Eminönü: Istanbul’s downtown inner city

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The bartering is going on furiously. I don’t speak a word of Turkish – my pathetic exercises to learn at least “hello”, “thanks” and “no” have ended up in utter failure, but the gestures, the tones, the body talking is suggesting me that the between the seller and the buyer there’s still quite a wide gap. The price for all these efforts, a brand new axe, remains firmly in the seller’s hands.

All of a sudden a high-pitched cry cuts through the busy market, stopping the business going on at the market, including the battle over the axe. It’s the adhan, the call to prayer, echoing from the minarets of the nearby New Mosque. A male voices exhorts the city’s Muslims to bow in the direction of Mecca, praying Allah. Soon, his voice is followed by many more as other mosques – hidden, far and close – join in. The cacophony engulfs the busy streets, but it’s – indeed – only for a moment and the discussion over the axe soon resumes, for few things – heavenly or not – can stop business at Eminönü’s street markets.

There are cities that polish their downtown districts to make a good impression on visitors, like those families all too keen to show their silverware while the rest of their house is crumbling. Istanbul is not one of these. It is a dramatically beautiful city, lying in what’s probably the best natural location of the known world, and she isn’t afraid of showing tourists from abroad a sanitised version of herself.

This is particularly true of the area of Sultanahmet, the centre, where the old Byzantium used to be and where the tourists flock in their thousands. Sure enough, wander about the streets around the magnificient Hagya Sophia, the Blue Mosque or near the Topkapi Palace and I dare you to find a missing cobblestone, an askew lamppost or a house that’s not looking freshly painted.

But that is not the part of the city where I’d like to take you.

Between the University and the New Mosque, from the gates of the Gran Bazaar and Galata Bridge lies a neighbourhood that I call Eminönü, as its waterfront, and I hope I got it right. Whatever its name it’s a fascinating place. A maze of tiny roads winding up a hill, where every corner has thousands of years of history and played a role in events that shaped the world, events that I only had the chance to study in history classes. Here, they saw them.

We started from my favourite mosque in the city, the Süleymaniye camii. It’s a gem of a building, tucked into a peaceful garden lined with massive trees and with a stunning view of Galata and the Asian part of the city. And, being further away from the tourist hotspots, it’s less prone to be invaded by yapping groups on tour and selfie-addicts.

The Süleymaniye mosque owes its looks to Mimar Sinan, the godfather of modern archistars. Born a Christian in Albania, he was took by the Turks under the devsirme scheme, converted to Islam and became a tiny cog in the Ottoman big wheel. Some define devsirme as a brutal technique, while others object that it was also something that the Balkan communities adhered to pretty much happily, for it granted a good future to their sons. Whatever the truth, Sinan became Soliman’s favourite architect, and went on to build some of the best Ottoman public buildings. Not bad for an outcast immigrant.

Walk downhill, aiming east, towards the minarets of the New Mosque: then you’ll end up in the enormous, colourful and crowded market of Eminönü. One of my favourite past times when there is to grab a simit, a bun of dough dipped in sesame seeds, and start wandering aimlessly, just following the people. Spices, tobacco, fake medicines, cheap Chinese toys, birds, cutlery, power tools, soap, live leeches… Everything is on sale here.

People watching is a great thing to do as well. Eminönü is, curiously for such a downtown neighbourhood, a low-income area that attracted many immigrants from the whole of Turkey, Central Asia and the Balkans. Anatolian villagers with glitzy suits made in polyester, Kazakh traders with their Mongolian lineaments, blonde Bulgarian visitors all mingle together, speaking some lingua franca that only I seem unable to understand.

There’s one place, in all this maze, that I wholeheartedly recommend, especially to coffee lovers. Coffee in Turkey is for the caffeine pros. Very far from the filtered filth served in Britain, Türk kahvesi comes in tiny cups, grinded into sand-like consistency and poured from a copper pot or cezve. It has lots of sediments, a rich foam and an unique taste, as well as a good caffeine kick. It’s hard to make at home, but all you need is the right set of tools and the right coffee.

Yeah, coffee. You can smell the fragrant aroma of freshly toasted beans, in Eminönü, from hundreds of meters away. Follow the scent until you are west of the Spice Bazaar and, with a bit of luck, you’ll find the place. It’s the Mehmet Efendi shop, one of the most notorious coffee purveyors in town. The place is tiny, a few windows on a busy street where people form an orderly queue; inside, enormous sacks of coffee are organised in tidy piles, while young employees pick up the precious material and, at warp speed, put together nice packs enveloped in brown paper. Then your turn comes, you point out what you’d like and in a second it’s all done, Istanbul’s best coffee is in your hands, yours to make.

Strolling around Eminönü can have only one ending: sitting on one of the tiny stools at one of the waterfront Balik Ekmek seller, especially the one whose kitchen is on a boat, rolling along. Sit there as dusk falls, listening to the cries of the Bosphorus tours sellers, while the sun paints the minarets and the Galata tower blood red, and appreciate the fact that, one thousands years from today, someone like you did exactly the same thing.

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