Have you had this particular nightmare? Someone you love very much has something very important to say to you, but you have trouble hearing her because of the background noise. Finally there is a break in the background cacophony but now, she can’t form the words or you don’t understand, and her message is swallowed up. Your chance is lost forever. Welcome to our last few days and in Istanbul and our last post ABOUT Istanbul.
Of course, we had our “MUST SEE” list and we have spent the last few days trying to make sure the “must see” places were in fact seen. These included exploring the 15th Century Rumelihisari castle built by Sultan Mehmed II in 3 months to assist him in his assault on Constantinople. In a break in the clouds last week, we finally made it to this landmark right in our own backyard. We tried hard but failed to summon the awe and incredulity that the site deserved. We did enjoy the views and the rare sunshine and scrambling up and down the garden. We also found a new way to beat swords into plowshares, or at least cannons into cat shelters (look carefully at the right most image below.)
Then there was the Galata Tower, another Istanbul landmark built originally by the Genoese as a lighthouse in 1348, then a fire tower and having significance in so much of Istanbul’s history. We visited there on Wednesday, paid the steep admittance, ignored offers to have our pictures taken in sultan and harem costumes (sorry everyone!) and made our way to the top on a glorious day at sunset.
We stayed to watch the sun set into the distant cityscape, looking over the bustling Haliç (Golden Horn). The sight of ferries maneuvering around each other, with seemingly inches to spare matched the traffic on the roads spread out under us. Sounds of car horns and school children drifted up to us as we shivered a bit on the observation deck. Shortly after we lost the sun, the sunset call to prayer began. Beginning in one mosque, it soon spread to the remaining ones, until the amplified voices of the muezzin were merged into a cacophony. It was a scenario that could have been scripted for a travel ad for the city but it left us a bit confused. Perhaps it was a little too perfect symbol of the firehose of stimulus we have been exposed to, with the vain hope that we might understand it. This was a reminder that perhaps a lifetime is not enough to do so.
Still, regardless of the state of one’s soul, one has to eat–so off we went in search of some of Istanbul’s famous fish sandwiches. To avoid traffic and the thick clusters of fishermen, we crossed the Galata Bridge on the lower level, which meant two things. First, all of the fishermen who were now above us unseen on the upper level were dropping their lines past us into the water, and hauling up flopping, drippy fish past our faces. We started to feel more like the fish than the fisherman. To make matters worse, on the other side of us were the restaurant workers whose job was to lure people in to the posh restaurants using whatever trick they could imagine, short of physical restraint. We managed not to take the bait on either side and crossed shaken, but unscathed. Waiting on the other side were several boats, moored at the pier, grilling fish by the hundreds. This is no nonsense dining. The fish were stuffed into a half a loaf of bread, adorned simply with onions and a bit of lettuce, and served for 6 TL (about $2.50). After sprinkling lemon juice and salt, we bit into simple deliciousness. Finishing our sandwiches, we declared ourselves far too full for another bite. The appearance of fresh lokma, drenched in a thick rose-scented sweet sauce, proved us wrong.
On Friday, we had a walking tour of Armenian churches, beginning with the Küçück Ayasofia mosque (built in 532 as a church by the Emperor Justintine, and restored in 1500 as a mosque by the chief Eunuch in the Sultan’s Harem), and travelled through some amazing neighborhoods, south of the Golden Horn near Yenikapı, that were full of Ethiopians, Ghanians, Armenians, and newer Syrian and Assyrian immigrants. So many different people, different clothing, different restaurants, everyone seemed to be speaking a different language. Swirling around and through, adapting the old to fit the new, and all of it happening seemingly effortlessly. Some fairly exotic dark-eyed women with black lace veils stopped us and held out a camera. We thought they wanted us to take a photo of them, but were a bit taken aback when we realized they wanted a photo “with” us. The exotic “other” is me!
We are trying very hard to hear what it is that Istanbul is trying to say to us. We are trying to be able to say to all of you …… “Istanbul is like ____________.” But it seems as though we may be farther from an answer to this than we were when we arrived. As we say good-bye to dear friends, and have our last dinners and lunches and simits and Bosphorus sunsets, we may have to just give up trying to make sense of it all right now.