Istanbul By The Horns 

When I think back on the five nights I recently spent on holiday in Istanbul, I think of words like “dense”, “sprawling”, and “kebap”. I think of steep cobbled streets and unclean air. I think about what a privilege it was to be able to travel again (or at all).

Before the wonder of the trip fades entirely—that wonder that attends the shock of being immersed in a foreign culture, of being in a place where even such foundational elements as the air, the trees, and the sky are subtly different—before I lose that to the steady patterns of my daily life, I thought I’d jot down some points that stood out to me while I was gone. 

  • Cost: Everything was relatively cheap because of the hyperinflation Turkey is experiencing, which this Planet Money episode explains much better than I could. The value of the Turkish Lira has plummeted—the dollar:lira exchange rate has gone from 1:3.6 in 2017 to about 1:15 at the time of writing. It lost 41% of its value in 2021 alone. This is… terrible for the Turkish people, but good news for others hoping to travel cheaply to that part of the world.

  • Cats: There are so many in Istanbul! Estimates range from a hundred thousand to a million. They are apparently viewed as “communally-owned”. According to Wikipedia, “every street in Istanbul has cats that are familiar to locals. In these streets, tiny “cat houses” have been prepared for stray cats. Neighbourhood residents place food and water containers in front of their houses to feed [them]”. This accords with what I saw: cats in shop windows, cats at bars, cats in groups and cats alone, cats in street art and the hearts of people. Cats.

  • Cleanliness: Most of the parts of the city that I saw had an inescapable griminess. Lots of flaking paint, abandoned buildings, piles of rubble. The air was often sharp with smoke. Wikipedia claims that around 8% of the country’s deaths are caused by air pollution-related illnesses, which checks out. The urban decay was counterbalanced, though, by the abundance of graffiti and street art, which gave the environment colour and personality.

    I don’t want to give the impression that trash was piling up in the street or anything—the grime didn’t really distract from all the glossy shops and cafes that were packed into every alley. Mostly, I was just struck by how safe I felt, despite the grime. The city was always busy, with people wandering the streets at every hour, so I never felt unsafe walking around—even after dark. Coming from South Africa, that’s a novelty. Grime > crime.

  • Cafes: It was great that there were so many cafes open late into the evening. That one can’t get a good hot drink after like 9pm in Cape Town never fails to make me sad.

  • Corruption: Since I started working at an anti-corruption organisation, my ears perk up whenever I hear the c-word. So I found it really interesting that Turkish politics is also marred by corruption, which has steadily increased over the last decade (although it plays out differently than in South Africa).

    The history of Turkish politics, and the events that led to current President Recep Erdoğan’s election, are far too complex for me to capture here—after some basic reading, one thing I know is that I don’t really understand what’s going on. It struck me while reading this in-depth review of a biography about Erdoğan, though, that the president used accusations of corruption against his enemies to consolidate his power, and that he rode waves of pro-EU sentiment to denude historic government institutions of their capacity, while at the same time creating new institutions staffed by those loyal to him.

    There was also a coup in 2016 that led to “about 10% of Turkey’s 2 million public employees” being removed from office, which…damn. These few facts form the tip of an iceberg. If you want to know more, maybe read about it and let me know what you learn.

  • Cool Spots: Istanbul proved to be the kind of place ideal for would-be flâneurs, where just wandering the streets was rewarding in itself.

    There’s a feeling of satisfaction that follows when a terrain that was once wholly unfamiliar starts to lock together in one’s mind. I associate it most strongly with games like Dark Souls, where one can experience this in its most concentrated form, though of course the real world abounds with such examples as well. This is what it felt like to walk around in the city: gradually, order emerged from chaos, and I started to get a sense of how the different pins on my map (below) connected to one another.

    Beyond this general experience, if I had to pick some highlights I’d point to my visits to Topkapi Palace, former home of the Sultans; to the Istanbul Archeological Museums, which house countless ancient Greek sculptures, and which have a whole wing dedicated to ancient Sumerian artefacts (including what some claim to be the “world’s oldest love poem”); and to a cruise I took down the Bosphorus River, which divides the European and Asian sides of the city. Despite the inevitable onset of museum fatigue, I still find myself thinking of the serene beauty of the many things I saw.

  • Culture: Culture, being an amorphous, heterogenous, and diffuse beast, is difficult to pin down; even if we distinguish between the historical culture peddled by tourist agencies and guidebooks and the contemporary culture experienced by living people. If someone asked me about the dominant contemporary culture of the city in which I currently live, Cape Town, I’m not sure what I’d say—probably something about the city-wide love of the mountain. But city culture is different from suburb culture is different from campus culture; and factors like race and class augment things further.

    Whenever I travel, I typically yearn to know what the cultural experience of someone with my age and interests is like. This is always an unsatisfying pursuit: if I can’t even confidently answer this for my own city, how can I hope to in someone else’s? But even so, from the few vignettes I was exposed to, and particularly from the brief chats I had with university-adjacent strangers (I met a troupe of dancers at a rooftop bar one night, and a young doctor and his friends at a techno club on another), I got the sense that young people there are like the young people in every city, albeit filtered through their peculiar historical and legal regimes. (I was surprised to discover that, unlike in South Africa, nobody seemed to really smoke weed.)

    I guess, in vague conclusion, shoutout to globalisation for making faraway parts of the world instantly recognisable—like the shadowy dancefloor dominated by figures in all-black, as at every other techno party I’ve been to. You make it easier to fit in.

  • Concluding Thoughts: I only did like 60% of what I’d intended to. I would happily go back—though if given the choice between Istanbul and somewhere else I haven’t been, I’d probably take the place unvisited, as I’m always eager to take in new sights.

    Anyway, here’s a list of cool places to visit that I made while I was away, in case you’re planning a trip: Istanbul by the Horns

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