Istanbul: Cruise on the Bosphorus


4 Filiz Bill Norm Monique JPG

Filiz, Bill, Norm, Monique

Part I  Reunion in Istanbul

We happened to get the warmest, sunniest March day for our cruise of the Bosphorus Strait. It was still a sweater and jacket day, but the bright sun was most welcome for this Kazakh tourist, fresh out of winter.

In March 2015, Lory and I reconnected with friends from our Sumatra days, Filiz Nemli and Monique Toh. While we had moved from Sumatra to Kazakhstan, both Filiz and Monique had moved to Kuwait. Filiz and her husband Sarper are ethnic Turks. Filiz grew up in Bulgaria, but moved to Turkey with her parents as a young adult. She met and married Sarper in Turkey, and they consider Istanbul their home city.

Filiz had told us some time ago that she would love to show us “her” Istanbul, but we could hardly believe our good fortune when it actually happened. Lory and I initially met up with Filiz and Monique at a restaurant on the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel. The venue offers a beautiful view of the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s treasured inlet harbor.

00 Atop the Pera Marmara

Filiz chose the restaurant to share both the geographic beauty of Istanbul, and the tantalizing Turkish cuisine . We were a group of seven. Three friends of Monique joined us for dinner. I wanted to try something authentically Turkish, and Filiz recommended the lamb’s neck. I never would have thought of ordering lamb’s neck, but it turned out to be melt in your mouth delicious. My best dining surprise since my horsemeat steak in Atyrau on my 68th Birthday! Lory had giant shrimp in a beautiful presentation with various sauces, every one delicious.

Lory was recuperating from pneumonia the whole time we were in Istanbul so when Filiz offered to take us on a Bosphorus cruise the next day, Lory wisely declined. 

Part II  Ortakoy Neighborhood

Filiz picked me up by taxi at the Hilton on the Bosphorus, and we set off for the Ortakoy district, where our cruise would begin. Filiz apologized profusely for the traffic and the mad pace of city life in Istanbul. The city has changed greatly since she lived there.

Ortakoy is a very trendy district that Filiz wanted to share with me, probably because I am such a trendy guy. It reminded me of Granville Island in Vancouver, and Pike’s Place in Seattle – cool little bistros, bars, and coffee shops on the waterfront. We participated in an Ortakoy street food tradition of eating a huge baked potato with your choice of toppings. Several food stalls along a cobblestone street compete for baked potato sales with barkers who shout, “Hey slim, get your baked potato here!” Sounds the same in Turkish.

Ortakoy’s famous Baked Potato

The passenger ferry tour starts from right next to the beautiful Ortakoy Mosque. Monique and friends joined us at a bistro near the mosque, and we boarded the ferry.

Part III  The Cruise

0 Black Sea : Mediterranean Map

The Bosphorus Strait – Overview

The Bosphorus Strait is a critical link in the sea passage route that connects Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.  It directly connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which in turn leads through the Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea of the Mediterranean.

This passage has been the focus of many wars throughout history, including two world wars. Since Medieval times, the Bosphorus was vital for strategic naval control of the area. Istanbul, then Constantinople, was a major trade center of the Silk Road.

Today the Bosphorus is a critical warm water route for Russia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other oil exporting nations. But on our tour, my focus was on the late the medieval period, and the transformation of Christian Constantinople to Muslim Istanbul.

1 0 Bosphorus Map

The Bosphorus Strait – Detail

There are two suspension bridges that cross the Bosphorus: the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, also known as the Second Bosphorus Bridge. Our cruise was sailing north from the first bridge along the European shoreline, and turning south from the second bridge along the Asian shoreline. It is a relatively short afternoon cruise that for my money was just right.

2 Orkatoy Mosque
The Ortakoy Mosque

The view of the Ortakoy Mosque from the water is spectacular. Built in 1856 it was designed in the Neo Baroque style by Armenian architects, father and son Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigogayos Balyan. The Balyan family designed the Topkapi Palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace and many other religious and public buildings in Istanbul. Filiz informed me that the mosque is slowly sinking into the Bosphorus, but would still be here when we returned from the cruise.

5 Bosphorus Bridge

6 Bosphorus Bridge 2
Bosphorus Bridge 

Passing under the Bosphorus Bridge, we noticed workmen high up on the cables. When it was built in 1973, the Bosphorus Bridge was the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,560 meters. It’s rank was twenty-fifth longest in 2018.

