Monday, March 17, 2008

Travel Memoirs: Istanbul

Ortaköy Mosque Istanbul photo pier and Bosphorus Bridge

"The ghosts return at night, little lights for unredeemed souls
And if you gaze up at the barricades, you’ll see figures looking back at you
And it’s then that a complaint wanders you through the cobblestone alleys
Of Constantinople, a lover from yore, whom you find in someone else’s embrace".
~"Vosporos", by Nikos Zoudiaris, sung by Alkinoos Ioannidis

Travel Memoirs begins with one of the most sensuous destinations: Istanbul ~the Ottoman name under which the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, is known today.
Initially the city was named after the Roman emperor Constantine the Great who made it Nova Roma, over the site of the ancient Greek colony founded by Megara citizens simply named Byzantium. Yet the name Istanbul itself is based on the common Greek usage of referring to Constantinople simply as “The City”, because it was the crown jewel of medieval cities with a population and grandeur that exceeded many western European cities, such as London, Paris and Rome, for centuries. It derives from the phrase "εις την Πόλιν" or "στην Πόλη" {(i)stimboli(n)}, both meaning "in the city" or "to the city".

And it is no surprise that in an Empire whose majority of the population was Greek or speaking Greek, there is still a strong Greek element running through the fabric of memory when one sets foot on Istanbul’s soil. But the Ottoman heritage is none the less interesting to witness: minarets and mosques, majestic palaces, bazaars, carpet dealers and salep sellers on the street peppered with excellent cuisine and suggestive dancing render the visitor captive of its charms. It’s this fusion between Occidental and Oriental that gives Istanbul its extraordinary character. A character of strange melancholy: perhaps it’s the ancestral call…

Passing through the arabesque cobblestone on Istiklal across from the fish market, one enters the Cukurcuma district, full of antique shops, lazy cats sunning their bellies and the aroma of slowly roasted, dark coffee on hot sand, Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi), made the traditional way. The preparation begins by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans in a copper ibrik, the shape of a tiny ewer, with the addition of cardamom and (optionally) sugar. The thick liquid boils and boils again ceremoniously, emitting the aroma beyond the scope of the little terraces where it is served. Made one cup (fildžan) at a time, where the dregs settle and a thick golden cream forms on top, the köpük, it is a process of slow anticipation, a largo of animation. And also a journey into the past and the future. In this small fildžan I can almost glimpse the Levantine Arabs bringing the fruit of coffea bush to Constantinople. The Ottoman chronicler İbrahim Peçevi reports the opening of the first coffeehouse in İstanbul:

“Until the year 962 (1554-55), in the High, God-Guarded city of Constantinople, as well as in Ottoman lands generally, coffee and coffeehouses did not exist. About that year, a fellow called Hakam from Aleppo and a wag called Shams from Damascus, came to the city: they each opened a large shop in the district called Tahtalkala, and began to purvey coffee.”
~ Cemal Kafadar, "A History of Coffee", Economic History Congress XIII (Buenos Aires, 2002)

But I can also forsee the future: those sludgy grounds left at the bottom serve for tasseography, an old tradition of fortune telling. The cup is turned onto the saucer and the symbols formed are deciphered by some older woman.The flavour of cardamom and sometimes kakule (pistachio grains whole seed "pods", pistachio-looking like of the cardamom plant) settles in the mouth, lingering for a long time, like the prophecies revealed by the symbols on the cup. “Will they ever come true?”, one wonders gallivanting through the medieval alleys.

In Kapali Carci (the Grand Bazaar with the 1000 shops) one comes across all kinds of scented products. Fragrant balms for the hair, henna paste for body and hair, oils of rare plants and fossilised resins, like lumps of gum benjamin (benzoin), Turkish sweetgum (Liquidabar orientalis) and all the spices of Arabia. If one persists there are manuscripts, or should I say copies of old manuscripts posing as older than they are, with recipes using them. One of them is "Theriaca Andromachi Senioris", a Venice treacle recipe that uses benzoin appearing in the 1686 d'Amsterdammer Apotheek, a honey- or molasses-based alexipharmic composition once thought to be effective against venom. First developed in Italy, then exported throughout Europe from Venice and ending in Constantinople. If only the offered manuscript were authentic…

And of course there is Anatolian rose Otto (from Ottoman) which leaves an intense trail of almost fruity scent to one’s hands after handling the precious little bottles, with the name Gül (Rose) written on the label. I try to recall if any commercial fragrance captures the intense, decadent and yet also fresh odour of such an essence and come up with none. One is hard pressed not to haggle with the local sellers who are expecting so and the little treasure is secured into a handbag, folded with a silk handkerchief depicting seagulls. It will linger in a drawer with old, frayed photos of ancestors, impregnating their precious memory with the essence of the place they begrudgingly had to leave.

