Exploring Istanbul

Most of Greater Istanbul’s 8.7 million inhabitants live in Europe: in the old town, roughly corresponding to medieval Constantinople and still hemmed in by mighty if crumbling walls, and in the new town, whose featureless suburbs spread ever wider towards and along the Bosphorus. Between them lies the Halic, almost a backwater, crossed by the bridges of Galata-Karakoy, of Atatürk, and higher up, near Eyup, the bridge of the Istanbul bypass. Incurably romantic, westerners named the Halic the Golden Horn.

To get to Asia you must cross the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea to the north. The suburbs on the Asian shore are called Uskudar (the Scutari of the Crimean War, where Florence Nightingale revolutionized nursing in the notorious hospital which still serves as a barracks; the actual lamp that earned her the title of “Lady of the Lamp” is preserved in an alcove of her room open to the public) and Kadikoy, built on the site of old Phoenician and Greek settlements.

For the most part, places of historical and archeological interest are grouped together on the point that juts out between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, which at first sight hardly justifies so glamorous a name. But the gold is hidden, because when the city fell to Mehmet the Conqueror two ships “full of gold” were sunk in the Halic. The thought of all that gold at the bottom of the water never left men’s minds. In the 19th century a German firm even offered to drag the strait and raise the ships, but the sultan wouldn’t hear of it. As the shape of the inlet on the map is something like a horn, the reason for the name becomes clear.

For a sweeping view over all Istanbul, cross the Bosphorus by Europe’s largest suspension bridge, the only one to connect two continents. Designed by British consultants, constructed by a British-German consortium and opened in 1973 for the 50th anniversary of the Republic, the bridge was crossed by almost 34 million cars in the first 28 months, Paying off the entire building cost by 52 million TL in tolls. Already a new bridge from Topkapi point to Uskudar or a tunnel are under consideration. The view from Camlica (“Pines of the Hot Springs”), on a height not far from the ferryboat landing wharf is unequaled. Above Jhe huge square of Uskudar rises the tall iskele (Landing stage) Mosque, built by the great architect Sinan in 1547 for the daughter of Suleiman

Early in the morning, a soft mist shrouds the Bosphorus, but the waterways are already crowded, and the big ferry-boats nose their way through the jostling kayiks. These are odd-looking craft: flat and wide, they taper inwards at both ends, the stern and stem turning sharply upwards; the gunwale almost forms a half-moon. Steered with oars or fitted with an engine, they become part of the landscape.

Adding to the noise and bustle, a crowd of fishermen throng around the harbor, picking up the flotsam thrown overboard to use as bait. The main catch in the Bosphorus is the striped tunny; gutted, boned, and left to soak in salt, it becomes the lakerda, a dish much appreciated by lovers of good food. There is also plenty of mullet. The roe, dried, pressed, and preserved in a thin skin of wax, is held by many to be better than caviar.

At sundown, all the day’s catch is spread out for sale on the wharf below the bridge of Galata, sometimes on an old newspaper, more often on the very stones. The bargaining begins; prices go down with the sun, and the poorer buyers wait patiently until the fish is within their means.

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