Anatolia and the Caucuses
belated notes on Istanbul and Georgia
After visiting family in Dublin last Christmas I did a further trip to Georgia and Turkey with my brother. We connected through Istanbul to Tbilisi, staying for 4 days before coming back to stay in Istanbul for a 5 more. The cities are geographically in the same region but obviously extremely different; mentally, a trip from west to east doesn’t entail going from a majority Muslim to majority Christian country, but that is how it is in Eastern Europe and consequently these cities are interesting places to see up close how tectonic plates of different civilisations have interacted over the course of history.
On the way from Dublin to Tbilisi I learned the Georgian script using this online tutor. While no great achievement (the Georgian alphabet is only about 30 characters and phonetic), it was the first time I have learned to read in a script other than Latin and was a fun experience to be able to decode signs (though not necessary if you are there since most signs are surprisingly re-written in English). I obviously didn’t know the meaning of most Georgian words but a lot of words for newer objects or places are the same as in English with slightly altered endings, so it was actually somewhat useful.
Tbilisi in winter is not the most colourful but there is something appealing about the combination of the run-down post-Soviet aesthetic of the city with the backdrop of mountains. As a tourist, it is less of a city with “major attractions” and more a place with lots of small discoveries and observations to make about times past and history in the making.
The spectre of Georgia’s precarious political situation hangs over Tbilisi and is constantly in your face. In the old town (which doubles as a commercial district) on many streets you are more likely to hear Russian than Georgian spoken. The government has quite loose visa requirements so Russians dodging the draft or domestic inflation fill local upscale eateries and cafes, boosting the economy but pushing up house prices for locals. Russian has been the lingua franca since Soviet times, and old books in Cyrillic line many street markets and bookstores.
However the age of those books also suggests it is possible that this orientation is an atavism. The country drapes itself in the European flag; support for Ukraine is everywhere. Although the government is more apathetic or even sometimes conciliatory towards the great northern neighbour than the populace out of fear of retribution, ordinary people continue to seethe about the regions under occupation and feel solidarity. This causes tension, which I saw first-hand in a protest outside the presidential palace one day while walking by. English rather than Russian is the language taught in schools there today. Even since our visit, there have been major protests against the government’s Russia-appeasing policies.
We also went to the Caucasian mountains. My favourite single sight from the whole trip was the monument of “Friendship” between the Georgian and Russian people, a Soviet commissioned concrete circle, which contains a couple of discrete subversive jokes on the 360° mosaic on the inside. The road we took leads right up to the Russian border, and it is clear even post-invasion that this remains major corridor for the exchange of goods and people (interestingly it seemed that there were quite a few EU registered companies running the trucks).
There was some laughing on our tour to the Caucasian mountains when the tour guide asked if anyone was vegetarian. Georgian food is quite meat-heavy, with the highlight being beef-filled dumplings called Khinkali. There is a great debate over where to get the best Khinkali, and rules on how to achieve this ideal remain impenetrable to me, though the variance in quality between different varieties isn’t especially high and they are mostly great. Other highlights are the Sulguni cheese which they use to make Khachapuri (flat bread with cheese), which is amazing. Overall I think Georgian food represents the greatest aspects of Western cuisine - heavy meals rendered to resist a harsh cold and environment unapologetic in their usage of meats and breads.
We spent New Year’s Eve in Tbilisi watching from the hill overlooking the city with the TV tower. Georgia polices private fireworks very lightly; never before have I been scared when watching a fireworks display. Firework displays here are decentralised. Which means chaos. Rather than having one big display, private citizens launch their own fireworks, so the city becomes a blur of pulses of light and machine-gun like blast sounds as 00:00 nears. From where we watched on the hill, there were also people launching rockets over the balcony from the middle of the crowd. One of the fireworks misfired, and the coat of one of our fellow onlookers was tempoarily set ablaze (he was OK in the end, though only after sequentially ignoring 10 people who were trying to tell him). Not for the faint of heart but an unforgettable experience.
We visited to one of the contemporary galleries in the centre of Tbilisi. Being relatively ignorant of how art worked in the USSR, I was surprised by how much got done during the Soviet period, although disappointingly many of the artists too closely mimicked various earlier styles from other countries. The best of the exhibited artists for me was Vladimir Kandelaki, who seems to quite effectively fuse political subversion, a pleasing palette, and a sense of whimsy in his work.
The rumours are true, Istanbul is filled with cats, and more than one black cat cross my path. Even as someone generally suspicious of cats this was fun.
The attractions in the main Sultanakhmet area are undoubtedly overtouristed but worthwhile nonetheless. The most spectacular is the Hagia Sophia, which is externally underwhelming but incredible inside. Topkapi Palace was underwhelming to me but is steeped in history.
The Ottomans become huge Francophiles towards the end of their rule, so there is a lot amount of fusion between classically French and traditionally Eastern architectures, food, and art in late Ottoman artefacts. The pinnacle of this for me was the Dolmabahçe palace, an absurdly ornate 19th century construction filled with amazing architecture and orientalist paintings.
The food in Istanbul is consistently good but nothing blew my mind. Perhaps it is because the Middle Eastern cuisine in Toronto is amazing overall1 but fare in Istanbul did not elevate itself far above other Middle Eastern or even Turkish I have had. Eating in Sultanahmet will leave you overcharged and underwhelmed, at a minimum walking just across the river to Karakoy will give better selection at lower prices. Food on the Asian side is cheaper and in my (brief) time there more varied overall.
Signifiers of the stormy Turkish political situation are constantly present in the background. The Hagia Sophia was recently converted from a museum back to a mosque, with Erdoğan the secular government’s decision from the ‘30s. And unlike in Georgia, nobody in Turkey cares about Ukraine other than instrumentally (the one flag I did see was on the German embassy). Ataturk (the founder of Turkey in the ‘20s and ‘30s) is also highly revered - his image is everywhere.
The museums are where you feel the Ottoman legacy most strongly. A cornucopia of imperial artefacts fills the museums2. Byzantium3 gets short shrift in captions and descriptions of artefacts and buildings.
Istanbul in many ways feels very European and so to me familiar. The streets in the old town are a busier and more lively variant of what you could find in, say, Budapest, but the skyline filled with Minarets and multiple-times daily calls to prayer provide a reminder that you at the nexus between Europe and Asia.
Istanbul as a modern city of efficiencies copes surprisingly well with the Bosphorus as its surroundings. I was astonished by the efficiency of transit links across it - ~20 minutes by boat, and less than that by undersea metro system (which doesn’t drop 4G connection even as you pass through it).
While Georgia and Istanbul are hard to compare directly, the overall atmosphere in Tbilisi was more amicable to me, while my brother preferred Istanbul. If I were to visit Georgia again I would want to rent a car since there is not very centralised or developed outside the centre, and there is a lot which you need one to access. In Turkey I would want to visit somewhere on the Mediterranean and probably Izmir to see a different part of the country and more history.
With a fierce competition for who can produce the best Chicken Shawarma.
Which made me wonder why there is no campaign for Turkey to return its spoils of imperium like there is for Britain
The Eastern Roman Empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul, existed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and before its defeat by the Ottomans