Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 11, 2010 – Istanbul

It is my first full day in this great old city.

I had the greatest tour guide and dear friend, Siragan Magar. Siragan is the brother of Bedros Magar who is married to my cousin Sandy. Originally from Yozgat, Siragan has lived in Istanbul for many years and knows the city well. I had met Siragan twice before once in New York and another time in Detroit. We hit it off well those times and it was like we had seen each other once a week. He met me at my hotel this morning and agreed to an agenda for the day. We agreed to go to an Armenian Church, go to Dolmabahçe Palace, and then take a boat ride to one of the Prince’s Islands to have dinner.

We decide to go to Surp Vartanants Church because it was, at most, a ten minute walk from my hotel. Surp Vartanants is in the Feriköy section of the city. It was a rather unimposing façade off of the street. It was just a double door in a non-descript wall. The doors had crosses on them and above the door a simple sign: Surp Vartan Kelisesi . I did not know what to expect from the very plain entrance. In walking through the door, I realized the church was inside a courtyard and I felt much better. I realized it is probably better to have a plain front for an Armenian Church in this country. I lit two candles and said a prayer for my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and those of my wife. These wonderful and special people were all born in what today is the Republic of Turkey. I felt very good and connected doing this as the morning service was ending and the mass was about to begin. The church was full but it was mostly old people. Younger people were coming in and out with their youngsters. There was a school attached to the Church and it had two social halls as well. Siragan told me a lot of Armenians now lived in Feriköy both Armenians born in Turkey and those who had come from Armenia to work.

From Surp Vartan, we caught a taxi and went to Dolmabahçe Palace. It was first and foremost on the list of Ottoman sites I wanted to see. I have an indirect personal connection to this place. The palace was commission by the 31st Sultan of the Empire, Abdulmecid , in 1856. He wanted a western style palace to take the place of the more oriental style Topkapi Palace which I will visit tomorrow. The architects that the Sultan commissioned were the famous Armenian architects Garabet Balian and his son Nigoghos. The Armenian connection in itself would be most indirect but I know the great great great (and maybe another great in here, I am not sure) of Garabet. First cousins Rich Berberian and John Harotian are good friends and fellow musicians. They played at both my children’s weddings and John and I are in the same band in Chicago. I had to see this place.

In one word… WOW. I was very impressed and immediately thought about my reaction to remotely similar, much less grand, edifices that the Spanish built in Latin America. There is no limit to what you can do with the unlimited wealth gotten in creating an empire. The gilding, the incredible frescos, the English or Baccarat crystal chandeliers weighing 1, 2 and 4 tons, inlay flooring, the Turkish carpets of unreal dimensions, the porcelain doorknobs, the china, and paintings (including a wonderful piece from the renown Armenian artist Ivan Aivazovsky. It was phenomenal. Go to to see photos of this amazing palace.

From Dolmabahçe, Siragan and I walked to the ferry port past a mosque the Balians had also built next to the palace. We had a cup of tea waiting for the ferry that goes to four of the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara. These islands with are summer retreats and homes of the well heeled of Istanbul. It is like Cape Cod is to Boston and Providence, with the charm of Istanbul, if that even makes sense. The ferry goes to the four largest of the islands Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Büyükada. We went to Büyükada, the largest of the nine island chain. The ferry ride took an hour and a half. It was great watching people, the coastline, and to talk with Siragan. In Büyükada, we went to a restaurant right on the sea. The food, the entire experience, walking around the streets of the resort island was great.

What are my overall impressions?

I came here both excited and apprehensive. I had only known Turkey and Istanbul through the eyes of others, what I have read, and heard. I was a bit worried about being Armenian in a place that for the past hundred years, for sure, was not kind to Armenians. I was worried about my last name.

I had nothing to worry about. There were no issues. No one gave a second thought about my last name or even questioned it in any way at all. It is a total non-issue. Siragan and I talked Armenian all day everywhere, in public, on the Ferry, in the restaurant, in Dolmabahçe. No one even looked at us funny.

I was worried about being in a Moslem country for the first time. 10-15% of the women have headscarves. No big deal. I heard my first call to prayer at 1 pm. No one within my range of vision even flinched and no one prayed.

The city reminds me of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It is European and it is definitely Turkish. It is a great place to hang out and explore. It is a great place to experience the rich history here and the culture that overlaps the Armenian so much. A good 70% look like we could be related.

It was a perfect cool blustery spring day. I could not have picked a better day to visit this city, this Constantanopolis, this Bolis… Istanbul.

