The past three months have been productive in many ways, and thought I’d share some of the stuff I’ve been working on.

  • I contributed articles for the website Yabangee.com. The Turkish word yabancı means “foreigner,” and the website caters to expat and foreign residents in Istanbul. Besides some brand-new pieces (including St. Mary of the Mongols and Nahıl Gift Shop) I revamped some blog posts: The Museum of Turkish Jews in Karakoy  and Aynalıkavak Palace.
  • I started running a Spanish language-learning Facebook page. It’s called Saucy Spanish Time, and I post comics there daily (with a special emphasis on puns). If that interests you, please check it out and “like” the page.
  • I began working on side projects related to my Thailand trip, which I hope to share soon.
  • And finally, I moved to New York City! More on that later.

Above: the view from the office in Istanbul I worked out of over the summer. Below: view of Lower Manhattan from a ferry.

Jacqueline Cookies: A Sweet Taste of Home in Cihangir (Yabangee)

aydan cookie Long-term residents of Turkey know that buying cookies here can be a fraught activity. Turkish kurabiye (cookies), while delicious, are typically dry and biscuity, quite different from the soft, gooey morsels some of us grew up with. Baking is another option, but that can be equally dubious thanks to the nature of the ingredients here. The baking soda and flour produced in Turkey have different chemical compositions from those in Europe and the U.S., while essential components like vanilla and chocolate chips aren’t readily available—all resulting in cookies that don’t taste nearly like the ones we are obsessed with back home. What’s a cookie-lover to do?

Now, there’s an easy alternative. Jacqueline Cookies just opened for business in Cihangir, delivering up soft, chewy American-style cookies throughout the city. The cookie shop was started by Tarık, who grew up in Istanbul, then lived six years each in England and Belgium. He was familiar with Turkish kurabiye as a youngster, but he first tasted a “proper” cookie in London. From that moment he was hooked: “I was like, ‘Wow, why don’t we have this in Turkey?’ I always had in my mind, one day I’m gonna open a cookie shop, one day I’m gonna open a cookie shop” …

Read more at Yabangee: Jacqueline Cookies: A Sweet Taste of Home in Cihangir. Photo provided by Jacqueline Cookies.

St. Mary of the Mongols: The Last Byzantine Church (Yabangee)


Nowadays Istanbul is known for its mosques, but prior to 1453, Constantinople was a completely Christian city replete with churches. Many of them exist to this day: Hagia Sofia and Chora Church are the most renowned examples, but there is also Hagia Irene, Küçük Aya Sofya, Fethiye Mosque… In all there are some 40 Byzantine-era church structures still standing throughout the city.

However, no matter which one you visit, one feature in particular strikes the visitor: they all either have minarets, or a ticket box, or both. Astonishingly, of the dozens of extant Byzantine churches in Istanbul, only one of them has never been converted into a mosque or museum and has been in continuous service as a place of Christian worship since before the conquest of Istanbul. This is Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, a.k.a. Kanlı Kilesesi, a.k.a. Meryem Ana Greek Orthodox Church…

Read more at Yabangee: St. Mary of the Mongols: The Last Byzantine Church.

Socially-Conscious Turkish Souvenirs at Nahıl Gift Shop (Yabangee)


There comes a time for all of us when we have to purchase Turkish souvenirs for curious kith and kin back home. To get them their fix of evil eyes and olive oil soaps, I used to have to trek out to the Grand Bazaar or Galata. Besides these places being crowded and hectic, I always felt a tinge of guilt and unease with the racks of identical knick-knacks. Where are these products made? What kind of working conditions are they supporting? In an era of globalization, I think many of us, not just me, wonder whether our nazarlık were actually made in Turkey or were assembled in a far-off factory.

That’s why I was so glad to find Nahıl Gift Shop…

Read more at Yabangee: Socially-Conscious Turkish Souvenirs at Nahıl Gift Shop.

