Summer comes swiftly

It seems a pair of swifts have moved in with us. They apparently found a hole in the area where our window blinds roll up, and so their shrieks emanate from a corner of our kitchen. Swifts are from the same bird order as hummingbirds, called “apodiformes,” “apod” meaning “footless.” True to the name, I have never seen a swift’s feet, since they never perch–they seem to spend their days in constant flight, and even zoom directly into their nest at full speed. While at first their screeches, which are comparable to a coach’s whistle, annoyed me, I’ve grown accustomed to the daylight-dictated rhythm of their days, with most noise coming at sunset when they bunk down, and occasional squawks afterwards–perhaps sleep-talking?

Speaking of noise, Sergey and I had a cacophonous weekend recently. We went to Saturday dawn prayers at Bahjí, something we rarely do since I depend on the weekends to catch up on sleep, and as we sat in the Shrine, a noisy motor sound filled the air, as if an aircraft was heading directly for us. This was, as it turned out, quite nearly the case, except the aircraft was not the plane I had pictured–it was a flock of what was described as “Go-Karts with parachutes and fans.” But I think a photo would best demonstrate these contraptions:

Flying Go-Kart

Flying Go-Kart

There must have been about 15 of these noisy machines taking an aerial tour of the gardens. While it must have been a beautiful ride as they gazed down at the perfection of the paths radiating around bright flowers and trees–and the curious earthbound Bahá’ís snapping photos of them–their coincidence with the usually quiet and reverent dawn prayers was rather ironic.

Later, in Akka, we were visiting one of the Bahá’í Holy Places where Bahá’u’lláh lived, which is near the heart of the crowded old city. It seemed we were bound to have our meditations disturbed that day. What had seemed to be merely a boisterous fair outside one end of the house soon turned into a procession of marching bands that filed directly under the windows, the drums and horns banishing all hope of focusing. If this was a test of my concentration, I think I failed–after the visit, we ended up joining the throngs below to watch the uniformed youth play their stirring songs.

Celebrating something or other!

Akka schoolchildren 

Museuming

The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls

The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls

Since I arrived, I’d been hearing about the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, home of the fabled Dead Sea scrolls. While I wasn’t sure exactly what the scrolls were, I knew the story about a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbling across the treasure trove of history in some desert caves. So, I knew this museum had to go on my Israel bucket list, and Sergey and I arranged a sherut trip to visit it.

Now, I’ve been in some pretty huge museums before—the Met, the Louvre, the Prado—places where you can easily spend an entire day walking through galleries and still see only a fraction of the collection. While surely smaller than those museums in square footage, the Israel Museum was still giant in scope, covering not only the history of humanity in its archaeological section, but also artwork ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary times with a surprisingly substantial impressionist exhibit, and of course, being the Israel Museum, a series of galleries displaying aspects of Jewish culture, including reconstructed synagogues from around the world.

Suffice it to say, Sergey and I felt like we had run a six-hour marathon running from the Paleolithic to the present by the time we finished!

Making new friends

Making new friends

From the blur of fertility figurines, sarcophagi, and pottery, stone, and glass vessels, we drew two conclusions:

  1. Humanity has progressed incredibly fast over the last 200 years compared to the rest of our history, when it took thousands of years for simple advancements in technology, like the transition from stone to metal tools.
  2. Popular souvenir motifs in the Middle East, like the eye beads and pomegranate sculptures you can find in many bazaars and stores here, have not changed for the past few millennia. (One of my favorites from the glass gallery where we saw these popular decorations were small date-shaped glass vials.)

Next up was the Shrine of the Book, the amphora-shaped building that houses the display of some of the Dead Sea scrolls. Here I learned that current theory holds that the scribes of the scrolls belonged to the Essene sect, which had left Jerusalem and moved near the Dead Sea, where they established a sort of farming commune and bathed a lot (one of their tenets was ritual immersion). Moving to the Dead Sea to farm today would be a fool’s errand, unless you had a sort of crop that enjoyed growing in rocks and thrived on saltwater, but at that time, the climate of the Negev Desert was wetter. Seeing the delicate parchment, torn and tattered samples of the collection of almost a thousand such scrolls, made me marvel at how long they have lasted. For adherents of the Hebrew Bible, it must have been an extraordinary find to discover such ancient versions of the chapters still read today. And the scrolls had to survive not only the caves for thousands of years, but also the greed of discoverers—we read a story of a man who smuggled several scrolls to the US and tried to sell them…by posting an ad in the newspaper. They were returned to Israel, thankfully.

