Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul not Constantinople

Our first full day in Istanbul which began with a simple breakfast (coffee, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, the everpresent bread and boiled eggs) overlooking the Marmara Sea, during which I scared off the poor fellow helping us.

All I wanted to do was to say that I liked the cheese and ask what kind it was. Unfortunately, he was from Afghanistan, spoke little or no english, (and apparently not much Turkish either, according to the other staff members) and for some reason I absolutely terrified him.

He skittered off, found reinforcements and hid out while his backup asked what my concern was with the cheese. After I apologised for any confusion and made my actual wishes known, he explained that what we were eating was ghost cheese.

I can only assume he meant 'goat'. You never know, though. He said it three times.

Simit seller stacking his wares

Another typical Turkish breakfast: vendors everywhere sell golden brown flakey twists of bread called simit. Kind of like a bagel, crossed with a croissant. Grab a coffee and one of these and you are good to go.

Our day's plan was simple: go see the sights. The most fabulous that Istanbul had to offer. Nicely, quite a few of those things were not far away from our hotel.

So, first was the Blue Mosque, whose proper name is the Sultan Ahmet Camii.

Built in the 1600s, it's huge, with domes upon domes and 6, count 'em, six minarets. It's also not blue. Funny thing, that. Apparently the "blue" moniker comes from some of the tiling inside, but really, the awe-inspiring thing about this mosque is how the architecture of the domes irresistably draws your eyes heavenward.

And if you thought the outside was lovely, wait 'til you see the inside:

The guidebooks and websites all say similar things: crowds, crowds, and more crowds. One even stated that it was hardly worth fighting through them to see the inside of the Blue Mosque. I was so pleased we went for it anyway. How could anyone want to miss this? Entry is by donation, the amount, or none at all, of your choice for heaven's sake. Money well spent.

At the entrance they give you a plastic bag and you pad around in your socks and cart your shoes (after all, Muslims kneel and lower their foreheads to the carpet to pray), and if you are a woman you've brought a scarf to drape your hair to show the proper respect.

Apparently I left my brain back at the airport (My excuse? At the airport we couldn't get any of our ATM cards to work in the cash machine and we needed Turkish Liras to pay for our visa into the country...we'd abortively waitied in many lines and finally found out they would take Visa for a visa if you really insisted, go figure,) and in a most brainless fashion hadn't brought my pashmina scarf out to the mosque. What the hey was I thinking?! (I have no idea.)

Though there were certainly plenty of bareheaded women, I settled for wearing my jacket with the hood up. Tourist in the 'hood. Classy.

Outside in the courtyard, we were quickly zeroed in upon by a man, "Uncle" Mehmet, who demonstrated much friendliness and quite remarkable knowledge of King County in Washington State. We had a nice chat.

However, when he begged us to allow him to show us Turkish hospitality we warily begged forgiveness and escaped, knowing that while there was the slimmest chance he was just being friendly, much more likely was that he was a tout, trying to get us into some sort of shop...or worse.

The shortest of walks away, past tour buses and trinket stands, is the Hagia Sophia. ( Sancta Sophia in Latin, Ayasofya in Turkish) On the outside she may not be as impressive as the Blue Mosque, perhaps, but inside, where the air is cool and the dome soars overhead, she is wonderous.

The original Hagia Sophia was built in 537 AD and was the largest church in the world for a thousand years. She had her work cut out for her, what with time, riots and earthquakes. Inside, over 30 million (yes folks, that does say million) gold mosaic tiles decorate her walls, especially the grand dome.

Hagia Sophia was a church until 1453 and then became a mosque. The beautiful Christian mosaics were plastered over, either thanks to Byzantine iconoclasm or Islamic belief against graven images. Either way, after the fall of Constantinople it became a mosque for the next 500 years, and additions like minarets were added accordingly.

Then, and this is one of the two really wonderful things about Hagia Sophia, it became a museum, and the now-revealed mosaics, displaying the Christian and Islamic side by side in a fantastic representation of the history of Istanbul. Here, Mary and Jesus and the Angel Gabriel are flanked by giant tablets with calligraphy from the Qu'ran. How wonderful is that? Beauty from religions, side by side, now for everyone.

