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The beauties of the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus is the defining physical characteristic of Istanbul. After all, how many cities in the world have a sea passing through them? And here, the sea isn’t simply ‘passing through’ – it carries you from Asia to Europe, from the Aegean to the Black Sea, and back again. The Latin name Mediterranean (derived from medi and terra) means the middle of the earth, which was true at the time when the name was coined. And thanks to its intercontinental and between-two-seas position, Istanbul was right at the heart of the middle of the earth.

PEERING AT ONE CONTINENT FROM ANOTHER

The trees, flowers and soil of Kandilli, an Asian district, are not that different from those in Emirgân on the European side. In the end, they share the same water, the same air and the same ground … But the fact that you know you’re looking at another continent when you’re sitting in Emirgân and looking at Kandilli, or vice versa, adds something more to this landscape. Edip Cansever, once said “Is there another like Istanbul? I’m sitting at my desk on one continent and watching the judas trees bloom on another.”

Of course it’s an impressive physical geography, but there’s history in the land as well, and this adds an extra dimension. It may seem strange, but it influences the way we look at things. For example, there stands a tree, like any other. Yet, if one day someone says, “The poet Nedim wrote some of his poems sitting in its shadow,” the way you look at that tree immediately changes.

MYTH OR REALITY?

The Bosphorus is rich with such historical significance beyond its physical beauty, which is enough on its own to take your breath away. Some events aren’t real, though; they’re rooted in myth. Think of the Argonauts (with Heracles and Orpheus rowing alongside) passing here in pursuit of the Golden Fleece in their 50-row ships, from one sea to another. Or consider a cow swimming from Ortaköy to Beylerbeyi across the Bosphorus. This cow is actually Io chased by Zeus, and it is trying to get rid of the fly sent by Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera. Or think of the Persian Emperor Darius the Great tying the broadsides of all the ships together, forming a wooden road and crossing his army of 200,000 soldiers from Asia to Europe in his invasion of Greece. They carved him a throne on the rocks in Rumelihisarı; he sat there and watched his army pass through. It can be hard to distinguish myth from reality.

Think of Mehmed the Conqueror, barely 20 years old and not yet a conqueror. Working at the construction of the Rumelian Castle, he calls his men, who completed the castle in four months, to work faster. 

ISTANBUL - HOME OF MANSIONS

And the mansions … Istanbul is home to many mansions where the ‘upper crust’ spend most of their lives. We’ve lost most of these mansions – wood is powerless against the calamity called fire – but the rest tell us about that world eloquently enough. Some have been restored after many years in disrepair, such as the old Tırnakçı Mansion.

The big mansions take on new functions. It gets harder and harder to keep these huge idle buildings alive as individual residences. Once the home of a family, now a mansion will be converted into a hotel. Some of the burned mansions remain vacant, such as Saffet Paşa or Hasip Paşa. They have recently begun to be restored to start a new life, though it’s not always clear what this will be.

However, it’s been a long time since Said Paşa or Rasim Paşa mansions began their new careers. In the last few decades, the number of restaurants has increased significantly, and some of them are really good. Moreover, besides the permanent mansion-restaurants, mobile eateries and motor boats swimming up and down the Bosphorus have been popular for some time, turning the Bosphorus into a pleasant place to linger. It’s now full of eating places appealing to all tastes and wallets.

When you sit down at a restaurant by the sea, the natural urge is to order seafood. Especially in the olden days, the Bosphorus was a place where the fish wasn’t only cooked and eaten but also where it was caught. Most of the fish population in the Black Sea is made up of migratory fish; from hamsi to loufer and bonito … Every year, these fish come down to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean, lay eggs in the warm waters there and go back to the Black Sea (known as anavaşya; going south is katavaşya). According to Karekin Efendi, there once were about 50 fisheries and over 100 ‘voli areas’, coastal waters appropriate for fishery in the sea or the inland, in the Bosphorus. 

It’s rare but not impossible to see snow; after heavy snow, when the weather gets warm, the snow melts quickly – and of course flows into the sea. This is where the idiom ‘snow water got into the fish’s ear’ comes from. The poor fish become dazed in the instant cold water and giddily rise to the surface. Hop on a boat (though even that may not be necessary) and grab whatever you can find, using a bucket, basin or basket to collect the abundant fish. (But is this overfishing? Perhaps we should leave the fish to grow larger before catching them for food? That’s a whole other topic of discussion.)

ISTANBUL'S ORCHARDS

The Bosphorus isn’t only famous for its fish, but also for the fruit and vegetables that grow on its shores. In the past, the villages along the Bosphorus met most of the city’s needs for fruit as well as fish. For instance, Çengelköy is best known for its cucumbers, but it used to grow all kinds of vegetables. Beykoz is renowned for its walnuts – koz means walnut, so the name is ‘walnut good enough for bey’, i.e. lord, or ‘lord’s walnut’. 

Another fruit unique to the Bosphorus was the Arnavutköy strawberry. Although villagers traditionally grew cherries in their gardens, the lord of the Fener district, İpsilantis, preferred strawberries. The Arnavutköy strawberry is tiny, its colour greyish rather than red; it’s not really sweet, so is generally eaten with icing sugar. You may ask what makes it famous – it’s the smell. The Arnavutköy strawberry has a very particular and refined scent.

Incidentally, it was the Jewish who grew the first culinary artichoke at Ortaköy. And according to Sarkis Hovhannesyan’s book, a delicious species of aubergine was also grown along Göksu River.

Our little Bosphorus journey has turned into a trail of food, ranging from fish to vegetables. Perhaps we should stop here…  Murat Belge/Skylife