Sort sort of cute demons

Sort sort of cute demons

Finally, we raced through the art galleries, past Monets and odd contemporary installations, and soon we were on the highway back to Haifa, mulling over the past hundred millennia.

The Festival

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Today is the last day of the Festival of Ridván, a twelve-day celebration commemorating the Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in 1863. Ridván has given us the gift of some free time with two days off, and we’ve used that time to get re-acquainted with nature.

At Bahjí, we’ve been observing the peculiar behavior of some spur-winged lapwings. These birds are usually goofy and noisy with their long-legged prancing and squeaky squawks, but lately we noticed them acting more settled, sitting still beneath olive trees. We learned that they nest on the ground, so this was their location of choice for raising their new families. The female birds tranquilly incubated while the males squeaked threateningly at other birds that wandered too close, like the oblivious cattle egret whose itinerant grazing aroused the wrath of one ferocious daddy bird. The poor egret clearly just wanted to eat in peace, not to bother anyone’s chicks. After a few weeks, we saw that the baby birds had hatched. While we didn’t get too close so as not to disturb the brood or provoke the father’s sharp-spurred ire, we enjoyed watching the little dots of fuzz bob around their mother on their stilt-like legs and then scoot beneath her. (I don’t have any presentable photos, but I suggest searching “spur-winged lapwing chick” if you want your heart to melt!)

On the first day of Ridván, we headed up the mountain to hike around Carmel Forest. It was my first time visiting on a weekday, and it was beautifully unpeopled. We were practically the only visitors besides a man in an ice cream truck who seemed to have pulled into the park just to take a nap, since the first sign of him that we saw was his bare feet against the windshield.

The wildflowers were in bloom, from the red poppies to white Queen Anne’s Lace to a host of purple, yellow, and pink flowers I can’t name. We spent a pleasant hour hiking the paths of Little Switzerland.

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Then, last weekend, we went on a stroll to Stella Maris, a promontory with a monastic history overlooking the sea, and discovered that the cable car from there down to the beach was working—a surprise since it was Shabbat. So, in a moment of spontaneity, we bought tickets and hopped aboard an orange bubble that wafted down the steep slope. After a walk along the windy seashore that compelled me to deploy my hood to avoid my hair blowing away, we located the Cave of Elijah (closed due to Shabbat).

We returned up the mountain in the funicular and decided to do a bit more exploring. A few hours earlier, we had seen an acquaintance walk down a path behind a parking lot, so we wanted to see what his destination was. The path led to a picturesque meadow with wild grasses and windblown trees, and further along, a small round white chapel that used to be a windmill.

The picturesque windmill-cum-chapel

The picturesque Holy Family Chapel

What a surprise to discover a wild place in the middle of the city, just a short walk down from the bustle of Stella Maris’s restaurant scene. Standing on the edge of Carmel on a small platform housing a single bench, we stretched out our arms in the strong wind and felt ready to take off.

Sluggish ekphrasis

Recently, Sergey and I visited the Tikotin Museum, which is quite possibly the only Japanese art museum in Israel. We were practically the only visitors and enjoyed having the place to ourselves, from Zen ink paintings to netsuke to imaginative woodblock prints.

Speaking of Zen ink painting, the concept is to not plan out the painting–to let it come naturally, to accomplish it with just a few quick strokes of the brush. In high school painting class, we were supposed to make this kind of painting. Just a brush, ink, and a single paper board–no sketching. I recall I was dissatisfied with my first painting of birds lined up on a branch and did a second one as well, defeating the Zen point. Oh well.

In any event, the Zen paintings at the museum ranged from scribbles and blobs to fully formed scenes involved cheerful little gods and skinny monks. But one struck my fancy (hehe, fancy) in particular, and it inspired the following ekphrastic poem.

Slug fan

 

A gray slug pulls its sticky trail

across the undulating folds:

an ink painting on paper fan.

 

What fingers waved this fan?

 

Did a courtesan twirl it

to cool her swan neck,

painted white to the nape?

 

Or a Zen monk under the red sun

oxygenating his contemplation

of the non-essence (the nonsense)

that flows through the universe?