At the time the bridge was opened, much was made of its being the first bridge between Europe and Asia since 480 BCE.  That was a pontoon bridge built by Emperor Xerses I of Persia in his march to subjugate Athens and Sparta. Xerses bridge spanned the Hellespont (Dardanelles), some distance away from the Bosphorus. However, his father Emperor Darius The Great had built a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus in 513 BCE.

Cruising up the European coastline we passed a riverside promenade and a marina and enjoyed the beautiful architecture of some of the most expensive homes in Istanbul.

7 Waterfront Europe

European Waterfront 

12 7 Waterfront Europe 2

For me the most exciting visual experience of the cruise was the Rumeli Fortress wall and towers on the European side of the river. Located just south of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the fortress was built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, in his drive to conquer Constantinople and thus defeat the Byzantine Empire. This was in 1453 AD and it is a huge historical event in world history.

8 Rumeli Fortress

11 8 Rumeli Fortress 4

 Rumeli Fortress 

When Mehmed II took Constantinople, he effectively absorbed the Byzantine Empire into the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium was no more. Ironically, Mehmet claimed the title of “Caesar of the Roman Empire”. Christian Europe rejected his claim, but you will understand his logic if you read my article below: “Time Out for History” 

Sultan Mehmed II is a national hero in Turkey. By conquering the Byzantine Empire, he laid the foundation for the Ottoman Empire to become a supreme world power for six centuries, right up to the end of the First World War, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk would lead the new Republic of Turkey into the twentieth century.

Our ferry turned around at the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the second bridge of the Bosphorus. It is about 5 kilometers north of the first bridge. The bridge was completed in 1988, and is 1,090 meters long, about two-thirds the length of the First Bosphorous Bridge.

13 Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge

Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge 

On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, directly across from the Rumeli Fortress, is the Anatolian Fortress, which was built by Mehmet’s great-grandfather Sultan Bayezid I in 1394. Anatolia is the former name of the territory that constitutes Asian Turkey. Bayezid built the fortress on the ruins of a Temple of Uranus, and I am not shitting you. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

15 Anatolia Fortress 2

The Anatolian Fortress 

14 Anatolia Fortress

The fortress serves as a backdrop for the beautiful Ottoman era waterfront houses, creating a spectacular visual effect.

Another beautiful Baroque style building caught my eye is the Küçüksu Kasrı. I was unable to identify the building, but Filiz provided me with the name and some history.  It turns out that the palace was also designed by the Armenian architects, Garabet Amira Balyan and his elder son Nigogayos Balyan. No wonder I was struck by the beauty of the palace!

16 Kucuksu PalaceKüçüksu Palace 

It was built in 1856-57 as a summer hunting lodge for Sultan Abdul Mecit. His predecessors had built wooden kiosks, or just used simple picnic blankets to camp out on this spot, but obviously Abdul was a 5 Star kind of guy. The palace was used in the James Bond film “The World is Not Enough” as a mansion in Baku belonging to the daughter of a rich oil baron.

A little further down river is the Kuleli Military High School, which I assumed was a high-level government building. My subsequent research tells me that the building was originally the Kuleli Cavalry Barracks, designed by Gabaret Balyan (man, he was busy), and completed in 1843. It became part of the Ottoman Military High School system in 1845.


17 Kuleli Militay High SchoolKuleli Military High School 

The students of the school have been relocated a dozen times since 1845. It was temporarily converted into a military hospital during both the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and the First Balkan War (1912-13). After the First World War the British occupied the building and used it to house Armenian orphans and refugees, victims of the Ottoman genocide of Christians during the war. For more information, see “Time Out for History Part II: The Ottoman Empire and The Republic of Turkey”.

18 Beylerbeyi MosqueBeylerbeyi Mosque 

Named for its location in the Beylerbeyi neighborhood, the Beylerbeyi Mosque was built in 1778 in the actual Baroque period. Tahir Aga, the favored architect of Ottoman Sultans Mustafa III and Abdul Hamid I, designed it.

Poor Abdul Hamid had a tough life. He was imprisoned for the first 42 years of his life, 17 of those by his brother Sultan Mustafa III.  When Mustafa died, Abdul Hamid became Sultan, and commissioned Tahir Aga to build this majestic mosque.

So I am thinking, “If my brother imprisoned me for 17 years, would I hire his favorite architect? Is there no question of loyalty here?” Apparently Abdul Hamid valued architectural excellence above any petty grievances. Tahir Aga must have been one hell of an architect!

