I’ve had a fascination with Sufism since I first learned of it. Interestingly, I was reading the poems of Rumi, way before I ever knew what a Sufi was.
I thought they were beautiful and ephemeral and spoke to what I felt was true. At the time, I was deep into Taoism and the Tao te Ching and I was amazed that this Persian poet had captured the essence of the Tao so well.
Later, through my brother, I met a profoundly interesting man, Sharif Baba. Sherif Baba is a Turkish whirling dervish. He was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having zickers in the basement of a tea house called Silk Roads. He liked my brother and the three of us connected well in conversation both at the tea house and in the house where Sherif Baba was staying. I would say that in the short time I knew him, I picked up some of the most interesting pieces of spiritual wisdom that I have come across. Probably the most interesting thing was that God needs to be taken with a sense of humor. As Sharif Baba said “All the buses lead to the same bus station.”
It was at this time I discovered that my favorite poet was the founder of the most important sufic order. I began reading a lot and fell in love with Sufi parables and realized that while this was definitely Islam, it was all inclusive Islam. I asked Sharif Baba why whirling was important and he told me something like this
“The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”
Needless to say, my mind was blown as I immediately saw the truth in his statement. Like the Hindu story of the blind men who are arguing over what an elephant looks like based upon which part they touched, humans argue over what God looks like based on which part they’ve touched or been told that others touched. It was around this time that I truly became a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God. The reason was simple, I recognized that there is no choice in the matter.
As I have said before, being a Muslim shouldn’t be about the pillars, not about the Quran, not about fasting, not about anything except that understanding, that submission, that recognition. Don’t confuse the forms with the reality.
So, needless to say, I was excited to see dervishes whirling in Turkey. It is only in the west that we call them Whirling Dervishes, they call themselves the Mevlevi Order and they were founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. Yes, that’s the same Rumi. The basic tenets of the order are tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment and while I’m still failing pretty hard on all those counts, I recognize that my life would be better if I had stronger versions of all three.
Essentially, the zicker (rkir) is a religious ritual which is a prayer to Allah (aka God and many other names). The basic idea is to let go of ties to the forms and to merge with the totality of the divine. Music and dance are an integral part of this.
The Mevlavis played a huge role in Turkish culture in music, art, calligraphy, dance, poetry, and religious thought.
We went to a refurbished Hammam and we sat in an audience. There were clear signs not to take pictures since it was truly meant to be a religious experience. There were also signs not to applaud and not to speak during the music and dance. It seems that I was one of the only ones who read them though. Pity.
The dervish pictures in this post are from internet sources.
For the most part the audience was respectful but we had three Russian Israeli’s (Israilis who spoke Russian) next to us who spoke in loud voices, cracked jokes, and took pictures during the entire thing.
It was an incredibly moving performance even with the distraction. It brought tears to both of our eyes. The whirling of the dervishes was mesmerizing and the music was trance like and completely divine. Most of the crowd stopped applauding and talking and looked as moved as we felt. Not those three next to us though.
When we left, we were surprised to see that they were staying for a second performance.
Istanbul may not be the first place you think of to take a family vacation, but the city that bridges two continents is an extraordinary place to take a family vacation. While there may not be an Istanbul Disneyland (yet!), the city abounds with activities that are worthy of inclusion in any magic kingdom.
The Istanbul Aquarium is filled with more than fish. Educational multi-media displays, 4-D films, hands on exhibits, and then there are the tons of fish, tunnels, old boats, and everything a kid of any age could want. (http://www.istanbulakvaryum.com/en-US/)
Koch Transport Museum
The Rahmi M. Koch Transport Museum has collections of just about everything you can imagine from dolls to bicycles, baby carriages, motorbikes, classic cars, boats, boat houses, locomotives, engines, toys, and even a submarine. Plenty of hands on exhibits and you can even schedule a boat ride and a submarine tour. (http://www.rmk-museum.org.tr/english/index.html)
Go to Sultanahmet in Istanbul and you will pass brightly dressed guys who offer Turkish ice cream, called Dondurma. The price is a bit high but this is an especially delicious treat on a hot day. Of course, the real treat is the way they serve it. Expect to be tricked, but in a good way. Laughter can’t be contained around these guys.
Cruise Up the Bosporus
Could there be a better family excursion than a trip up the waterway that divides two continents? You can make stops in Europe and Asia and visit the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea before coming home. Plenty of treats along the way like the special yogurt of Kamlica and the delicious hamsi (Black Sea Sardines) at the Anadolu Kavagi village at the top of the Bosporus just before the Black Sea.
Turkish Dance Extravaganza
This family friendly dance show has something for everyone. Belly dancers, Black Sea folk dance, and even a little bit of Sufi sacred music. This show is more kid friendly than the Whirling Dervish specific show but both are great.
So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast.
This was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.
What’s your personal best? Comment below.
I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.
From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.
From Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)
So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.
Total distance: 4090 Kilometers
I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.
