another side of Istanbul
Sprawled across both banks of the Bosphorus, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul can be overwhelming. On our first visit, we took in most of the must-see sights. We visited the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and both the Topkapi and Dolmabahce palaces. We strolled around the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, visited the underground Basilica Cisterns, and took a trip up the Bosphorus to the Princes Islands. With all that, we barely scratched the surface of all that Istanbul has to offer.
One can see a lot simply wandering Istanbul’s streets, but the city is so massive and the sights so scattered that one will surely miss a lot more without studying a map or guidebook beforehand. We did not have time to do much research before arriving in Istanbul and found ourselves literally walking in circles at the outset. After almost an hour of aimless ambling we finally came up with a plan and headed to Galata for a glimpse of Istanbul’s Jewish history — something we did not get to see on our previous trip.
There are several synagogues in Istanbul, but it takes some effort to visit them. In recent years, they have been targeted in various terrorist attacks and anti-Semitic acts, so they remain mostly closed to the visiting public. The only way to gain admission is by scheduling an appointment in advance, oftentimes by emailing or faxing a copy of one’s passport. We reached out to one synagogue upon arrival, but never heard back from the rabbi. We did, however, find a synagogue that housed a small museum that is open to the public. It was hidden in a cul-de-sac at the end of a dead-end side street. If we hadn’t asked for directions as soon as we crossed the Galata bridge, in all likelihood we would have never found it.
Billed as the repository of Jewish history in Istanbul, the small and rather underwhelming museum focuses on the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims. There were a few interesting panels on how Turkish diplomats stationed in Vichy and Rhodes saved Turkish Jews from the Nazi concentration camps and how the sultans in earlier centuries gave testimony defending Jews against the blood libel, but the museum’s curators overstated their rosy-colored vision of the past. One of the exhibits even proclaimed that Jewish culture was an offshoot of Islam. A more plausible explanation for why the customs of Turkish Jews resembled those of their Muslim neighbors would have mentioned how centuries of persecution the world over had taught Jews to assimilate and adopt the customs of other cultures.
We had read in our guide book that Istanbul’s modern art museum is free on Thursdays and headed there next. Upon arrival, we learned that admission is free only for Turkish residents, which means that the vast majority of the people reading the guide book would not be able to take advantage of this offer. Istanbul Modern is well worth the price of admission, however. The European Museum Forum picked it as its Museum of the Year in 2009. The space is fantastic, and the museum features quite a number of interesting artwork, all created by Turkish artists.
Of course, no trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to one of the city’s many splendid mosques. We visited two on our last afternoon. The Suleymaniye Mosque is massive. Built in the 16th century by the great architect Sinan in only seven years, it sits on one of Istanbul’s seven hills, overlooking the Golden Horn. Newer buildings largely obstruct the view nowadays, but there is still a small section of courtyard that retains its vantage point.
The Suleymaniye Mosque is imposing and definitely worth a visit, but we actually liked it less than the outwardly modest Rustem Pasha Mosque, which is crowded among the buildings near the Spice Bazaar. Not only is its interior inlaid with gorgeous blue tiles, but it also feels more intimate. We arrived a couple of minutes before the call to prayer and were the last visitors permitted to step inside before the late afternoon prayers began. We had the mosque all to ourselves for five minutes and then ceded it to the worshippers as darkness fell, closing the curtain on our trip.