Cats of Istanbul

Istanbul Cats

One of the most remarked upon features of Istanbul is not the soaring minarets, the shimmering Bosphorus, or the fresh simit. It is the cats. Istanbul has a massive endemic population of street cats–probably over 150,000–and the constant fawning attention lavished on them by tourists and visitors always touched a nerve with me. Why come from almost halfway around the world and take pictures of a commonplace domestic creature you can find almost anywhere else?

Then there are the local attitudes. It’s an ordinary sight to see locals serving out cat food, cans of tuna, or bags of cheese (cats like cheese, I have learned) to hungry felines. The government also pitches in–throughout my neighborhood there are little two-story cat-houses painted forest green and stamped with the name and symbol of the Beyoğlu Municipality. Residents make offerings of water and kibble to these shrines of cathood. Why expend these scarce personal and governmental resources on animals when there are so many needy humans who need them?

However, as with rakı and ayran, my aversion to the cats has softened over time. I came to realize one great value of street cats: as therapy animals. A couple years back, some law schools in the US began offering therapy dogs to help law students relax. In the same way, I believe pervasive street animals help city-dwellers here recover from the various urban indignities that can be inflicted on us at any moment. As one of many examples: the other day I was running, as I do, near the waterfront. A group of bullies in a white van drove by and sprayed water on me. I was very upset but I quickly found a street cat, who purred and cuddled in my lap for ten minutes until I felt better.

The other therapeutic effect of a street cat is to remind you to slow down. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, if you see an adorable kitten, then there’s just nothing else to do but stop and pet it, your schedule be damned. The other day, I met an affectionate kitten in Eyüp cemetery, near the Pierre Loti lookout. It curled up in my lap and fell asleep purring, so I sat for two hours with it while Turkish children came to my side and admired the sleepy kitten.

In fact, upon further consideration there is something appealing about the traditional Turkish model of pet ownership. Keeping a housepet, as far as I can tell, is a relatively new custom in Turkey mainly practiced by “westernized” individuals. In traditional towns, you are more likely to see an animal being “kept” by an entire apartment, a block, or a street. Members of the building or the block will all contribute to the animals’ care by putting out clean water, food, and fresh bedding at regular intervals for the dog or cat. This model still allows for the benefits of owning a pet–companionship, pest control, security, disposal of uneaten food–but it distributes the cost among the group and allows the animal itself to live freely, not imprisoned in a house all day at the whims of its owner, and without being a burden to the owner (requiring pet-sitting during trips, etc.)

Istanbul Cats1

Of course, it’s not a perfect model–animal rights advocates wouldn’t be happy about the rates of mortality and sickness among the street animals. But overall, Istanbul residents take care of their strays, and the government pitches in by providing vaccination/tagging for dogs. If we take this model seriously, then a street animal is really a public good, and if I am to draw personal benefit (therapeutic relief) from the shared resource (in this case, cats) then I really should contribute to its upkeep by providing water and cans of tuna fish.

So I’ve come around to the locals’ way of seeing and providing for street cats. As for the tourists’ obsession, the photos in this post show I have reluctantly come around to it. In the end, I am glad that I can depend on finding an affectionate feline when I need one.

Whispers of history



In the older neighborhoods of Istanbul, one often finds these heavy doors, tightly locked and decorated with crosses or Hebrew inscriptions. But no matter how many times you circle the walls, there is no church or synagogue in sight, only a an enigmatic wall enclosing an apparently abandoned lot.

I always feel a bit spooked by it, like I’ve seen a ghost or a corpse. When did these churches close up and bolt their doors? What was the community like that used to sustain these places of worship? Where did those people go, and where are they now? What kind of property dispute might still be going on for the land behind those walls?

Doorways, inscriptions, fountains, walls, fragments… Istanbul is replete with whispers of past history that are not audible on a cursory visit. Being able to hear them, as haunting as they are sometimes, has been one of the most rewarding parts of living here.

