Friday, July 2, 2010

Under the Galata Tower

In late May I visited Istanbul for the first time in 28 years. It's hard to believe that so many years have gone by. Most difficult to comprehend is that I am 28 years older than the boy I was then. In 1982 I had hitch hiked from Groningen, in the Netherlands, to Istanbul, on a trip that would bring me across Asia. I spent two weeks in the city, in a cheap hotel next door to the famous café The Pudding Shop, a spit away from the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia. Turkey was under a military dictatorship at the time and a strict curfew was in place from 11:00 PM until 5:00 AM.  Nevertheless, I had a blast during my two months in the country. Although I have been back to Turkey since, I somehow had not revisited the magnificent Ottoman city that straddles two continents.

It has changed enormously – boutique hotels, cappuccinos, shopping arcades with fixed prices, none of these had been available in 1982. The Pudding Shop is still there, but now celebrates its infamous past with a sign that says "The World Famous Pudding Shop" and a photo that shows Bill Clinton visiting the restaurant. Inside, its walls are decorated with black and white photos of the long-haired clientele in the 1970s and '80s, when everything was available for a price. In other words, The Pudding Shop has become a museum of itself. I looked in vain for photos of a young Irishman with a beard and Jimi Hendrix hairstyle.

But the incredible friendliness and hospitality of the locals has not changed and the ancient sites are of course still there and the views in the centre of the old European quarters are more or less the same as they have been for centuries. In 1982 the Galata Tower was closed to visitors. Now, two lifts whisk visitors to the viewing platform on this 15th century monument to Italian renaissance architecture. The views from the tower are, well, you can judge for yourself.

This view shows the Bosphorus on the left and the Sea of Marmara in the far distance.  The coast on the far left, across the Bosphorus, is Asia. The water in the foreground is the Golden Horn.  In the centre, amidst the small wood, one can see the Topkapi Palace, home to the Sultans from the 15th until the 19th centuries.  To the right one can see the Aya Sophia, built as the biggest church in the world in the 6th century, changed to a mosque in the 15th (when it acquired its four minarets), converted into a museum in the 20th century.

Here is a close-up of the Aya Sophia.

And a little distance to its right, below is a view of the Blue Mosque, the only mosque in the world outside of Medina to have six minarets (two more than the whole of Switzerland, but the Swiss have decided that that is too much and have banned the contsruction of anymore).
Below is a shot of Galata itself, the medieval, Genoan part of town, with the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn.  To the far left, the Topkapi Place, the Aya Sophia to its right and the Blue Mosque further to the right.  As you can see, Istanbul is a city of minarets.  On the far side of the bridge, slightly to the left, The New Mosque. ("New" as in 17th century.)

Here is the view further up the Golden Horn.

Below is the Süleymaniye Mosque across the Golden Horn.

And finally, a different view. Below is a view up the Bosphorus, towards the Black Sea. In the distance you can see one of the two bridges that span the continents of Europe and Asia. Can anyone guess from which point this last photo was taken?


  1. I loved spending a week in Istanbul (and then another further south, right down to Izmir and Rhodes). But it was during the Abdullah Öcalan trial and Turkey was very very tense. Australians and other nationals were strongly recommended by their own embassies not to enter Turkey!

    I could move around the mosques, palaces and museums very easily, because there were no milling throngs of tourists to compete with. But the hotels were eerily empty and all the staff became unemployed. Very sad time.

  2. Istanbul(means is tin polin-greek-"going to the city") was the former Constantinople, a byzantine grecoroman city of unspeakable riches and glory.Her fame was known even to the Chinese, who called her" a golden bird that spreads its winds". Strangely enough,this city,who started the renaissanse in Europe, is not well-known. Now it is still in the hands of turks,that they build monstrocities next to Hagia Sophia,not Aya sofia(!)and other glorious churches.Yes, i am greek.Thank you.

  3. Thank you Anonymous for your comment. As Voltaire siad, I don't agree with what you are saying, but I will fight to the death to protect your right to say it. I don't agree that the city of Constantinople is not well known. The Royal Academy in London had a very successful exhibition about five years ago which attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and then went on to two major museums in the USA. The catalougue from the exhibition is beautiful and was widely reviewed, for instance in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. A number of British universities have professorships in Byzantine Studies and the BBC ran a very successful three hour documentary Constantinople which is also available on DVD. Philip Mansel's "Constantinople: City of the World's Desires has sold well since its publication in 1995. Yes, Constantinople played a significant role in the renaissance, though I think you exaggerate when you claim it "started the renaissance in Europe". Generally the paintings of Giotto and the literature of Petrarch and Boccaccio are considered to be the start of the renaissance and the influence of Constantinople on Giotto, Petrarch, Boccaccio, is fairly non-existent. I didn't see any monstrosities next to the Hagia Sophia - could you be more specific? I wonder have you actually been to Istanbul? You say that Constantinople is "still in the hands of the Turks". Well that is certainly true, but your choice of words implies that you look forward to the day when it won't be. Of course you are welcome to your opinion, but your opinion does seem to call for ethnic cleansing (eradicating the Turkish presence in Istanbul), which seems rather violent as it would entail driving millions of Turks out of the city, or killing them. Is this what you want? In which case, it is a bit like those few Muslims who dream of driving the Christians out of Spain in order to reclaim the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which is the exact inverse of the Hagia/Aya Sophia controversy. What next I wonder? Should the Italian (Romans) reclaim London and drive out the English? If you studied your history you would know that Constantinople was a far cry from the city of "unspeakable riches and glory" when it was seized by the Turks; it had steadily been in decline since the Venetian occupation of the 13th century. Ever since its fall Greek revisionists have prophesised the return of the Greeks, believing the last emperor had not died but had miraculously turned into marble (which personally I would say sounds like being as good as dead) and is sleeping in a subterranean cave beneath the Golden Gate and that one day he will hear a call from heaven and "an angel will give him a sword, restore him to life and let him drive the Turks as far as the Red Apple on the Persian frontier". As you can see, calls for ethnic cleansing have a long vintage.