 

Or a ruddy, readied warrior

bristling with weapons like a sea urchin

prepared to impale whatever soggy ghosts

emerge from the lace-winged waves?

 

Or a virtuous woman

idling upon her coastal balcony

and swatting the mosquitoes from the air

as she waits patiently for her warrior to return?

 

What floating world

was stirred by the delicate indelicacy

of a slug-painted fan?

Springing!

Spring is in the air–quite literally, as birds migrate and trees lift their blossoms.

Tree in bloom at Bahjí

Tree in bloom at Bahjí

Spring has brought both excitement and challenges.

There was, of course, the pre-spring challenge of the Fast. This year, my colleagues upped the ante of “mutual support” during these nineteen days. When we passed through usual morning teatime or entered the afternoon slump, they would dispatch group emails with goading subject lines like “Help yourself!” filled with photos of delicious banquets, caffeinated beverages, and mouthwatering desserts. One colleague, remaining in the office past the usual start of her lunchtime break, explained that she was assembling an email to send later, replete with tempting dishes, now that she had figured out how to insert photos directly into the emails. It was kind of adorable. These emails were always met with sighs from me, and from others, either wistful yearning–“I would choose the marzipan!”–or gentle teasing–“Oh, is this what you’re cooking for us tonight?”

I chose the final day of the Fast, the spring equinox and “new year’s eve” for Bahá’ís, to make that very consequential decision about graduate school–in other words, picking where Sergey and I will settle for the next six years. The journey leading to that decision had taken me from my senior thesis in which I explored the field of composition and rhetoric, through grueling GRE studies and work on the applications…and finally ended rewarding me with acceptance letters and offers. It was a relief for us to finally choose Penn State, where, besides the studying and teaching, I look forward to strolling through autumn leaves hand-in-hand with Sergey and a cup of hot cider.

Pansies after rain

Pansies after rain

On Naw-Rúz, we were invited to dinner with some Ukranian pilgrims. While I was expecting them to be a bit subdued from the chaos their country is undergoing, they surprised me with their joviality, greeting the host and us by bursting into a hearty song. As the sole non-Russophone in attendance, I relied on Sergey to interpret for me throughout the evening. Thankfully, what did not need interpretation was that they liked the German chocolate cake I had made. The funny thing is that several of the women asked if the cake was “from an American concentration.” I started to say no, not entirely understanding their wording, but then realized that yes, the cake was indeed from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix!

***

Several weeks ago, as we were preparing to leave our flat, I sidled up to the window and noticed the sky peppered with birds. These were white storks, returning north from their summer homes in Africa. Israel serves as a crossroads for many species that migrate between Africa and Europe, explaining why for that one weekend, we spotted hundreds of storks silently cruising above us. There was something fascinating about the way they seemed to float as if weightless, holding their long curved wings still, making no sound. Just floating. We saw them again flying over Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, and over Bahjí.

Of course, sometimes the birds come to our offices–or the Arc, actually. The kingfisher has been teasing me by prolonging his poses on statuary in the gardens, seeming to mock me when my phone completely fails to capture his stunning looks. In fact, I’ve become something of a stalker with him. If only my phone came with a mini telephoto lens, then I would have some photos to show you other than the clusters of pixels I’ve managed to gather thus far.

Vision test: can you spot the kingfishers?

Vision test: can you spot the kingfishers? (Hint: on the right, it is above the statue, perched in the tree.)

***

We had a visit to the Ridván Garden a few weeks ago. The scent of orange blossoms, heady and sweet, surrounded us, and we were entranced by the splashing fountain that I’m sure figures in many Bahá’ís’ visions of paradise.

Ridván Garden

Ridván Garden, replete with snapdragons.

The garden’s custodians told a story about how the gardener in the time of Bahá’u’lláh had been horrified to see a plague of locusts descend upon the garden, and ran to Him to ask for help. He replied along the lines of “let the locusts eat, they must have their food too.” I must have absorbed this story into my bloodstream, because by the time our visit ended, I had assembled at least fifteen itchy bites from letting the mosquitoes eat. I looked like I’d developed a sudden bout of chicken pox centered primarily on my right leg. I was rather embarrassed by it and regretted not thinking ahead enough to pack backup stockings. Ah, the pain of vanity!

***

My Christmas cactus is in bloom. It budded around Naw-Rúz and is now bursting with flowers. I’ve been enjoying gazing at it whenever I can–I love the waving arms of the cactus with their petaled, bright hands.

