Friday, June 15, 2007

from Istanbul: sultans, harems and salt

At some point you have to turn your back to the markets, the maze of streets, the mosques, the food vendors and enter the gates of Topkapi.


Residence of the sultans and their staff (are concubines considered “staff”?) for most of the time of the Ottoman Empire, it is the palace of palaces, the jewel, the throne, the dagger (of movie fame), the place of great kitchens, home to the women of the harem.

All this for the price of a ticket. (Okay, if you want to see the harem rooms, that’s another ticket. Few groups do this – I have to think it’s for reasons other than the added cost.)

The grounds are so spacious that even tour groups and the countless Turkish families who make the trip up here do not really disturb your own contemplation of the palace and what it represented.

We take a moment to admire the gracefulness of the buildings, from a quiet corner:


And of course, I spend some time peering into kitchen pots:


Most of the people scoot over to the treasury. Thrones and flasks and swords, studded with emeralds and diamonds are the draw here (no photos allowed). That’s all fine and beautiful, but for me, the walk through the harem quarters puts the needed stamp of a sultan-era reality to the place.

I’m still not entirely sure how it is that you made your way to be the mother of the future sultan, or the favorite concubine for that matter. And what duties did you perform as such? What took place here was veiled. In secrecy.

Today, as you walk from one room to the next, from the private sultan baths to the receiving rooms, all you can grasp is the beauty of the art…


…and the prison like feeling of closure for the women who lived here.

Outside, the afternoon sun is still more forceful. Turkish families seem unaffected by it, maybe because this is only spring. In the summer, the heat intensifies.

I watch people take their own pauses. Couples. Families. Mothers and sons. So warm, they must feel so warm.


In the late afternoon, we take the ferry back to the Asian coast. The quiet coast. Before the two bridges went up, the residents stayed put or traveled by boat to the city. Not surprisingly, the towns along the coast feel very removed from Istanbul proper.


At dusk, we travel even further north on the Asian side for dinner. In the small bay of Korfez, just past the second bridge linking Asia to Europe, a restaurant serves wonderfully fresh seafood, a mere step from the water’s edge.

Small boats pull up and people disembark right into the dining area. We watch these arrivals with amusement. Istanbul people. A hefty trip for them, but well worth it for the sense of quiet and intimacy here, in Korfez.


Omer, the owner and chef is a charmer. He chats with me about his own love of photography, his relentless pursuit of pictures of people, of the perfect views.

You’ve been doing this restaurant stuff a long time? – I ask.
Yes, really a long time. You’re staying just down the road, aren’t you? And you are from America? I like New York!
But the food here is so good!
There too! My favorite meal was at Balthazar!

Balthazar. Trendy Balthazar. And Korfez, where the waiter brings out a salt-encrusted sea bass, flames it, knocks off the salt and serves the most incredible pieces of fish for you, all in the flash of fire and tenderness, against the backdrop of the Bosphorus.


Such foods they have here! Add a bottle of Turkish white, a baklava for dessert, a strong espresso. Perfect satisfaction. Thanks, Omer.