An Istanbul adventure: a 1500-year-old museum, and Uighur food

A week ago we decided to go to the Kariye (Chora) Museum, a Byzantine church (and later mosque) that is in the Western Districts of Istanbul, far off the usual tourist track. The oldest parts of the church are said to have been built in the fifth century, though as I understand it, the bulk of what’s now there is much newer — “newer” meaning, in this case, dating to around 1080! The church is I think fairly well known, but it’s not the easiest place to get to. We had a free afternoon, though, so why not have an adventure?

First, of course: sustenance. We went to the köfte place on the corner and had meatballs. Erik got a sammich and I had a wrap, which proved not only extremely tasty, but so tightly and compactly folded that it was not at all messy. They should wave these things around at ball games and such — they’d make great snacking.

Köfte (meatball) sandwich with tomatoes and pickled pepper

{as always, mouse over the photos for my notes/description, or click to enlarge}

Köfte (meatball) dürüm (wrap)

Cross-section of köfte dürüm

Then we walked down the hill to the tram stop.

Waiting for the tram at Tophane

We got off at the next stop, Karaköy, where we would be catching a ferry up the Golden Horn. There were several docks at Karaköy — each one corresponding to a different ferry route — but ours was surely the smallest and least imposing. It was basically a tent, two turnstiles, and a set of movable stairs roped to the concrete. And a bored-looking security guard.

Very small ferry station

The ferry pulled up, we touched our Istanbulkart to the turnstiles, and within a couple of minutes the boat was off, heading under the Galata Bridge and up the Golden Horn.

View of Galata from the Golden Horn

It was a beautiful day, the open-sided boat wasn’t crowded, and the ride cost something like 2 TL — just over $1 — per person. I couldn’t stop exclaiming, “This is so much fun!” Definitely a good way to spend a couple of lira.

View of the old city from the Golden Horn

After the next stop, a man came around with a tray, offering glasses of tea or orange juice, or paninis (cheese or pastırma). My OJ was 3 lira. I think it was fresh-squeezed.

Man offering orange juices and tea on the ferry

The guidebook had said the ride would be about 35 minutes, but we were at our stop in about 25, and we’d enjoyed every minute of it.

Boat on the Golden Horn

Our stop, Ayvansaray, was obviously not a popular one — we followed two elderly men, and a couple of older ladies got off after us, and that was it. They all seemed to know where they were going, but we stumbled around a bit (literally: the way to the street led through a park that was under construction, with half-laid strips of sod everywhere, muddy paths, and big puddles). I’d written down our directions, but not all the street signs were easy to find, and we went the wrong way for awhile. “All right,” I said, “I think it’s time to look at my map.” I pulled out the free map I’d taken from the tourist info center at Taksim, and then found to my dismay that this part of Istanbul isn’t even on the tourist map. Alas. “Hold on,” I said, and recalled what I’d seen on Google Maps. “I think we need to go back to the park.” We retraced our steps, took a left, and then found ourselves on the street I had directions from. Excellent.

It was a strange route, only about 1 km, but uphill and on curving streets in what was clearly a very old neighborhood. In fact, on our right we could see pieces of the old city walls. I don’t know how old the walls are in this particular section of town, but they might also be about 1500 years old.

Bit of the old city wall... next to a yard with someone's washing

There were kids playing in the streets, plenty more cats (of course), and the occasional dog or adult (including some other obvious non-Turks carrying guidebooks, who must also have been in search of the church). As we rounded one corner a small dark shape darted in front of us, and I thought, “Oh, another cat.” Then, as I registered that it was not cat-shaped, more joined it. They all ran into a little yard and started pecking at the ground. I was delighted.


I was so hot that my face dripped. The area felt safe enough, but I’m always a bit uneasy in any place where I stick out like a sore thumb and can’t make a quick escape. So we kept a brisk pace, but looked around us as we went.