Freewheeling Reports: Kızkalesi


Kizkalesi combines together two things I love: castles and beaches.

Castles are obviously awesome. I have been drawn to castles ever since I lived in Alanya, a little Mediterranean resort town with a massive Selcuk fortress built on its hillside. Apart from the obvious appeals, castles might even have old graffiti scratched into its walls by ancient soldiers.

Beaches are awesome too, but their awesomeness is less obvious, because beaches are, in the first place, boring. At most there are only a half dozen different activities you can actually do at a beach. What I’ve realized is that the boredom is their virtue: when you’re stuck on a beach you have nothing else to do except nap, swim, read–all the simple, relaxing activities that are so hard to fit in within “real” (non-vacation) life. This summer, whenever I get behind on my reading, I go to the beach where cleaning, the internet, and other distractions can’t reach me.

Kızkalesi merges these two awesome things–beaches and castles–into one quaint package. Kızkalesi, meaning “Maiden’s Castle,” is a resort beach town in southeastern Turkey, near Mersin. It was surprisingly hard to reach–the closest airport is four or so hours away in Adana. Practically all of the people around me were Turkish families with young children, and this observation was borne out by a number of my friends who said they fondly remember Kızkalesi vacations from their childhood. Consequently, the beach atmosphere is laid-back and wholesome, full of kids, dads, and moms playing with water noodles and beach balls.

However, the Mediterranean coast has many lovely little beach towns. This particular one famous throughout the country for its eponymous Crusader castle (from around 900 CE), which seems to float atop the water on an island 1000 feet offshore. In the summer, the Mediterranean waters are calm and clear, so swimming right up to it is a breeze–one woman told me she swam the distance twice a day for exercise. Once there, you can pull yourself up onto the pebbly shore, wander into the castle and climb atop its walls. There are the gorgeous views and charming white-stone architecture, and even an inscription in Armenian from when an Armenian kingdom ruled the area. But the most remarkable things inside are the extant in-situ floor tiles and mosaics, including Roman (or Greek?) text and zoomorphic imagery.

Kizkalesi, Mersin

Interestingly, a local guide told me that the floating Maiden’s Castle has an identical legendary origin storyas the floating Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul (to whit, a king, a princess, a snake bite, etc.). In fact, the more likely backstory is more crass. These castles were built to defend the coastal towns against piracy, and apparently in antiquity, seafarers called such defensive bulwarks “maiden” castles if they had never been breached by pirates.

As if one castle is not enough, on the eastern border of the beach lies another, even more expansive and imposing castle, nicknamed simply Korykos after the city’s original name . In ancient times, a pier used to connect the sea fortress to the land one, and some remnants of that pier are still visible. The land castle is in a more ruined state than Maiden’s Castle, which (for me) adds to the fun; crumbling and overgrown with trees, but still very much intact, and little visited by the beach-going tourists, Korykos has a post-apocalyptic feel. And as Merlin & Rebecca point out in their post, this castle was partly constructed out of spolia from an old Roman town. It’s fun to look out for the unexpected characters, iconography, and temple columns built haphazardly into the walls, not to mention crosses from the chapels.


There are supposedly a couple of underground caves near the town of Kızkalesi that are worth seeing. I can’t speak for the awesomeness of those. However, I can attest that Kızkalesi definitely delivers on two awesome things: beaches and castles.

Previous Freewheeling Reports, so-called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.

Photo above: Kızkalesi viewed from Korykos. Photos middle: interior of Kızkalesi. Photo below: Spolia inside Korykos.

Language Pulsations: Turkish loanwords

Photos for Blog 21

Despite centuries of contact between the Ottoman Empire and the West, there are surprisingly few purely Turkish loanwords in English. Why would this be? It turns out that most of the words that came to us from Ottoman lands–kiosk, pilaf, sofa, sherbet, vizier, seraglio, tulip …–were were themselves borrowed into Turkish from Persian and Arabic by Turks. This is mainly because the literary and political tongue of the Ottoman Empire was Osmanlıca, which was essentially Turkic grammar, with Persian vocabulary, written in Arabic script. The story of Arabic and Persian loanwords would be a different story–there could be several posts just covering the dozens of Arabic loanwords in English.

