Strolling Through Istanbul

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City is the essential guidebook for any curious visitor to Istanbul. Originally written in 1972 by the late Hillary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, the book has since been revised by Freely and reprinted in 2010. Sumner-Boyd was a professor of Humanities at Robert College, Bosphorus University. Freely, originally a New Yorker is currently a professor of physics at Bosphorus University in Istanbul and author of over forty books and guides. The authors, who are intimately familiar with Istanbul, have outlined several walking tours in and around the city and bring attention to the major historic sites as well as many others often overlooked by tourists. Sumner-Boyd and Freely go beyond simply mentioning historic locations but animate each stop along the stroll with vivid historical descriptions, biographical sketches, and architectural interests. Through their well crafted prose they guide the eye to the more unique aspects of each location. Their engaging personalities and love for the city comes through in their writing making them the ideal tour guides to Istanbul. The walking tours are divided into geographic sections for a total of 23 chapters that span up the Golden Horn to Eyüp, along the Bosphorus, and down to to the Prince’s Islands. Despite its considerable size, a generous 487 pages, this book is always tucked into a bag and towed around the city. It’s through this guide that we discovered such gems as the Yeraltı Cami (Underground Mosque), Namazgahs (open air prayer spaces), and the serene Küçük Aya Sofia Camii.

Yeraltı Cami 

Leaving Karaköy we begin walking along the seaside road, which is always bustling with pedestrians rushing to and from the ferry station. About 200 metres along, past the ferry pier, we turn left and then left again at the next street. A short way along on our right we come to the obscure entrance of Yeraltı Cami, the Underground Mosque. This is a strange and sinister place. The mosque is housed in the low, vaulted cellar of keep of a Byzantine tower or castle which is probably to be identified with the Castle of Galata. This was the place where was fastened the one end of the chain which closed the mouth of the Golden Horn in times of siege. Descending into the mosque, we find ourselves in a maze of dark, narrow passages between a forest of squat passages supporting low vaults, six rows of nine or 54 in all. Towards the rear of the mosque we find the tombs of two sainted martyrs, Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahabi, both of whom are supposed to have died in the first Arab siege of the city in the seventh century. Their graves were revealed to a Nakşibendi dervish in a dream in 1640, whereupon Sultan Murat IV constructed a shrine on the site. Then in 1757 the whole dungeon was converted into a mosque by the Grand Vezir Köş Mustafa Paşa.

The Underground MosqueThe interior of the Underground Mosque.

Namazgahs 

In the centre of the square, Kadirga Liman Meydanı, there is a very striking and unique monument. This is the namazgah of Esma Sultan, daughter of Ahmet III, which was built in 1779. It is a great rectangular block of masonry, on the two faces of which are fountains with ornamental inscriptions, the corners having ornamental niches, while the third side is occupied by a staircase which leads to the flat roof. This is the only surviving example in Stamboul of a namazgah, or open-air place of prayer, in which the kıble or direction of prayer is indicated but which is otherwise without furniture or decoration. Namazgahs are common enough in Anatolia and the remains of at least two others can be seen in the environs of Istanbul, one in Okmeydanı overlooking the Golden Horn and the other at Anadolu Hisarı on the Bosphorus; but this is the only one left in the old city.

Ironically one is no longer allowed to pray here.

SS. Sergius and Bacchus 

At the end of this lane, we come to one of the entrances to the courtyard of the beautiful Küçük Aya Sofya Camii, the former Byzantine church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. The church was begun by Justinian and his Empress Theodora in 527, five years before the commencement of the present church of Haghia Sophia. It thus belongs to that extraordinary period of prolific and fruitful experiment in architectural forms which produced, in this city, buildings so ambitious and so different as the present church, Haghia Sophia itself and Haghia Eirene…

In SS Sergius and Bacchus, as in almost all of the surviving Byzantine churches of the city, we must simply use our imagination in order to recapture the extraordinary beauty of its original condition. The walls, like those of Haghia Sophia, were revetted with veined by variegated marbles; the vaults and domes glittered with mosaics. “By the sheen of its marbles it was more resplendent than the sun,” says Procopius, “and everywhere it was filled profusely with gold.”


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Cairo 1916: Where have all the dragomans gone?

I’ll be travelling to Cairo soon and I’ve been reading through my travel guide in preparation. Apparently, I need a reliable dragoman. Dragoman, you ask? Allow me to explain…

Being the historian that I am, I’ve forgone the latest Lonely Planet and instead turned to a book of a much finer vintage, a 1916 Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân* from the Macmillan’s Guides series. A couple of years ago Kiran and I picked up this slim, handsome volume from the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.

If there was ever an underused source for historical information, old prejudices and past insights it is the modern day travel guide. They are the ugly cousins to the more refined and consciously-worded travelogues and historical tomes. What distinguishes travel guidebooks from their kin is that they are published on a regular basis, constantly “updated” with new and more correct information (or so they would have you believe), and contain pro forma a wealth of detail not guaranteed in travel writings and history books. And of course travel guides are as much a window into the world of their authors and intended audiences as they are to the far off places they intend to cover.

For instance, let us return to the matter of the dragoman. First, a dragoman refers to a translator, interpreter or guide and the term itself derives from the Arabic word for translator, tarjumān. Concerning dragomans, the 1916 edition of Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân states:

Dragomans – It is unnecessary for the ordinary tourist, who only stays in the big towns and makes a steamer trip up the river, to have a dragoman constantly. For sightseeing in Cairo it is better to take a guide or dragoman each day than to engage one for the whole period of stay. The charge is from P.T. 30-40 a day, according to the experience of the man and his knowledge of English. Travellers must remember that the dragoman, whether Egyptian or Syrian, dressed in European, Turkish, or Arab dress, is merely a servant, and should always ride on the box and not in the carriage. They are quick to take advantage of the slightest familiarity. (p. 5)

A helpful rule of thumb indeed– that my dragoman must “ride on the box and not in the carriage.” Another choice tip about bakshīsh (meaning a tip):

Bakshîsh would seem to be the first word the Egyptian child learns, so great is the cupidity of the tourist-spoilt Arab. Yet, however big the tip given, it is rare to find the recipient grateful or satisfied, and the traveller must not think he has underpaid because no thanks are returned. (p. 5)

Finally, concerning Mohammedanism or Islamism, the guide notes:

Polygamy is allowed by the law of the Koran, but is not frequently practised. Unfortunately the law makes divorce particularly easy. In the year 1903, while there were 176,474 Moslem marriages registered, there were 52,992 cases of divorce. The position of women under Egyptian Mohammedanism is deplorable, and is responsible to a large extent for the unprogressive state of society. (p. 23)

Text aside, the book also provides a number of attractive illustrated maps, several of which fold out. For the curious, here are the maps of Cairo:

If you ever chance upon an old travel guide, it is certainly worth a look.

Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân including a Description of the Route through Uganda to Mombasa. 7th edn. Macmillan’s Guide series. St. Martin’s Street, London: Macmillan and Co., Limited., 1916.

*According to the personal inscription at the beginning, this book once belonged to a Sophie Voorhees of Richmond Hill, Long Island, New York. Her handwritten notes indicate that she likely stayed at the National Hotel in 1924 and then the Shepheard’s Hotel in 1928. I’ve discovered quite a bit about Sophie Voorhees’s social life from the archived New York State newspapers at fultonhistory.com.