Back in 2003, I worked as a stock broker. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but didn’t really like the pushy sales aspect of it. I would sometimes have long and wandering conversations with my potential clients – one of them, a New Yorker named Joel stopped me during a pitch for Krispy Kreme donuts one day and said out of the blue “What the hell are you doing working as a stockbroker? You need to quit that job, move to Turkey and open a guest house on the shores of the Bosphorus!” I should have listened to him, but instead slogged through stock broking for a while more, wrote some books, worked as a commercial fisherman, and eventually became a tour guide in Hawaii – before finally ending up on the shores of the Bosphorus nearly a decade later…now in 2019, I look back at the time I was in Turkey (from 2010-2012) as one of the most deeply fulfilling periods in my life – largely because of my connection with the Bosphorus…I have no idea how he knew – but Joel was right. I wrote the following while I was there.
It’s impossible not to love Istanbul. This magnificent city of 17 million people, more than 5000 years of history, and more than a little bit of shopping, sight seeing, and culinary adventuring.
Istanbul is divided into two major parts…Europe and Asia. In fact, Istanbul (that’s Constantinople) is made up of the oriental, the occidental, and everything in between.
Those who come here and have the money, like to stay at the 5 star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel which sits alongside the Bosphorus and boasts gardens, shops, and ultra fine dining.The high school next door used to be a harem. There is a helipad so you can land your helicopter. The master suite is just 15,000 Euros per night (About $22,500 at current exchange rates)Those who don’t have the money can find plenty of other options like the Four Seasons which used to be a famous jail. Or maybe you want to search Istanbul hostels.
In terms of transportation, the tram (metro) is by far the easiest and most hassle free, but in Istanbul, the taxis aren’t too expensive, they just take longer to get anywhere because of the traffic. As for buses, too crowded for me, but sometimes necessary. It’s that or driving and frankly…do you want to drive in a city of 17 million? No freaking way.
Turks are incredibly nationalistic and you see the beautiful red flags and the images of the modern day founder of Turkey Mustapha Kemal Ataturk everywhere -as you should. Ataturk created a state that could have easily become fascist but instead, he turned it into a Republic and handed over the reins of power. A rare and amazing hero.
Still, it’s not all wonderful. Plenty of cabbies will charge unwitting foreigners Euro fares and give change in lira. There are rip offs in rug merchant shops, restaurants, and souvenir shop. Just the other day, a longtime Istanbulu immigrant friend and I sat down for lunch without asking the prices first. Complacency is not your friend. The cost was a staggering 47 lira…about three times what we normally would pay. The moral, Pay Attention or Pay Too Much.
Here’s an example: you give the cabbie 50 Lira. He drops it when you aren’t paying attention and then tells you that you only gave him 5 lira and he demands the rest of the payment. Since the notes are the same color and you are new to Turkish money, you apologise for the mistake and give him a 100% bonus. Lame, but it happens.
One of the things I love about Istanbul is that it is a friendly city to not only western tourists but also to eastern and Muslim tourists. In this city you see fully veiled Saudi women and their families eating next to distastefully clad housewives from Orange County and their families. It’s equal opportunity for East and West. Same goes for when you go to the hamams, the bazaars, or into the mosques…of course, in the mosques, hopefully everyone is covered appropriately.
Istanbul is a city filled with bars, restaurants, shops and ancient historical sites. From museums to the nightlife in Taksim to Friday prayers to just wandering around Beyoglu and finding Ottoman Palaces that are falling down and held up by nothing but vines right next to brand new apartment buildings. Compare and contrast and no wonder so many American’s ask why the city is so rundown….it’s not rundown, it’s 5000 years old. The decrepit next to the sparkling new is something we don’t see in the segregated west. In Istanbul the poor neighborhood might have rich people and the rich neighborhood will certainly have poor people. No economic segregation going on here. It’s real. Modernity becomes part of history eventually…and in Istanbul you can see what was once modern but now is ancient.
And then there is the food. Far from being just kebabs and chorba (soup) there is a wide and varied cuisine in Istanbul from pide and pizza to homemade ravioli, balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) and then there is the palace food. Palace food tends to be the over the top stuff the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Things like quail inside duck inside goose inside something even bigger. The Ottoman version of Turduken.
If you prefer you can find Indian, Chinese, and even Mexican food. I have to say though, the tacos aren’t as satisfying and the sushi, well…it’s expensive and not quite right. Still, it is here. And then there is the view although I find this equation to be fairly good: the better the view the worse the food up to about 40 lira. After 40 lira the food begins to taste good again. So, want a good view…make sure you don’t scrimp or the taste will ruin the view for you.
And the view is great whether you are looking at the famous Blue Mosque, the amazing wonder of the world the Aya Sofya or even the tree lined and ancient Constantinople Hippodrome. Mosques, Churches, Greek and Roman Ruins, and plenty of museums showing everything from ancient Lydian to modern Istanbulu art. The view in Istanbul is like no other.
Even the over the top Topkapi Palace which sits like a jewel on the crown of the Sultanahmet area is now available for you to sip tea in or have your breakfast next to. It wasn’t always this way since this was the political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire when it was the strong man of the world, rather than the sick man of Europe.