But in the meantime, here are three the words in English I’m aware of that are unequivocally Turkish.

Yogurt is from the Turkish yoğurt, related to the Turkish verb yoğunlaşmak “to condense” and the adjective yoğun “intense.” Yogurt was invented 4000 years ago by Central Asian nomadic trans-pastoralists, probably Turkic, who discovered that milk is more long-lasting, digestible, and nutritious when bacteria was added to it.

Many cultures probably independently discovered this food technology over the millenia, but yogurt is uniquely important in the Turkish diet–in Ottoman days, it was a staple like bread, and today it is a sauce, side dish, or beverage in almost every meal. Yogurt folk histories abound. A co-worker of mine claimed that his ancestor brought yogurt to Poland in powdered form and thereby single-handedly introduced the food to the Western world. Another friend shared a different theory, that Europeans first met the food during the siege of Vienna, where Ottoman armies were consuming it (suspiciously similar to the croissant origination theory).

According to the Ottoman History Podcast–a more reliable source–yogurt as a food source was unknown in the West until the early 20th century. At this time, the Ottoman Empire was splintering and former Ottoman citizens were scattering across the globe. In 1919, the Dannon company was started in Barcelona by a former Ottoman-Jewish doctor, while fleeing Armenians brought yogurt to the US to sell to fellow Armenians as well as to Syrians, Jews, Greeks, and other communities who had emigrated from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Although each community had different names for this very ancient food, the one shared term for it was the Turkish one, so this was how it was marketed. Hence, the world now knows this amazing dairy product by its Turkish name.

“The Mongol hordes are coming! Run for your lives!” While “horde” in English can mean a large group of anything, we often use word in relation to “barbarian” conquerors on horseback. This makes sense, since the word originally came from the Turkic/Mongolic word ordu meaning “camp,” “tent,” or “royal court,” or in modern Turkish, “army.”

From the times of Genghis Khan to the present day, Central Asian nomadic-pastoral peoples have organized themselves in “hordes,” fiercely hierarchical and patriarchal groups often commanded by a strong emperor or leader. Genghis Khan’s sons presided over the Blue Horde, White Horde, and Golden Horde, and there are still hordes in parts of modern-day Kazakhstan. “Horde” probably came to English via Polish, as terrified Slavic peoples constantly feared the wrath of nomadic warriors.

Odalisque is the French form of Turkish odalık, composed of oda “room” and -lık, a suffix expressing the function of a thing. An odalık was a chambermaid, maidservant, or female slave. In the Ottoman harem, the odalık was the lowest-ranking servant and she never offered her services to the sultan. Europeans, however, did not understand the intricacies of the Ottoman court stratification, and simply understood an odalık as a harem concubine. Orientalist interest in these “odalisques” peaked in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as can be seen in famous paintings by Matisse, Renoir, and Ingres.

Turquoise, turkey
Actually, neither “turquoise” nor “turkey” are derived from a Turkish word per se, but both have the word “turk” in them because they refer to Turkey. As I’ve explained in length before, the bird known as “turkey” was introduced to Europe via trading through Ottoman-Turkish domains. Similarly, Venetian traders originally discovered and traded for the jewel turquoise in Turkish lands, so the greenish-blue stone gained the name in French pierre turquoise “Turkish stone,” and a color word was subsequently coined based on the color of the jewel.

Istanbul Daytrips: Eyüp during Ramazan

Istanbul Summer 20142

Living abroad has many advantages, but there are times when you get lost in the space between where you came from and where you are now. This happened to me last Friday.