Building door

Arched doorway in the old city wall

Old city wall

Very random moment: One street gave me an incredible feeling of being in San Francisco.

Looks like San Francisco!

We did make one stop along the way, when I knew we were close to the church. I looked down a street and spotted stairs next to the old walls. “Come on,” I said, “let’s climb.”

Stairs to the old city wall

We got partway up the wall by these stairs. There was a big landing with no guardrail. Not a very impressive view on the outside of the walls, I’m afraid, though we did get a nice look at the rooftops of the houses we’d just passed.

Halfway up the old city wall

View from halfway up the old city wall

We went back down and then headed over to the museum. It was obviously the only tourist attraction of this neighborhood; clustered around it were a hotel (named after it), a couple of cafés, and some gift shops (selling not-bad-looking stuff, either, but I didn’t stop to browse). We had to walk by all that; the museum itself had its entrance tucked away on another tiny curving street.

Entrance to the Kariye (Chora) Museum

You see the outside of the church first, as you walk through its little garden.

Kariye (Chora) Church (now Museum)

There were a number of resident cats, several of whom had staked out sunny spots and were napping.

Sleeping cow-cat outside the church/museum

We passed up the audio guides and went straight in. There weren’t a ton of people inside, but since the museum is small (it’s an old church, after all), it felt rather busy, especially since there were many tour guides leading groups around — explaining the decorations in Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and English.

Through the right-hand door, upon entering the museum

It’s a weird thing. The church is a breathtaking space, but I didn’t feel like I could see it. For one thing — as you can tell from the above photo — it’s tall, and many of the decorations are toward the top, including the amazing domed ceilings. I don’t have the most flexible neck, so if I have to walk around tilting it back, I’m not going to be in the right state of mind for appreciating whatever I’m looking at. I thought it would have been much better to lie down on the floor (also, I was still hot from our walk — stone floors sounded very inviting!)… but I didn’t think anyone else would have been happy about that. ;b So even though I went to the museum, I don’t actually feel I got to see its magnificent frescoes and mosaics until I got home and looked at the pictures!


Old mosaic


Old mosaic

Ideally I would have liked to just sit quietly in the church and think, but there was too much commotion, with all the people going in and out and talking. I know it’s impossible for a mere tourist to get private time with a space like this. But for me, walking through a place like this without having peace, is like passing by a buffet without tasting the food: I feel like I’m not able to experience what it was made for.

On the other hand, I suppose it’s very likely that all old churches have seen their share of hubbub and violence and upheaval — not to mention music, chanting, all that — and not just soundless prayer. So I can’t really assume that noise and movement are any less authentic to the place’s history than silence.

Marble walls and floor


Marble inlay in floor

At any rate… I do have a little portable meditation for places like this. When we went into the main hall — which was the most packed — someone got up from the bench at the end, and I sat. You’ll notice I left out all the people. It was partly an aesthetic choice… but not only.


Magnificently decorated arched ceiling

Erik sat with me while I sketched, as he usually does. I can’t imagine how this doesn’t bore him, but he’s very good company. Like me, he cares very little for the kinds of things the tour guides talk about, and was more interested in questions like this: “Do you think they used to put candles where those lights are now?” I said, “I don’t know; that would be a really unwieldy place to try to put a candle!” Reply: “Then does that mean that at the time, they would never have seen the gold in these mosaics, lit from below like this?” “Huh… good question!”

Decorated arches

When I finished my sketch we left the museum, and walked around the little garden for a bit.

Cute cow-kitten

And we saw a RABBIT!

Fat grey-eared white rabbit sitting under a bench where a girl is reading

There was a low wall around the garden and when we peeked over it, we saw a lovely little park below.

Kariye Park

We decided to go there and have a drink.

