Never Mind The Rain, Here’s The Istanbul: A Walk Around Sultanahmet

Day two of a 3 day exploration of this great city

Read Part One: Of Mosques and Cats: A Walk in Istanbul from the Grand Bazaar to Fatih Mosque
Part Three: Hunting, Shopping & Fishing: A Walk in Istanbul from Galata Bridge to Taksim Square

After the visit to the Fatih district on the first day in Istanbul I was on a high. After putting our feet up for a while in the afternoon we made our way towards Galata bridge, intending to capture night descending over the Bosphorus and taste the night life. Unfortunately the weather forecast proved supremely accurate and it began to rain heavily.


Colin and I made it as far as Sirkeci and beat a retreat to eat al fresco in an alleyway filled with restaurants where the locals eat. Some lads kindly moved their backgammon game across to a cafe on the opposite side of the street so the waiter could put up a trestle table for two. The rain was hammering down on the awnings that stretched from both sides of the alley, just failing to meet in the middle and leaving a foot gap on the pavement where the rain formed itself into a stream and flowed by. I filled up on lovely lentil soup and chicken kebabs and we chatted with the waiter (his wife was in Manchester). Half way through our meal, some builders turned up to carry on the work they had started, renovating the premises next to the restaurant we were dining at. They sorted out the broken downpipe that was sending the odd splash of water onto our table and they went inside out of the rain to do some plastering. Then we had tea, and then apple tea, biding our time to see if the rain might stop; but it wouldn’t, and it didn’t.

Wet, Wet, Wet

We paid up and had a friendly farewell from the restaurant. I’m not sure what exactly possessed us to walk back towards the hotel (a good 20-25 minute walk) in the heavy rain, but that’s what we decided to do. Perhaps we were expecting to see some lovely reflections in puddles or amusing scenes of people wet through. That’s when the van passed us and sprayed us from head to toe in filthy water that was gushing down the steep street we were climbing. I became the image I was seeking, wet from head to toe. My feet were squelching in the new trainers I had bought just before the trip. I was more than a bit pissed off.

Perspective

Feeling sorry for myself, we walked along Divan Yolu Caddesi, passing the tram stop at Cemberlitas (which we should have taken). But then I saw something that jolted me out of my mood. Sitting on the edge of the pavement, huddled together for warmth and trying to keep dry in makeshift waterproofs of plastic black bin liners were two small children and their mother; Syrian refugees. It truly was a pitiful sight. I gave myself a psychological slap, walking as I was back to a warm hotel room, with dry clothes waiting and cold beer in the bar. Later on I remembered a Garry Winogrand quote, “It sounds like you are talking about your own comfort”, which was his retort to a fellow photographer who seemed more intent in complaining about conditions he experienced on a trip rather than the photos he had taken.

Day Two Begins

Still raining heavily, we ate a long breakfast hoping for a break in the weather that never came. So in the end, we took the tram down to Sultanahmet, the heart of Istanbul and the main tourist area. We figured we could hang out in the Hagia Sophia or Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) looking for image opportunities until it stopped raining. When we alighted the tram everyone was looking a bit damp and making their way somewhere indoors. Every other person seemed to be selling umbrellas, mostly red ones, which many unprepared tourists happily took in exchange for a few Lira. After a thankfully short queue for Hagia Sophia (compared to the Blue Mosque) we were home and dry. The Hagia Sophia (meaning holy wisdom) was originally built as a cathedral in Istanbul (then Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire) in the sixth century A.D. It contains two floors centered on a giant nave that has a great dome ceiling, along with smaller domes, towering above. It is breathtaking today. It must have been other worldly in the sixth century. Now a museum, you are free to roam independently and dodge the throng of tourist groups filing in and out every few minutes lead by a leader holding an umbrella over his head like a legion’s standard.

Hagia Sophia and the Selfie

The same challenges apply for candid street photography in a large and busy indoor space as they do outdoors. With a lot of people milling around, it was relatively easy to become invisible, or pursue a potential subject. With everyone looking domewards, admiring the monumental scaffolding, or taking selfies, getting close was easy. Isolating subjects or getting a ‘clean’ image though, was just as difficult as outside. In the end, stepping back and taking a wider view was my preferred approach. Colin and I walked off in different directions to see what we could make, two outsiders working inside this wonderful building. Stand around long enough in such a place and you begin to see patterns emerge; the favoured locations for pictures of the church and selfies, the route most people take when exploring, the quieter corners, and yes the cats (see day one here). I began to realise that a lot of people weren’t really fully experiencing the Hagia Sophia, but were collecting souvenir selfies at different locations (see this Martin Parr article for a similar point of view). The selfie stick, a trend yet to peak, was in evidence. Some of the organised tours whipped along so quickly it surely wasn’t possible to soak in the place and actually feel something for the location.

As is often the case with me, it was hunger that dictated the end of my exploration inside Hagia Sophia and drew me back out into the cool, damp early afternoon in Sultanahmet. Over lunch it finally stopped raining and the sun teased us with whole minutes of warm soothing sunshine before disappearing again. Umbrella salesmen magically and seamlessly morphed into bottled water salesmen. There was to be no post-lunch siesta today. It was time to work the weather window.

Hippodrome Hipsters and Languid Dogs

Tanked up on bulgar wheat, chicken and tea, Colin and I walked the area between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and also Gülhane Park, dipping in and out of Sultan’s tombs and stopping for the odd ‘comfort break’. With the rain now stopped, the atmosphere took on a more leisurely feel. Istanbulites were taking walks with their families. Trendy young people were hanging out with friends. Tourists were relieved to be outside enjoying the sights. Street vendors were selling kestane kabap (roasted chestnuts) and freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juice. Of particular note were the park dogs which seem not only to have a cordial relationship with the local cats, but also with each other, far too chilled to bother with territorial barking which would only interrupt what they are best at; lying down and doing nowt.

Leaving a tomb we spotted a young couple in wedding attire having their portrait taken by a photographer. Within minutes they were the attention of a swarm of mobile phone wielding tourists, but they seemed to be enjoying the attention. As the afternoon wore on we joined the modest queue at the Blue Mosque, waiting for it to reopen after Ikindi. Here another languid dog occupied a spot on some steps, his coat colour blending so well with the colour of the stone, the long sighted tourist ready to rest their legs would have been in danger of sitting on him.

And so the mosque reopened. The initial kerfuffle to remove shoes and cover up gave way to a restful, end of the working day atmosphere, once inside. It was, and is, a most beautiful building and I hope my images have done it some justice.

Next: Day three sees us walking over Galata Bridge spanning the Bosphorus and strolling up to Istiklal Caddesi, terminating at Taksim Square. For me, this was the most enjoyable and satisfying day photographically speaking.

 

 

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