The final photo I took on the Asia side waterfront is the Beylerbeyi Palace. Also named for the neighborhood, this palace was completed in 1865. It was commissioned by Sultan Abdul-Aziz as a summer home and a residence to entertain visiting dignitaries. It was designed by my Sarkis Balyan, the younger son of Garabet, who designed the Ortakoy Mosque and the Küçüksu Palace. His architectural style is more restrained than that of his father and older brother.

19 Beylerbeyi PalaceBeylerbeyi Palace

So this concludes my virtual tour of the Bosphorus. If you are a history buff, you will enjoy the following articles. Wikipedia is such a gift. As I was writing about the Bosphorus, so many questions came to mind about the history of this amazing city. There is so much I do not know about the Ottoman Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey. Please read on. It is fascinating!

Time Out for History: Part I    

The Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church

So Many Quesrions:

Why were there two Roman Empires and why did the Roman Empire host two different Christian Churches? Many Westerners who visit Turkey, Greece and other countries in Eastern Europe are confused about this.

What is Eastern Orthodox Church, and how is it different from the Roman Catholic Church?

What’s the relationship between Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches?

I  The Roman Empires

In 285 AD Roman Emperor Diocletian partitioned the unwieldy Roman Empire for administrative purposes. The Western Roman Empire was ruled from Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire from Byzantium (the original name of Istanbul). Initially, Rome was considered the capital of the Empire.

Constantine I was the first Roman Emperor to rule both the Western and the Eastern Roman Empires. In 330 AD, he declared that the capital of the Empire would be Byzantium, not Rome. Then his ego got out of control and he changed the name of the capital to Constantinople.

Constantinople was to remain the capital of the Roman Empire for over 1,000 years, from 330 to 1453 AD. With the fall of Rome in the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire was done (kaput, as the Huns used to say), and the Eastern Roman Empire would eventually become known as the Byzantine Empire. If Constantine had still been around he probably would have called it the Constantinian Empire.

While Latin was the language of the Western Roman Empire, Greek was the primary language of the Eastern Roman Empire.

II  The Five Churches of the Roman Empire

Constantine I was the first Roman Emperor to claim conversion to Christianity, and Christianity flourished under the Byzantine Empire. Before Constantine moved the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, he had legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 AD. This was a big shift for the Romans who were used to feeding Christians to the lions in the Coliseum.

Constantine took another big step in 380 AD when made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The original Christian Church of the Roman Empire was responsible to the Emperor who had the right to regulate the minutest details of worship and discipline. This move would make Christianity a shoe-in for the major religion of Europe for centuries to come.

During the Middle Ages there were five equal leaders or patriarchs of the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” of the Roman Empire:

Patriarchs                                       Location Language

The Bishop of Rome                       present day Rome, Italy                        Latin
The Bishop of Constantinople     present day Istanbul, Turkey               Greek
The Bishop of Alexandria            present day Alexandria, Egypt             Greek
The Bishop of Antioch                  on the border of Turkey and Syria      Greek
The Bishop of Jerusalem              present day Jerusalem, Israel               Greek

All five cities were major trade centers of the Middle Ages. Each patriarch has his own jurisdiction for which he was solely responsible. The Bishop of Rome was “first in place of honor” making him the most equal of the five, but all five had to be in agreement for any ecclesiastical or theological changes to the one Church.

The Great Schism

What was “The Great Schism”?    . . . and how do you pronounce “schism”?

Of the five jurisdictions, only Rome used Latin as the language of the Church. The other four used Greek. For centuries there were ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes between the Latin West and the Greek East.

In 1053 the Patriarch in Rome was Leo IX, who at the same time was a German aristocrat and a powerful secular ruler of central Italy. Leo felt he should be more than first among equals. Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople attacked Western Latin Church practices and closed all the Latin Churches in Constantinople. Leo forged a letter allegedly from Constantine I, which transferred all power of the Western Roman Empire to the Bishop of Rome. And so it went.

This great split in the Church is why today the “one holy, catholic and apostolic” church has become two Churches: T
he Roman Catholic Church and The Organization of Eastern Orthodox Churches.