Friday, July 4th was simultaneously Independence Day in the US and the second Friday of Ramazan (the Turkish word for Ramadan) in Turkey. Looking online, I saw my American friends and family celebrating with fireworks and cookouts. Looking around me in the streets, I saw families lining up for iftar meals and taking advantage of holiday promotions. While all these celebrations were happening before my eyes, I could not fully participate in any of them.

So rather than sulk, I decided to take charge of my fate: I got on a bus to Eyüp. Eyüp is another neighborhood on the European side, past Fatih on the Golden Horn. During Ramazan, the Eyüp municipality sets up a cute, colorful row of model Ottoman houses where local vendors and restaurants set up shop. There were sweets shops with piles of lokum (Turkish delight) and photography stands were families could dress up in Ottoman robes and turbans and have their photo taken as Ottoman nobles. I sat there for an hour, watching the cooks prepare vats of soup, piles of rice, and spits full of meat, and then watched the servers sprint back and forth delivering the meals to hungry Ramazan observers. Being in this holiday atmosphere relieved my loneliness.

It also made sense to be in Eyüp during Ramazan as it plays a part in local Ramazan tradition–some Muslims in Istanbul try to visit all the “imperial mosques” as a way of making penance for the sins of the year, and the Eyüp Sultan Mosque is one of those special mosques. Eyüp Sultan, which the Eyüp neighborhood is centered around, was completed in 1458 (five years after the invasion) and was the first mosque constructed by the victorious Ottoman Turks.

The grounds around Eyüp Sultan contain a sprawling multi-level cemetery bursting with ancient gravestones. The inside of the mosque is expansive. Men pray on the main floor while women worship in the upper balcony, as well as in a labyrinthine series of interconnected hallways, chambers, and even a skywalk, all of which I imagine had to have been added later after the main balcony failed to fit the droves of female pilgrims.

Meanwhile, the inner courtyard of the mosque houses important turbes, or saints’ tombs. It is surrounding these tombs that you can observe what my Ottoman history professor dryly referred to as “folk religious practice.” Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pilgrims cluster around these tombs with outstretched hands, entreating the saints for their blessing, or healing, or guidance, and collecting the saints’ holy aura with palms facing up. In this sense I believe Eyüp is a great place to visit and observe–it’s full of visitors coming from different parts of the city and country, practicing different forms of the faith, so as long as you meet the baseline standards of etiquette, it’s easy to blend in, watch, get a more diverse vision of the faith, and feel the fervent atmosphere.

While it was an unusual way to celebrate the 4th of July, being in that festive and spiritual atmosphere at that moment somehow satisfied my need for a celebration, and I was grateful that Eyüp is the kind of place that an outsider to the religion can partake in a small way.




photo2 (2)

Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Üşüyorsun ceketimi al.
Günün en güzel saatleri bunlar.
Yanımda kal.

Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Gene de sen bilirsin.
Yalanlar istiyorsan yalanlar söyleyeyim,

Sana gitme demeyeceğim,
Ama gitme, Lavinia.
Adını gizleyeceğim
Sen de bilme, Lavinia.

I won’t ask you not to go.
You are cold, take my jacket.
These are the loveliest times of the day.
Stay with me.

I won’t ask you not to go.
Still, you know.
If you want lies, I will tell you lies,
You’ll be hurt.

I won’t ask you not to go.
But Lavinia, don’t go.
I will keep your name a secret
Even you shall not know Lavinia.

–Özdemir Asaf, 1957

Years ago, a friend recited this poem to me. He himself heard the poem from another friend, who in turn must have learned it from someone else before her–a teacher, a professor, a romantic interest. I forgot about the poem until yesterday, when the first lines jumped out at me from a wall near Galata Tower. Now, I am posting it here in the spirit of passing on what was passed on to me.

3 Places in Istanbul You’ve Never Been To

Below are three places I’ve recently visited during my wanderings through Istanbul: Aynalıkavak Palace, the Crimean Memorial Church, and the Zulfaris Synagogue Museum. There is no connection between them besides the fact that I had never heard about them in any guidebook or visited them on any tour: I stumbled upon or passed by them by chance, and happened to be pleased with what I found. Maybe you will be, too.

