Arie goes to Istanbul

After a week in Italy (read about it here), my parents and I spent a week in Istanbul. This is my largely unexpurgated trip journal. Image links are in blue, the rest lead off-site.

Day One: Wednesday

Our flight from Rome was uneventful. The food was terrible. We had managed to work things out so we were flying Alitalia, the Italian airline, instead of Turkish Airways.

So we land in Istanbul and we have to buy visas. I had always thought that countries that required visas did it to control who came into the country -- you filled out a visa application and if they thought you were the sort of person they wanted hanging around for a few months, they approved it. But in Turkey, visas were available to anyone willing to hand over $65. (A very nice man named Mahcem Ozturk writes: "It's a diplomatic reciprocity issue"--apparently since the US makes it difficult for Turks to enter the US, they make it hard for us. Land of the free, baby.)

The hotel sent a van to pick us up, and in addition to the driver there was another man, a guide, I didn't get his name. Both spoke English, but the guide was fluent; he told us that he learned it in high school -- turns out just about everyone in Turkey speaks at least some English (whew), it's a mandatory class.

In one respect, Turkey is the exact opposite of Italy -- in western Europe, wages are so high that employers try to minimize their use of human capital. Machines do as much work as possible, people are employed only when crucial. By contrast, wages in Turkey are so low (especially in contrast to the value of tourist dollars) that humans are employed to do all sorts of things. Why buy an automatic door when it's cheaper to pay someone to stand by it and open it? Sending a van to the airport? Why not send another guy along?

The currency in Turkey is the Lira. Our guide immediately presented us with one million lire bills and proclaimed us to be millionaires. Fortunately we were already familiar with the exchange rate -- one million Turkish lire was worth about sixty US cents. Turkey has had some inflation lately.

The first thing I notice, looking out the window of the van, is that in a lot of ways Turkey looks like the United States. I guess just about the whole world looks the same, in a lot of ways. The second thing I notice is that next to most traffic lights is a timer that counts down so you know how long before it changes. Quality.

It was reasonably late when our plane landed -- we left Rome in the late afternoon and we crossed a time zone flying East so it was an hour later than we were used to. We decided to go straight to the hotel, check in and go to bed.

We stayed at a hotel in the oldest section of Istanbul, which is the largest city in Turkey. 97% of Turkey is in Asia ("Asia Minor"), but Istanbul itself straddles the entrance to the Black Sea -- the divisor between Europe and Asia. (I had thought Istanbul was Turkey's only territory in Europe, but Burak pointed out that that's not quite right.) I had thought that the airport we used, Ataturk International Airport, was in Asia, but it turns out the giant bridge we crossed wasn't the GIANT continent-connecting bridge, it was just the regular giant birdge that crosses the Golden Horn. (Thanks, Burak!)

Istanbul is a city seeped in history. The Roman Emperor Constantine founded the city of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire in the sixth century; for centuries this Eastern Roman Empire, distinct from the empire in Rome, ruled over much of the surrounding area. We call this the Byzantine Empire (after King Byzas who founded a city on the site in 658 BCE), though they called themselves Romans. The Byzantines were Christians, but not Catholics -- they followed what was called the Eastern Orthodox Church, where the Emperor of Byzantium was also the chief religious authority. As religious and secular capital and city of millions of people, Constantinpole was the largest and most important city in the Byzantine Empire.

In its early years, Constantinople needed no walls -- the Roman legions protected it and the empire. But as time passed, the Ottoman Turks, Muslims, began to encroach on the territory of the Byzantines. As the Ottomans swallowed more of Asia Minor, large walls were erected around the city, the largest built in the 5th century -- but after years of war, the Ottomans overran Constantinople -- May 29th, 1453.

The Ottomans knew a good thing when they saw it -- Constantinople's location was so perfect, its population so large, its churches so glorious, that they almost immediately declared it the new capital of their Empire. Over the next half-century, churches (including the great Hagia Sophia, "Holy Wisdom") were converted to mosques, land was staked out for the sultan's palace, and various improvements were made to the city.

Ottoman domination of Constantinople lasted well into the modern era. By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, once the leader of Europe in such diverse fields as science, education, social services and military might, had stagnated into what was called "The Old Man of Europe". Finally in World War I the Ottomans were defeated and the empire destroyed. All that remained was the land that became the nation of Turkey.