Kariye Park

By this time the afternoon was ebbing, we were hot and tired, and we had to think about what to do next. We could have just gone home, but I had seen that there was an Uighur restaurant somewhere in the general area, and I really wanted to have Uighur food. We were obviously quite constrained by not having a detailed map, but I’d brought Istanbul Eats, and I thought I could remember some landmarks from looking the place up on Google Maps (I’d neglected to write down directions). So we set off.

At a major street, we wove through crowds of schoolchildren (and their mothers) and found a bus shelter, where — hooray!! — there was a map. I knew we wanted to be close to the Topkapı tram station (which is, confusingly, nowhere near the palace with the same name), so we located that and headed in that direction. We used these bus shelters a couple of times along the way, to get our bearings.

We ended up just outside the city walls, and we walked along them toward Topkapı station: ancient walls on our left, Friday rush hour on our right.

Old city wall and modern city street

Walking along the old city walls at late afternoon

When we finally got to Topkapı, there was no sign of the restaurant or anything like the Culture Park that the book said the restaurant was in. “Ah well,” I said to Erik, “that’s what I get for trying to navigate Istanbul without a map. Anyway, we can get home from here on the tram.”

Metro stop

As we stood there studying the map, a security guard came out to see if we needed assistance. We smiled and shook our heads no, and thanked him, but he popped into his kiosk and came back out with a foldout system map, which he handed to us. (It has proved useful to have this in my purse, so I’m grateful to him!) As I studied it, I realized there are actually two Topkapı stations, linked to each other by the very line we were about to get on. So we went to the other Topkapı… and there was our Kültür Parkı!

The book said the restaurant was by the yurts, so we looked for the yurts and found them in an odd little fenced-in compound. When we tried to go in, a stern-looking security guard spoke to us, which we of course couldn’t understand. We gaped at him for a moment, and then I asked, “Um… restaurant?” He then smiled and gestured us in. My guess is he’d been telling us the culture park was closed for the evening.

The compound wasn’t any less odd inside, but we soon found the restaurant. After a day of feeling utterly foreign, imagine my shock when we went inside and were greeted with Mandarin. “Nihao,” a lady said in a soft, pleasant voice. “Liangwei?” I said yes, two people, and she asked whether we wanted to sit inside or outside. I thought outside, so she led us there. I had a quick look around and realized everyone in the restaurant looked more or less like her: definitely Asian, but not Han Chinese. In contrast with most of the places we’ve been eating at, this restaurant — Zinnet — was spacious and airy. There were at least two large groups eating at big round tables in the back, and the diners seemed to be attired in some kind of ethnic costume. I only remember hats… and what kind of hats, I couldn’t tell you; I just had a general impression of hats!

When the lady brought the menus, they were all in Turkish. And since the food wasn’t Turkish, we didn’t recognize many of the words. We figured we’d just order whatever they mentioned in the book, but — as has happened at every restaurant we’ve gone to in Istanbul — we needn’t have worried. The lady came back and said, again in Mandarin, “Do you understand the menu, or would you like me to tell you about our specialties?” I said the latter, and our conversation then went something like this:

Restaurant lady: “Well, the food we serve here is Xinjiang cuisine. We have some special dishes, like hand-pulled noodles… [don’t remember what else] Do you know what you might like to order?”

Me, pointing at menu: “This soup.” (It was in the book.)

RL writes it down, but then considers, and says, “That soup will take a little while. It’s like a wonton soup. If you want something faster, you could try a different soup (she points on the menu). That one has noodles in it.”

I translate to Erik, and we agree on the quicker soup. Erik has a meeting at 8 and we need to get back by then.

Me: “The quicker soup, then. And… mantı?”

RL looks at me quizzically. I consider saying that it’s like jiaozi, but then it occurs to me that I don’t know if Uighur mantı are like jiaozi, so I fumble for words. Meanwhile, RL has picked up on what I want.

RL: “Ah, mantı.” (I nod enthusiastically.) “Ah yes, you said it about right. They’re like… baozi.”

This sounds close enough to me, so I agree.

RL: “Anything else?”

