#194. Of Sultans and magic carpets

By philberphoto | Travel Photography

Jan 18

Afte ran orgy of gear posts, and also musings about our whereto, I thought some return to actual photography for the new year might be in order….

There are some places in the world where one wishes one had never been so that one might again experience the bliss and the wonder of discovering them. But there are some places -rare, magical places- which one can visit again and again and experience this wonderful feeling every time.

One such place is the Eastern capital of the Roman empire, then later capital of the Ottoman empire, the former Byzantium and Constantinople, now called Istanbul.
Doing such a rich and wonderful trove of photographic marvels full justice is well beyond my means, but triggering in you TASE, maybe not. For the ignorami among you, TASE stands for Tavelling and shooting envy. Nah, just kidding, I made this up right now…:-)


Another reason for going to Istanbul ASAP is that it rests on a seismic fault line. Major quakes rock (and that’s puttling it mildly) Turkey in a westward direction, with a major “incident” roughly every 40 years. Time is up for the “next big one” to happen really soon, and the likely location…Istanbul. So go there, treasure it, and come back with everlasting memories safely ensconced in your memory cards.

While today it is a huge city of 10M+ people, the location I concerned myself with is Sultanahmet, its old part and its toehold on European soil. The Istanbul experience begins with your hotel. As you can’t build in the historic district, here are no modern deluxe hotels on the European side of Istanbul except for the ultra-posh Four Seasons, a historic building which used to be a prison. But there are many 100+-year old large mansions turned into smaller, comfortable *** hotels which are very appealing. No swimming pools, but flat rooftops overlooking the Bosporus, where one can have breakfast out in the open and enjoy one of the world’s most magical sights. Summon your own private magical carpet, and fly away! Or if you find magic carpets a bit over the top, just walk away, since all of Sultanahmet can be done on foot if you care to take a stroll back in time.


Another subject which must mentioned is the food. Now what I am about to write is not politically correct, so sensistive souls, avert your eyes. Istanbul food suffers from three letdowns. One is that Turkish food is not as “wonderful fish and veggies” as its place on the Mediterranean would let you believe. The second is that it has remained relatively untouched by “world food”, so getting a crispy Ceasar salad is not an easy option. The third one is that, because it is a major tourist attraction, relieving said tourists of too much of their hard-earned is not against the law. The restaurants to which your hotel will readily send you, with free ride to and from them, are right under the Galata bridge, and offer passable to quite good food, and a great location. They will serve so much of it, with considerable pressure to order more and more, that you end up paying 150€ each! But there are also exceptions, and good use of Tripadvisor is recommended! My personal favorites are “Le Pêcheur” in the Tarabiya district (30mn away from the hotel by cab), with very good fish indeed and a very romantic location on the Bosporus, and Haji Baba, in the Galata district, for really good and tasty Turkish food.


Now, what to see? Well, obviously, the twin wonders of Hagia Sofia, once the world’s largest Christian church, and now a mosque, and its opposite number, the fabled Blue Mosque. I could go on and list marvel after marvel, including the huge Topkapi, and its incredible collection of jewels, or the antique cistern. And the bustling bazaars where smells and sights overwhelm your senses. All of this, of course, would be true and relevant and beautiful.



But that is not the Istanbul that talks to my heart. That one, not yet swarming with countless tourists shooting away mindlessly with anything that sports pixels, greets the rising sun as one deity graciously accepting the homage of another. The empty streets are not yet clean from yesterday, and not yet dirty from today. That one offers its gems almost reluctantly, only if you bother to look inside small streets and down improbable passageways. And, as a pre-condition, -did I mention the rising sun?-, if you care enough to rise early. Sunsets can be nice, mid-day glare is harsh, and the best, glorious light, is the earliest. So, while your significant other sleeps, slip out of bed like a stealthy creature of the night, grab your bag and tripod, and off you go! Come back a couple of hours later, in time to wake her/him up with coffee and pastries, while you have already gorged on sights and views.


My favorite shot is the following one, because it tells a story full of intrigue, and mystery, and drama. It may not be my best, but it inspires me. The building and yard are the hareem of the Topkapi Palace. Only one widow has its shades open, suggesting that one of the wives only would be looking outside, to  be seen and woo the Sultan, or to communicate with the outside world. For her rescue? Or the murder of a rival? Was it intrigue, or romance, or both?


Photographically speaking, Istanbul is not a city for very wide angles. It seldom provides uninterrupted vistas, or much room to step back and get a clean view. Its ever-present minarets do not take kindly to wide angle lenses and keystone wildly unless you care to use a tilt-shift lens, which is not always easy. But its arcane, architecture, overrich with complexity and colors tempts you to tell a story not of bland postcard shots, but of almost intimate detail. So, for the gearheads among you, I used a Canon 5DII with 3 Zeiss primes (21, 50, 85mm, with the 50 and the 85 my most used) on my early morning escapes, and a NEX 3C with 2 Contax G during the day, once my partner had woken up and we strolled.through the city, and neither she nor I were burdened with too much gear. Here are a few NEX pics during the day. One of the sea, because Istanbul without the sea is just not complete, and two of old, dilapidated houses wich are like an extreme, though somehow not disharmonious counterpoint to the glorious buildings that the city is famous for.


What, you are still reading? You are not packing you bags yet? Have fun!

  • One question: Is it warmer in winter than Paris? [Just trying to understand when my bags need to be packed.]

  • abhishek nair says:

    Beautiful Pic, esp the second one

  • philberphoto says:

    Yes, Istanbul is warm enough that you can go at any time, Mark. Including now…

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