Istanbul, where the Middle East meets the West

April, 2022

As you may have noted from my previous post, I am in France not Turkey. However I have a special correspondent in Turkey at this very moment. I have adapted her notes and used her photos.

Istanbul was once called Constantinople for the Roman Emperor who did much to open the door to Christianity. His conversion came in 312 C.E. In 313 he helped create the Edict of Milan, which declared tolerance for all faiths. However it was Theodocius 379-95 who in effect made Christianity the official state religion, according to Professor Bart Ehrman

Yet today the city Constantinople, renamed Istanbul in the 1920’s, is swarming with Muslim tourists in a predominantly Muslim country. That change is the story of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

It’s Ramadan and everyone is on holiday. Working during Ramadan is difficult. Take restaurant workers. They are around food all day. In busy restaurants they are constantly on the move. One worker, when she heard the early evening call to prayer said, “Oh, thank goodness! Now I can eat.”

Although many do fast as required during Ramadan, it is pretty clear that the Turks are not generally fundamentalists. In Istanbul most of the fancier restaurants serve alcohol. In one restaurant a waiter said it was illegal to be seen serving alcohol. They moved us away from the window. He said the other diners would not appreciate anyone drinking wine until sundown, when at least they could eat. However they were already eating. Maybe they thought that if they could not see the sun from their seat it was the equivalent to the sun setting. Or maybe they were just ignoring the rules, not having to worry about enforcement. No Taliban here. You do see women in full burka, but it seems to be a very small number. Yet Turks treat Western women respectfully and kindly, and even will joke around. 

We visited the Tokapi Palace, one of the most sumptuous palaces on earth. You can visit many of the Sultan’s chambers, including the harem’s quarters. The kitchen, too, is now open for visits.

Coffee pot in the Topaki museum
Coffee pot

Coffee drinking was quite an important part of palace life. It was well established by the 17th century. It was served with sherbet and sweetmeats. There were numerous rooms dedicated to its consumption. Official visitors were served in special settings.

This coffee pot, you will notice, has a filter on it. It appears to work like a French press. You put the coffee in, add the hot water, allow the coffee to brew, and then slowing plunge the filter to remove the coffee grinds. This is notably not how coffee is served in Turkey, except in more Westernized cafes, where it can be much like anything you would get in, say, Europe. Turkish coffee is brewed in a special pot, frothed and then poured into the tiny cup in which it is served, transferring some of the grinds. The grinds settle to the bottom, so you don’t get too many of them in your mouth and none if you are careful. I dislike the flavor immensely as it is sometimes flavored with cardamom, mastic, salep or ambergris- I have no idea what the last three items are but maybe a reader will enlighten me. Per the exhibit, Turks have their own way of roasting the coffee, so perhaps this has something to do with its unique flavor.

Here are some items from the excavation of Troy, also in the Topaki Palace:

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-17 at 10.00.10 AM
From the excavations of Troy
Ottoman Helmut
Ottoman helmet, 1650

For much more on this fascinating city, see my posts here

Cappadocia, Turkey, rich in history and geological formations

Cappadoccia, known as Hitti in the late Bronze age (circa 1500 BCE), is in the Anatolia region of present day Turkey. Once ruled by Alexander the Great, it later came under the influence of the Persians.  Pompey, Caeser, Antony, and finally, Octavia fought for its control. By the time of the death of Jesus it was a Roman province, and became an area where early Christians lived. Tourists today flock to see the cave dwellings and underground cities that housed up to 20,000.

cave dwellings at night
Cave dwellings at night

They used these underground dwellings primarily in times of danger. Some of these descended six stories into the soft tufa rock. The Christians were not the first to dig into the tufa. The Phrygians, an Indo-European people, may have done so in the 8th–7th centuries B.C .E. Early Christians expanded the dwellings. Many of these Christians were Greek speaking, in fact the Gospels were written in Greek, as the earliest fragments (150 CE), manuscripts and linguistic analysis show.

There was significant expansion in the Byzantine (what we also call the Eastern Roman Empire) era, when Muslim raids became a danger to the population, 780-1180 CE. They constructed underground traps in the case of intrusion, for example using boulders to cut off passages. After the Seljuk Turks of Persia conquered the Byzantine Empire, inhabitants still used the dwellings to avoid the Turks into the 20th century. Kaymakli is the most visited of the underground cities.

The Christians in the area were expelled in 1923 in a population exchange with Greece.

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-08 at 5.35.18 PM
Once inhabited by monks, starting in the 1100’s

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-08 at 5.35.59 PM
WhatsApp Image 2022-04-08 at 5.35.18 PM
Cave dwellings
cave dwellings massive numbers
cave dwellings baloons

The dark tops of the pillars are giant stones thrown out of volcanoes 2 million years ago that fell on tufa plateaus that developed from volcanic ash spewed out of the same volcanoes 15 million years ago. The stones compressed the tufa when they landed and now protect the soft tufa directly under them as the wind erodes the plateau creating the pillars. Eventually the pillars become so thin that the stones fall.