We westerners are more familiar with European history and the role of the Roman Catholic Church through the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. But we are not so familiar with the present day structure of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which is surprisingly similar to the structure instituted at the time of Constantine I. Except today there are many more Eastern Orthodox Churches which are strongly affiliated but autocephalous, which means autonomous by sanction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

In Canada we know the Eastern Orthodox Church in many cultural and linguistic forms: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc.  Wikipedia offers the staggering list of all Eastern Orthodox Churches at the following link:

Oh and schism is pronounced: ˈskɪz(ə)m, or ˈsɪz(ə)m    Take your pick.

Time Out for History:  Part II

The Ottoman Empire and The Republic of Turkey



What was the Ottoman Empire? Where did it come from and where did it go?

Who exactly are the Turkic people, and where did they come from? And what is Central Asia, anyway?

Who is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and where did the Republic of Turkey come from?

I  The Turkic People of Central Asia


Raise your hand is you were taught anything about Central Asia in school!

The founders of the Ottoman Empire were descendants of a Turkic people. Turkic describes a number of tribes who speak related Turkic languages. These tribes originated from a wide area in the Altai Mountains which span western regions of present day Siberia ( southern Russia), as well as western Mongolia and China. During the Early Medieval Period, Turkic tribes migrated west out of the Altai Mountains into “the Stans” including present day Kazakhstan. The first historical mention of “Turks” or Turkic people, was in a Chinese text that described them as traders on the Silk Route in present day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Birth of the Ottoman Empire

In the ninth century AD, a Turkic tribe  from the Oguz Yabgu State of Central Asia (roughly present day Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) migrated west to Anatolia, present day Turkey.  Four centuries later, a leader of this tribe, Sultan Osman the first, founded the Ottoman Empire as a Sunni Islamic State in 1299. Sultan Murad the first increased the power of the empire by conquering several of the Balkan states of Europe in the fourteenth century.

Mehmed II overthrew the Byzantine Empire in 1453, eliminating the only other significant power in the Black Sea / Aegean Sea area. This gave the Ottomans complete control of the valuable Spice Route.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire reached its peak of power. Suleiman the Magnificent reigned from 1520 to 1566, the longest reign in the history of the empire. He controlled a huge area, encompassing three quarters of the Mediterranean coastline:

1. Africa: Algeria to Egypt to Ethiopia
2. Middle East: Saudi Arabia / Palestine / Lebanon / Syria / Iraq / Turkey
3. Caucasus: Azerbaijan / Armenia / Georgia / the Ukraine
4. Europe: Romania / Bulgaria / Hungary / Serbia / Albania / Greece

For six centuries, the Ottoman Empire was pivotal to all interaction between Europe and Asia. The power of the empire declined gradually in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and came to an end with the First World War. By the time of its dissolution in 1923, the Ottoman Empire had shrunk to include only present-day Turkey and northeastern Greece.

III  Why the Ottoman Empire Fell Apart

The Ottoman Empire ended on a sour note. After a long-term alliance with both Britain and France in a unified effort to curtail Russia’s influence over the Black Sea, Sultan Mehmed VI formed an alliance with Germany and the Central Powers. During the war, the Ottomans took advantage of the European powers’ preoccupation with the war and conducted large-scale ethnic cleansing of Greek, Assyrian and Armenian Christians living within the borders of the Empire.

The details of the genocide (a term denied by successive governments of the Republic of Turkey) resemble the strategies of Nazi Germany in the extermination of Jews, Poles and other Slavic peoples during the Second World War.

IV  Ataturk and the Republic of Turkey

The First World War ended with the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule and the occupation of Constantinople by the allied nations. The Empire was partitioned under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres. The design of the treaty was to cripple the Ottoman Empire and secure British oil interests in the Middle East. This paved the way for Ataturk to come to power.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had been an Ottoman military officer during the war, became the primary spokesperson, public figure, and military leader of the Turkish National Movement.

He established a provisional government in Ankara, and led a military attack against the allied powers that had partitioned the Empire. His victory in the Turkish War of Independence was followed by a series of reforms to create the Republic of Turkey, a modern secular nation-state.

Map of Turkey

Mustafa Kemal became the first president of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and adopted the name Ataturk, meaning father of the country, in 1934. He remains the greatest national hero of Turkey to this day. Other nations in the region, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, look to the Republic of Turkey as the model of government they desire.

4 thoughts on “Istanbul: Cruise on the Bosphorus

  1. Indeed it is a unique city! Istanbul in 1967 was my first experience with Asia. That lead to my backpacking across Asia to Thailand, which I have now made my permanent home.


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