Anatolian Express XVI: Back in the City of the Sultans

June 11, 2014
My day started very early in Bodrum on Monday, with the night clerk at my hotel calling me at 5:30 am to wake me up. I had a shuttle bus to the airport to catch in forty-five minutes and had barely slept a wink the night before. I blame this condition on a lack of alcohol, as I'd refrained the night before from indulging in the rakı and watermelon fest that had typified the rest of the evenings on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Figuring I had to get up early, I'd toned things down a bit, but then wasn't really all that tired by the time my head hit the pillow. Serves me right for trying to organize things too much.
It was pretty cool walking through the streets of Bodrum in the early morning. Normally, everywhere is packed with sweaty grim-faced tourists running the gauntlet of Turkish touts shouting out their wares in English. At such an early hour in the morning there were no tourists to be found, though it's not as if the streets were deserted. A number of the shopkeepers were setting up for the day, one that wouldn't end for them until after eleven o'clock at night. 
I got to the airport without issue--other than the fact that our bus pulled over on the side of the highway for ten minutes while we waited for a late traveler to board. I was flying Onur Air, my old fave from the grand old days of the 1990s. The steward's badge indicated that his name was, in fact, Onur, which was vaguely amusing.

Traveling in style with Onur & Friendz

No food was served on the flight other than the overpriced (6 Lira for tea?) stuff that Onur & Co. were selling. Not that I'm really against this practice--I'd rather pay less than have breakfast on board. But since my most recent domestic flights had been with Turkish Airlines (which lays out quite the spread) I hadn't anticipated going breakfastless. Arriving in Istanbul, I found the shuttle bus just as it was leaving so didn't have time to eat at the airport, either. By the time I had checked into the Taksim Hilton (not really) I was starving.
Naturally, I headed back to my old haunts--Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye and my beloved Muradiye. I had breakfast at the old pastane and stopped off in the shops that I used to go to.
I visit the old area pretty much every time I'm in Turkey (ie, 1-2 times a year) so it wasn't a huge deal, but it was fun to see the old faces again. I wandered up and down my old street--Göknar Sokak--and pondered the brief life of Rona Altınay, which I discussed in an earlier visit to the neighborhood.
After a hearty breakfast and nostalgia session, I went down the hill to Beşiktaş. Borderland readers might remember that this district was one of the centers of protests during the Gezi Park events of last year.
In the evening, I met up with friends in Galata for a really great fish dinner. Once again, I felt very lucky to have loved ones in such a great city. It's kind of a double bonus, because even though I usually come to this country for research, I also get to catch up with friends that I've known, in some instances, for over twenty years.
I also walked around Gezi Park a little bit on Monday. The park is pretty nice--they spruced it up quite a bit after the protesters were evicted last year. As is usually the case with public parks in Turkey, the people hanging out in Gezi on the afternoon were generally folks who don't have the time or money to go sit in an air-conditioned cafe for three hours.
Gezi Park in June of 2013


There were down-on-their-luck/possibly homeless guys sleeping on benches and in grass, young men walking around in groups, some couples and families of seemingly humble means and about a dozen or so police officers.
All in all, it was a pretty different scene from my visits last year when the park was occupied by protesters, many of whom came from the sort of social classes in Turkey who under most circumstances would not want to be caught dead hanging out in a public park in this country. It was no surprise to find the park largely vacant. 
Gezi Park today


I then walked through Taksim Square, which looks terrible nowadays. There used to be loads of traffic on the square, and now it has been re-directed underground through a tunnel system, which is nice. Nothing, however, has been done with the square itself, which now is an extremely large and traffic-free sea of concrete.
Taksim Square's new look

When it's hot and sunny out, walking across this area is particularly unbearable. I think the goal of the AKP officials running Istanbul and Turkey has been to change the way people think of Taksim, which used to be a bastion of European culture in the city. The Ataturk Cultural Center, which showcased opera and ballet, has been sitting empty for years awaiting renovation, while the state theaters that use to be located up the street have now been dispersed across the city. This doesn't strike me as a mere coincidence.
Ataturk Cultural Center sitting empty
Taksim Square

It's not the first time people have tried this. Back in the 1990s, there was a big push to construct a mosque in Gezi Park, and last year Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to build a mosque in Taksim at the same time that he gave up on the idea of building a shopping mall over the park. The fact that the largest and most visible building on Taksim Square is a Greek Orthodox Church is something that's annoyed a lot of Erdogan's supporters for a long time. No one seems to be in a rush to build anything new in Taksim Square just yet, but sooner or later my sense is that someone will come up with new construction plans.

On Tuesday, I ate a lot. For breakfast, lunch and dinner I met up with friends in various places and stuffed myself. In the evening, I headed over to the Anatolian side, taking the ferry on my way there. 

On the Anatolian side, a friend took me by the Barış Manço house museum while we strolled around an area called Moda. The museum was closed at the time, as it was after working hours. It was nice to learn of the museum's existence, however--I'm already a big fan of the Zeki Muren museum in Bodrum. As Barış Manço was one of my favorite Turkish singers, I'll definitely stop by this place again the next time I'm in town.

On my way back to Taksim, I rode the Marmaray for the first time. This is the metro line that runs underneath the Bosphorus, and which has been criticized in some quarters as unsafe. Of course, many of the people who have raised concerns about the Marmaray are political opponents of the AKP, or people--like those associated with the TMMOB, cited in this article--with a vested interest in discrediting the project. But that’s the way things are in Turkey now, with almost every major event viewed by people through the prism of their feelings about the government.

The Soma disaster is another example of this. Opponents of the administration were quick to blame the AKP for the deaths, and used the tragedy as an excuse to demonstrate against the government before the dead had even been counted. The degree to which people have been outspoken in displaying their grief regarding the event has to a large extent occurred in direct proportion to their level of personal antipathy that people feel towards towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In any case, my trip on the Marmaray was exciting, and not only because of the lingering fear of disaster-film caliber calamity in the back of my mind. I never expected to one day cross between Asia and Europe underground in this way.

On Wednesday night, I did something else that I never expected--I had dinner on Suada, the man-made island on the Bosphorus that is home to a series of restaurants and bars. I've always hated that place from afar, as I consider it an eyesore and a assault upon the beauty of one of the world's great topographical features. On the other hand, I was invited by some dear friends, so I admit to being excited to check it out. It was fun, and while you're on the island it's obviously not so horrible. I still pretty much loathe the place in principle, but I had a good time seeing some old friends that I've known for more than 20 years. And hey, it was a pretty cool location.

At the same time, there are some other friends here whom I haven't been able to see during this trip. To them, I apologize. I'll be back again soon, I hope, so perhaps I can make amends at a later date.
And now it's late Wednesday night, and I've got a plane to catch early in the morning. It's been a good trip, but there's loads of stuff for me to do in Montana. I've kind of felt like my vacation was pretty much over ever since I left Bodrum. Istanbul for me feels more like home, but the fact is that my home isn't here right now--all my stuff is in the MT. I've got stuff to do with my book, as well as prepare for a summer class I'll be teaching, so it's time to get back to work. To tell you the truth, I feel ready.


More pictures from Bodrum can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.


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