Like all of Istanbul there are more than a few fat cats, plenty of wild (though tagged) dogs, and no shortage of grassy places to enjoy a picnic. Plus you can see the staff of Moses and the sword of Mohammad among other religious relics. No one seems willing to tell me if they’ve tried throwing the staff down and making it into a snake though. if you tend towards the more worldly treasures you might enjoy seeing the Topkapi Dagger or the Spoonmakers Diamond (5th largest in the world). One local friend told me that the Prophet Abraham’s missing saucepan is also in the museum…now how in the world did that happen?
Still, Topkapi is for Amateurs, the Pros head to Dolmabahce Palace over on the other side of the Golden Horn.
The Versailles of Istanbul is worthy of the name and whereas you don’t get to see all of Topkapi, Dolmabahce is thrown in front of you like a white slave before the potential Ottoman buyers looking to diversify their harems. Beautiful, dangerous, and well…expensive. All the yellow metal you see there is real gold.
Go out at night in Istanbul and you will find that the gold changes hands quickly and easily as the frantic hustle and dance of one of the world’s largest cities never stops. From the junk buyers to the carpet sellers, everyone is still working at night and those who aren’t are taking vanity to extremes as they show what modern, hip, young, rich Istanbul is all about. Watch a Turkish soap opera and you might think things are exaggerated. They aren’t.
As for food, you can spend little at the food stalls in Mehene, Nevisade Sokak and Kumkapi. Or you can spend as much as a corrupt Vizier somewhere else. And if you want to spend, there isn’t a better place to do it than in the clubs. Step into a club and the price of drinks goes 3 to 20 times higher than elsewhere but that’s all about the status of being there. You are there drinking, so obviously you have plenty. This is where you go if you want to impress the other sex and there is one thing that impresses Turkish women more than anything else…. When I was teaching, I would ask my students what was more important Love or Money…out of hundreds of Turkish students only two girls ever said love. Money is where it’s at and if you aren’t flashing it, you’re missing out on the ‘action’ in Istanbul.
But hopefully, you won’t miss out on experiencing real life here. The life on the streets, drinking tea, riding the ferry with commuters, playing backgammon on the streets, or just walking around the next corner to see something that is unexpectedly beautiful.
There is one more area where you will need your wallet…shopping. Istanbul is filled with shopping and while the prices can be very reasonable, you can also spend as much as you want. Prices will vary by as much as 1000% from shop to shop. Seriously. Where is the shopping in Istanbul? …everywhere. Literally.
But there is no place to shop like the Grand Bazaar (even if the prices are two to three times higher there for most things) With more than 4,000 shops spread in some 60 streets along with a post office, a bank and a mosque of its own with even a health centre within the Grand Bazaar. And I might add, this is all covered. It’s the first indoor shopping mall and it is filled with carpets, ceramics, antiques, jewellery, gold and well…everything else.
Pay a visit to Café Bedestan. It’s worth the trouble and finding it will be your adventure. Just go in the Grand Bazaar and start asking.
Also everywhere is the ambiance, the feeling and a part of that is the smells. From the spice market to the smell of coal being used to heat samovars to the smell of cigarettes wafting out of a chai shop. It’s all a part of this incredible place.
And as we are talking about tobacco, it is a good idea to mention the nargile (hookah) cafes. Sheesha is usually just tobacco with some molasses and maybe a bit of apple. It’s smoked without contact to the fire and filtered through water. Nope, it’s not dope. Used to be it was opium or weed, but now…sorry hippies, just tobacco. Still, it can be fun, relaxing, and more than a few people claim it gives them a buzz.
The real buzz though is just wandering around the streets of Istanbul and seeing all the wonders that exist here…
On our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.
The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.
In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.
As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.
The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.
When the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.
The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.
Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located near the Topkapi Palace inside Gulhane Park in Istanbul. I first visited it when my wife and I honeymooned in Turkey in 2010. The museum has more than a million objects in its collections many of them from Byzantine, Greek, Roman, and even earlier civilizations.
This visit was not the most exciting part of our trip, especially for my wife, but she enjoyed the incredible collection of statues and the ancient sarcophagi, some of which date back as early as 400 BC.
As you enter the museum grounds there is a statue of a lion which comes from one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.The museum is massive. It took us nearly half a day to stroll through the main collections at a rapid pace.The sarcophagi are definitely worth seeing, though I was disappointed to read that the Alexander Sarcophagus is actually the tomb of a king named Abdalonymous.
One of my favorite finds was the snake’s head from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome. I thought the serpents looked rather headless. The Museum of the Ancient Orient was closed for renovations while we were there.
If you want to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 10 lira.
In 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.
If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.
Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.
Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.
Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.
Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.
The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.
The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.
Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.
The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”
I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.
Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.
He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.
The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.
From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….
Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.
The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.
The Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.
Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.
After you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.
Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.
Different passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!
Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is one of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).
In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.
I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!
The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul
I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.
Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.
Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving
Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.
Pide is the longest pizza in the world!
Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.
This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?
The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country
Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“
That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”
For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.
In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.