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Middle East Brian Dispatch

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February 26, 2000

Do you have a favorite place? After several weeks in any city I always begin to discover favorite places or areas of a town: little nooks and crannies or hidden shops with friendly shopkeepers. This is my third time visiting Turkey, and for the last two weeks Kavitha and I have been hanging out in Istanbul. We have traveled all over this sprawling city visiting mosques, museums, making new friends in tea shops and visiting old ones in their homes. And one area in particular keeps calling me back; a place that always feels just right when we visit. So I thought we could all visit there together and take a short jaunt through the neighborhood. This area is called Sultanahmet.


But that may not be as easy as it seems. In Istanbul it can take up to two hours to get from one place to another, and a one way trip to Sultanahmet is quite an adventure. There are buses to ride, tickets to buy, ferries to catch, trams to hop and food to eat.....Whew! We want to go there today, so hop on board and we'll head out and brave the cold winter streets of this fascinating city! As you will see, the trip takes on a life of its own."But wait," you might ask, "what makes Sultanahmet such a special area?" Well, it was so cool that the Ottoman sultans lived here for over three hundred years in the magnificent Topkapi Palace. Mehmet the Conqueror began building the Palace following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, and it continued to expand over the years as successive sultans added their own personal touches to the grounds. The sultan and his family resided in the harem (see Kavi's Harem dispatch coming up soon). The rooms of the Palace are now open as a public museum and filled with relics from the years of Ottoman rule. Just outside the walls of the Palace are the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque(stay tuned-look for Kavi's dispatch next time). And don't forget the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held in Byzantine times. It seems that this area has been cool for a long time. So let's get started......

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One of the buildings that lines Anadolu Hisari, where we stayed

We are staying on the Asian side of the Bosphorus River in a neighborhood called Anadolu Hisari. This marks the narrowest point on the Bosphorus, and a castle standing on the banks is a reminder of an unusual adventure several centuries ago (see sidebar). Sultanahmet lies on the other side of the river, so in the morning chill we must begin our journey, sliding along icy streets to a bus station at the bottom of the hill.

A bus sighs to a stop and opens its doors. The bus driver smiles and nods in greeting. Just to the left is a man taking money for the ride. We bought tickets in advance for this bus to Uskudar, but for some reason this bus doesn't accept the tickets- only cash. He looks at my tickets with a forlorn shake of his head as if to console me for my mistake and waves us through for a free ride. It doesn't take long to experience Turkish hospitality!


jaunt - carefree walk
forlorn - sad
careen - to sway from side to side
minarets - a tall slender tower of a mosque having one or more balconies which people are called to their prayers from
voila - "there it is"
wafting - moving lightly
deter - to prevent
marshaled - to bring together people to act in an effective way ceremoniously, especially in war

A bus ride is usually a good way to get acquainted with a new city and its people, and Istanbul's buses are no exception. Young girls on their way to school contrast the older women dressed conservatively with traditional Muslim head coverings. I look around and see several old men with white beards kept close to the skin; I catch myself wishing that I could grow a beard like theirs. Kavitha leans over and whispers, "Isn't that the man in our guidebook?" In fact, there are several that look as if they stepped right out of the pages of Turkish history. Kavitha and I try our best to blend in, but somehow we can never quite convince anyone we are Turkish. Although we are practicing the language, our Turkish at this point is comprised mostly of hand gestures, smiles and laughter. There are plenty of smiles to go around as we always seem to find someone who is willing to help us find our way. We have learned to say thank you, and we say it often. Tesekkurler! (tesh-eh-kuhr-LEHR)

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I could have sworn this guy is on the cover of our Turkish guidebook

The bus winds its way south and drops us off at Uskudar, where we catch a ferry to the other side of the Bosphorus. The ferry runs every twenty minutes, and we seem to have a special talent for arriving just as it chugs away from the dock. So each morning we usually spend twenty minutes warming our cold hands and waiting for the next one. The ride itself takes about fifteen minutes; two separate boats transport passengers throughout the day. As we push off into the water, gulls careen through the air outside and we make our way to the heated rooms where the passengers can gaze out at the frigid waves. Men walk through the cabin selling tea and coffee as mosques slide by outside the window, their minarets thrust proudly into the sky. Sunlight breaks off the waves and before I know it we have reached the other side.

Links (more travel info and description of Sultanahmet)

We're getting close to Sultanahmet, but we're not there yet, and by this time I'm usually hungry. A few days ago I discovered a new treat: flaming boat sandwiches! Well, they are fish sandwiches cooked in little boats that are docked near the ferries. Fishermen put a big grill in the middle of the boat and fire it up, throwing fresh fish onto the flames that almost consume the entire craft. They add peppers and tomatoes, slide it all into a big soft piece of bread and voila!-instant fish sandwich! Food always puts a smile on my face, and once I have curbed my appetite we can continue with our quest.

When the Byzantines were defending the city against invasion by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1451, they wished to prevent enemy ships from using the Bosphorus as a path of attack. So they extended enormous chains across the entire river to block the ships. Nice roadblock, huh? They attached these chains to Anadolu Hisari and connected them to a larger castle, Rumeli Hisari, on the opposite side of the bank. This might deter most troops but Mehmet the Conqueror was determined to live up to his name. He marshaled his ships into a cove and in the middle of the night transported them over land using rollers and slides, dropping them back into the water on the other side of the chains. He caught the Byzantine troops completely by surprise, and soon had the region under his control.

With fish sandwiches in hand we board the tram. At this point I'm very happy - we're almost there, the tram is fun, the fish is good, and Kavitha gives me the bread from her sandwich. So with extra food in my belly we zoom up to Sultanahmet. The tram is quick and zips along on tracks in the road, and we reach our destination in about five minutes. The voice chimes on the intercom- "Sultanahmet, Blue Mosque." We made it!

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Just one of the many sights of Istanbul
The doors slide open and we step outside; finally at our destination. This is only the beginning-we still have a full day of trekking to do! Today we weave our way to Topkapi Palace under the watchful gaze of the Aya Sofya and past friendly invitations from smiling carpet salesmen. We could spend an entire day at the Palace, but we head out a bit early to visit the Blue Mosque before it closes to the public during prayer time. And of course we can't visit the Blue Mosque without first visiting the Hippodrome. And the Aya Sofya happens to be right across the! What a neighborhood! So many things to see!

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Silhouette of the Blue Mosque

All of this tourist stuff can really make you hungry, so we make sure to nibble along the way. Lamb and chicken cook on rotating skewers in many street side shops, and restaurant owners beckon to us from their doorways. Trays of fresh food crowd the windows and wafting smells tickle our noses. Freshly squeezed carrot-orange drinks are very popular here, and they are the perfect tonic for the weary traveler. We duck into Doy Doy (our favorite restaurant) for a quick bowl of lentil soup and get ready for our next adventure-going BACK home! There are tickets to buy, trams to hop, ferries to catch, buses to ride, people to meet .........


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - Tea Time is Not Just at Four O'Clock Anymore!
Andrew - Innocents Abroad: Following Mark Twain's Footsteps Through Istanbul
Jasmine - Kutahya: A City That Has Triumphed Through It All
Jasmine - Dare to Dream

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