Cactus

PS: This is my 75th post!

Day 6: A palace and a dervish

A few days after leaving Turkey, I had a dream that I was wandering in a vast palace covered with Iznik tiles. I think this was the result of our tour of the Harem of the Topkapi Palace and Tiled Pavilion of the Archaeological Museum, both of which demonstrated an artistic obsession with these intricately painted tiles.

Tiled walls in the Sultan's room

Tiled walls featuring calligraphy surround an ornate fireplace in the Harem.

The day had already turned gray and rainy by the time we got to the palace grounds. The palace is not a single building, but rather a giant complex of buildings around four courtyards. Every sultan made his addition to the complex as new needs arose. At one point 10,000 people lived and worked in the compound, so I suppose the crush of tourists actually helped us imagine how busy this place was when it functioned.

We started with the Harem, the section of the complex where the sultan’s wives and mother lived along with the eunuchs and concubines who tended to the women. Contrary to Western notions, the harem was primarily an administrative establishment, carefully designed to ensure there would be no squabbles over succession because of heirless sultans.

The Harem is the most decorated part of the palace, with many of those Iznik tiles coating chamber after chamber. After touring that part, we began our grueling expedition through sopping courtyards to see the treasury (lots of shiny jewels), the kitchen (unfortunately foodless today), and the armory. In the armory, I found myself suddenly intrigued by a thin sword on display and desperately needing to examine it up close for several minutes, which I assure you was not at all because there was a heat vent below the vitrine. We were amused to find the weapons arranged under signs such as Stabbing, Slicing, Smashing, etc. There were a fair share of funny elements to the palace besides the weapons: the sultan’s throne in his reception chamber appeared big enough to fit ten men side-by-side, the council chamber where the ministers consulted had a window grille above it through which the sultan could listen like a literal eavesdropper, and his mom’s room was located strategically between his room and the rest of the harem. Ah, the tough life of a sultan!

"So...cold..."

“So…cold…”

Hungry and wet from the drizzle, we proceeded to our next stop, the archaeological museum, which is actually a set of three museums. The visit started on a happy note when we found coffee that didn’t cost $10 a cup, approximately the palace price. Now, the café where we lunched had a decent selection with entrees, salads, and sandwiches—but once we had decided on our picks, stomachs growling, we were informed that out of the 20 choices on the menu, they actually only had dolma and pistachio cake in stock.

I guess this was a preview of the rest of the museum, which was under—you guessed it—restoration, and the starring items, such as the famed Alexander Sarcophagus, were off display. A bit perturbed, we made the most of the remaining sarcophagi and their occasionally belligerent inscriptions (e.g. “If any man disturbs this tomb, let him be smashed and his whole family crushed”).

We love history!

Up close and personal with ancient history.

We walked over to the museum next door where we saw…more tiles! In fact, this small museum is called the “Tiled Pavilion.”

Excited to see tiles!

Or “the Tired Pavilion”

Finally, after a detour in the sculpture garden, which is where the disenfranchised statues are left to suffer the elements, we went to the last museum: the “Ancient Orient.” Upon my approaching the entrance, I was greeted by a guard clearly communicating that my entry was unwelcome. Apparently, they chase everyone out 20 minutes before the museum actually closes. I convinced her to let us in for “one minute,” and after we cruised through Babylon, the lights went off. But I could not leave without seeing at least one famous item, the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest known peace treaty. The guards relented and flicked on the lights for us to get a brief look at the tiny cuneiform tablet.

And that concluded our day of odd museums.

With only a few hours left in Istanbul, we headed to the Arasta Bazaar, where Jasmine purchased a beautiful inlaid box and Sergey and I drank the shopkeeper’s apple tea. Then we happened upon an outdoor restaurant where a trio was performing—and, most excitingly, a whirling dervish was whirling!

Dervish

Whirling dervish, Sufi dancer, your skirts are a sheltering canopy, your eyes, divine ecstasy.

Entranced, we watched from the sidewalk, and then decided it was worth eating a freezing al fresco dinner to see him whirl. While I’m always skeptical of the authenticity of “cultural” activities in a tourist district, he seemed to be legitimately meditating as he spun, eyes nearly closed, apparently unconscious of his audience, including the paparazzi in the front row seats (us).

