the floor, middle fingers not to the law, but firmly gripping the steering wheel with the rest of them at 10 and 2.

Out Of Istanbul

One month later, our impromptu hiatus from the road has ended. Visas in hand, we’ve menaced the Turkish motorways for a week or so, flying across the country (in some cases literally).

Turkish dude take the wheel.

We’ve tackled things relatively quickly because of the long holdup in Istanbul. It was nice and hot along the Med, but as we move east, it gets colder and colder. My goal of avoiding winter entirely looks destined for failure as the weather in eastern Turkey is necessitating the purchase of gloves and stylish kaffiyehs. On the upside, it looks highly likely that I’ll be able to go skiing in Iran, one of my goals for the trip. More importantly, I hear the apres-ski scene in Iran is off the hook. So, silver lining, and all that.

Istanbul By The Numbers

Time spent in Istanbul: 32 days

Sunny days: 12

Rainy days: 20

Average temperature: 15° C

Visits to Iran Consulate: 7

Waffles consumed in frustration at waffle restaurant next to Iran Consulate: 6 (+1 in triumph)

Kebabs eaten: Countless

Average price of kebab: $3

Number of times drinking rakı: 3 or 4

Number of times I enjoyed drinking rakı: 0

Soccer games attended: 1

Score: Turkey 1 – Germany 3

Bottles thrown on the field: ~15

Backgammon games played: ~100

% Backgammon games won: 65

Squash games played: 10

% Squash games won: 30 (Curse you, Baba!)

Cost of getting the car cleaned inside and out: 20 TL

Change discovered while cleaning car: 2.20 Euro, 2 Bulgarian Lev, 7 Serbian Dinar, 0.50 Bosnian Marks, 0.20 Turkish Lira

Game Of Thrones books read: 1.5

Game of Thrones episodes watched: 8

Cost of diesel: $2.11/L (!!!)

Mileage milestone missed: 120,000 miles

Number of conversations about the Armenian Genocide: 1, which was 1 too many

Cost of Turkish haircut: $15

What I looked like after: $1,000,000