IstanbulJanuary 10, 2023
It is three weeks since we left Istanbul and in my dreams, the sights and sounds of the city still wash over me. We only knew her for a week, but I am tempted to say that Istanbul is the Paris of the East. More ancient, more diverse, not refined but equal in the sensory punch she delivers. There is a magnificence to this city that is hard to put into words. The hills, the water, the fleets of ferries and fishing boats, the migratory birds, the faces in the crowds, and the multitude of minarets silhouetted against sultry skies all contribute to the richly textured atmosphere of this place.
The muezzin’s call to prayer ushers in dawn and dusk. Chai boys balance trays of tiny glasses of tea for the fishermen, shopkeepers, laborers, and even tourists haggling in the bazaar. Delicious smells waft from every corner and keep us in a perpetual state of hunger. Food bazaars, spice bazaars, rug, and jewelry bazaars. Citizen fishermen line the banks and bridges of the Bosphorus to fill their buckets with bluefish, mackerel, and anchovies, tossing scraps to the cats patienting at their feet. The streets vibrate with energy while cats laze with abandon. There are ridiculously colorful buildings in neighborhoods that once housed Muslim, Orthodox, and Jewish families. It is a sumptuous tapestry of sensory delights overlayed with the memories of a glorious but distant past.
Modern Istanbul is very modern and old Istanbul is being gentrified. Like most of the world, the chasm between rich and poor has grown precariously wide. The Turkish economy is devastated by runaway inflation and a devalued lira. Erdogan’s policy of keeping interest rates extremely low—flooding the economy with cheap money—has been very favorable to the construction and real estate sectors which are big backers of his party and devastating for workers who have seen their living standards diminished. With the bulk of this development spending happening in rural and conservative parts of the country, Erdogan’s support in those areas is also strong. At the same time, his support among the country’s educated youth and professional class is non-existent, independent media is being shuttered, and people are afraid to voice their frustration in public.
Our apartment is in the Beyoğlu neighborhood on the European side. We are at the top of a very steep, narrow street of turn-of-the-century Ottoman apartment buildings, small shops, galleries, cafes, and many eateries. Cafe Giovani, at the bottom of our building, is our go-to place for morning treats and people-watching. We wander up and down streets to the Galata Tower and Taksim Square, cross the Golden Horn to the bazaars, and cruise the old neighborhoods of Balat and Fener with our guide, Ondur. Another day we walk the banks of the Galata port to the ferry terminals and take a boat to Kadikoy on the east side where we meet Emrah for an architecture, food, and culture tour. The food markets and eateries in Kadikoy are eye-popping and we sample liberally. We avoid the crowds at the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, both of which we have seen before. Our days are long and our legs are tired.
For all its problems, Turkey and Istanbul graciously host the year-round hordes of enthralled tourists and travelers. Meanwhile, Erdogan and his party have plummeted in the polls losing control of both Ankara and Istanbul. With elections coming in 2023, the stakes are high for Erdogan and the country.