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My Constantinople: Part 1

Updated: May 26, 2023

I arrived in Constantinople during the summer of 1900 from a village outside of Smyrna looking for adventure and to start a new life. My parents owned a farm where they grew figs, apricots, and dates which they sold in the huge marketplace of Smyrna. One day out of nowhere an American visited our farm inquiring about our dried fruit which he had sampled in Smyrna.


“Your fruit is exquisite. I have never tasted such delicious figs and apricots in all my life”, the American said.


My parents were delighted to hear such an endorsement of their produce from a foreigner.


I think the American was called Robert who told us that he owned a large import/export business in San Francisco. He read about the famous Smyrna dried fruits and wished to import them to California. Robert struck a deal with my parents to import our products and was prepared to pay top dollar for it. Our family income was greatly boosted through this Godsend arrangement.


Anyway, I was lucky that I had relatives with whom I could live in the Fanar district of Constantinople. My uncle George was a prosperous merchant who provided me with comfortable quarters and three square meals a day. Before starting my employment in his business, I took the opportunity to visit many wonderful sites that is incredible city had to offer.


For the next two weeks, I spent walking every nook and cranny of this magnificent city viewing its beautiful buildings, bazaars, and religious sites. Initially, I proceeded to explore the Fanar district with its many fine wooden mansions, apartment buildings, churches, and businesses. This was the Greek heart of the city. I wanted to light a candle in the St George Cathedral only to see its doors firmly bolted. I was upset that I couldn't fulfill my religious obligation.


Instead, I found the Holy Trinity Church to light a candle and pray to the Virgin Mary. I felt relieved that I was able to make my offering. I passed outside the residence of the Patriarchate with its beautiful garden and heard young clergymen discussing matters of faith.


The next places to visit were the mosques, Taksim Square and Topkapi Palace. The Sultan Ahmed and Suleminiya Mosques were simply magnificent structures with their fine architecture and minarets rising to the sky. You could hear the hodjas from the minarets calling the faithful for prayer. Taksim Square was a huge place with Hagia Sophia in the background. I imagined the Sultan addressing his subjects that the Empire was at war with its neighbors. Suddenly, I found myself ready to enter the grounds of Topkapi Palace when two Imperial Guards stopped me.


“Where do you think you’re going?”, one uttered in a loud voice.


“I want to see its beautiful gardens,” I declared.


“You must leave now or else we will have to detain you.”


I left immediately. From this palace, the Sultan ruled his empire where he received foreign diplomats along with his cabinet ministers and businessmen.


Uncle George told me to visit the bazaars which were out of this world. He was right. The Grand Bazaar is a huge place completely undercover where one could easily get lost among the many stores with each seller vying for your business. I had never seen a place like this in my entire life. Many of the businesses were owned by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews with very few Turkish operators. You could buy anything imaginable from jewelry, gold bracelets, furniture, carpets, rugs, leather goods to clothes. Jewelry was produced in Constantinople by master craftsmen whereas carpets and rugs came from the factories of Smyrna. Some sellers sold the latest fashions from Paris and London which the rich ladies of Constantinople wore proudly.


The Spice Bazaar was an extraordinary place with its aroma of spice hitting your taste buds. You could find any spice your mind could conceive. I walked around striking up a conversation with stallholders who told me that many spices were imported from India and Egypt. Some were produced in the Empire. There were so many spice names that my mind couldn't simply remember them all. Momentarily, I recalled my mother's favorite dish rabbit stifado with onions, herbs, and aromatic spices. The spice bazaar and stifado made me feel very hungry. Both bazaars are simply phenomenal.

A visit to the hippodrome took me back to the glory days of the Byzantium Empire where chariot racing and social entertainment were staged. I imagined the Emperors seated in a high position where they viewed events in comfort. The arena must have been packed with thousands of spectators shouting at the top of their voices during the chariot races. I suppose there was betting on the races. This magnificent site was left to ruin with columns and walls falling into disrepair. I wondered why the Sultan didn't spend some of his largesse in restoring the hippodrome to its ancient glory.


The next place to visit was the Galata bridge built some forty years earlier linking Europe with Asia. All the foreign embassies and legations are located in the Galata district. As you walk thru here, you see foreign businesses and street signs displayed in foreign languages. One day I stopped at a Greek restaurant had lunch and became friendly with the owner. He told me that thousands of Armenians were massacred in this district over a bank robbery in 1896. It wasn't a bank robbery but Armenian heroes occupying the Ottoman Bank seeking the intervention of the European powers to save their people from massacres.


Walking across to the Asiatic side was a different world to the one found in Constantinople. The majority of the street signs and business names were written in the Ottoman script which I couldn’t read. However, I found the Turks friendly who had no fear of foreigners or strangers. They made me feel welcomed.


One day, I perched myself on top of a hill overlooking Seraglio Point which spans the Golden Horn. From here I had a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus Strait and the Marmara Sea with the Princes Islands in the distance. The Bosphorus Strait was full of merchant ships flying foreign flags indicating the importance of Constantinople in international trade.


Before commencing work, I visited Hagia Sophia which captured my imagination of its past splendor and Byzantine mass conducted by the Patriarch thundering his sermon to his flock. This magnificent structure is a mosque that I hoped one day would return to Christianity. Only the future held the key to this realization.


Two weeks over, ready to work.


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