To be continued....

Pic shows Ortaköy Mosque (officially Büyük Mecidiye Camii, the Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid) and the Bosphorus Bridge by cafefernando.com.
Translation of lyrics by the author.
Clip from the intro of Greek-Turkish film Politiki Kouzina, uploaded on Youtube by JasonSeaman1.


  1. Ooooh, that rose otto has got me going Helg!

  2. I'm glad it has, LJ!
    They have two centers of production mainly in Anatolia, I have found and there are variables in quality (when good, it's magnificent)

  3. Helg , you know I love a good Guerlain and I have fallen for Nahema! Never liked it when it first came out in the late 70's early 80's (??) but now i am an older lady (Ha!) I adore it! Thinking of the rose otto and the richness of it all .........Mmmm.

  4. stella polaris10:14

    I, although being from the arctic north of Europe, think Istanbul is among the most fascinating cities on earth. Just wandering around in the city is a wonderous feeling (tinted with nostalgia) with all the spicy food smells around and the aromatic desserts, and the pleasant people, the beautuful Bosphoros.. When wishing to remember, perfumed oils is nice, and reading the books of Orhan Pamuk.
    The historical ties also goes far back and up (geographically) to the north of Europe, even some scandinavians served the ottomans, and in old times the Norse name of Istanbul was Miklagard, which in English means Great place.

  5. LJ,

    Nahéma is a glorious dark composition which I had reviewed way back in 2006 I believe.

    Here it is:

    (Wow, what blogging memories this brings to me!)

    I find it mature, but not "old". Certainly admirable :-)

  6. Stella Polaris (what a beautiful name! "polar star", right?)
    welcome and thanks for your erudite comment!
    Next post will tackle extactly those impressions you describe.

    Pamuk is no stranger to us and it was with joy that we learned of his Nobel Prize.

    Regarding the Scandinavians, I believe you are referring to the Varangians or Varyags, who served even back in Byzantine Empire days! I think the first Norse writer to use the term is Einarr Skúlason. I think the etymology infers the solemnity of the oath they gave to emperors to serve as mercenaries and guards. I had read someplace that it also hinted at their being taller than the Greeks too! But this is uncofirmed.

    Thank you for the info on the Norse name for Istanbul (didn't know that): sounds about right!!


  7. PS.I meant it is uncorfimed whether the Varyags term refers to their height being taller; not that they weren't taller than the Greeks (because they certainly were!)

  8. stella polaris12:57

    yes, men from scandinavia served the emperor on Konstantinopel back in Byzantine time. In Snorri one can read of the visit and long stay in Miklagard of Norwegean king Sigurd. A lot of his men did not go back to Norway, but chose to stay and serve the emperor. The king's son, Harald, was head of the emperor's life guard for many years. (in the saga of the son's of Magnus one can read about this). Snorri did not write about the fate of Konstantinopel after 1204 although..
    the Varangians must be the same as what in Norwegean is called Væringer (-er is a plural ending): the oat sworn; then it has nothing to do with height.
    Ad Miklagard, see this as used by a Trukish travel agency:

    Not perfume related this, but perfume is a heavily immersed theme. Her at my place just now it is still like a smell desert; snowy white land- and cityscape, and light snow slowly falling down..

  9. Stella Polaris,

    I appreciate your comment very much!!
    Perfume Shrine has a strong orientation towards history and so it natually pleases me to see info like this. I'm vaguely familiar with Snorri Sturluson, but I admit that I have no knowledge at all of the particular Saga you're referring to: perhaps I should look it up!

    I believe you're right that Væringer is another name for Varangians, so I am glad you corroborate the falacy of the height rumour :-)

    THANK YOU for the link: it has an AMAZING photo of the Cappadocian fairy chimneys!