Me to Erik, in English: “Do you want rice or noodles?”

E: “Let’s have noodles.”

Me to RL, in Mandarin: “The hand-pulled noodles.”

RL: “Hand-pulled noodles.” Seeing me thinking, she adds, “We also have another special dish. It’s like kebab, but instead of roasting the meat, we stir-fry it with vegetables and things.”

Me: “Good. Yes.”

RL: “Is that all?”

Me (exhausted): “Yes.”

RL turns to leave, then turns back: “One soup or two?”

Me: “Um… one.”

After she left I realized that if the portions were small, we might not have ordered enough food. I said so to Erik, but we decided not to bother with more. It was late, we were far from home, we had a deadline, and I was wiped from our long day and from the unexpected Mandarin. The restaurant lady had an accent as well, and a slightly hesitant way of speaking, that made me think she might not be super comfortable in the language either. On the other hand, an accent is no indication of fluency, and she might just have hesitated because we were surely such unusual guests!

When the soup came, I wished I’d asked for two. It was very tasty. Not fancy, but savory and homey-tasting, like something you’d get at a relative’s house.

Uighur noodle soup

This was followed by the noodles. They didn’t look like much, but their texture was wonderful, very springy and substantial. Again it was a small portion. 😦

Uighur lagman (handmade noodles) topped with ground meat and diced vegetables

We had to wait a bit for the rest of our meal. The sky was darkening and it was getting a bit chilly outside, but I stubbornly refused to go inside. I felt conspicuous enough already, without picking up all our stuff and moving to the inside, without words to explain why. (I blanked out on how to say “cold.” I could remember it in Shanghainese… even Cantonese… but not Mandarin. Go figure.) I think there must be an invisible tether that leashes me to my comfort zone; today, I’d already gone so far out of the comfort zone that that tether was stretched to its limit, and I would not budge an inch more, even to get warm, even to be in the same room as that intriguing-sounding music and singing I was hearing from inside. But I did get up and go in to wash my hands — that’s in the comfort zone — and as I did, I saw that one of the male diners was playing a stringed instrument and singing… at his table, while eating. Fascinating. Maybe my curiosity about the music would have won over, in the end, but he soon stopped playing (so he could eat, probably!).

When the “special kebab” arrived, it came with what I later learned is the Uighur version of naan. The bread was room temperature and rather dense, and dry, but since the meat was spicy I gobbled it down gratefully. The meat itself — beef; I asked the lady — was very, very delicious, tender but still enjoyably chewy. I suspect it was rather fatty. It had a strong, good, spicy-savory flavor. I would go back just to eat this dish.

Uighur stir-fried beef and vegetables

Uighur naan, topped with sesame seeds

And finally we got our mantı. My mom says bamboo wouldn’t be traditional for this part of Asia, but I suppose bamboo steamers are just easy to come by. The dumplings reminded me of the momo we’ve eaten in Himalayan restaurants in Berkeley. When I bit into my first one I exclaimed, “This is the most savory thing in the world!” Like the rest of our dinner, it tasted of meat and onions and strong spices — maybe these? — with the additional flavors of the dough wrapper and meat juices. We had our mantı with some of the dark vinegar that was on the table. (No idea if Uighurs eat vinegar on their mantı, but the Shanghainese do with xiaolongbao, so we figured we’d go with that!)

Uighur manti (meat dumplings)

And that was our meal. I was sad that the one Istanbul restaurant at which I’d actually under-ordered was the one it was hardest to get to… but no matter. We walked out past the yurts, back toward the station.

Yurts at the culture park by dusk

Park by dusk

The sun was setting, and as we passed by a mosque in the park, we heard the call to prayer.

We were very far from home, and I think it took us about an hour to get back, even on the tram. Erik was late for his meeting, and by the time we went to bed, I was hungry again, even though I’d bought some cookies on the way home. But that is the price of a little adventure, no?