1. Aynalıkavak Palace

Aynalikavak Istanbul

There are few places in Istanbul where one can hear only the sounds of birds chirping and the hush of wind through the leaves. I was pleased to find Aynalıkavak Palace is one of those peaceful places.

Surprising to say, but Ottoman-era palaces in Istanbul are pretty much a dime a dozen. There are particularly famous ones, like Dolmabahçe, which were an obvious choice to become museums in their post-imperial lives because something made them famous (in the case of Dolmabahçe, it’s the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spent his last days). But not all were that lucky. After the end of the empire, the palaces no longer served a purpose and they faced different fates–some of them became museums, some of them were converted into hotels or convention centrers (like Çırağan Palace), some of them sold to the highest bidder, and probably some of them are now gone. It would be an interesting historical exercise to survey the fates of various Ottoman palaces and what became of them over the decades after the end of the empire.

Anyway, Aynalıkavak is one of the lucky ones–it is an early 17th-century Ottoman palace-turned-museum in the Hasköy neighborhood of Istanbul, near Kasımpaşa. The building itself is a pavilion-style structure with a graceful sloping roof, topped with a dome. As I’ve mentioned, many of the structures we associate with the Ottomans are actually Byzantine designs (including Topkapı Palace) so it’s fascinating to see purely Ottoman architecture. The interior is gorgeously preserved and tastefully decorated with beautiful silk divans, inlaid-pearl furniture, chandeliers, stained glass, marble, and of course the eponymous mirrors (“Ayna” means “mirror” in Turkish). The basement floor is a museum of Turkish classical instruments.

In the backyard is a garden with a little tea shop next to a fountain and pond overlooking the lustrous Golden Horn and an expansive view of the Fatih and Balat neighborhoods–St Stephan’s Church is directly across from the palace grounds. Unfortunately, the palace’s view of said Golden Horn is almost entirely blocked by an old abandoned shipyard, an ugly development I’m sure Sultan Selim III, who restored the pavilion to its current glory and whose instrument collection is housed there, would disapprove of.

2. Christ Church (Crimean Memorial Church)


Normally I try to be tactful, but I won’t mince words here. Tophane (the intervening neighborhood between Karaköy and Cihangir, named for the historical Tophane-i Amire structure nearby) is not a fun place. It’s a place where people can get death threats from their neighbors for throwing parties (true story). Last year during Ramadan, some locals attacked diners who happened to be eating lunch in the neighborhood. And remember those reports of pro-government gangs wielding knives and chasing down Gezi protesters? That happened in Tophane.

But during a typical day there’s no harm in strolling through Tophane, particularly because this neighborhood contains another one of those rare places of peaceful urban respite. Uphill from the waterfront and tram stop is the active Crimean Memorial Church, an Anglican church built in memory of British soldiers who perished in the Crimean War–you can read the whole story behind its history and design here.

When I visited, the building was almost entirely invisible behind the swells of nearby apartment buildings and a dense camouflage of tree covering. This makes it hard to catch a decent glimpse of the handsome Neo-Gothic stone facade. However, the upshot of its seclusion is that upon passing through the iron gate and stepping into the grounds, you feel you are in a different world. Inside the church there is a stone baptismal font, long stone inscriptions loquaciously honoring various British dignitaries, and a huge organ. On the grounds surrounding the church birds sing, cats wander, a bizarre gaggle of geese meander around with an odd sense of purpose, and groundskeepers and church clergy murmur in indistinct foreign tongues.

