A shore thing: river cruising on Istanbul's Bosphorus

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1889. I don’t think he ever made a day trip along the Bosphorus, the 32-kilometre strait that stretches from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, with one shore in Europe and the other in Asia. […]

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1889. I don’t think he ever made a day trip along the Bosphorus, the 32-kilometre strait that stretches from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, with one shore in Europe and the other in Asia. To take a ferry journey along the waterway is to immerse yourself in three millennia of history – a history that belies Kipling’s notion.

It’s a journey that I have made many times. And so most recently, I find myself strolling from the Eminönü tram stop – in the heart of the ancient city known as Byzantium, Constantinople or Istanbul – to the ferry jetty. Storm clouds brood overhead, although rain is yet to fall.

As one of only a few passengers, I have a long wooden bench to myself. I take a window seat, and watch as a tufted cormorant swims alongside, its yellow eyes staring out from anthracite plumage. We cast off, sailing upstream, against the prevailing current, along the Rumeli (­”Roman” or European) shore, with the opposite Anadolu (Anatolian or Asian) shore beckoning in the distance.

Starboard, I see Sarayburnu (­Palace Point). ­Topkapı Palace commands the point, as it has since ­Ottoman sultan Mehmet Fatih – the “Conqueror” – first oversaw its construction after capturing Constantinople in 1453. That conquest delivered the coup de grâce to this remnant of the once-mighty Byzantine ­Empire, which superseded and subsumed the Roman Empire, and endured in an unbroken line for nearly 15 centuries.

To the right of the palace, dominating the first of the city’s seven hills, stands the Hagia Sophia, dedicated by Byzantine emperor Justinian in 537. It’s one of the most significant buildings in architectural history, and among the grandest ancient buildings to survive. The dome of the nearby Sultan Ahmet Mosque – better known as the Blue Mosque thanks to its stunning azure interior tiles – stands in counterpart to Hagia Sophia’s great 73-metre dome, reminding me how much the architecture of Istanbul’s ­Imperial mosques owes to this Byzantine Christian model.

On our left, the waterside sheds of Istanbul’s Modern Art Gallery slide by. Beyond lies the nine-storey conical Galata Tower, erected in 1348 by the Genoese, at a time when Genoa and Venice jostled for trading concessions and commercial disputes were largely settled at the point of a sword rather than in a court of law.

We soon approach the 19th-­century Dolmabahçe Palace – the residence of the six final ­Ottoman sultans – fronted by elaborate ironwork. Today, the palace is only accessible by private tour. All of its clocks are stopped at 9.05am, the time that Mustafa ­Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, died in 1938.

Ahead looms the First ­Bosphorus Bridge. Given the age of this city, it’s surprising that this, the first permanent bridge across the waterway, was only opened in 1973.

Many of the graceful wooden villas that previously lined each shore are no more, replaced by inferior modern structures built to accommodate the explosive growth of the city’s population since the early 1980s. I’m grateful that at least some of those earlier structures remain, though. Portside, the Egyptian consulate appears, an exuberant mansard-roofed stone building. One of many changes that followed from the Turkish Republic supplanting the Ottoman Empire in 1923 was the shift of the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. Foreign diplomats were forced to abandon magnificent waterside embassies for the dusty Anatolian hinterland, with splendid buildings such as this one downgraded to consulates.

Straight ahead, the Second Bosphorus Bridge, built in 1988, spans the strait at its narrowest point, where barely 700 metres separate one shore from the other. Herodotus described how in 512BC, the Persian ruler Darius the Great watched 700,000 of his troops cross from Asia to ­Europe on a bridge of boats assembled at this spot by his architect ­Mandrocles of Samos.

Two thousand years later, in four months during 1451, ­Sultan Mehmet Fatih spurred 3,000 labourers to raise Rumelihisarı, the fortress now stretching off the port bow. By controlling this and Anadoluhisarı – a much smaller bastion constructed by his great-grandfather, Bayezid I, visible across the way on the opposite Asian shore – Mehmet was able to block grain shipments from the Black Sea. This was one of many preparatory steps that led to his successful conquest of Constantinople. This bridge is today also known as the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (or Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror Bridge) in acknowledgement of this site’s strategic importance.

