Legends of Istanbul

Although Turkey had always been a must-see for us, we’d hoped to justify the layover by arranging a volunteer position through WorkAway. We did, but it canceled on us. So we arranged another one. And it canceled on us too. That left us without a gig, but with plans to come to Istanbul anyway. And that’s what we did; and knowing that it would be a huge place to explore, and not sure when we’d be able to return in the future, we scheduled 10 whole days there.

On our first day, Tuesday, May 24, we began by taking a ferry ride to the sector of the city called Üsküdar, on the Asian side. It’s the oldest part of the city, founded under the name Chrysopolis, in the 7th Century BCE — a few years before the founding of Byzantium (now European Istanbul). For about 1000 years they were separate cities, and then they got hitched in the Fourth Century under the Emperor Constantine.

Ferrying across the Bosphorus, we passed near a famous landmark, an old structure in the middle of the strait known as Maiden’s Tower because of a legend that a maiden was once imprisoned there. Nowadays, it’s the site of a posh restaurant.

Another local legend, which actually appears to be true, states that 17th-Century inventor/ scientist/ poet/ musician Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the strait on a hang glider and landed in Üsküdar. One story that definitely is true is that the legendary Florence Nightingale spent some time here ministering to British soldiers during the Crimean War. There’s a museum dedicated to her in the building that was the barracks where she and other nurses stayed; it’s still a military installation today.

Üsküdar is also home to Çamlıca Hill, the highest point in Istanbul. But rather than take the time to hike up it, we just spent the morning wandering around the neighborhood at street level. Üsküdar might be regarded as Istanbul’s major bedroom community; it’s home to many students and workers who commute daily to the European side, where it would be more expensive to live. Expensive, however, is a relative term; as Americans, we found it dirt cheap, with prices for most things less than half what we’d pay in the States — and usually closer to a third.

Our one somewhat extravagant (at least for penny pinchers) touristy indulgence during our stay came on Wednesday when we went to the historic Topkapı Palace. (Note that, despite the customary English spelling, the last letter of Topkapı is not an “i”, but a Turkish letter that sounds somewhat like “uh”. And in Turkish, a capital “i” has a dot just like its lower-case alter ego. So now you know.)

The palace, which began construction in 1459, served as the home of the Sultan and the seat of the imperial government for four centuries, then being replaced by other structures. After the Ottoman Empire became the Republic Of Turkey in 1923, it was converted into a museum, as it now is. It was a miniature city with about 4000 residents, and was accessed by 13 gates, of which 4 remain.

Tourism to the palace was greatly boosted by the 1964 movie Topkapi , a caper comedy about a group of bungling thieves (featuring Peter Ustinov in an Oscar performance) who break into the palace to steal the legendary Topkapi Dagger on display there. The film, by the way, incorporates a good amount of travelogue footage of Istanbul as it looked in the Sixties, as well as some actual footage of the celebrated “oil wrestling” festival, a tradition dating back to ancient times, and an event that has been held in Turkey annually since 1360. Getting a glimpse of the fabled, jewel-encrusted Topkapı Dagger was a priority for us; and appropriately, it turned out to be the last thing we saw on our tour of the palace.

But first, we rambled through a maze of courtyards and various buildings of this complex-ly laid out complex. Unsure which direction to go on our itinerary, we started out to the right, which took us initially to the palace kitchen facilities, part of which were under renovation. It was quite elaborate, and had been manned by so many personnel that they had three mosques on the premises just for them. These were separate, of course, from the mosque(s) reserved for the Sultan himself, one of which was conveniently located next to his harem.

Also in the area of the kitchen displays were exhibits of some quite exquisite dishware, most notably coffee and tea services that pulled out all the stops. And there was a room of medical equipment and supplies (there was a full-fledged hospital in the palace) with a plaque stating that medical workers would on occasion be treated to nights of entertainment featuring musicians, jugglers and illusionists.

And there were other buildings, rooms and compartments with a confusing assortment of similar-sounding names, and sometimes similar types of exhibits. The Imperial Chamber. The Audience Chamber. The Imperial Treasury. The Miniature and Portrait Gallery. The Imperial Hall. Privy Chambers. And so on. One room that really stood out was the Destimal Chamber, a small room that was memorable because it held sacred relics that purportedly belonged to various religious figures, including some from the Bible: a mantle that belonged to Mohammed, the staff of Moses, and the sword of David. (But the items, alas, did not include Father Guido Sarducci’s “high school graduation picture of Jesus”). This room, by the way, was one in which no photos were allowed, an inconsistent policy for some quarters that didn’t appear to have much logic behind it.

So after spending a couple of hours browsing at random through a number of buildings and chambers, we still hadn’t seen the one thing above all else that we’d really come for: the legendary dagger. Finally, there was one building left to enter (aside from the harem, which we didn’t go into because it required an additional fee): The Imperial Treasury — which, for whatever reason, included an arms collection. Since a dagger, even an ornamental show-off one like this one was still technically classified as a weapon, that must be where it was. Trouble was, when we’d first come to the palace, there was almost no line to see the Treasury; but now, it was about 200 strong. Still, it moved rather quickly,

And what we saw inside was the most astounding collection of weaponry we’d ever witnessed. Swords too big for 3 people to wield. Armor so gorgeous that nobody would dare wear it into battle. And, there, at last, was The Dagger. A curved dagger crafted as a gift nearly 300 years ago. It features a gold scabbard inlaid with diamonds and other gems. The handle of the dagger is set with a clock and, most conspicuously, three huge Colombian emeralds, which give the object its signature look. This dagger, as well as the other pieces displayed in the room, make Topkapı Palace worth the visit. But now we know that, to avoid the crowds, it’s best to make the Treasury the first stop rather than the last.

After this latest excursion to savor the legends of Istanbul, we were back to our cozy quarters where we could do yoga and tai chi on the roof, with a commanding view of this history-rich city. And the fire trucks rushing to a minor blaze across the street. Never a dull moment.

View from the Roof of our Hostel

We Keep Bumping Into Birds

May 24-25, 2022

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