Across to the other side of Istanbul
We didn’t want to spend all our time in Istanbul over on the European side of things, so we took ourselves over the First Bosphorus Bridge today to see some of the Asian side of this amazing city.
Funnily enough the Asian side of the city was more European-looking than most of what we’ve seen on the European side so far! That side of Istanbul is very new and predominantly residential, with few historical sights (which is why most of the 12 million tourists who visit Istanbul every year ignore it). Still, it was interesting to trawl Baghdad Street, the main shopping strip on the Asian side, and to spend some time strolling along the water-front, looking out across the Sea of Marmara. The highest point on the Asian side of town is Çamlica Hill. The hill is easy to spot: just look for all the TV, radio and mobile phone towers! The views from Çamlica Hill were supposedly pretty good, so we got a lift to the top and spent some time marvelling at just how HUGE Istanbul really is – all we could see all the way out to the horizon in every direction was city! We had a walk around the park and a quiet cup of Turkish tea* at the cafe up there before heading down to Beylerbeyi Palace.
*Turkish tea is basically black tea made from fermented tea leaves grown in Turkey, in the highlands near the Black Sea. The tea is prepared using a double boiler called a çaydanlık. The tea is very strong tea, but very smooth (i.e. no astringent, tanniny after taste). It’s traditionally drunk without milk and with copious amounts of beet sugar. It’s awesome – much easier to get down than Turkish coffee which is strictly for those who wanting to stay awake for 48 hours or more.
Beylerbeyi Palace was the summer palace of Sultans of the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was built in 1865 in a very European style. The palace was also used as a place to entertain visiting heads of state, and Empress Eugénie of France is reported to have visited Beylerbeyi on her way to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Like much of the architecture of Istanbul during the late 19th century, the design of Beylerbeyi Palace reflects the growing European influence in Turkey.
The interior of the palace is quite ornate, but not very “Turkish-looking”. The design and decoration is heavily influenced by the prevailing French style of the time. It was fascinating to learn about the change in Turkish art and architecture in the 19th century; essentially as more and more territories conquered by the Turks during the reign of Suleiman the Great were lost and the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, European influences began to blend with local aesthetics, creating a fusion of styles that persists in Turkey today.
Inspired by Beylerbeyi Palace we went back across the First Bosphorus Bridge and made our way to Dolmabahçe Palace served as the main imperial residence and administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922. Dolmabahçe Palace was commissioned by the Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I, and was incredibly ornate. The Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical architectural styles used, together with ample marble, stucco and gold leaf, create a chaotic, ostentatious cacophony of colour that is beautiful, but a little overwhelming.
The most fascinating part of the tour through Dolmabahçe Palace was seeing the harem and the kafes. The harem of the palace was where the women of the household were kept; no man was every allowed into the harem (eunuchs were, for obvious reasons, not forbidden). Like the rulers of other polygynious cultures, the Ottoman Sultans had a bevy of beauties from which to derive, ahem, entertainment. The guide quoted some numbers regading wives and concubines, it was something like: “…the Sultan could have 4 wives, 10 favourites, and up to 400 concubines.” Wow. Shane wonders when he’d get any work done…
To our Western minds, the kafes were even stranger: literally translated to “the cage”, this was the part of the palace where possible successors to the throne were kept under lock and key. This was done to provide security for the incumbent Sultan, to minimise the risk of succession wars. The early history of the Ottoman Empire is littered with succession wars between rival sons of the deceased Sultan. It was common for a new Sultan to have his brothers killed, including infants, sometimes dozens of them at once. The introduction of the kafes and this system of imprisonment reduced the need for this widespread fratricide, but created problems of its own. Our guide told us about a couple of instances where a Sultan died without a male heir and the throne passed to his brother or, in another case, uncle, who had lived his whole life in the kafes. Spending decades living in a prison like that is bound to have an effect on one’s mental and emotional state and in both cases the ascendent to the throne was crazed and unstable. Some historians apparently even attribute the systemised use of the kafes as part of the reason the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the first place. Human beings sure do some crazy stuff in the name of power don’t they?!
Tomorrow is our last day in Istanbul and we’ve intentionally saved the best until last: tomorrow we’re going to see Topkapi palace (heart of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years), the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Everything we’ve seen so far has been pretty cool so it will be interesting to see what we make of Istanbul’s “big sights”. İyi geceler until then!
A special note about riding in Istanbulian taxis.
We’ve had the (dubious) pleasure of riding in a few taxis whilst we’ve been in Istanbul. It’s quite an experience being on the roads here and taxi drivers all seem to be trained the same way. Based on our experiences, we’ve compiled what we believe are the Top Ten Rules for Driving Like a Turkish Cabbie:
- Use your horn liberally, ideally randomly; if people know why you’re honking, you’re doing it wrong.
- Never, ever use your brake pedal until it is a matter of life or death.
- Passengers love it when you accelerate really hard then brake really hard – this creates a wonderful “whiplash/nosebleed” effect as their heads get whipped back against the headrest and then forwards against the dashboard; they will tip you more for this service.
- Smoke in your car when passengers are in the car – preferably with the windows up. This allows your passengers to enjoy the many benefits of smoking without having to actually light up themselves.
- Speed. A lot. Everywhere.
- If the road has markings on it that indicate there is enough space for 3 cars across, this is a lie. There is room for at least 5 cars, 6 if you all pitch in at 45 degree angles.
- If there is more than a 10cm gap between cars, this gap must be filled. It is a crime to have gaps between cars (see note about 45 degree angles).
- Try to merge into traffic at speeds exceeding 100km/hour, never less.
- Turkish pop music is fantastic – everyone thinks so! Make sure you always play your radio at full volume to ensure your passengers fully appreciate the wonders of Turkish pop music.
- People are getting into your taxi expecting a roller coaster ride – don’t let them down!