Our hotel was called the Blue Mosque Hotel, probably because it was across the street from the famous Blue Mosque (more on that later). My room was excellent, I had a beautiful view of the Mosque. This would turn out to be bad in the morning, but that night I had no idea.

The hotel was a little scuzzy, but I guess that's what you have to expect. The high point of my evening was the "ready to use" toothbrush -- I didn't feel like unpacking, so I gave it a shot. It's basically a piece of rough industrial plastic of the kind that's generally used for bulletproof vests, with a dehydrated glob of some sort of astringent cleanser on top of it. Yum.

Day Two: Thursday

Today began at 6:10 am.

So there's this mosque across the street from my room, the Blue Mosque. The mosque, like all mosques, has these tall towers called minarets. Now, devout Muslims pray five times per day, at certain times. Before modern technology, however, most people did not have an effective method of telling time, so rather than have people trickle in whenever they thought it was appropriate, the Muezzin (I think it's Arabic for "guy who yells a lot") would climb the minaret at the designated time and call out to the faithful to come pray.

Well, nowadays we have modern technology -- plenty of watches and clocks to go around. So, the Muezzin reasoned, there's no need for us to climb up all those stairs to the tops of the minarets anymore. Instead, we'll use loudspeakers.

Did I mention that devout Muslims pray five times per day? Yeah? So guess what time the first one is. Net result: if you're in the Old City, expect to be woken up every morning at sunrise by screaming chants from every single mosque within 15 miles. And understand that this call will be repeated 4 more times throughout the day.

I'd like to say that you get used to it. Maybe you do, if you live there for years.


We had the hotel's continental breakfast. It was fancy and pretty good (especially the fruit, they had these great little oranges) but I was sort of afraid to drink the water. The State Department advises Americans in Turkey to peel their own fruit to avoid hepatitis, but that isn't always possible. I'm pretty sure I made it through OK. We were scheduled to take a day-long bus tour of the city -- we figured that might be a good way to see the major sites quickly so we could figure out what we wanted to see more carefully.

Our tour guide Gnjay was very passionate about Turkey. He worked for the government, he told us, but we probably could have guessed. The traffic in Istanbul is utterly absurd; the city was designed (barely) back in the 5th century and the roads are simply insufficient to handle the fifteen million people who live in the city. The waterways are also very crowded; 40,000 ships cross through Istanbul every year to get to or from the Black Sea.

I'm immediately amused by the way every Taxi has TAKSi in big letters at the top of it. I spot a McDonald's and a Burger King. Also I noticed that the traffic signs were exactly the same as the ones in Italy -- some sort of European standard, I guess.

One of the most difficult issues for Istanbul to resolve has always been its fundamental oriental vs occidental dichotomy -- is it a European city or an Asian one? Is it Muslim or secular? These questions, unresolved for centuries, remain relevant; days after I returned home, Turkey elected an orthodox Muslim government that promised to integrate Turkey into the European Union.

Verbatim example of the scintillating nuggets of wisdom I wrote in my trip journal while on the tour: "This city is really big."

Another thing I notice is that while I can't actually read any Turkish, I can pronounce almost all of it -- it uses a Roman alphabet with a extra letters with dots on them. Hagia Sophia is "Ayasofya", Taxi is "Taksi", etc. The reason behind this is kind of interesting:

At the end of World War I, as the Allied forces stormed across Turkey, a young colonel marshalled the last of the Ottoman armies, rallied them together and drove the Allies out of Asia Minor. The colonel protected modern Turkey's borders, negotiated for the cessation of the war, and announced the founding of the modern nation of Turkey. He became the leader of the nation, and became known as Ataturk ("Father of the Turks").

Ataturk established the state, wrote Turkey's Constitution, and did about a thousand other things to make Turkey into a modern nation. And one of the things he did was to modernize the Turkish language. Ataturk felt that religion was acceptable only if it had no role in government, and so he took steps to ensure that Turkey's Islamic forces would not gain too much power. Turkish had been based on an Arabic alphabet, but in 1928 he had linguists invent a Roman alphabet for it. He then made it illegal to use the Arabic one, and all schools would only teach Turkish in Roman. It was a difficult transition -- in the whole of 1929, only one book was published -- but today, modern Turkish is ubiquitous and many Turks are incapable of reading the Koran (it cannot properly be translated out of Arabic). Of course, the languages of Europe are much more easily accessible to them.