Finally, it was time to say “good night” to Istanbul. Our journey had reached its end.

Near Divan Yolu

City of 10 million people

burqa-clad women, bohemian men,

fish sandwiches scenting thousands of fingers.

East meets West

almost

separated by the strait of the Bosphorus

marble tongue of Marmara licking the cold cup of the Black Sea

and Black Sea pouring its dark contents into Marmara’s mouth.

Day 5: Pilgrims Again

In Istanbul, we had made the first leg of our “mini-pilgrimage,” backtracking in Bahá’í history from the pilgrimage in the Holy Land described in a previous post. After the Holy Family was banished from their homeland of Iran to Baghdad, they were once again banished first to Constantinople then Adrianople before final exile to Akka. While Bahá’u’lláh’s original residence in Istanbul (Constantinople) no longer exists, a house was rebuilt on the spot, located in a strange quarter where women clad in black chadors walk past endless shops selling poofy wedding dresses. We were welcomed by the custodian and visited the upstairs quarters, where some artifacts are displayed. While visiting this house, we met a group of Bahá’ís from Beijing who were stopping briefly in Turkey to visit this house and Edirne before going to Israel. They described their working lives: 12 hours per day for 6 days a week year-round. They were using their scant vacation days to make this journey. The next day, we hopped on a bus that took us on the three-hour trip from Istanbul north to Edirne (Adrianople). I passed the time by working on reading Five Quarters of an Orange, a novel set in the French countryside, which in my mind blended with the damp flatlands we were driving through.

Snowdrops and raindrops in Edirne.

Snowdrops and raindrops in Edirne.

Edirne, Land of Mysteries, was cold and rainy. We beelined to the visitors’ center for the Holy Places, where once again we were met by the custodian and a guide who took us to the House of Bahá’u’lláh across the street, one of three places the Holy Family lived in this city. This was where Bahá’u’lláh’s family moved after He was poisoned at the hands of His jealous half-brother.

The backyard and rear wall of the House of Bahá'u'lláh.

We are standing in the backyard of the House of Bahá’u’lláh.

After our visit, our guide walked us to the nearby ruins of another house, reduced to foundation stones in a grassy meadow. The elderly custodian gave us some aromatic leaves as a keepsake—and I found my own keepsake, a snail shell.

The remains of another House of Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne.

The remains of another House of Bahá’u’lláh in Edirne.

With our remaining time, we visited the famed Selimiye Mosque, designed by the architect Sinan, who also designed the Suleimaniye Mosque that we had visited the day before. First, we surveyed the small, attached bazaar, which was built to support the mosque financially. Then we walked up some steps to the mosque, which won our Prettiest Mosque Award with its airy, bright interior and elegant decorations.

Part of the gorgeous courtyard of the Selimiye Mosque.

Soon enough, we had to leave the Land of Mysteries and catch our bus back to Istanbul. Our last day was nigh upon us.

Day 4: Mosques galore

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Dome of the Blue Mosque, which earns its moniker from the blue tones of its interior decor.

While mosques only require a single minaret from which the muezzin can voice the call to prayer, to show off his wealth and power, the sponsoring sultan of the Blue Mosque—Sultan Ahmet, who gave his name to both the mosque and the district—built six.

We visited Istanbul in “low season” for tourism, the time when the government implements its renovations and restorations of the various historical sights before the influx of visitors begins again with the return of warm weather. Indeed, nearly everywhere we went, we found huge tarps wrapped around walls and covering entire buildings, printed with explanations of the history of the place underneath and the plans for its restoration. The Spice Market from afar looked like an enormous tent, thanks to its veiling tarp. Hagia Sofia featured massive scaffolding inside, and the Blue Mosque featured a mere 5.5 minarets. The remaining 0.5 was undergoing reconstruction.

One minaret, two minaret...scaffolded sixth minaret is outside the frame.

Minaret #6 is currently in hiding.

The Blue Mosque might be the most renowned, but I have to be a mosque snob and say that of the three we entered, it was actually the least impressive. That should give you an idea of just how many gorgeous mosques populate Turkey, thanks to the sultans’ combined religiosity and profligacy!

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Note the giant chandeliers.

Our next mosque was the truly magnificent Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. The architect Mimar Sinan made massive and heavy structures appear buoyant and graceful. Like the heavenly ambience created by the stained glass windows and elaborate décor of Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was clear that the beauty of these mosques was designed to lift the spirits of worshippers to paradisiacal heights.

