Wondrous Treasures Abound in Istanbul

By Turner-Yamamoto, Judith Bell | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Wondrous Treasures Abound in Istanbul


Turner-Yamamoto, Judith Bell, The World and I


Arriving in Istanbul at twilight in winter 2005, we drove past ancient city walls topped by a confused jumble of transient modern buildings, their crumbling facades adorned with satellite dishes, the compressed layering of time and centuries as clear as any land cut at an archeological dig. Just across the Bosporus Strait the veiled spires of the mosques and palaces of Istanbul's Ottoman past rose silhouetted against a banded sky of pink, blue, and purple, reasserting their enduring grandeur over the sure transience of the present.

In overpopulated Istanbul, historic crossroads of two worlds, East continues to meet West and the encounter is often a raucous cacophony. Located on either side of the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the only city in Europe that spans two continents. A hub of the trade in the ancient world, it is trade that continues to occupy the city. From the street vendor to the chock a block booths at the bazaars, it's a noisy business. In this restless chaos where horns blare from morning through the night, where traffic signals are ignored or flaunted at best by the unending ocean of drivers and pedestrians, there is the buzz of change played out against the unchanging.

The new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art makes an unmistakable statement about Istanbul's self-perception as a major cultural capital. The gravel courtyard and warehouse-like exterior are reminiscent of P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens, and the interior--with its industrial feel and long, fluorescent-lighted hallways lined with amply spaced paintings and installations brings to mind the Pompidou Center in Paris. The museum shows the work of prominent and emerging Turkish artists, as well as international talents.

The lively cafe culture in the artsy Beyoglu district reflects this renewed energy. Beyoglu was a renowned intellectual center in the 1960s and 70s, and, despite a period of decline, the area's warren of narrow streets again resemble the Beyoglu of 350 years ago, which the contemporary travel writer Evliya Celebi described as a place where "the word guhana, temptation, is most particularly applied ... because there all kinds of playing and dancing boys, mimics and fools, flock together and delight themselves day and night."

Along the main pedestrian thoroughfare just off Taksim Square, Turks crowd together, unbothered by their overwhelming jostling numbers. Men as well as women walk arm and arm in pairs. A tram that goes relatively nowhere passes through occasionally and people reluctantly move to one side. High and low co-exist in Beyoglu, from the trendy Euro-style bistro to the small crowded shops selling into redundancy scarves, hats, and the hand-painted ceramics.

The best of Beyoglu is to be found in the narrow streets angling off the main pedestrian way. Down the mud-slicked cobblestones of one of the many winding side streets, we discovered one of the number of small eateries unique to Istanbul. Tucked amid vendors selling spices, nuts, cigarette lighters, and more pottery, a man stood over a giant iron skillet stirring a steaming pepper- and cardamom-laced concoction of rice and mussels while he fried skewered, breaded mussels in a pot of popping oil. Inside the restaurant, crowded as the streets beyond, we were shown to two stools in the corner. The mussels and rice arrived quickly, five to a plate, one shell mounded with rice and mussel, the other to be used for scooping. The taste was peppery and rich and slightly sweet, and we washed it down with Ayran, the ubiquitous salty yogurt drink. Back on the main street we wander into Saray where desserts such as baklava, vanilla pudding dusted with ground pistachios, and red quince soaked in honey and laced with whipped cream were mounded artfully in the window.

Some of the best food in Istanbul can be purchased on the street. Everywhere are vendors selling such delicacies as pistachio-studded rice; sahlep, a creamy winter drink made from wild orchid root and sprinkled with cinnamon; and a sesame seed-coated, pretzel-like bread stacked high on a pole and balanced against the seller's shoulder.

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