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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Istanbul's Beloved Jewel
March 4, 2000

Gibraltar... Suez...Panama... some of history's most coveted lands have been so desired because of their geography. Pathways that can control trade and commerce... natural features that make for easy shipping... these can be worth more to a great empire than the choicest jewels. So what is it about Istanbul that has made it so coveted for so many years, by so many empires? What first brought settlers to this enormous city that we've come to know and love?

2600 years ago, a young colonist from the Greek land of Megara set out to establish his new colony. Before young Byzas left, he consulted the wise oracle at Delphi to ask where he should establish his new land. As always, the legendary Oracle answered with an enigmatic response, a riddle of sorts, "Opposite the blind."

So Byzas set out searching for his next great conquest. As he sailed up the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, on his right he noticed the colony called Chalcedon set up on the Asian shore. On his left, he noticed a superb natural harbor. He immediately decided that this was surely the site about which the Oracle had prophesied -- Byzas reasoned that the people of Chalcedon must surely be blind to have settled on the shore opposite such a fabulous harbor! So young Byzas set up his new colony, the town of Byzantium, at this splendid harbor. This was the great jewel that would come to be known as the Golden Horn.


oracle - a shrine or place at which utterances, believed to be the response of a god, were given. The responses were often phrased as riddles or difficult to understand.
coveted - wished for longingly
enigmatic - puzzling or mysterious
prophesied - revealed by divine inspiration
lament - to express grief for or about; mourn
pontoon - a floating structure, such as a flat-bottomed boat, that is used to support a bridge
mosque - a Muslim house of worship
Spanish Inquisition - the Inquisition in Spain, marked by the extreme severity and cruelty of proceedings in the 15th and 16th centuries

From Byzantium to Rome's great Constantinople, the city continued to prosper and grow under different names and succesive emperors, no small thanks to it's beloved Golden Horn. When the powerful Ottoman warriors started conquering vast lands to the East and West and began to surround the city, the Byzantines' main defensive plan was to close the mouth of their coveted harbor. However, in 1451, Star Wars defense tactics and defense missiles weren't around, so the Byzantines resorted to placing a giant chain across the mouth of the Golden Horn in adesperate attempt to block the advancing Turkish armies from sailing into the harbor and attacking the city walls from the north side. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, Mehmet the Conqueror cleverly transported his ships over land on rollers and placed them into the Golden Horn past the chain. He caught the Byzantines completely by surprise and soon had the entire Golden Horn under Ottoman control.

What was lamented in the West as the Fall of Constantinople, was celebrated by Muslims as the great Conquest of Istanbul. The great city changed its name for the last time (to date) and for the past 550 years has continued to build and grow around it's central hub, the historic harbor and shipyard known as the Golden Horn. Although no longer a beautiful waterway bordered by palaces and forests, the Golden Horn continues to be an important and dear part of Istanbul... despite the pollution!

With the Sea of Marmara on one side, the Bosphorus on the other, and the Golden Horn in between, it can get a bit confusing at times to realize what body of water you're looking at or sailing across here in Istanbul. However, the Golden Horn has come to be quite familiar to all of us during our 5 weeks. Here are just a few of the reasons why:

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Food vendors and fishing boats line the Golden Horn
Eminonu -- This transportation hub along the Golden Horn, in the heart of Istanbul's busy commercial district, is where we always go to catch ferries across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. From Byzantine Times until the late 1980's, this area was surrounded by numerous shops selling fruits, vegetables, grains, and all kinds of staple goods. Because of the harbor, this was an ideal spot for commerce. In the past 10 years, however, this age-old tradition has been brought to an end in an attempt to clean up and "beautify" the Golden Horn.

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Abeja enjoys a fish sandwich along the Golden Horn in Eminonu
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There are dried fruits and nuts, chocolates and sweets... something to please everyone
Today, the wholesale fruit and vegetable suppliers have their shops on the outskirts of the city. Luckily for us, the government still allows the ready-to-eat snack vendors to sell their delicacies along the harbor. You can get hungry rushing around this huge city, and sitting and waiting for your ferry is the perfect chance to kick back and have a snack. This is where we find our favorite fish sandwiches from the rocking little fishing boats and such goodies as roasted chestnuts, popcorn, sesame bagel-type breads, egg sandwiches, and mussels (I'm not a big fan of the mussels, but a lot of people seem to really like them)!

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Abeja stands on the Galata Bridge with mosques of the old city behind
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Monica smiles pretty on the Galata Bridge with Yeni Cami mosque in the background
The Galata Bridge -- This historic bridge connects the old city to Taksim, a hip area full of nightclubs, bars, and cafes. Up until 1992, the bridge was the exact same structure that was built back in the 1800's, a structure that floated on pontoons, and housed restaurants and tea houses underneath the roadway. Although it would have been cool to see a floating bridge built over restaurants and cafes, I'm glad a new Galata Bridge was built. It seems the pontoons prevented the natural flow of the water, so all the pollution in the Golden Horn was getting backed up year after year. Yuck!

Yeni Cami -- The imperial mosque commissioned by Valide Sultan Safiye, Sultan Mehmet III's mother in 1597, and finally finished by Valide Sultan Turhan Hatice, Sultan Mehmet IV's mother in 1663. This beautiful mosque sits peacefully above all the hectic madness of Eminonu, overlooking the Golden Horn. Buses honk, trams whiz by, crowds push across the traffic filled streets, ferries fill up and move out, but the mosque continues to stand its ground.

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larger view
Abeja stands on the Galata Bridge with mosques of the old city behind
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Monica smiles pretty on the Galata Bridge with Yeni Cami mosque in the background
The Egyptian Spice Market -- Surrounding the Yeni Cami is a vast market district, which includes the legendary Egyptian Spice Market. For centuries, merchants taking advantage of Istanbul's key location on trade routes between Europe and Asia, and of course taking advantage of the perfect natural harbor out front, set up shop in the Spice Market. Here they sold strange spices and crazy concoctions -- folk remedies from near and far, which included such things as rabbit fat, saffron, gunpowder, donkey's milk, and peach-pit powder.

Today the market still sells a number of curious and wonderful smelling spices and strange traditional remedies...

Take a walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul.

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Jasmine and Monica love the wide variety of dried fruits and nuts and sweets, while Abeja loves searching out special herbs for teas or massage oils. I love finding all the spices I need to cook Indian food. Indian food in Istanbul... It sure is nice to have such a variety of goods from Europe and Asia!

There are more jewels like these to find up and down the Golden Horn... from one of the most sacred sites in the Muslim religion, Job's tomb, to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the ceremonial head of the Orthodox Christian churches, to the 500 year old Jewish neighborhood of Balat established by Jewish refugees during the Spanish Inquisition of the late 15th century. There are also historic palaces, museums, and churches, just to name a few. After over 2600 years of use and abuse by loving empires, the Golden Horn still hasn't lost its shine.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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