Şerif Yenen is a tourism expert, travel writer, tourist guide, film producer, speaker and a good Istanbulite. He’s committed to this city with passion. He’s been a guide for a quarter century, it’s easier said than done! In fact, that’s why he says that his life consists of two parts: “the period before starting to work as a guide, and the period after.” He likes his job, and he has no intention of getting retired! He enjoys being a guide to those who try to know us better than ourselves. Each tour he organizes is an adventure, he also learns something new from Istanbul each time, and his excitement for discovery never ends. We hosted Şerif Yenen at Sahi Karaköy. We had a pleasant chat with steeped tea. Here are the highlights of this chat…
-What is your relationship with Istanbul? When and how did it start?
I’m one of those who migrated to Istanbul. I came to Kuleli Military High School for education, and didn’t return, couldn’t return. As a matter of fact, I became an Istanbulite later on.
-It’s been 25 years since you started to work as a guide. A quarter century, easier said than done. How’s this as a life experience?
Our city, our country and our traditions are really very nice, rich and full. It’s a great joy to be a guide within such a culture.
Because while being a guide to people who try to know us better than ourselves, you get out of the life we’ve gotten used to and the daily routine, and fall in love with this city once more. We’re not aware of the wonder we’re living in, we don’t see it, and this state of adaptation blinds us. It prevents us from seeing the beauties. We miss life… Rediscovering Istanbul with tourists, seeing their point of view, their admiration and surprise excites me.
- And there’s no retirement in this line of work!
Yes, can one do the same job for 25 years and not get bored? I don’t, and there’s no retirement in this job. As I said, there’s an Istanbul before becoming a guide, and an Istanbul after becoming a guide for me. I’ve been in a different Istanbul for the last 25 years, and I’m proud of living in this city. Everyone should hear about and stake a claim to it. We mean so much. We’re at the heart of a civilization unprecedented throughout the World, and our cultural heritage is unbelievable. And just as we say these things, the Neolithic period findings encountered in Yenikapı excavations increased the span of Istanbul’s history by five thousand years! History books changed! Is this not enough?
-What is the first thing that impresses foreign tourists attending your tours?
We ask foreigners, “What do you like most?” Their answer is clear: Turkish people! The unique naivety of this land’s people, our cordiality towards guests, and our kindness to a degree of being a slave enamors them. The people set off with sincerity now. Cultural interaction and localization are also very important.
-How do discovery routes in Istanbul evolve today?
Even though the new trend is discovery, the average stay duration of foreigners is very short, about two-and-a-half to three days. This duration is never enough for discovering Istanbul. So the discoveries are either panoramic or very lacking. In my tours, I determine routes between Galata walk, Karaköy walk, Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye and Spice Bazaar. We even get on a ship and go to Kadıköy and Üsküdar markets. Kuzguncuk and Karacaahmet are also important stops.
-European side, or Anatolian side?
I find the unique static atmosphere of the Anatolian side more enjoyable. There’s chaos in the West, serenity in Anatolia. This may be the reason I consider Kuzguncuk special.
ISTANBUL LIKES BEING SHARED
- Everyone is intent on discovering now, how and where did this change begin?
The world is changing, people don’t contend themselves with less anymore. Naturally, the Turkish people also changed. They are not like 30 years ago. For one, they use technology very well. Most importantly, they love sharing. We are mobile and we go out to the street. And there’s no age for this! Everyone is after the details of life and Istanbul.
- Istanbul is a never-ending treasure for passion of discovery!
Certainly! Those attending the tours study on it before, they know everything. They want to quell their hunger for knowledge. All of these are very big advantages for us. In fact, there are many agencies organizing cultural tours. We set off with scientists such as archeologists and heads of excavation in our tours. Because the more knowledge, the more interest. All of us develop in these tours. We have to make sure that our tours are not in vain.
CRUISE TOURISM IS VERY IMPORTANT
-And can Istanbul take sufficient advantage of tourism?