Mosques were usually surrounded by other establishments like bazaars and kitchens. We had lunch in a restaurant housed in the mosque’s former soup kitchen. When we walked from the stone-paved courtyard into a lofty chamber filled with untenanted tables draped in crisp white linen, we saw that we were the only customers. While I appreciate the quietness of an empty restaurant, at a fancier establishment like this, I prefer having at least a few other customers to distract the flock of attentive waiters from my plebeian etiquette.

“They’re giving us water for free!” I whispered to Sergey and Jasmine after the waiters had filled our glasses before we ordered. “Drink a lot!”

Our experience at this restaurant demonstrated the heights of excellence that a meatball can attain. In Turkey, “koftecisi” or meatballs are oblong patties of ground meat mixed with spices and herbs, then grilled.

We ordered meatball soup followed by meatball dishes. The meatball soup was a creamy blend of lentils, vegetables, and bits of meatball—just what we needed to warm us up after being buffeted by the damp wind. Then came our main course: Sergey got tender cutlets, and Jasmine and I shared…kebab sushi. The filling was made with meat and finely chopped pistachio, which had apparently been formed into a roll, then wrapped with a pastry. This roll is then sliced and the slices are grilled. The end result was delectable!

Alas, our little glasses of apple tea were soon finished and the meatballs gone; we had to exit our culinary cocoon. Yet, the restaurant was not the only gem around the mosque. We found some artisans making their goods–engraved platters and other metal trinkets. Their workshop also functioned as their shop, and after watching them demonstrate their craft, we bought several dishes engraved with gleaming floral patterns.

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter,

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter.

Day 3: Boating down the Bosphorus

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus Strait splitting the European side, which has most of the tourist attractions and commerce, from the Asian side, which is largely residential. We decided to devote a day to seeing more of this important strait, which offers the nations around the Black Sea their sole path of entry and exit to the Mediterranean via the Marmara and Aegean Seas—crucial for trade and navies.

We boarded the ferryboat that would take us on a 1.5 hour journey from the old city up the strait, past the bankside sprawl of Istanbul, to a fishing village called Anadolu Kavağı situated near the mouth of the Black Sea. After claiming seats on the topmost level where we could enjoy the warm sun and chilly wind, we peered down into the waters of the inlet, where cormorants plunged into the depths, and impassive, translucent jellyfish wobbled through the water, almost indistinguishable from the plastic debris that floated on the surface. Seagulls silently swooped above us.

I have way too many photos of seagulls!

I have way too many photos of seagulls…

The boat was docked near the bridge across the Golden Horn, over which the tram passes back and forth to the New District. Below the traffic on the lower, pedestrian level of the bridge, there is a row of seafood restaurants. At 10:00 AM their staff were just starting to clean and prepare for a day of customers, and we watched in amusement as they hauled up water from the strait below to swab the decks of their outdoor seating. In that act, I was reminded of how provident the sea and its estuaries are to coastal cities. Little wonder then that successive empires made this area the focus of their empires, surrounded as it is by a natural moat of generous and protective waters.

The bridge looks like it is buoyed by restaurants.

The bridge with its undergirding of restaurants.

After some time, the engine started purring and the boat pulled away from the dock. As we moved along, we followed the tour in our guidebook, spotting such sights as the European wannabe Dolmabahce Palace and its nearby mosque and clocktower, the Rumelian fortress dating from the 15th century, and several towering bridges across the strait, one for city traffic and one for “intercontinental transit.”

Eventually, the crowded urban area thinned out into areas of mansions with tall trees. In one such tree we saw a cormorant worshipping the sun, wings outstretched.

Sunbathing cormorant

Sunbathing cormorant on the bank of the Asian side.

When we would approach the shore to pick up more passengers, flocks of seagulls would attach as if magnetically to our boat and hover around. Perhaps the wake of the boat stirred up small creatures for their lunch, or maybe they hoped we would jettison our own food—in any case, Jasmine encouraged me to get some action shots of these birds. There were, in fact, several species of seagulls, ranging from a long-winged pterodactylesque breed with harsh eyes to a chubbier, smaller variety with the charm of a flying porpoise.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Now that I’ve started on seagulls, I must digress to another scene. Seagulls were not only present above the Bosphorus, but also all over the Sultanahmet. They careened past the eaves of our hotel as we ate breakfast on the enclosed terrace. More hauntingly, one night as we strolled around the park between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, we observed scores of gulls weaving like ghosts above the domes—like moths tethered to lights.