As we continue up the strait, the shores become more forested, and my attention shifts to the water. About 60,000 ships travel through this conduit annually, carrying more international cargo than passes through either the Panama or Suez canals. The 1936 Montreux Convention designated the Bosphorus as an international shipping lane, yet reserved Turkey the right to restrict access to warships as well as to vessels from countries that don’t border the Black Sea. Unusually today, when I make my journey, there’s little sign of much long-distance traffic, and I notice instead many small local boats flying red-and-white Turkish flags.

We dock briefly at ­Rumeli ­Kavagi, our last stop on the ­European shore before heading for Anadolu Kavagi, the end of the line. As we cross the midpoint of the channel, I look towards the Black Sea, and I’m amazed by the progress made on the newest, third bridge over the Bosphorus since I made a previous journey in July. Construction now encroaches from both shores, and only by squinting and holding up each hand to block out each edge of the new roadway can I enjoy a clear, unobstructed vista.

On previous visits, I ­unwittingly enjoyed that unimpeded view as it has been for thousands of years. Today, it has nearly vanished, and when I return to these waters again, I know it will probably be gone forever. Although forests still cover this section of each Bosphorus shore, these, too, are likely soon to dwindle after the bridge’s expected opening this summer, and development ­accelerates.

About an hour after embarking from Eminönü, I step ashore. There’s little to see in Anadolu Kavagi itself. A short walk away lie the ruins of Yoros Castle, used by the Byzantines and then the ­Genoese. Stringing a chain across the Bosphorus allowed them to stop ships here to collect customs duties. Continuing archaeological excavations mean public access to the castle is currently restricted.

Several fish restaurants cluster around the jetty. I usually opt for an outside waterside table at Yosun Restaurant (www.­yosunrestaurant.net), but on this occasion, I allow myself to be ushered inside. The ferry schedule leaves me three hours to linger over my meal. The best Turkish meals celebrate local ingredients – especially fish pulled from nearby waters. I start with patlıcan salatası, a cold, smoky aubergine purée (8 Turkish lira [Dh10]), followed by indifferent midye tava – deep-fried mussels (12 lira [Dh15]). It’s prime season for my favourite: lüfer, local bluefish (35 lira [Dh45]), simply grilled and needing only a spritz of accompanying lemon. At other times of year, whatever’s local, fresh and seasonal – red mullet, goatfish or hamsi (anchovies) – might be better choices. A few squares of baklava and a strong Turkish coffee complete my lunch.

I return to the ferry to retrace our earlier journey. As twilight fades, gulls swirl above, as flocks of small birds occasionally skitter along the water’s surface. These birds bring to mind one previous magical September afternoon when I watched migrating white storks overhead, their steady, loping wing beats carrying them from northern breeding grounds to southerly wintering territories. During spring (April) or autumn (September) migrations, you might get similarly lucky and watch thousands of birds – white and black storks, pelicans, raptors and myriad smaller birds – soar over the Bosphorus.

The turbulent eddies of the current draw my gaze downwards, and my thoughts wander to the myriad creatures that dwell below. It has been nearly 1,500 years since Belisarius, the ­Byzantine general who extended the borders of the empire during ­Justinian’s reign, failed to conquer the great whale ­Porphyrius – the bane of fisherman and shipping from the Black Sea to the Hellespont for several decades. Although whales are now long gone from here, it’s still possible – albeit rare – to catch glimpses of dolphins. And fishermen still fish these waters, though local fish stocks are declining, as overfishing and pollution take their toll.

Night is falling as we approach the ferry’s final berth, and lights twinkle across the city. I again admire Topkapı, the Hagia ­Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque off to the left, while directly ahead is Yeni Cami – still called the New Mosque, even though it was finished in 1665. To the right lies the fabled ­Golden Horn, and above that, on the crest of the third of the city’s hills, the ­Süleymaniye Mosque, the masterwork of ­Mimar Sinan, ­Ottoman ­Istanbul’s genius architect. Endowed by Süleyman the ­Magnificent, the other great conquering sultan, it’s the grandest, largest mosque in this enchanting city. It’s a fitting place for my eye to linger as my favourite day trip winds to a close.

travel@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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