Turkish Delights

December 5, 2006

In Istanbul the call of the sea can be hard to resist. “in the summer,” wrote American ambassador Samuel S. Cox in 1887, “Constantinople is uninhabitable by reason of its stenches, dogs and heat.” Things have improved since then, but summer in Istanbul is still pretty hot, and its streets are choked with traffic and day trippers, if not with dogs. The saving grace is that you’re never far away from the water. It glitters behind domes and minarets, peeps out between office blocks, waits at the bottom of steep cobbled slopes, and even when it is not within view, you have only to close your eyes and listen, and high above you, oddly harmonizing with the amplified prayer song of the muezzin, you can hear the sea gulls calling.

There is no better way to shake off the dust of the city than to head off for a few days to the islands. They are called the Princes Islands, or sometimes the Red Islands, but most people in Istanbul simply refer to them as Adalar, the Islands. They are conveniently close – the nearest is only ten

Miles away – but they remain locked into a different time, a different rhythm.


The islands – there are nine in all with a population of some 40,000 – have a checkered past. From the beginning of the Byzantine period they were called Papadonisia, the Monks’ Islands, for the abundance of monasteries on them. But the monasteries served also as a more sinister kind of retreat.

For nearly a thousand years they were used as political prisons, a dumping ground for various deposed sultans, jilted queens, and troublesome clerics. “No place,” wrote one historian, “has witnessed so many princes and princesses blinded with hot irons, so many exiled from the honors of Empire, and left to die in their sleep, under quilts of silk, in the small dark prisons of these island monasteries.”

If you are hurrying, you can reach the Princes Islands by hydrofoil – the “sea bus” – in less than half an hour. But to savorthe journey, take the slower passenger ferry. It chugs off into the dark, pungent waters of the Golden Horn, rounds Seraglio Point, where black-clad anglers stand, and enters the crowded lanes of the Bosporus.


Crossing to the Asian shore, coasting past the now drab splendor of the Haydarpasa railway station – the starting point of many an Asian odyssey – the ferry docks briefly at Kadik¿y before heading off due south into the Sea of Marmara.

That sea, which takes its name from the Greek word for “marble,” is virtually a large salt lake formed by the flow of waters from the Black Sea to the Aegean. There, at the legendary narrows of the Hellespont, Leander drowned as he swam to Hero, and Lord Byron swam across on May 3, 1810, declaring later, “I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do any kind of glory, political, poetical or rhetorical.”

“The moment I am on the boat, I forget all about Istanbul,” says Attila Awshi, a soft-spoken, American-educated Iraqi Turk who runs an oil and spice business from a small office at the Egyptian bazaar. He lives on B¿y¿k Ada (Big Island) and is one of about 5,000 residents who commute daily to and from Istanbul. He stretches luxuriously, calls for glasses of tea. He has lived on the island for five years.


So, does he like it there?

“No,” he says. “I love it. It is my vil-lage now.”

The breeze cools the afternoon sun, a man hawks Rubik’s Cubes, a gypsy brings out a fiddle and passes the hat round. The adrenaline of Istanbul recedes as palpably as its marvelous skyline sinks into a pollution haze behind us.


A carpet seller, taking a couple of carpets to a customer on Burgaz Adas¿ (Castle Island), genially insists on showing me that his wares are pure wool-on-wool. He burns a tassel. (The smell of burning wool is different from that of cotton, jute, or nylon – a useful tip, even if you don’t know the difference.) He tells me the meaning of colors in a carpet: red for riches, green for heaven, blue for nobility, brown for friendship, and yellow for keeping the devils at bay.

I ask him what kind of devils he means. He roars with laughter. “They are everywhere,” he says. “But I think not so many out there” – jerking his hand toward the islands – “as behind us.”

After an hour we reach the first island, K¿nal¿ Ada, whose steep sandstone cliffs are a reddish color, hence its name, which means Henna Island. This is the smallest and least wooded of the four main islands. Most of the people are of Armenian descent.

The horn of the ferry echoes off the rocks.Thewharf looks empty as we sail up, then is suddenly full. Aluminum window frames and bales of foam rubber are unloaded, then a TV aerial, a vacuum cleaner, a child’s bicycle. As we sail away, after a stop of no more than five minutes, the wharf is empty again.

On first landing at B¿y¿k Ada you might think you’re in a normal Turkish resort – the row of seafood restaurants along the waterfront, the gaggle of kebab joints around the clock tower, the shops selling suntan lotion and rubber beach sandals with “Tahiti” printed on them – but five minutes’ walk in any direction takes you into the island’s unique atmosphere.