It's hard to see, but the white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque are seagulls.

The white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque (which looks like a yellow mosque at night) are seagulls.

Back on the strait, we arrived at the village. As we approached, we noticed two things: the ruins of Yoros Castle, our destination, on the peak of a hill, and the black-and-white clad waiters standing in front of their seafood restaurants flagging us down. As none of us care for seafood, we skipped the daily catch in favor of the village’s other specialty, lokma, which are syrupy balls made of a light dough deep-fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Deep-fried deliciousness.

Sticky and sweet deliciousness.

“Mmmm!” was our unanimous reaction to lokma. Yet this treat soon met a tragic end: as we walked away from the bevy of restaurants and hawkers in pursuit of the castle, I flung out my arm to point at a sign saying “Yoros,” just as Sergey was proffering the container of lokma to me. In the ensuing collision, the lokma scattered over the street like sticky marbles. I felt quite crushed by my role in this accident—as crushed as the lokma were soon to become under the tires of passing cars—but luckily, we were still close to the stand and purchased a refill.

Yoros Castle in Andalu Kavagi

The remains of Yoros Castle.

Up the steep hill we hiked, passing by a military zone protected by a high fence, higher and higher until we reached the surprisingly commercialized ruins of the Byzantine castle. We had to pass by another bevy of restaurants to reach our destination. While the castle was admittedly dull since we could not enter (unless we defied the law and scaled its crumbling walls, which some boys did), the summit of the hill did afford a striking view toward the Black Sea.

“Can you see Moldova from here?” I asked Sergey.

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look super hard and use your imagination, you can even spot Sergey's hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev)!

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look hard and use your imagination even harder, you can spot Sergey’s hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev) behind us!

Soon enough, our time on the Asian side was over, and we re-boarded our boat, which felt tranquil after our return hike through the surprisingly traffic-congested lanes of the village. We chose indoor seats and spent most of the return voyage in a half-stupor.

Maiden's Tower seen on the right.

Maiden’s Tower seen on the right.

Towards the end, though, I decided I had to go to the top so I could finally photograph one of Istanbul’s well known sights, Maiden’s Tower, which sits upon a small island. As we neared the European side, the setting sun set the cityscape aglow, smears of saffron light upon the minarets of countless mosques…and neon light upon the signs of countless seafood eateries.

Cityscape centered on Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Cityscape centered on the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Day 2: Time travel

Buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course a didgeridoo.

Dreadlocked buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course some didgeridoos

From the ancient buildings of the Sultanahmet area, we traveled across the inlet called the Golden Horn to the so-called New District. If you recall the protests that rocked Turkey a few years ago, you probably remember that Taksim Square was the site of demonstrations and police crackdowns. That square is at the end of Istiklal Street, where we took our tour of modern Istanbul.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Looking down Istiklal Street from the comparatively quiet square, we saw a river of people. This river only grew denser as the day progressed, reaching flooding point after dark. Occasionally, a trolley would part the crowd, but usually pedestrians packed the entire street. Clearly, Istiklal Street is the place to be on a Saturday. With the exception of a sartorial detour to a silk shop where I ended up with a green shawl, our walk primarily gravitated toward sweet shops, including Haci Bekir, which has apparently been in business for as long as the US has been a nation. There, we sampled pastries and stocked up on mini pizzas and, more importantly, Turkish delight.

Now, I haven’t always harbored much love for this cubic dessert, which has a chewy, gummy texture and traditionally features double-roasted pistachios. But there ain’t nothing like the real thing, and the stuff we get stateside is a mere shadow of actual Turkish Turkish delight, which the Turks call “lokum.”

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

After that, we tried Turkish ice cream, made with goat milk and some orchid product that is probably the same that goes into salep. Then we sampled almond paste and rose-flavored hard candy. Then we had to go to the dentist (kidding!).

Our healthy lunch completed, we finished Istiklal Street and walked further to see Galata Tower, which was constructed by Genoese merchants to assert their tower-building powers. Finally, we ended up beside the Golden Horn, where fishermen flicked their lines in and out of the dusky water.

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

The next day, we were able to get to know these waters even better.