5 Things Americans Should Know Before They Go To Istanbul

By Nathan Worcester

Every year, millions of American tourists flock to Europe and the Caribbean. For many otherwise adventurous travelers, though, Istanbul remains a bridge too far. Recent travel warnings from the State Department haven’t exactly been encouraging. To be fair, though, Americans are not alone in avoiding Turkey lately. According to one source, tourist arrivals are down almost 4% from what they were a year ago.

Don’t let the headlines scare you away. When I came to Turkey in April of 2017, I was lucky enough to stay with some Turkish-speaking friends who had spent the last two years urging me to visit. After 10 days of dodging taxis, sipping ayran, and watching the Bosphorus, I was glad they had insisted.

My fellow American, you too can ride our comparatively strong dollar all the way to the Golden Horn. Just keep a few things in mind:

1. The stray cats and dogs are friendly. Don’t pet them unless you have wet wipes handy.

According to the Economist, there are roughly 125,000 stray cats and 130,000 stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul. If anything, that estimate sounds low to me. The free-living animals of Istanbul are usually healthy, almost always friendly, and beloved of the Turks. Many people leave out pet food and table scraps for their local cats and dogs.

Be sure to wash your hands if you pet any of them. Many people have stories about getting horrible diarrhea when they forgot to do so.

Above: a sociable cat from the village of Göreme in Cappadocia. Technically not an İstanbullu, but certainly Turkish in his habit of lounging around a restaurant for hours on end.

Above: a mellow Ortaköy resident who claimed the one unoccupied seat at our table in a cafe.

Above: in a scene worthy of Walt Disney, two stray dogs watch the Golden Horn from the commanding vantage point offered by the Eyüp Sultan Mezarlığı.

Above:Even Hagia Sophia houses a fearless cross-eyed cat named Gli. Here Gli heals a pilgrim. I hope the pilgrim has some wet wipes.

2. Salesmen and cabbies can be aggressive, especially if you’re a tourist. Keep your wits about you and haggle when appropriate (not with cabbies).

During your first taxi ride in Istanbul, the sour taste of bullshit may overpower the omnipresent stench of cigarettes and strong cologne. I learned that the hard way. Our cabbie, who was a fast and reckless driver even by the standards of Istanbul, told us that the fare was 50 lira even though he hadn’t turned on the meter. My friend started arguing with him in Turkish. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but by the end, I was wondering if my friend was about to ask me to bail out of the car. Turns out my friend had talked the fare down to 40 lira (though that ended up being pointless since my friend only had a 50 lira note and the cabbie wouldn’t make change). My other friend then warned us that haggling with cabbies is actually a bad idea, as they’ve been known to stick up tourists.

Unless you’re traveling with Turkish speakers, avoid cabs. Istanbul has an excellent public transportation system that includes the world’s second-oldest subway (pictured below) and ferries to the Prince’s Islands. You can also hoof it, though sidewalks are inconsistent in places.

Above: the Karaköy station of the Tünel, a funicular railway built in 1875 that links Karaköy with busy İstiklal Avenue in Beyoğlu. The Tünel won’t try to rip you off.

Above: the Blue Mosque. Its disorienting beauty made me the perfect mark as I emerged, blinking and barefoot, into the sunlight.

I had a similar experience outside the Blue Mosque, where a guy in sunglasses escorted me to the entrance and implored me to visit his family’s carpet shop afterwards.

He walked me back to his store and promptly handed me off to an older man, who explained that he and his family were Kurds and therefore big fans of the USA. Over tulip-shaped glasses of apple tea, he showed me a succession of carpets and had me pick out my favorites. He then named the price for one: 12,000 lira (equivalent to nearly $3400). Desperate to escape but incapable of anything other than bland indirectness, I made the lowest lowball offer I could muster: 400 lira. I hoped it would be low enough that he’d kick me out. After only five minutes of trying to get me to up my bid, the guy caved. I realized that the carpets couldn’t be worth much more than the time I’d spent looking at them. Once I finally gave him a definitive no, the older man whisked me out of the shop and handed me off to yet another guy. This one met me with the slightly walleyed stare of a Turkish J.D. Salinger. His store was so narrow that he could physically block the entrance while showing me bootleg Burberry scarves. Once again, I lowballed until he caved too quickly. When he wouldn’t take no for an answer, I had to push my way past him into the street.