There are two things you notice straight away. One is the marvelous architecture of the old summer houses, known in Turkish as k¿sk, the origin of our word “kiosk.” Many of these date from the 19th century, when the island first became popular as a resort. (It was actually a resort as early as the sixth century, when Emperor Justin II built a summer palace here.) The k¿sk are tall, wooden buildings, replete with verandas and turrets and fantastical curlicues – a style one might describe as Ottoman Gingerbread. Some are newly painted a brilliant, glossy white; others are faded and dilapidated, lurking behind rampant shrubberies of oleander and jasmine.

The other thing you notice, especially after a spell in Istanbul, is the silence. There are no motor vehicles allowed here. Soon even the sound of a lawn mower will make your head turn in irritation. In the absence of cars the main mode of transport is the horse and carriage known as the phaeton. Rush hour on B¿y¿k Ada, when the commuters return from Istanbul, is a gentle susurration of felted horseshoes and jingling bells. At shaded intersections the phaetons halt side by side so the passengers can chat.

There is a smart hotel on the waterfront, but Attila says I should stay in an old k¿sk to get the real feel of things, and by happy chance his father-in-law runs a hotel that just fits the bill. Pension Ideal is a large, ramshackle, three-story house full of dark furniture, stopped grandfather clocks, and dustily tasteful prints depicting scenes from the harem at Topkap¿. The hotel has a permanent population of elderly Jewish ladies, who inhabit a mysterious warren of lace-curtained parlors on the ground floor.

Pension Ideal stirs a childhood memory: some bygone English boardinghouse smelling of camphor and Spam. Was I really there, or was it an old British comedy I saw at the cinema?

Attila’s father-in-law is a small weatherbeaten man in his 50s. When I walk in, he is working at an old Singer sewing machine. I assume he is a tailor, but it’s just that he’s always busy at something. He and his wife are from Yugoslavia, I later learn. They came here 30 years ago. He didn’t have a penny and worked as a waiter. They are exiles on this island of exiles, as is Attila himself, who is from northern Iraq and cannot return there until, as he puts it, “someone does something about that maniac Saddam.”

A boy shows me a small room at the top of the building with an ancient washbasin, faded wallpaper, and a Coca-Cola calendar for 1989. Sun streams through the window, which opens to a view of red-tiled roofs and dark cypresses running down to the sea. I haggle with the proprietor, comme il faut, and arrive at a rate of rather less than $5 a night.

The nighttime silence is bliss. Ironically, the only thing that disturbs my sleep are the sea gulls, which gather on the church tower by my window and begin their day at dawn in a quarrelsome mood.

A couple of blocks off the main thoroughfare is a square where the phaeton drivers gather. They are busy at rush hour and weekends, but there are few passengers in the middle of the weekday. The smell is rich: a hundred horses with their nosebags on, and plastic tubs full of fresh horse manure, which has been diligently caught in tarpaulins strung from the yokes of the phaetons.

An old driver called Mehmet, with a walrus mustache and a beret, grumbles about the high price of horses – 25 million lira (about $3,500) for a strong, young Anatolian horse, more for one that is already trained to the yoke.

He pauses to admire a shapely young girl in tight beach shorts. A glint of gold teeth, a twirl of the grizzled mustache. “Fistik gibi,” he says. “As sweet as a pistachio nut.” It is the air of the islands, he tells me. It keeps a man young.

He is 73 years old. He remembers water carriers toting their huge goatskin canteens and beggar women going from door to door. “There used to be a cemetery there,” he says, pointing at the clock tower that is now the center of the town. There were coal boats in the winter, and a casino owned by a Greek named Koko. There were many Greeks here until 20 years ago, when Greece and Turkey fell out over Cyprus, and they had to move out. And just down there, by the landing stage, was a caf¿ run by two Italians.

It is all gone now, but there are still the phaeton drivers, grumbling – as ever – about the high price of horses.

The next day I set off with a water bottle and a few provisions – bread, feta cheese, olives, oranges – to explore the interior. This is the largest of the Princes Islands, but you can do a figure-eight walk round the whole of it in just a few hours. It is probably not much more than ten miles all told, though the paths are steep in the wilder south of the island.

On the edge of town the streets dwindle to dirt tracks, and you leave behind the playful mansions for the beauty of the island’s woodlands. They are mostly pine and stunted Mediterranean oak, with an underbrush of rockrose, myrtle, and juniper. They give off a sweet, elating aroma reminiscent of Corsica in springtime. Among the scents are that of the terebinth, or turpentine tree, and its relative the mastic. The latter yields a yellowish gum that was once used to flavor a rough raki-style liqueur but is now mainly gathered as a constituent of varnish.

I do not say it is best to be alone when you walk through the romantic groves of B¿y¿k Ada – far from it – but if it happens that you are, then you can at least take copious noisy lungfuls of the aromatic air, and whistle a foolish tune as you walk, and no one will laugh at you for doing so.