    And I hope that your place will wake out of its scent deprivation :-)

  10. Anonymous14:56

    Articles like this one make me dream...
    BUT everytime I visit some place as a tourist - with a guide, it's typical: you are running there to see this thing and again running there to see other thing. And the result is that I am tired and done.
    Maybe I should change the way I travel and make friends in these great places and visit them and they will show me everything without any stress.

  11. Lavinia,

    it sure helps if you know people: they let you into the best of the place.
    But it's also worth it to not rush to see everything. Instead focus on specific things, even to the expense of others, so that one can savour them in full.

    You're sure welcome if you come around here :-)

  12. Anonymous16:03

    You're welcome too! And thank you for your nice reply!

  13. Oh Helg I love your writing and the use of multimedia to convey various senses of your subject. Thank you for posting this fascinating post on Istanbul. I can't wait for the next post.

  14. You're very welcome, J! It's a fascinating place full of history and caressing of the senses.

  15. Anonymous21:34

    Fascinating, your writing transports me to Turkey, and I can feel time slowing down. I smell all the smells of the bazaar where spices mingle with turkish coffee (which I love)and the rose attar.
    Thank you.

  16. Sabina,

    you're very welcome and thanks for your kind words.
    Next post will immerse you even more ;-)

  17. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Smartphone, I hope you enjoy. The address is http://smartphone-brasil.blogspot.com. A hug.

  18. ritaglh14:17

    One sniff of the rose attar in the Istanbul bazaar and I was smitten. Like a lover in search of a sighting of her beloved I became obsessed with everything rose. The thick unguent of roses encased in a gold and glass robe with a red jewell encrusted crown for a lid.

    It all started in Istanbul and I blame that rose scent, rose turkish delight and rose petal jam with fetta cheese.

    I adore your blog and reading these travelogues takes me there again.

  19. Dear Rita,

    I am very happy you are so enthusiastic about my blog and I hope you find things to enjoy in the future as well :-)

    Yes, those little bottles are wonderful. And imagine, I am not a rose fan either! I guess the natural oil has something that is usually lost in the interpetations in various fragrances...

  20. I also enjoy your blog, I've seen the movie that you are writing about (it was called "A Touch of Spice" here), I remember the scene where the charming little Turkish girl was dancing, and the Greek boy falling in love with her probably at that very moment. I visited Turkey as well and loved it for the same things as you - the history, the color, the authenticity, the food that displayed in the windows, we discovered a very unusual desert, it does looks like one of the dairy puddings that are so popular in the Middle East, but they add shredded chicken breast to the mix, it doesn't taste of chicken at all and it is superb! I'll never forget the mountains of different halvas at the bazaar, the smell of spices, the apple tea. I'm disappointed that some people don't realize that today's Istanbul is the historical Constantinople. Love that part of the world.

  21. Aka Smelka on POL

  22. Isabella/Smelka,

    thanks for writing and your kind words and sorry I saw this so very late :(

    Yup, Turkey has a lot to offer and that film showed that the two (any two) civilizations aren't irreconcilable (a thought that is always simpatico to me). Beautifully filmed and very, very true too from multiple points. Constantinople was the crown jewel of both empires (Byzantine-Greek and Ottoman later on) and it's a shame it lost much of its cosmopolitan air since the 60s...But oh well. It's still charming in its way.

    I think you're referring to tavuk gögsu!! (the chichen breast milk pudding: it's delicious I agree and if one wasn't told, one wouldn't guess at all!)

  23. Anonymous11:53

    Thanks for these lovely articles.
    I just would like to say that in turkish "kakule" is already means "cardamom" but not ground pistachio....

  24. Anon,

    thank you for commenting!
    Glad you enjoyed.

    I use kakule in the kitchen as cardamom spice (indeed it *is* cardamom) but it's the whole pod/"bean", isn't it? I don't think I mentioned *ground* pistachio, though I did mention pistachio grains and I now realize the cardamom pod belongs to another family in botanical taxonomy (i.e. the ginger one).

    Anyway, long story short, you're right, I should edit it to be more accurate. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  25. Anon,

    thank you for commenting!
    Glad you enjoyed.

    I use kakule in the kitchen as cardamom spice (indeed it *is* cardamom) but it's the whole pod/"bean", isn't it? I don't think I mentioned *ground* pistachio, though I did mention pistachio grains and I now realize the cardamom pod belongs to another family in botanical taxonomy (i.e. the ginger one).

    Anyway, long story short, you're right, I should edit it to be more accurate. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


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