Ataturk's opinions on religion were part of his overall philosophy, called Kemalism. It was this philosophy that led to the existence of Turkey as a secular nation even though the vast majority of its people are Muslims -- Kemalism holds that fundamentalism is dangerous. It was for this reason that Ataturk abolished Sharia Law (the codes of law based on the Koran) and instituted a European-style system of law. Ataturk remains highly respected -- his portrait is on every bill, pictures and prominent statues (and banners, like this one on the Ministry of Culture) of him fill the city, and various important buildings are named after him.

Our tour started at the Hagia Sophia.

The building itself is amazing; built sixteen centuries ago to be the largest church in the world, it's still the fourth-largest. It took twenty-four thousand people five years to build. It was a church for about a thousand years, till the Ottomans took the city. They seized Constantinople on May 29th, 1453 -- by June 1st the building was already a functioning mosque. The Ottomans added minarets, covered Christian decorations and hung Islamic symbols throughout. It remained a mosque for almost five centuries, but when Ataturk founded the modern nation he decided that it was too contentious for the greatest structure in the city to symbolize the defeat of Christianity by Islam. Muslims do not permit pictures of living things inside their holy places, but they recognized the value of the Christian mosaics -- rather than destroy them, they covered them with plaster. Ataturk ordered the building transformed into a museum, and sent teams of experts to remove much of this plaster and reveal the artwork once again; this work continues even today. Our guide seemed emotionally moved by the mosaic of Mary side by side with Allah written in Arabic (every mosque is decorated with disks with the names of Allah, Mohammed, and four of his descendants).

By the late 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was having major trouble holding the Ottoman Turks back. In desperation, they contacted the western Catholic Church and asked for military assistance. The West responded with the First Crusade, which swept across Europe through Constantinople and into the Holy Land, where they conquered and briefly held Jerusalem. Subsequent Crusades attacked various other Muslim areas, but tension between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church escalated and in the 13th century the Crusades attacked Constantinople itself. The city, and with it the Hagia Sophia church, was sacked in 1204 -- gold was stripped from the doors and the entrance was destroyed. The bitter way our guide describes it, you'd think he was there. I guess Turks take their history a lot more personally than other people.

The Hagia Sophia structure is beautiful. It is built partially of marble from the nearby Marmar Quarry, and indeed this is where we get the word "marble". Much of the other material comes from overseas -- the Byzantines, in typical Roman fashion, had no respect for the structures of other religions and cannibalized various temples to provide supplies. The 400 ton columns came from the Temple of Athens (one of the Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Heliopolis (the Temple of the Sun).

Above all else, Hagia Sophia conveys a sense of history in every corner and crevice. The walls used to be decorated with beautiful mosaics, but iconoclasts (those who oppose sacred imagery) destroyed them all in the 8th and 9th centuries. Our guide showed us the large door where the Byzantine Emperor would kneel before entering the main chamber and his guards would stand on either side of him; the stone where the guards stood was worn down into deep depressions over the course of nine centuries of Byzantine rule. It's astounding to see this place where for 900 years the rulers of this great empire maintained this continuity.

Our guide pointed out various other notable things in the structure. The Omphalion, off to the side, was the spot where Byzantine emperors were crowned. The ceiling was made with 15 tons of gold, much of it in the mosaics, and took the Ottomans 250 years to fully cover -- which they did using calligraphy. Deciding which calligraphy to remove to expose the ceiling mosaics was difficult because the calligraphy is also religiously and artistically significant; perhaps inevitably, they decided to remove roughly half of it. Marble containers on the edges of the building date back to the fourth century BCE, and the "Splendid Door" was stolen from Tarsus in the second century BCE. At this point, I seem to have noted that our guide smells bad.

We exited the Hagia Sophia and walked through a small park to the Blue Mosque. Because the Blue Mosque is still functional (as I had learned, prayer services are held five times per day), we had to follow various rules that didn't apply in the Hagia Sophia. We all removed our shoes and put them in little plastic grocery bags that we carried with us (in smaller mosques you can just leave them outside) and it was suggested to the women that they cover their heads with scarves, but few did.