3. The Jewish Museum in Zulfaris Synagogue

Istanbul Summer 20141

You would be forgiven for not knowing there was either a Jewish history museum or a synagogue in central Karaköy, down the hill from Galata Tower. I myself did not know, until one of my former professors came to town. She pointed out a nondescript salmon-colored edifice (see top left photo) and explained that the entrance to the museum is through an alley around back. I returned to the indicated spot during museum operating hours and was pleased to find she was right. The much more attractive front face of the museum (see bottom left photo) is hidden behind a high wall, a guard desk, and a metal detector–the museum keeps a low profile and tight security, I assume, due to a regrettable history of terror attacks against synagogues in Istanbul.

The Jewish Museum is housed in Zulfaris Synagogue, built sometime around 1671 and an active place of worship until being converted into a museum in 2001. The museum has three floors–the bottom contains ethnographical displays. The second, main synagogue floor (see photo on right) has a mixture of chronological and topical information about the presence and influence of Jewish peoples in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. With the stained glass window, chandeliers, starry ceiling, and Ark, you also get a sense of the beauty of the synagogue itself. The third floor, which is a balcony area overlooking the main floor, contains info-panels going in-depth about some topic of Turkish-Jewish life and history.

The exhibits are informative and up to date with recent research and relevant artifacts. The displays are in Turkish and English, and the English translations are, mercifully, excellently grammatical and comprehensible (an issue in every Turkish museum I’ve been to). It was also striking, and a bit refreshing, how positively the museum regards the influence of Ottomans and Turks on Jews. It is easy to get caught up in the recent decades of populist anti-Semitism in Turkey and not recognize the positive contributions Turkish groups and individuals have made, from Ottoman sultans welcoming Jews during the anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe to Turkish diplomats furnishing Jews with Turkish ID cards during the Second World War (thereby protecting them from harm because Turkey was neutral). I also learned the extensive impact of Jewish families, commerce, and culture on the Karaköy neighborhood, and the next chance I get, I plan to take a walking tour through the area to find Jewish places of interest in Karaköy and Galata.

Freewheeling Reports: Kars & Ani


Kars is a town in northeastern Turkey, astride the borders of Armenia and Georgia. If you have ever heard of Kars it is most likely in relation to the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which is set in the town and which was awarded the Nobel prize in 2006. However, Kars (pronounced to rhyme with “farce”) has more to recommend it besides the celebrity novel.

After arriving in the city, I was surprised to find that I reached my hotel without the usual Sturm-und-Drang of navigating Turkish cities. At first I congratulated myself on my prodigious directional skills. Then I realized the reason–the streets were arranged in a grid pattern. This orderly layout is not typical of Turkish cities and, like many of the assets that give Kars its unique character, it has its heritage in the decades of Russian occupation and administration following the Russo-Turkish War in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

The first part of my day there was spent in the castle and surrounding area. Kars Castle is free of charge and affords some great exploration and views of the city, as in the above photos. The areas at the base of the castle are also charming, including a rushing river and scenic picnic site, some abandoned Ottoman estates, and the ruins of two abandoned hamams, which were dusty and crumbling and titillatingly creepy to walk through. The Church of the Holy Apostles, however, dominates the area. As Elizabeth at the Dratz Adventure points out, it has had a variegated history as a church, then a mosque, then a church, then a storage space, and finally, it was reconsecrated and once again now operates as a mosque.

The second part of my day inside Kars was a scavenger hunt. Obviously, the Russian and Balkan administrators and settlers did not stop at rebuilding the roads, but they also left more obvious architectural fingerprints. Therefore, I resolved on my scavenger hunt to find as many Russian- and Baltic-style buildings as possible. I started at Fethiye Mosque, which is a converted Orthodox church. Neighboring the mosque and dotting the nearby avenues were many European-style administrative buildings and estates dating from the turn of the 20th century or older. I found at least a half dozen and ended up at Cheltikov, which is a beautifully restored Russian estate-turned-hotel. These architectural features added a depth of character and interest to the city not found in most mid-sized Turkish towns.