At the center of the island, perched on Y¿ce Tepe (at a little over 600 feet, the highest point on Princes Islands), is the Greek monastery of Ayios Yorgios Coudonas – St. George of the Bells. According to tradition the monastery was built where a shepherd heard bells ringing under the ground. He dug down and found a holy icon.

A stone-paved road leads up to the monastery. At first the trail seems badly littered, but then I realize that all those scraps of polyethylene have been tied to the roadside scrub by pilgrims, or anyway superstitious tourists.

This is a great place to finish up an island walk. A laid-back old caretaker sits by the door, beneath a statue of eagles. A young girl, perhaps his granddaughter, is dispatched to make me some tea. The monastery is said to be a place of pilgrimage for people troubled in mind. Sitting there in the evening sun, with a vista of treetops and cliffs all around, and tiny Tavsan Adas¿ (Rabbit Island) basking in the sea far below, it is not hard to see why.

The church is dark inside and fusty with old incense. A pile of crutches in the corner is suggestive of miraculous recoveries. Some of the chapels once had rings in the floor, to chain the mad who were brought here.

The little chapels are white and bare and cool. One is dedicated to St. Haralambos. The caretaker speaks no English, so all I can learn of this obscure saint is that he had a very long beard. A draught of holy spring water concludes the visit (the devout may change in a cubicle and immerse themselves), and the caretaker wishes me, “Very good-bye.”

When the clouds blow in and the rain comes down, you get a glimpse of that dark side of the Princes Islands, the stories of exile and despair. A few scattered stones are all that remains of Irene’s Convent on B¿y¿k Ada, but they tell a tale of lust, treachery, and intrigue in ninth-century Byzantium.

The story begins in Constantinople in a.d. 797, when wicked Irene deposed her own son to become empress, mutilating him so badly in the process that he died shortly after. She then exiled her beautiful granddaughter, Princess Euphrosyne, to a newly built convent on B¿y¿k Ada. Irene herself was soon deposed, to die in exile on Lesbos, but poor Euphrosyne languished in the convent for more than 30 years.

The legend of the girl’s beauty persisted, however. One day Emperor Michael the Stammerer (not to be confused with his grandson Michael the Sot) decided on a whim to exile his own wife and marry Euphrosyne. This bizarre swap was accomplished, but Michael died a few months later. His son restored the banished queen, and Euphrosyne was returned once more to B¿y¿k Ada, where she died. Someone ought to write it up as a TV miniseries.

Standing on high land south of town – so high that you can see a turret poking above the trees when you come in on the ferry – is a large isolated k¿sk. This was the home of Dr. Hinteriyan, a rich, eccentric Armenian dentist who believed he was a latter-day Don Quixote. A hundred years ago he settled on B¿y¿k Ada and built a huge “castle,” complete with wooden battlements, trefoil windows, a moat, and several acres of walled grounds. He employed a local fisherman as guard and gatekeeper.

The house is quite ruined now, like a great tumbledown barn, with small trees growing out of the windows and the remains of a chicken run in the courtyard. Standing in the pinewood in a storm, it is not hard to imagine Hinteriyan – a mad, melancholy knight of local lore. He paced up and down the battlements, they say, waiting for some damsel in distress to happen along through the woods, slowly drinking himself to death on Armenian brandy, tossing the empty bottles into the moat below.

Another for whom B¿y¿k Ada was a gloomy home in exile was the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Outmaneuvered by Stalin, Trotsky was shuffled off to Turkey in 1929. Once there, partly for his own safety (there was a large population of White Russian refugees in Istanbul who would gladly have shot him) he was sent to B¿y¿k Ada. He spent nearly five years on the island, some of it in a handsome white house at No. 52 Cankaya Caddesi.

That house is still there, though the garden is filled in with new holiday homes, and the house itself is split up into apartments. Here Trotsky wrote his famous History of the Russian Revolution; and from here, in one of those curious little asides that bring history to life, he traveled to Istanbul to see Charlie Chaplin in the film City Lights.

The smaller Princes Islands tell fewer tales of their past. Sedef Ada (Mother-of-Pearl Island) has only a few houses and some beautiful swimming coves. Yass¿ Ada (Flat Island) is a former prison colony, which no one can visit.

And on Heybeli Ada (Saddlebag Island) is the grave of the Elizabethan adventurer Edward Barton, who died there in 1597. His gravestone, which is now quite blank, stands in a tiny forest cemetery, filled mostly with Russian prisoners of war from the last century.

Finally, heading back to Istanbul, I feel quietly invigorated. We come in at twilight, the city skyline laid out before us – Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Topkap¿ – a complex carapace of domes, minarets targeted like missiles on heaven.

The boat makes a wide arc, the lights of the Galata Bridge come into view, and flying low across the twilit water, seeming to escort the boat into harbor, are the sea gulls who called me away just a few long days ago.


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