The Blue Mosque is an absolutely amazing structure. Originally it wasn't just a mosque -- as the center of the local community, it also functioned as a public library, hospital, marketplace, soup kitchen and guest house. The complex was the center of an elaborate social services system on a scale not seen until modern times. Nowadays, it is just a mosque. Its proper name is the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed, and indeed most natives don't know the term "Blue Mosque".

Because of the mosque, the whole region is known as Sultanamet -- this knowledge was to prove useful later, when taking taxis back to the hotel. I was also amused to spot Sultanamet Chicken around the corner.

The Blue Mosque was built less than a quarter mile from the Hagia Sofia, and it could not help but be influenced by the architectural style. It was designed by Mehmet Aga, who was given tremendous funding but doubted his own architectural abilities -- believing that he could not compete stylistically with the Hagia Sofia or Sulayman the Magnificent's mosque, he decided to go for size instead. The windows were decorated by Ibrahim the Drunken, who was not himself Islamic.

The Mosque has six minarets, most mosques have four. The story is that the Sultan asked for golden minarets and the word for gold sounds like six. This is probably apocryphal; surely after a few weeks the Sultan would have walked by and said "Mehmet, I couldn't help noticing that (a) there are six minaret foundations instead of four and (b) they are made of brick, not gold. Perhaps you misheard me." At the time of its construction, one of the great mosques of Mecca also had six minarets. The Sultan did not want to be seen as competing with Mecca, so he sent a crew down to build a few more minarets onto that mosque.

The inside of the mosque is breathtaking. The massive domes let in streaming columns of light that pick out the most beautiful sections of the structure. The inside is very oppulent, but like all mosques contains no imagery. Ropes mark the limits of where tourists can go; beyond them, young Muslim men kneel in prayer even though it's not one of the appointed times. It's worth noting that Turkey, though it is predominantly Islamic, is very liberal compared to other mostly Muslim nations. In most other Islamic regions, non-Muslims cannot enter mosques at all.

We exited the Blue Mosque into the Hippodrome Square, where Byzantine emperors oversaw horse races. Emperor Septimus Servus began the construction of a hippodrome here; Emperor Constantine saw the construction completed. ("Hippo" is the Latin word for horse, "hippopotamus" means "river horse".) The hippodrome was extremely large for its kind, it held over 35,000 spectators. There were two teams, the Blues (aristocracy) and the Greens (plebians) -- our guide suggests that this is where the Green Party gets its name, but I doubt it. The hippodrome was destroyed by the Crusaders in 1204; all that remains now is the track.

Nearby is an Egyptian obelisk that dates to 1550 BCE. The Byzantines placed it there as part of an exhibit of the wonders of their empire. Near to that was a pillar that the Byzantines believed marked the center of the world.

We are now led to the Museum of Culture, where we get our first introduction to Kilim -- a traditional type of carpet. Anyone who's been to Istanbul is at this point surely thinking, "He was in Istanbul for twelve whole hours before he ran into carpets?" Really -- this was our first encounter.

The Museum of Culture used to be a palace. Inside are a series of exhibits showing how Turks used to live, largely the ones outside of Istanbul. The people were largely nomadic, each family would have a giant poplar-boned tent that took about an hour to assemble, and they would pack them up onto horses and move to wherever there was game or water or whatever they needed. Today hundreds of families still live in similar huts, but they are not nomadic (a nomadic lifestyle is generally incompatible with the modern conception of property rights). The exhibits show how Turkish life changed over time, and it's interesting to see how the people were slowly westernized. By the 18th century the Turks were sending large numbers of children to France to be educated, and by the early 19th century Turkish high society closely resembled that of France, as did their restaurants, schools, etc. They even took on many French values -- it was in 1876 that the first Ottoman Parliament was convened. Today the French influence is not as strong, but we're told that many of the oldest living Turks still speak French.

At this point our guide brings us to a special government-approved carpet store. They give us a demonstration of how carpets are made and urge us to buy government-approved carpets instead of those from non-approved stores.

Turkish carpets really are incredibly intricate and beautiful constructs. The best ones are very expensive -- the price ranges from $150 for the smallest, shoddiest to $15,000 for the the largest, best carpets. Each region of Turkey produces a distinctive style of carpet. The highest quality carpets are from (and called) Hereke, and are created using tiny knots in fine silk. Persian rugs have one knot per pile, Turkish rugs have two. There is also a flat weave style, for flatter summer rugs. Apparently it's very good for rugs to be walked on.