Istanbul gets 12 million tourists at the moment. Our rivals get more than 40 million. Turkey among the top seven in the tourism market, and gets 35 million tourists in total. Most of these tourists come to the Mediterranean to enjoy the sun and the sea. Certainly, this is also important, but cheap tours, package vacation programs and campaigns aimed at obtaining competitive advantage affect tourism adversely. If the nature is and archeological artifacts are destroyed to build new hotels, this means we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. There’s a very delicate point here: We need to know boundaries and be able to say “stop”. Not everything should be allowable to earn more Money. Those coming to Istanbul com for culture or cruise tourism. Cruise tourism is very important at this point, because people not including Turkey in their routes directly discover Istanbul in this way, and since they can’t forget her taste, they visit again.
I’M A PARTICIPANT OF MY OWN TOURS
- Your every tour is an adventure. And what are the musts in your tours?
In every tour I embark, I try to go to a place that’s not included in my tour program. Moreover, I always keep my camera with me. So I’m a participant of my own tours. I should absolutely different places; I should get excited myself, so that my participants get excited too. Naturally, getting lost is a possibility. Perhaps getting lost in Istanbul is the best. For this reason, even though my tours look the same, each and every one is unique. Moreover, I attach importance to Street flavors. As a matter of fact, shop owners are wonderful! They bring tea at once, and begin chatting.
TEA IS THE MOST SOCIAL DRINK
- You have a great photo taken while drinking tea. Everyone who sees it craves for tea! As Sahi, we say “The day starts when you order a glass of tea”.
Tea is a social drink. It’s just like shaking hands, greeting one another. On the Street, in ships, everywhere… Tea is really life.
EVERYONE SHOULD DISCOVER THE GRAND BAZAAR
- Where should one start discovering Istanbul? Which routes should be taken?
Travelers visiting Istanbul like Bosporus tour most, but I’m not talking about dancing the belly dance to music. Tours telling history are very important. Seaside mansions, their life experiences, stories, legends… Leaving Istanbul without taking a good Bosporus tour is a big omission. Of course, the same is true for the Grand Bazaar. You know, the Grand Bazaar struggled to survive throughout its history, it’s still struggling, but it’s still standing. It’s doing this in spite of influx of Chinese made products now. And I call everyone to rediscover the Grand Bazaar. İstiklal Street, Balat, Mimar Sinan walks, Byzantine routes also started to gain popularity. Jewish museum, synagogue routes can also be developed. Chora, Fatih region, actually even cemeteries are touring areas. Because a great history lies there too.
MARBLE MASTERS OF HAGIA SOPHIA ARE SILK WORMS
- This city has one thousand and one stories, one thousand and one adventures. Which is the one you like telling and listening most?
At least half of marble tiles have a symmetric design. Where does this symmetric design come from? Everyone give the same answer: When you cut marble in two, it becomes symmetric. And how could they cut marble so smoothly in the sixth century? The answer is surprising. In the Byzantine era, two stonemasons come to Istanbul with silk worm larvae hidden inside their walking sticks. In fact, silk worm keeping begins afterwards, and then moved to Bursa. This very cocoon spawned an about one-kilometer long thin silk thread. Combining one bundle, about thirty-forty of these and corkscrewing them creates the sturdiest natural thread of the world. This thread is the material used for cutting marble! It was stretched from both sides and used like a saw. Marbles were separated from one another in this way, with the help of water and sand, and with zero error. This should probably have taken years. This is a story I never get tired of telling, and audience never gets tired of being amazed…
-The documentary “Istanbul Unveiled” was an important step forward. Do you have any new works in store?
The documentary was really good, it accomplished what we wanted. Now we’re preparing a work called “Istanbul with Its Most Unknown Aspects”. I’d also like to do something about Street flavors; real street flavors, those we can’t do without…
-Then you should give us a few Street flavor routes…
I go to a kokoreç vendor at Büyük Postane Street. If I’m thereabouts, I always eat it, even if I’m full. There’s a Kanafeh vendor on the side alley of the Spice Bazaar. It’s unbelievably delicious, go search and find it! I know a sheep’s head restaurant at Balıkpazarı. Turkish delight, baklava and tea or coffee afterwards is a wonderful experience… There’s also a man called “Doctor Ali” near the Great Post Office. He makes çiğ köfte inside the building, right at the entrance, he’s simply amazing. Grilled fish sandwich in Karaköy and Eminönü, tantuni in Beyoğlu… These are all indispensable flavors. We should guide foreign visitors to discover these as well. My new documentary will feature this.
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