My personal iconic image of Istanbul is a red flag fluttering against a clear blue sky. When I first came here in July 2007, I arrived days before a pivotal and highly-contested general election was about to take place. For the city, this meant plastering every available space with banners, streamers, posters, advertisements, and more, all employing (or exploiting) the nationalistic associations stirred up by the star and crescent banner. The image of this flag was everywhere back then, and today it is still ubiquitous, just less in-your-face. Driving out of the airport a week ago, I was able to see that familiar and rather calming sight again.
But the tranquility does not last. Almost immediately, Istanbul attacks the senses like a blitzkrieg. The numberless noisy street vendors, chaotic traffic, tourist crowds, stray animals, calls to prayer, crumbling buildings, shops and restaurants at every corner, pungent smells, and uneven sidewalks, all overlayed on top of a haphazard urban layout seemingly (or maybe actually) devoid of planning or logic.
Istanbul itself, I should add, stretches some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from east to west. One-fifth of the Turkish population resides in Istanbul. The official population of Istanbul is 10-12 million inhabitants, but there may be over 15 million people in Istanbul on a given day. Gecekondu (squatter) settlements, which may be anything from tents to ad-hoc structures standing three stories tall, each day push the city limits wider. A full 60 percent of the city consists of unregistered buildings, due to motley historical processes from earthquakes to state appropriation of the property of expelled Greeks and Jews. It’s an exceptionally dynamic city. Just in the two years since I have last been here, certain areas of the city have become visibly cleaner and safer.
As one of my history professors said, “Istanbul is complicated.”
Without trying to approach Istanbul’s complicated demographic dynamics, how does one possibly learn to find one’s way around this chaos, and in only a matter of days? This was a point of anxiety for me. In fact, I learned that it is not that hard to learn to navigate through the essential areas of Istanbul.
1. Most obviously, orient yourself based on landmarks. The waterfront, whether the Bosphorus or Marmara Sea or Golden Horn, is a dependable guide. The minarets of a mosque also work, or one of the bridges, or one of the many centers such as Taksim. When driving, start with busy main streets and work your way out from there. You may always choose other landmarks depending on the location of your lodging.
2. Listen to your feet; i.e., accustom yourself to the geography of the land. Knowing that you need to walk uphill rather than downhill can be a pivotal clue. Note that one of Istanbul’s names is “The City of Seven Hills.”
3. Use the tramvay (electric street rail) as a guide. Besides being a convenient way of getting across the city fast, it can be a blueprint to help you learn the names of Istanbul’s districts and municipalities, which are essential points of reference. Once you know the difference between Sultanahmet, Kadiköy, Eminönü, etc., it is easy to find or ask for directions from someone.
3.a. Also worthwhile to note is that the different districts may vary greatly in terms of culture and social expectations. In Eminönü you will find huge crowds wearing Euro-pop hot pants and revealing tank tops, while in Eyüp the majority of local women wear the türban (headscarf) and men wear pants. If you want to explore the cultural sights that this part of the city has to offer (there are a lot, I can assure you), then you should feel obliged to conform.
3.b. Another side note. Some of these neighborhoods, such as Suleymaniye, originally gained their names from the nearby mosque. Each mosque, when it was built, also had an associated mosque complex, or külliye, which served as the space for public interaction, an initiator of urbanization, and a provider of all of life’s needs, from birth to death: worship center, public kitchen, bakery, hospital, school (medrese), library, hammam (Turkish bath), and graveyard. Although külliye are no longer utilized as such (the extant structures may house shops, restaurants, or anything else), it is easy to see why they defined the surrounding area so powerfully. The word külliye itself comes from an Arabic word meaning “everything, all, the universe.”
4.a. Don’t be afraid to go out walking alone. When you’re with others, it is too easy to follow the leader and lose focus on your route and surroundings. When you’re by yourself, you have only your own cleverness and daring to rely on, which can be both educational and thrilling. (Disclaimer 1: only go out alone if you feel safe, etc. etc. Disclaimer 2: Turkish culture is extremely socially-oriented, if that makes sense, and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone doing anything apart from a group, so you might look a little unusual but, as I often say when my insouciance does not explicitly insult religious mores, “Who fucking cares.”)
4.b. And finally–don’t be afraid to get lost.
What do you do to learn to navigate a new place?
P.S. Foreigners sometimes have trouble pronouncing “thank you” in Turkish, which is teşekkür ederim, so Turks in the tourism business offer a mnemonic device: “tea, sugar, and dream.” It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s cute. Regardless, there are other easier-to-pronounce ways to say thanks in Turkish, which I can fill you in on if you need to know.