Above: don’t be afraid to haggle for things you could never find back home. Text: “JNS Close Quality of Fashion – Design of excellent quality worn optimistic and love the good things that I wore this design come to you many chances.”

Some tourist scams are kind of endearing. The shoeshine guy will drop his brush while walking past you in hopes that you’ll pick it up. Even if you don’t, and even if you’re wearing sneakers, he’ll walk back over to you and offer to clean your shoes. There are shoe shine grifters in Chicago who do the same thing, so I wasn’t buying it.

Above: he just wants to polish your sneakers.

In the end, I prefer the comparatively understated whiff of bullshit that emanates from American salespeople. Still, once I returned to the all-encompassing adverto-sphere of North America, part of me missed the more in-your-face style of Turkish commerce. It always involves people, so it somehow feels less creepy and impersonal. Plus, almost everything is negotiable. Imagine trying to haggle at Target.

Above: this sign welcomed me back to our collective values at Toronto Pearson Airport.

3. The past is everywhere and nowhere.

The United States has only been around for a few hundred years, so it’s not surprising that Americans preserve, enshrine, and fastidiously reenact the few artifacts and events that are available. Of course, indigenous peoples lived in North America for millennia before the Europeans arrived, but aside from earthworks and arrowheads, they left relatively few ancient traces.

Turkey is a different story. Though the Republic of Turkey itself is less than a hundred years old, the Turks have inherited more history and prehistory than they know what to do with. Göbekli Tepe, the oldest archaeological site on what is now Turkish soil, dates to the 10th millennium B.C.E. Some time after that, the Hattians, Hurrians, and Hittites (say that three times fast) all left their marks. And then there were the Assyrians, the Phrygians, the Cimmerians, and so on and so forth.

Above: a neckless, rhinotomized Hittite watches over the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

Even a well-informed academician would probably find it hard to name, let alone understand, the different groups that have inhabited this land. Empires upon empires have risen and fallen, no doubt whipping up serious shitstorms for the known and unknown peoples under their dominion.

It’s impossible to understand modern Turkey without understanding its history. And yet the physical reminders of that history are simultaneously revered and taken for granted. The will (or sheer capacity) to remember struggles against forgetfulness and neglect.

Above: an ancient column being used as a trash can.

Even artifacts that would seem self-evidently appealing to tourists are sometimes inexplicably ignored. For example, although the archaeology museum has a copy of Hammurabi’s Code, it’s buried in the middle of a big display case labeled “Interesting Cuneiform Documents.”

Above: from beyond the grave, Hammurabi lets out a Clint Eastwood-esque grumble when he realizes that his code shares shelf space with “The Oldest Love Poem.”

The least forgotten inhabitants of Istanbul itself are the Greeks, heirs to the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. That empire, which centered on the peninsular city of Constantinople, actually relied on Greek in place of Latin and was heavily (though far from entirely) populated by ethnic Greeks. Constantinople was for centuries the wealthiest and best-defended city in Christendom.

Above: some pictures of the remaining Theodosian land walls. These are in what is now a very conservative Islamic neighborhood known as Fatih (“Conqueror”) after Fatih Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople. Under the Byzantines, these walls were complemented by moats, sea walls, and a great iron chain that hung across the Golden Horn (it’s easier to picture this if you see a map).

The greatest city in medieval Christendom was largely undone by other Christians. In a complicated narrative involving both the pope and the actual Doge of Venice, Constantinople was attacked, captured, and sacked during the Fourth Crusade. Though the Byzantines eventually regained their capital city in 1261 under Epirus, the empire never fully recovered. By 1452, most of the Byzantines’ old holdings in Anatolia and Europe were controlled by the Ottomans.

Above: the Rumelian Castle, located in what is now a fashionable neighborhood in north-central Istanbul. It was built by Mehmed II in 1452 on the European side of the Bosphorus prior to his attack on the old city of Constantinople. Now it’s a pleasant, shaded heap of stone with an excellent view of a similar castle (“the Proper Castle”) on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

The Byzantines refused to surrender, so when the Ottomans finally conquered Constantinople, they converted the city’s churches into mosques. That’s why, for example, Hagia Sophia has been decorated with colossal roundels covered in Arabic calligraphy (see below).

Some of the most impressive Byzantine sites remain somewhat obscure. My Turkish-speaking friends had never even seen Chora Church, which is tucked away just outside the historic walls of the city in what were once “the fields.” The Chora mosaics, already majestic and strange to the modern eye, become stranger when one realizes that they follow chronological sequences from the apocryphal Gospel of St. James. That book apparently began as a sort of Bible fan fiction about the unrecorded aspects of Jesus’ story, including the early life of Mary.

