The muezzen’s melodies rang in harmony from Istanbul’s infamous mosques filling the air with the call to noon prayers, indicating as well that I was late. With only a short time in each city I knew that it was impossible to see everything so I decided it was best to focus on one aspect relevant to the Silk Road. As this was my fourth visit to Istanbul I wanted to explore the older cities now absorbed into the greater metropolis. Balat, is on the European side; Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the Bosporus, each unique, yet similar, both reflecting the early multicultural communities.
The ferry to Uskador was a quick 10 minute dash across the Bosphorus and once landed, I hopped on a ”dolmas”; this one full of men and called out to everyone; “Kuzguncuk”. I was in search of the Bet Yaakov Synagogue located at Icadiye C.9 on the same street as the Greek Orthodox Church and a Mosque. After a short ride from the docks I was dropped at a quaint colorful village of narrow winding roads lined with shops and a few original Ottoman style wood houses. I was immediately taken by the warmth and spirit of this lively community. I soon gathered a crowd of women as I attempted to photograph a sleeping cat curled tightly on the seat of a parked motorcycle. It was delightful and my joy must have radiated to this tiny wrinkled women wearing white sneakers, black tights and yellow ankles socks, who rushed toward me speaking in rapid fire Turkish. She took hold of both my shoulders and proceeded to kissed me once on the left cheek, once on the right and once more on the left cheek, all the while looking me straight in the eye chanting a long soliloquy in Turkish. I could only smile and radiate some more. I had no idea why this happened I imagined she was pleased to see someone taking interest in her neighborhood. Yet, I knew it was the blessing to begin my journey and I could only wonder what tomorrow would bring on the European side of the Bosporus.
The Turkish language is confusing to me, too many R, U and Ks in one word and so I mixed up Karikoy for Kadikoy and ended up on the wrong boat. I only noticing as we sailed past Sultanahmet veering for the Asian side. Oh well, I let time fly by and amused myself watching the sun’s rays dance on the tumult from the engines wake. Eventually I boarded the correct boat and headed for the docks at Eminonu, once an old city banked on shores of the Golden Horn where it merges with the Bosphorus. This time, I loaded into a taxi shouting to the driver the address of the old Ahrida Synagogue in Balat, where the 17th century religious leader Shabbetai Zevi once preached and was later banished when he declared himself the messiah and then converting to Islam. As we entered the once Byzantine village I was struck by the stark contrast to yesterday; here the streets were dark and narrow paved with rough cobble stones artistically set to spread sprays of earthen flowers across vast promenades. Above, the sky dripped with newly washed clothes neatly hung in order of class and style; sheets, shirts and socks perfectly lined up like Buddhist prayer flags furling in the soft gentle sea breezes. The friendly but distraught taxi driver dropped me off at the oldest and tallest brick structure as he spun down the hill thrashing his arms out the window directing me to go to the left. I was standing in the unknown with only the exact address and a very detailed map in hand but unable to locate a single landmark. Luckily my sad look drew a nice man who offered to help and suddenly I noticed I was surrounded by three people peering over the map each one telling me to go in a different direction. Finally the debate erupted into laughter when a young girl took my hand and led me in the opposite direction through an endless warren of back streets that wound down the hill. The area was now a Muslim community with the majority of women covered in black chandors, gathering their children and bustling to continue their evening chores. Eventually relying on my own instincts I found my self at the cross streets and discovered the shuttered and protected synagogue and vowed to return again with permissions to enter. Wandering down the streets empty except for the occasional groups of cigarette smokers and chai drinkers I headed back to the noise and lights of Eminoue and the Grand Mosque majestic against the night sky merging again into the 21st century.