Soaking in the Bosphorus

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

The sparkling aquamarine of the Bosphorus Strait seems impossible. Boats are plentiful, one gigantic tanker braves the strong currents daily, yet it doesn’t carry the murky industrial water you would expect from constant use.

I felt a strong compulsion to dive in from the edge of our ferry. To brave the chilly water and soak in the centuries of history.

Absorption or osmosis may be the only way to learn it fully. Turkey’s history, much of which is defined by activity in Istanbul, is complicated and not within reach for such fly-by travelers as us, even if resident for three months. This happens in every country though, we are always left wanting for more, but it is not long before we are distracted by a new country with a new fascinating history of its own. We must take what we can in bits and pieces.


Granted more time, I would ride the waves of the Bosphorus every day, striving to uncover the sordid details of its past. The importance of which cannot be overstated – it is where east meets west, where a quick drive or ferry ride enables people to bounce across continents, from Asia to Europe, and back again. The city that bridges both has thus had a complex history with stunning changes in rulers, being anointed different names many times: Byzantium, Constantinople, Stamboul, to name a few.

The modern character of Istanbul and the country of Turkey, being only 80 years old, is evolving. The neighborhood of Üsküdar, on Istanbul’s Asian shore, is perhaps an insightful microcosm of this. Once home to active churches and synagogues that lived in harmony and with strong neighborly ties to the mosques, most have either died off or have few residents left to support them. The population, still home to the artistic and intellectual community of Istanbul, is becoming more exclusively Muslim and somewhat more conservative, a general movement confirmed by several we have talked to as being consistent country-wide.


Fascinating stories continue to present themselves from our view on the Bosphorus, waiting to be learned. Innumerable mosques appear in the city view, the number of minarets carrying the tale of who built it and for whom. One grand Ottoman palace in the old town of Sultanahmet was abandoned and left empty so that a more elaborate one could be built on the opposite shore, the excessive spending for such extravagance contributing to the sensational fall of the Ottoman Empire.


During our last two days in Turkey we spent ample time on the water and strolling its edge, hopping between continents and islands, eavesdropping on foreign chatter amidst the crowd. The ferries served another representation of what exists on both sides of the Bosphorus, of east and west, and of curious foreigners attracted to the diverse scene.

A visitor’s obscenely short skirt flew up in the wind as she stood against the railing, facing the falling sun, and staring out at the approaching shoreline. Her hair blew sideways in the wind, entangled in a ring of white daisies she wore as a crown. A local girl sat just a few feet away, her head entirely covered in a dull peach hijab, while her friend used her shoulder as a pillow after a long, hot day.

We were set to leave the next day with so much left unseen, undone, unknown. As the ferry came into dock, the boat changed direction and I felt a few drops of spray over the side. They were quickly absorbed by my thin cotton sweater.

Many thanks to Context Travel and our most excellent tour guide Ceylan for insights into the life in Istanbul and along the Bosphorus. Even though our tour was complimentary, all opinion, as always, are our own.

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  1. It really has a crossroads feel to it, doesn’t it. Not simply just knowing that East meets West, it has a feel as well. Like you depict, there is such a mix between the ultra modern and conservative/traditional.

    We didn’t make it across on the ferry even though it was on our list. Maybe next time. I definitely want to be able to go to Asia for lunch and come back the same day. So exotic to beable to say that.

  2. “This happens in every country though, we are always left wanting for more.”

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how every trip (no matter how long or short) becomes a sort of mad attempt to soak up as much scenery, history, culture and experience as possible before we move onto the next place. I hate feeling like we’re just crossing items off a list, but at the same time there’s only so much of a place you can get to know in a limited span of time. Maybe it’s that hunger for more that keeps us so passionate about travel.

    1. I think about that all the time Bret, and I feel like I can never say I truly *know* a place, even if there for several months. But, there is too much of the world to see to not keep moving…

  3. Like Andy said, we didn’t make it to the Asian side of Istanbul or a boat on the Bosphorus, but it’s a big thing drawing us back one of these days.

  4. Those photos are pulsing with history and the dichotomy you so deftly describe.

    Thank you for the exquisite look at Istanbul.

  5. I’ve never been, but I’ve had a thing about the Bosphorus ever since reading Tim Severin’s reenactment of the Jason voyage (him of the Golden Fleece):

    There are few waterways so steeped in mythological history. And that makes my storytelling senses twitch. That’s going to be a land of yarns and legends and “my grandfather knows what *really* happened” type evenings around a kitchen table with an uncorked bottle of something semi-illegal. My kind of place.

    Thank you for reminding me of this. 🙂

    1. I want to meet that guy (or gal) who’s grandfather knows what really happened. I’d even bring the moonshine (my family used to make that)! Need to get back there, we shamefully spent so little time in Istanbul.

  6. Great story and photos! You’ve captured exactly how we felt about the city. Not sure when we’re going to make it back, but when we do it will be for no less than three weeks. 🙂

    1. Thanks Randy. Agreed that you need at least three weeks to explore. So much history in this city. We loved the hopping between the 2 continents and wandering around the less explored areas. We hope to make it back for an extended stay as well.

  7. A very poetic and romantic way of describing your Bosphorus experience with us! I love it…you explained so well why I don’t get tired of doing this everyday : ” I would ride the waves of the Bosphorus every day, striving to uncover the sordid details of its past”

    Thank you!

  8. Turkey was my top spot of favorite countries after traveling Europe last year. Tied with France. I can’t wait to get back there SOON! The food, the call to prayer, the friendly people!

    1. We have barely touched France so it is interesting that it ranks as highly as Turkey for you (considering that Turkey is likely our favorite overall). 🙂

  9. They are my faves for such different reasons… Turkey was so historically and culturally interesting, and the people were so friendly. The food, so good. But it’s chaos and noise and craziness! France had all the history and culture as well, but the simple beauty of the way way the French do everything really appeals. Their window displays, the way food is presented, the clean streets of the villages. I loved it. But Turkey spoke to me on a deeper level I think…

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