Above: Mary is hustled off to a covetous-looking Joseph after his rod starts flowering.

Above: Just another monument of unageing intellect. Below: the courtyard of the archaeology museum.

4. To oversimplify: 1453 is like 1776, and Mehmed the Conqueror is like George Washington. 1923 is like 1863, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is like Abraham Lincoln.

Turkey’s uncertain relationship to its past is exemplified by its attitude toward the more recent Ottomans and their successors in the Republic. For many, 1453 is like 1776, and Mehmed the Conqueror is like George Washington.

Above: a kid’s cartoon in a waterfront bookstore. The red-haired Byzantine in the middle looks like he should be saying “Sacre bleu!” or “Bloody hell!” C.f. every American action movie about the Revolutionary War.

If Ahmed II is Washington and 1453 is 1776, Atatürk is Lincoln and 1923 is 1863. In both cases, the latter dates mark a break from past weakness and greatness, when the necessary savior rescued the people from themselves and their old, bad, brilliant ways.

It is hard to overstate the past and present significance of Atatürk to the Turkish people. My visit even coincided with a Kemalist holiday called National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, which sounds a little bizarre until you realize that many Turks view him as the father of their country who even gave children their surnames. You can’t really poke fun at the founders of modern Turkey the way you can with Washington and Lincoln. The modern state is just a bit too new and fragile to tolerate such irreverence.

Above: Turkish flags and images of Atatürk are everywhere, especially in Istanbul.

Above: cats beneath a Turkish flag.

Not everybody remembers the nationalists fondly. Though most of the well-known Armenian and Greek atrocities technically predate the modern state, Turkey’s unwillingness to fully acknowledge and apologize for its actions helps to sustain resentment in the Armenian and Greek diasporas.

Above: the altar from one of the few remaining Armenian churches in Istanbul.

The twentieth century’s turn towards secularism also engendered resentment among many religious Muslims. For example, until very recently, women were not permitted to wear headscarves in public institutions. Because religious Muslims constitute a far larger and more powerful bloc than the remaining Greeks, Armenians, or Jews it is unsurprising that the Turkish people have repeatedly elected Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and now as president. The president and his party (the AKP) are of course nationalist in their own way.

Above: twilight near the İftar Pavilion in the Seraglio.

Another potentially confusing thing about Erdoğan is that he talks like a left wing anti-colonialist (c.f. the speeches of Robert Mugabe) when it comes to the West. This is all the more peculiar because for most of its history, the Ottoman Empire was a colonizer of the West – as were the Byzantines, the Persians, and so on and so forth.

Above: to the victor go the obelisk, the pagan art, and the chance to mock Leon Trotsky.

And so we arrive at modern Turkey – simultaneously an aspirant to the EU, a self-appointed voice for oppressed non-Westerners, and the proud inheritor of a tradition and language reaching back to the pre-Islamic mists of yogurt-quaffing conquest on the Eurasian steppe (Turkish, like German, sounds like it should be shouted by an armed warrior on horseback). Turkey’s cultural capital is just as likely to contradict itself, though in slightly different ways. And why not? Whatever it remembers or forgets, Istanbul will outlive us all.

Above: ideologies come and go, but we will always need food.

5. Istanbul is cheap, safe, and fun. Keep an eye on the headlines, but consider making the trip.

Like I said before, don’t let the headlines scare you off. It’s a good time to visit Turkey, especially as an American.

Coming from Chicago, where most streets are deserted by 8 pm, I was struck by how active many neighborhoods were even after midnight. Jane Jacobs would not be surprised to learn that the busy, densely populated streets of Istanbul are incredibly safe.

Istanbul is also a fun (and young) city if you’re looking for nightlife. Beşiktaş and other neighborhoods have many Western-style bars and clubs. Istanbul also offers alcohol-free late-night cafes like the Mimar Sinan Teras Cafe, where you can drink sherbet and smoke hookah to your heart’s content.

Above: the view from the roof at Mimar Sinan Teras Cafe.

My fellow Americans, can’t you just picture yourselves zipping across the Sea of Marmara in a slick, Knightboat-esque federal reserve note? The old and new city glitters in the distance. Trust me, you’ll have a blast. Just remember to refresh the news app on your phone one last time before docking.

Above: a seagull following the ferry to the Prince’s Islands.