I got up at 7:30 am after a blissful sleep. I went to the gym of the hotel. I was the only one exercising so the nice attendant lady went to change the channel to something she thought I would like such as CNN. I asked her if there was any good Turkish music on TRT. She looked at me sideways but found a folk music concert. I commented that I recognized the singer Bedri Aysli (an Armenian). The lady asked me, “You know Bedri Aysli?” “Yes and I know this song.” She was clearly surprised.

As I exercised, another show came on. It was called Göçmen Kuşların. It reminded me of a show on Discovery Channel in the US called Dirty Jobs in which they explore jobs most people might not have the fortitude for. I thought this because the host followed a garbage scavenger around. This fellow began work in the dead of night with his rickshaw like wagon. He went through the garbage before it was collected and took recyclables and anything he thought he could clean-up, fix, and resell. It was tedious and at times dirty. It could not have been easy dragging that cart, full of refuge, uphill. I asked later what göçmen kuşların meant? It means “migrating birds” which is what the Turks call those people who leave their village to try to make a go of it in Istanbul. They often take on the most menial kinds of work. It was very interesting. They even followed the man and his wife and daughters on their day off to see what they do for recreation. This reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s depiction of life in Kars in his book Snow which I am reading while on this trip.

I am very glad to be here. There is no substitute for experiencing a place first hand.


  1. Awesome Mark. This is really something to read and enjoy. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Fun to follow your journey vicariously; great commentary.

  3. Very interesting Mark. I want to here more about the music and the Mante.

  4. Glad to hear you are having such a great experience. F/Y/I, Garabed Balian was John's and my great-great-great-great Grandfather. He had 4 sons, two of which were most involved with the creation of Dolmabahce Palace. Nigoghos started, but major portions of the Palace were designed and built by his second son, Sarkis Balian (our great-great-great Grandfather). Have a great trip! I look forward to reading more. - Richard Berberian

  5. Mark: Glad to hear you are having such a great time so far! F/Y/I, Garabed Balian was the great-great-great-great Grandfather to John and I. He had four sons, two of which were involved with Dolmabahce. Nigoghos was one, but his 2nd son, Sarkis, designed and built many of the palace sections, including the Mosque, Clock Tower, the famous hall of mirrors and the crystal staircase. Sarkis was our great-great-great Grandfather and the most active member of the family in architecture, Armenian politics and the Patriarchate of Istanbul. If you have time, the Balian family's "church" was in Besiktas. A bust of Sarkis and his father Garabed are outside at the main entrance. It is here that he built the Makhrouhi Balian Armenian School, named after his wife. Very cool... - Richard Berberian

  6. MARK. Dateline, Constantinople ! How excellent that you took your wide open eyes & mind & heart with you. We are going to MUSA DAGH soon. Perhaps even before we die ! More, please. Merci. MIKE.

  7. We are very happy you are enjoying your trip. Thanks for the Turkish history you shared with us. It was very interesting. Looking forward to hear from you again soon, Manuk and Ana

  8. Wonderful. You have a gifted pen. Great to have a cicerone like you. Keep your comments coming.We'll discuss Kar[Snow] when you get back. Eat lots of midea dolmasi. Maybe you could visit and tell us about some the birthplaces of the famous Armenian poets and writers, such as Vahan Tekeyan, Krikor Zohrab, Taniel Varoujan, Siamanto, and the mystic Indra. Enjoy! Zaven

  9. Nice stuff Mark. I need to go there now!!!!!!!!!!!

    Have you met Husnu yet and do you have a band job?

  10. This is great stuff Mark, thanks for sharing and keep it coming. Thrilled the trip is going great, only wish I were there!

    -Jim Hardy

  11. With your enthusiasm and depth of knowledge, you should lead a tour for your 'fans'. It would be more meaningful and rewarding to see the sights with an artist, musician, and great raconteur like you.

    Kufta Lady

  12. Your experiences are very similar to mine when I visited the city a couple of years ago.


  13. Hi Mark,

    I am glad you are enjoying it, but a bit upset I can't take you around myself. I am moving back to Istanbul at the end of April so I really hope you will be back again soon!


  14. Very interesting indeed! Looking forward to reading more on your trip. Take care, Garo

  15. Udi Marko! great, I'm really jealous! I hope the rest of your visit is as memorable as it has been so far,

    Klarnetci Kustepeli Mahmut

  16. Mark, if you have a chance, pick me up a set of Baglama Saz Strings!!!

  17. Its very interesting how you describe everything in such detail. I can imagine it. Pick me up some CD's