The other truly wonderful thing about Hagia Sophia is her architecture. The huge dome, awe-inspiring in any age, had to be created from hollow bricks made of an especially lightweight clay found only on the island of Rhodes. The giant pillars supporting the dome are behind the walls, making it appear to float, defining and redefining architecture from then on.

I thought I was wowed by the ground floor, and then Mike told me I had to go check out the mosaics upstairs. Up narrow stone corridors, the floor smoothed by time and many footfalls, upstairs were more mosaics and gorgeous arching yellow ceilings and intricately carved pillars.

Back out into reality, it took a moment to adjust. Reality sank in, and we went for lunch. We visited Topkapi Palace, which I'll tell you about next time and then, hours later, we made our still slightly dazed way back home, following a different road. Coming the other way on that road came...Uncle Mehmet.

To give us an escape, Mike went with him. Where, we did not know, but Thomas went along too. For some reason this made me feel better.

As it turned out, Uncle Mehmet was a carpet seller, and as Mike pleasantly told him, "we're from Dubai, we know carpets." Thomas did his part by immediately beginning to roll out carpets just like any salesman, and in this way they freed themselves, amicably, before the rest of us could start reciting to each other the ominous warnings in the guidebook.

My personal favorite was the one about how anyone, particularly a man on his own, should never accept any beverage, even sealed, as it could have been injected with a hypodermetic of Nembitol, leaving the victim to wake up hours later with a terrible hangover and stripped of everything except, hopefully, their clothing. As it turned out, Mehmet only wanted to sell us a Turkish carpet. No harm, no foul, therefore a very rewarding day.

Recipe for simits, should you like to try a Turkish snack:


3½ teaspoon active dry yeast

Pinch of sugar

¼ cup warm water

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1¼ teaspoon salt

About 1 cup lukewarm water

2 tablespoon molasses

1 cup water


2-3 cups sesame seeds (optional)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ¼ cup warm water and let stand 10 minutes in a warm place until frothy.

Mix flour, yeast mixture, salt and water. Knead at least 15 minutes by hand, or 10 minutes by heavy-duty mixer, until the dough is very smooth and springy. Put the dough in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 2 hours.

Knead the dough a few times on a lightly floured work surface, roll into a log, and divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a tight ball and let rest under a slightly damp towel about 30 minutes.

Roll each ball into a 14 inch long rope. Hold down one end of the rope with one hand while twisting it with the other. Then form this twisted rope into ring, pressing and rolling the overlapping ends together on the work surface with one hand to seal. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rest 1 hour.

Dissolve the molasses in 1 cup water in a bowl. Put the sesame seeds in another bowl and set it next to the molasses water. Dip each “simit” in molasses water first, then in the sesame seeds, making sure the “simit” is completely and thickly coated with the seeds on all sides. Put it back on the baking sheet and let rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 550°F 30 minutes before baking. Put a few cups of water in an ovenproof pan and place it in the oven.

Take each ring and rotate it gently through your hands, enlarging it into a 7 inch circle. Place the rings back on the baking sheet and let rest for 15 minutes or until well puffed.
Bake about 15-20 minutes until rich golden brown in color.

They are their best eaten fresh out of the oven. They will be good all day. You can also reheat them wrapped in foil to freshen them.

Source: Classical Turkish Cooking – Ayla E. Algar

as published on Yelda's Kitchen http://yelda.remgo.com/simit/


Joanna said...

I think ghost cheese is the stuff at the back of Alex's fridge. Some of which may be ghost-goat cheese! The pictures are lovely ... looks like a fine start to the trip. Nice to see that Thomas can help cutely disentangle you from salespeople. :)

*Paula* said...

Oh the scrapbooks you could make from your travels. You should make this blog into a book - you can do that, you know!

Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

Thanks for the recipe!
I second the book idea!

Natalie said...

If you give the receipe a try do let me know it turns out. :) Also, my sister found a documentary on Hagia Sophia for those interested: http://biblicalpaths.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/hagia-sophia-diving-into-the-secrets/