13 May 2011

Turkey Part II: Istanbul

Istanbul. Once Constantinople. Not exactly beautiful, but elegant, vibrant. Ancient and eclectic. The skyline is a cross between Hong Kong and San Francisco. The great Bosphorous, the river that spans the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is the gateway not only for ships large and small, but the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The only city in the world that spans two continents, and that’s only the first distinction of this fascinating place.

Turkey is bordered by six countries and four great bodies of water, central to almost every major historical culture, is it no wonder that it has been the target of conquerors forever. Now, 97% Muslim, moderate and modern, Istanbul, while not the official capital [that's Ankora] is the heart of the country.

I am awakened at dawn first by the call to prayer and then by seagulls and foghorns. At night, one hardly realizes that the lights sparkling on the hillside beyond rise above the Golden Horn, the harbor, the right arm of the Bosphorous that marks the European side of the city. Above the streets, the noise dims, but the traffic flow Friday night around the city is like nothing I’ve seen before. Despite its 8500 year lifespan, the city is not at all ready for modernity. But it is trying.

Muslim women are hardly in evidence, not here, nor anywhere we travel. They are invisible or hidden under scarves and heavy garb. It is tradition here. Men on the other hand seem to own the streets, the shops, the very essence of Turkish life. They are the waiters, the shopkeepers, the hoteliers, the hawkers in the incredible spice market and Grand Bazaar. They gather at sidewalk cafes for tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee, they hold meetings on street corners, and some, what they call the commission agents, hound tourists and single women to nudge them into their pottery or carpet shops. They are not threatening, but tenacious. They think I’m French [must be the scarf] and speak to me in that language. I have been advised not to engage so I don’t, although I so much want to chat with the locals. At last, at a late lunch in a small café, I chat with a waiter who is a former Russian skier who learned English while training in Colorado. Small world. Limping and seemingly unflappable, he brings me lentil soup with a wedge of lemon [delicious] a diet Pepsi [rare in the world of Coca Cola] and then offers me apple tea, on the house he says, which I discover is quite often the case here and a lovely gesture. He kisses my hand when I leave, as if I am royalty. Nice touch.

Throngs of tourists here, largely European, surprising number of Russians, lots of Germans, and the rest. Everywhere there is tile, tile and more tile, especially in the remarkable Hagia Sofia church and the Blue Mosque, but also the tiny mosaic museum tucked off a winding cobblestone street in old Sultanahmet, near an elegant bazaar and a pudding shop, and off the side streets where the old Ottoman wooden houses are badly in need of repair. Stores filled with many forms of “Turkish Delight” [colorful squares that look like marshmallow] which is too gushy for me, as well as Baklava and Halvah. The tea is so dark they provide urns of hot water to dilute. No lemon or milk allowed, but always cubes of sugar, thankfully. I am reminded how much I love cubes of sugar, which Splenda has yet to recreate.

An ancient cistern that provided water to the basilica, now darkly lit and graceful, holds evening concerts on a small stage resting on the water. Along the perimeter of mosques are basins for washing – one must wash both hands and feet before prayer – which, among the observant, is five times a day. Every hotel room has both spare pillow and prayer rug. The call to prayer is always the same, except the first, which adds something to the effect that it is more meaningful to pray than to sleep. The Friday mid-day prayer is the most holy.

I confess, I find this prayer cycle, which follows the cycle of the sun, to be inspiring. Just to think that Muslims all over the world are stopping at similar times in their day to pay homage and to consider their blessings. These moderate Muslims in Turkey are reverent people. They show respect for one another and for their traditions. They do not condone violence. They respect all Abrahamic religions and have special reverence for Jesus, a prophet, like Mohammed. He is mentioned 100 times in the Qur’an. Beyond the spirituality of the prayer ritual is the beauty of the music of the Imam calling from minarets everywhere. Like steeples ringing their bells.

We take the tram to a funicular, up a steep hill to Taksim Square, sort of Times Square without the theaters, considered the center of modern Istanbul, and wander down the main drag – Istiklai Caddesi – to the Galata Tower and then down to the harbor. Sunday afternoon. Istanbullas and their families walk, eat and shop – sound familiar? On this side of the harbor is also the amazing Dolmabache Palace, their own Versailles, built in homage to the monarchy but ending with the founder of the Republic, Ataturk, living and dying there, not very long ago. A gift from Queen Victoria – a 4 ton cut glass chandelier, is amazingly beautiful. Two polar bear rugs were gifts from the Czar Nicholas. Stunning large carpets[double knotted in the Turkish tradition.] For me, massive carved painted ceilings are the highlight, just gorgeous. The “Harem” meaning the private quarters, separate from the work center, have many bedrooms for royal wives and many guestrooms. A short walk from the palace takes you back to the Galata Bridge, ont he way to the spice market. Lower level of the bridge are fish restaurants and coffee houses. Along the quay, fishermen sell not only fish from their boats, but freshly grilled fish sandwiches, wrapped in flat breads with tomatoes, peppers, olives.

The spice market is just that and more - nuts, spices, seeds of every variety, and the smells are simply amazing.

The Topkapi Palace is so besieged by tourists that I don’t go in, but instead, wander the lovely park surrounding the palace and discover the archeological museum, filled to the brim with artifacts and sarcophagi. Great find.

The old mansions along the river are largely used as summer homes, many boarded up. Orhan Pamuk wrote so beautifully of these in “Istanbul” which I’m so glad I read before traveling. They seem a reminder, perhaps an admonishment, of the European tradition.

I also visit the Istanbul Modern Museum, housed in an old warehouse on the river, a lovely display of Turkish art spanning all the same movements as other European countries, just a bit later. Turkish impressionists, Turkish realists, etc. Great open space, very hip, framed by river views. The café is filled with Europeans, with drinks and prices to match. And the obligatory techno music! In the distance, ferries and cruise ships. Minarets and curved mosques watch over the proceedings with pride.

On the Asian side, which we see only as the overnight train passes through on the way to Ankora, the homes are larger and more modern, suburban. There is real affluence here.

On the last day of my visit, an extended day I took to have more time in Istanbul, which I’m so glad I did, I have dinner with my lovely new friends from Victoria, British Columbia, at a small neighborhood fish restaurant [Sultanahmet Fish House] run by a family, the best meal of the trip for me, with fine Turkish white wine. A perfect end.

There is much more to see in Istanbul and I can imagine returning some day, but not until many other places have been seen. Where next is the only question. And when?

This was another great trip organized by Gap Adventures: www.gapadventures.com

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such a wonderfully vivid picture of your travels...we want more!