Finally, there were food matters to take care of. I dined at Ka-mer, a restaurant whose proceeds benefit abused women. The local meat dish is goose, which I did not try, but I did purchase fresh cheese and of course, honey. The combination of the Caucasian bee–a unique species–and the Caucasian flora means that honey from northeastern Turkey is nonpareil.

Kars & Ani

History and food nerds like me may like this stuff, but for the average tourist, the main attraction of Kars is Ani. Located about 40 km outside the city, Ani is an old Armenian settlement dating from the 10th century, now preserved as a museum and archaeological site. Set in the expansive Northeastern steppes with a mountainous backdrop–the famed Mount Ararat is visible on a clear day–it is a special and stunning place. It seemed impossible to take a bad photograph or to look in a direction without a breathtaking view.

The standing structures are the city walls, several churches, the barely discernible ruins of a hilltop castle, and a mosque–in fact the earliest Selcuk mosque in Anatolia–spread out over a plain directly on the Armenian border that took us three hours to transverse and explore adequately. The most well-preserved church contained swaths of royal blue-tinged frescoes on its interior walls and intriguing Turkic-animal-style stone detailing on the outside. My favorite church, though, was an old convent chapel perched on an outcropping over a river, in view of a modern-day Armenian border post.

Kars’ twin reputations of wretched cold weather and conservatism keep many a traveler at arms length, but as I’ve said before, don’t let prevailing stereotypes be your guide–from delicious honey, to unique steppe geography, to Russian history and Armenian cultural heritage, and more, Kars has a lot going for it.

Previous Freewheeling Reports, so called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.


Istanbul Daytrips: Churches of Fatih


Fatih, I realized this weekend, is the most underappreciated part of the city.

Meaning “conqueror” after Fatih Mehmet who conquered Constantinople in 1453, Fatih is the part of Turkey that coincides with the historic peninsula, from the Golden Horn waterfront to the Sea of Marmara. It subsumes Sultanahmet and Eminönü, two of the most touristic portions of the city. Yet these districts are just tiny slivers of the vast culturally, spiritually, and historically fertile space encompassed within Fatih’s borders. As you can see below, a visitor can easily spend the better part of a day just visiting old sites of Christian worship, not to mention the striking Fener Lise, Valens Aqueduct, the Theodosian Wall, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the neighborhoods full of centuries-old wooden Ottoman houses, and of course many mosques, tombs, and markets.

Unfortunately, Fatih, for whatever mysterious reasons, was never integrated into the usual tourist circuits; it lacks touristic amenities like hotels, ATMs, and maps, so sightseers tend not to plunge into its admittedly labyrinthine depths. Also working against Fatih among the local is its distinct reputation as one of the most religious-conservative parts of European Istanbul. Most foreign residents and even some native Istanbullites tend to avoid or deride it and its inhabitants, who are often associated with beards and baggy shalvar pants for men, face- and body-obscuring black gowns for the women, and poor-villager lifestyles.

This reputation and the associated assumptions are a shame for many reasons, not least of which is the great cultural wealth and history in Fatih. During Byzantine times this area was one of the centers of life and commerce. After the conquest of 1453 it was one of the first areas developed by the city’s new Turkish rulers. These later Ottoman developments, such as the Fatih and Selim mosque complexes, are well known. Less renowned are the older churches and other architectural artifacts of Christian power and influence. In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate–the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and the residence of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian faith–is in Fener, a waterfront neighborhood of Fatih. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So in honor of Easter, try this Christian-themed Istanbul day trip and reach your own conclusions. Maybe you’ll even find the defunct dilapidated churchyard (not listed here) now being used as a goat pen. In the list below, the historical Byzantine/Christian name of the site is given first, with the later Ottoman/Turkish appellation in parentheses. For those who attempt this scavenger hunt, my recommendation would be to start at the north end of the district, in Fatih Square next to the aqueduct, and zigzag your way down toward the Golden Horn–this way you avoid climbing uphill and at the end can relax on the grassy, sunny waterfront at the end of your walking tour.

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