Edit Another Day in Istanbul: Underground cistern, ancient artifacts, and the perfect $2 fish sandwich
Since the last post I’ve adopted a new policy on sightseeing. Long story short, I’ve slowed down a bit and tried to enjoy the Istanbul on its terms. What does this mean? All good things. Two or three cups of tea after a meal, longer conversations with locals, a few nights listening to music at a pub or two, and a really interesting time at a local nightclub/discotheque. If the phrase “discotheque in Istanbul” conjures up images of Borat dancing in a bar playing western music on a violin to a Russian techno beat, I might think you were there and I didn’t see you. Don’t think I’m being harsh or poking fun. I actually kind of enjoyed it. I will also say the euromullet is alive and well amongst the local hipsters. If you haven’t heard of said phenomenon I encourage you to Google it immediately.
A fellow solo traveler from Spain and I explored a few areas of town over the last few days. Also interested with local culture and sharing a “fly on the wall” ethic, we traveled across the bridge in search of an elusive bar at the top of a hotel (I have an odd love for hotel bars) and a club called 360 in the trendy Taksim region of Istanbul. Finding 360 closed we settled in at the loudest discotheque on the block. When I mentioned Borat before I was thinking of the part at the beginning of the movie where he is dancing with the people in town – that particular style of dancing found in Eastern Europe and Russia. Men dance with their arms wide, not touching anyone, but dancing around each other. Women either did something similar while standing still or danced in a style similar to what one would see from a belly dancer. Do you ever notice how if a woman took Ballet as a child she would sometimes walk as if in a rehearsal? There something about the placement of feet that is unique to ballet dancers. Its like this with the style of dancing in this club. People might not be dancing traditionally, but the tradition is there. The movement is an older step interpreted into modern movements. I think this is how it is to be in Istanbul in general when viewed with western eyes. I wrongly tend to think of modernity as almost being a western value, as if in the west it is created and it spreads to the rest of the world. But it isn’t. Modernity is just adding new components to the old system. There are certainly particular aspects that are picked up in different cultures, but really what happens is assimilation. The most common type of bacterial mutation is an antigenic shift, meaning two strains form an entire new strain. Makes me wonder about how I must look to people from outside my community.
Before making our way to Taksim that night we settled down in the Galata region on a pier that juts out into the Bosphorus offering live local music and a $2 fresh off the boat fish sandwich. In a cold night under a a plastic tent beside a rocking boat I had the most delicious and fresh sandwich. Picture a six inch slice of french bread topped with a grilled fillet of bluefish and an assortment of fresh vegetables. Everything it seems is cooked on a grill in Istanbul, meaning everything is delicious. If you have the chance to visit make your way here. It will be the best $2 you can spend.
One of the most popular sites in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. In the 16th century an Istanbul official was curious as to how the people near Aya Sofia where getting their water. They would drop buckets into the ground and pull up water – only the buckets would often come up with fish as well. After aBasilica Cistern from the 6th century little excavation they uncovered an underground structure capable of holding 2.8 million cubic feet of water forgotten for hundreds of years. The cistern is a roughly 500 by 200 foot structure supported by over 300 marble pillars 30 feet tall and walls 15 feet thick built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Using new pillars and older recycled pillars from yet another destroyed pagan temple, the cistern pipes in water from a river in a forest twelve miles north of the city through aqueducts. Istanbul actually has quite a few of these, though smaller, cisterns – I believe I heard over two hundred. In “From Russia with Love”, James Bond travels through the Basilica Cistern which in the movie was just under the Russian Embassy. Of course, the embassy is no where near it in reality. The cistern was beautiful and extremely unique. It is also the only part of the city that is actually quiet. Aside from the occasional dripping water or person talking, it is a cool, peaceful place. One interesting item to see is the ancient heads of Medussa at the bottom of two of the pillars. One is on its side, the other upside down. No one knows why they were used but guess the builders were just looking for a shim.
I spent most of today at two museums: the Istanbul Museum of Archeology and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. The Archeology museum was one of the most interesting museums I have ever been to. I know it seems like every place I visit in Istanbul is “one of the best”. Well, its no exaggeration. When you walk into the museum grounds there is a garden of large, early Roman, Christian, and Islamic statues, pillars, and other artifacts. If hundreds of antiques that many museums would give their teeth for are just sitting outside is any indication of the quality of the artifacts inside, then you get why I speak so highly of this 4th century BC sarcophagus place. As if further justification is needed, the current exhibit is called “8,000 Years of Istanbul History”. In what I have read about Istanbul much of the emphasis is put on the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman aspects of Turkish history. So much so that one doesn’t think about what came before. Well, there is Troy, but this is spoken of in almost a Greek sense. But even between Troy and the Roman period was Alexander the Great and his conquest of Hellenization. Before Western European Christain and Ottoman Islamic influences, Istanbul was a very Hellenized place. However, this other history did not really occur to me until I walked through the museum. There were rooms of Romanesque marble busts, statues of Alexander, regional copies of suzerainty treaties (agreements between cities or states in which each side gets a copy), ancient near eastern cuneiform tablets (ancient style of writing), and the remains of old pagan temples (the ones that got away from future developers). One interesting piece was an Egyptian sarcophagus, though not from Istanbul. There are two inscriptions written on the top. The first was in traditional hieroglyphics but the second was in a script used by the city state of Sidon, in what is now Lebanon. The two phrases basically mean an Egyptian general was buried in it until it was repurposed for the king of Sidon. What’s worse than reusing ancient building material for new structures? Reusing caskets. No thank you. As a little side point, a school was on a field trip today. The kids were super cool and very friendly. A good dozen of them were trying to teach me basic Turkish and had a lot more success than the cab driver the first day. My hat goes off to them.
After a few hours of ancient history I left for the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. This is a smaller museum but still pretty impressive. Most of the relics were from between the 10th and 18th century, On display at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Artincluding a large number of very old carpets. I wouldn’t say I was a huge carpet guy. Honestly, it has never really been my thing. What was great about this museum is that it explained the different styles and what that meant. Boards discussed the various patterns and where they come from. Each rug had a purpose and a story. The patterns used on carpets were regional and created using extremely tedious techniques from the dyeing of fabric to the actual weaving with looms. The patters were part of the community much like a regional cuisine or music. Besides the rugs the museum told a little of the history behind the symbols used by sultans, which came in handy later that day when I visited the tomb of Ahmed the Great. The courtyard also provided wonderful views of Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Not the most interesting museum but a well spent hour to say the least.
Tomorrow is my last day in Istanbul. My flight leaves for Italy at 10 pm. I plan on spending most of the day eating well and visiting Topkapi Palace. I might even hit Han Kebab for the forth time this week. This has become my favorite restaurant in town. The staff is great. I sat there for two hours talking to a few of the waiters about life, love, and the pursuit of something better over glass after glass of apple tea. The Turkish people I’ve met have been extremely friendly. Even the kid I caught trying to reach into my bag today apologized when I stared him in the eyes.