I see millions of anonymous lights glittering far beyond the horizon. The urban landscape extends endlessly and floods both sides of the Bosporus Strait, a narrow passage of water connecting the Balkans and Asia Minor. This is how Istanbul has gained the status of the only city in the world located on two continents. Maşallah!
This is not the capital of Turkey, but its largest city. With its more than 14 million inhabitants, it is second to none in the Middle East and all of Europe. Nearly 99% of the population are Muslims and that implies presence of many mosques in Istanbul. In fact there is nearly 3000 of them.
I am firm believer that if you meet right people, even a short visit to a new place can turn out to be a unique and rich experience. We are fortunate enough to meet Serhat, a cheerful and easy-going guy met via Couch Surfing. Serhat is of Kurdish origin, fluent in three languages, student majoring in construction, coming from the east of the country.
The morning starts very slowly in the student’s apartment. We kick off by visiting the nearby bakery. Serhat has some friends here. We look at the process of preparing Turkish pastries, bread, pita, lamacun and börek, after that we become part of it. It is not easy, especially hand modeling dough to form regular shapes and effectively operate with shovel inside wood-fired stove.
We visit a few more shops, buy pepper, dried olives, fruit and other breakfast treats. Once in the apartment, we set a large blanket on the floor and prepare food. Dried cheese (kaşar peyniri), black and green olives, butter, jam, omelet with vegetables, fried peppers, bread straight from the stove and hot spices. However, it all begins with a cup of tea.
Even though, originally coffee was the Turkish national drink. Tea has been recognized only in the recent history. This is due to the increase in coffee prices and good climatic circumstances towards cultivation of tea in the Black Sea region. Turkish tea, called çay, is consumed without milk, with lots of sugar. Usually it is prepared in two stacked kettles (çaydanlık).
The bigger, bottom kettle is used to boil water and when it is ready, we brew a handful or so of tea-leaves inside the smaller kettle and put it on top of a larger one. Finally, serving a cup of strong tea we use the extract from the top kettle and dilute it with water from the lower kettle to individual liking to achieve koyu (strong) or açık (soft) tea. It’s a genuine ritual which can take up to a couple of hours, then it is often repeated throughout the day.
Worth to mention, the Turks have the highest consumption of tea in the world, drinking an average of 2.5 kilograms of tea leaves per year per capita. Even the British are not able to catch up, however they take the second place consuming 2.1 kilograms of dry leaves every year.
After breakfast, Serhat takes us for a trip around the city. We arrive at place where he firmly announces that “you’ll see one million people on that street“. Seeing this amazing crowd of people, I find it quite possible that 1 in 14 inhabitants of the huge city walking along that street right now. Every step you take you’ll see a mosque (perhaps two or three). Certainly its dominant minaret, where at certain times the calls of muezzins create seeming chaos that sets the rhythm and life pace of the giant metropolis.