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On The Bosphorous

My first and favorite evening in Istanbul consisted of a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus Strait.
Amazed that I was finally in this historically grand and bewitching city, I was able to gaze at
illuminated monuments and UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Galata Tower, Hagia Sofia,
Blue Mosque, Rumeli Fortress, and Topakai Palace as we sailed under a sky, lit by stars and
Victor Hugo moonbeams. From the deck of the catamaran, I observed as many guests as I
could, considering which ones were natives vs tourists: which ones recognized the privilege of
this evening’s highly anticipated experience: which ones appeared the most interesting to join
for dining. I had imagined that this excursion was going to be quite uncommon- a three hour
circuit, located between Europe and Asia. From one side to the other, we were to roll along on the
infamous Bosphorus Strait, which is strategically positioned in Istanbul between the two continents. I
had a litany of thoughts and questions that I wanted to ask during the course of the evening. So, I invited
myself to a table and decided to engage an eclectic and lively group of table mates (Bosphorous Table
Mates: BTM) in conversation. Here’s my best recap of our dialogue:

ME: What are your favorite monuments here in Istanbul and why?

BTM: The Blue Mosque! The exterior architectural design is an extraordinary integration of Byzantine
and Ottoman style with many curved domes and the most minarets of all the mosques in Istanbul.
That’s saying a lot, since there are more than 3,000 mosques here. The Blue Mosque is probably the
most recognized and photographed monument, also called the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.

ME: Do you know why it is called The Blue Mosque?

BTM: The “Blue” comes from the color of the tiles inside the mosque on the walls.

ME: Other favorites?

BTM: Hagia Sofia because the history is intriguing. It’s in the best area, the Sultanahmet neighborhood
in the District of Faith, along with The Blue Mosque. Hagia Sofia was built as an Orthodox Christian
Basilica over 1500 years ago during the rule of the Byzantine Empire. Under Ottoman rule in the 15 th
century, it was converted to a mosque then; changed into a museum in the 1930’s; and finally back
again to a mosque by President Erdogan in 2020 as a sign of Turkey’s growing Muslin influence in the
Muslim/Arab world. Its interior architecture is more interesting than that of The Blue Mosque and it is
famous for the Byzantine mosaic masterpieces on its inside walls.

There’s also Topakai Palace Museum which was the Ottoman Imperial Palace where all the sultans lived
for over four centuries with up to 4 wives and a harem of about 300 concubines! You must go there and
see the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It’s an 86 carat diamond, surrounded by many smaller ones, making it
the fourth largest diamond in the world. Value: $4M. The mother of pearl inlaid throne of Ahmed is also
a must to see.

The three bridges: Bosphorous Bridge, Mehmet Faith Bridge and Sultan Yavuz Bridge are all really quite
beautiful, especially when lighted up at night, as you can see from here.

ME: By the way, speaking of Muslin leadership in the Islamic world, do you have an idea of how much
of the population of Turkey is Muslim?

BTM: Close to 100%, maybe around 98%.

ME: Where else should I be sure to go?

BTM: The Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, some neighborhoods.

ME: Let’s talk about the Basilica Cistern. It’s been described to me as “mystical” and was featured in
James Bond’s, “To Russia with Love.”

BTM: It’s said that there are hundreds of them lying under the city. The Basilica Cistern, near Hagia
Sofia, is the largest, although it doesn’t have a lot of water in it. That’s because of tourists. The lighting
has recently been updated to red and you will see the Roman, medusa-like and unique columns and
figurines. Yeah, it does have a spiritual quality.

ME: You mentioned visiting some neighborhoods or districts. Which do you recommend?

BTM: On the European side, Sultanahmet, of course, for the important historical sites. Also, on the
same side, the Besiktas District (museums, palaces, small business activity, universities); lively Beyoglu
(Galata Tower, museums); Sawyer (sophistication, rich area, unique views) are worthwhile.

On the Asian side, visit bustling Kadikoy (traditional, produce/fish markets); Maltpe (highly educated,
Sea of Marmara view).

ME: Speaking of geography, we talked a lot about Istanbul being split between two continents. Are
there distinct cultural differences due to the fact that 10M Turks are European and 4M are Asian?

BTM: Not really, that’s a Western conceptualization. Whether living on the Asian side or the European
side, the people are Turks and residents of Istanbul, sharing the same culture, language and beliefs. It’s
no different than people who live in NYC and in Albany, who are considered Americans and New
Yorkers, simultaneously- same language, basic beliefs and culture.

ME: What about differences in economics and geographical characteristics from one side to the other?

BTM: The European side is more populated, visited, modern and cosmopolitan. It has thrived, with
gorgeous residential and commercial real estate, hotels, restaurants, nightlife and historic places. The
Asian side, on the other hand, is quieter, greener, cleaner, more traditional and authentic.

ME: What do you know about Turkey’s diversity?

BTM: It’s a melting pot, especially Istanbul, and there are no border walls. You’ll find representation of
just about all races, religions and cultures. The diversity mix is extremely complicated and intricate, for
example: Turks, Uygurs, Uzbeks, Kurds, Albanians, Greeks, Armenians, and other Balkans; Turkish,
Semitic, Caucasian, Indo-European languages spoken.

ME: I’m a romantic. I heard there is a myth associated with the Bosphorus. Does anyone know it?

BTM: Supposedly, it has to do with the jealousy of the Greek Goddess Hera, wife of Zeus. The lover, Lo,
was turned into a cow and forced to wander, tormented by flies, until she reached a deep strait. The
name Bosphorous means “the place where the cow crosses.” There are also several legends about the
Golden Horn.

ME: Interesting. Why is the color of the Bosphorous so blue?

BTM: Scientifically, due to a great many micro-organism of turquoise color (phytoplankton).

ME: And, why is this strait so critical?

BTM: It’s always been a critical trade route. It divides one country between two continents and it and
the Dardanelles Strait control access to the Mediterranean Sea, by joining the Black Sea to the Sea of
Marmara, and on into the Mediterranean. That means Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia
require access through Turkey and the Bosphorous.

ME: I have “The Tailor,” a Turkish TV series, on my list to start watching when it comes to Netflix. And, I
am hearing about more and more Turkish films and series gaining in popularity, like “Midnight at the
Pera Palace” and “The Club.” Why is that happening?

BTM: Turkey, and Istanbul, in particular, has a long history in cinema, which seemed to really take off in
the 50s. At first, there were a lot of low budget and erotic films but, now, there are more blockbusters.
The one called “The Valley of the Wolves” in early 2000 was said to be one of the most costly to make
and one of the highest grossing films. Current Turkish cinema closely mirrors the culture and 
lifestyles of Turkish society, which is the reason it’s rising in popularity.

ME: Hercule Poirot, detective, solved the murder on the luxurious and infamous Orient Express in
Agatha Christie’s novel and film, “Murder on the Orient Express.” I’ve been following real life plans for a
relaunch of the train, with refurbished and Art Deco embellished cars along the original route: Venice
Simplon- Orient Express: Paris, Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul. Are you interested?

BTM: Finally, after nearly 50 years, it’s coming back in May, 2024! It would be sensational to take this
six-day trip from Istanbul to Paris in time for the Paris Olympics!

ME: I’m in, too! At $22,000 per person, rescue me when the coast is clear. I’ll be in stowaway.

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