Many of the less fortunate tourists in our fairy city of Istanbul miss the more interesting things, perhaps, because they are not in the right place and the right time. Sultanahmet features various transport links, including a tramway and a big bus route, and is only a fifteen minute walk from a train station and a dock — it also has fairly good publicity. A vast visitor's infrastructure draws in the tourists and keeps them there with ice cream, Turkish tea, hookah and köfte (meatballs).
If you wind your way to the outskirts of the old city, the limits of historic Istanbul, you will find a less-trafficked but no less impressive site: the Theodosian Walls. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius rebuilt his city's fortifications — as even the oldest things in city had to be rebuilt — in 447 after they collapsed in an earthquake.
Currently, the walls are used by nearby cafe owners the same way they use canopies or heat lamps. Along their entire 7-kilometer length, only a few displays and signs are present to orient visitors. No ice cream, no hookah and no Turkish köfte can be seen, but only a few cafes — and of course you can find Turkish tea. The old city walls are an under-visited (and let us not forget, entirely free) area, where you can spend an entire Saturday afternoon. Next to them, the street markets of Balat and Fener offer a different atmosphere to the jaded stroller of the Istanbul neighborhoods.
One of my very favorite day trips is to go to a section of the venerable standing stones and clamber all over them or explore the neighborhoods lying in their shadow. My university friend Zoey was in town and I was determined to show her a slice of the city often missed by big-ticket tours. We selected Edirnekapı because a few weekends ago my friends Orkun, Harriet and I had explored the other half of the walls all the way down to Yedikule.
Unknown to us, Yedikule was closed, so though we were able to walk through the cemetery near the Kazlıçeşme metro stop to get to the seven towers, we found the iron door bolt shut. We peered in through the gaps and saw a courtyard littered with gravel and a few upside down "Giriş" (Enter) signs. We walked around to the opposite side where a Roma neighborhood had been erected against the walls. Then, an old man emerged with a long branch. He hunched at the end of the road and encouraged us to leave. We walked across a bridge and found the Yedikule Dog Park, where the city takes care of dogs, providing shelter and vaccinations.
So, we decided to go to Edirnekapı. I used to work out at a music school near the Chora Church, and so we formed a loose plan to wander on top of the walls, pop by the church, and round off the day with a stroll through Balat and Fener. We hopped off the metrobus at Edirnekapı, where an enormous cemetery surrounds the highway.
Why are there always cemeteries in between the bus stop and the walls? Commuters streamed through the sacred grounds. We had to scramble across a highway to get to Edirne gate, but finally we emerged. It is strange, as an American, to see this ancient stone structure incorporated into the trappings of daily life, side by side with cafes and small houses, with stacks of firewood and construction materials leaning against it.
We began our walk alongside the Theodosian Walls. I was disappointed to discover that they had fenced off the stairs to the top. Several years ago I was able to climb to the top and get a panorama view of the city. This is, however, probably better in terms of historical preservation. We walked down the street, keeping the tall yellow stone on our left. We got to a soccer field where a few old men were hanging around selling songbirds. They asked me if I wanted to go in.
"Where?" I asked.
"To the bazaar," they said. "It's 3 liras."
I paid for three tickets for all of us. Inside was a hundred men, only men, wandering between rows of brown cages on stilts. Everywhere, pigeons. Pigeons on strings, pigeons preening, pigeons stretching, pigeons scrambling for seeds, pigeons with squat fluffy feet, pigeons with lascivious pink beaks, pigeons with floofy necks, pigeons with different splotches of color on the tips of their wings, pigeons that looked like dwarfs, pigeons that looked like giants. I had no idea there were so many varieties of pigeon in the world.
One man with a thorny white beard thrust a pigeon at us. "This is a Baghdadi pigeon," he said. I'd forgotten the word for pigeon in Turkish, which is "güvercin" and it snapped me out of my reverie.
"What do you use them for? Do you eat them" I asked. No, no, he shook his head. But he also didn't answer the question. We stopped in front of a row of cages staffed by a fat kid. "It has to be really expensive right," Zoey asked. "Right?" I asked how much it would be for one of the boy's slender white pigeons with the purple neck.
"Ten lira," he said, every inch a businessman. We all looked at each other, and I forked over 10 lira. He forked over a pigeon. What do we do with it? The old man next to the fat boy found it immensely funny that three foreigners, two of them women, had bought one of his pigeons. I found it immensely funny as well, but also immensely weird.
We left the cage of the bazaar in the soccer field. We named the pigeon Geronimo. What were we going to do with it? My friend, Harriet observed that the pigeon's wings hadn't been clipped, so we decided to find a good spot and set it free. We walked through a bunch of local streets where kids in dirty clothes played soccer in the street and pink shirts had been hung out to dry in every window. Geronimo seemed sedate, very zen about the whole experience of being clutched.
We let Geronimo go near a mosque and he flew to the top of the minaret. All of us tried to process the experience. I still have no idea why dozens of men breed pigeons (They probably have a serious devotion to them) and sell them on Sundays near the Edirnekapı exit of the city walls. But I can tell you often, tourists miss the more interesting things.