Carpets are expensive because the process of creating a carpet is extremely time-consuming. It can take a skilled artisan several years to create a carpet, and those years are the most monotonous, dull labor I can imagine. The finest carpets are made by young girls, whose small hands are capable of tying tighter knots than the adults can.

We are repeatedly told by the staff that machine-sewn carpets are not as valuable, but personally I don't think I'd be comfortable owning something whose manufacture occupied a person's entire childhood.

They lecture us quite a bit about the importance of buying carpets from government-approved stores only, even if they are a bit more expensive. We hear a few horror stories about people who purchased carpets off the street and had them shipped, and when they received the package it contained, say, a toaster. In my naivity, I had no idea why I might care. Little did I know about the carpet onslaught that was to fill the remainder of my vacation.

The carpet place also gave us some of Turkey's distinctive Apple Tea. It was pretty good -- we're told that it's customary to drink the tea while negotiating at shops. They worked pretty hard to sell us carpets, but I didn't see anyone buy any -- I felt pretty bad for the ten or so guys they employed to throw carpets on the ground in front of us, but not bad enough to actually buy anything. Still, some of the carpets were very nice -- I thought I might shop around a bit and possibly buy one later. I had no idea how much I would hate even the word 'carpet' by the end of the week.

After the rug store we went to the Covered Bazaar. It's a gigantic covered market where people sell virtually everything a tourist might want, from blue jeans to carpets to jewelry. People here take a very active approach to sales -- as we walk around the bazaar we are constantly exhorted to look at various types of merchandise. As a New Yorker, I am good at ignoring this sort of thing. We moved through the bazaar very slowly.

The Covered Bazaar is organized into districts -- most of the stores that sell a given type of product will be together. This is convenient in a way because in the bazaar there are no set prices, everything must be haggled, and having a few places to compare prices helps you out. But it's really a lost cause -- the storekeepers know each others' prices much better than you could hope to, they've been haggling professionally for years and they're much more informed. The Covered Bazaar is a lot like a casino -- it's a fun place to spend some time and maybe waste some money, but if you think you're going to do well you're sadly mistaken.

One type of store that's cordoned off into a single district is the carpet store. Carpet stores practically fill the bazaar -- around every corner is a man (or boy) who just wants to show you one carpet, it would be perfect for you, you just take a look, five minutes, special deal, you're from the United States, right? Britain? You are clearly very intelligent and handsome, just step in here for a minute.

Some of the bazaar shops are regular (albeit small) buildings with signs outside and display windows. Others are no more than merchandise hung on the walls of other stores with a seller sitting in front of them. Many of the stores sell pipes and other things made of Meerschaum, a chalky mineral found only in Turkey. There's a lot of fur and leather, and a lot of what I can only assume are counterfeits of Western brands. ("I see you are looking at fur! Perhaps you would like to see carpet?")

A few people in the bazaar were in traditional Muslim dress, but most of the natives and all the tourists were dressed in the Western style. This was true for Istanbul in general.

After the bazaar our guide took us to lunch, which in Turkish culture is the largest meal of the day. We were led to a rooftop restaurant at a hotel -- the food was interesting but not very good. Dessert was all sorts of pastries soaked in honey, those were excellent. ("You like baklava? You are from New York? I have a cousin in New York! Come see my carpet store!") One of the people at our table had been to Turkey before -- she told us that the Turkish for "thank you" is close enough to "tea sugar dream" that it's understandable if we just say that. I proved totally unable to remember that, and I spent the rest of the week assaulting poor waiters and doormen with things like "sleep tea sugar" or, on a bad day, "coffee tea cream".

On the plus side, the view from the rooftop was our first good look at the Golden Horn.

Istanbul is an ideal location for a city -- not only does it straddle the Bosphorous, the entrance to the Black sea, but it also has the Golden Horn -- the world's largest and best natural harbor. So called because it's shaped like a horn and very valuable, it splits the European half of Istanbul the way the Bosphorous divides the whole city into European and Asian halves (two million people cross the Bosphorous every day). But there is a major drawback to Istanbul's location -- there is no nearby fresh water. The Byzantines built the second-longest aqueduct in the Empire to supply the city -- 18 kilometers long, says the guide, though I have no idea what that is in real units. Our travels over the week took us under the aqueducts many times. Under the city are massive cisterns to hold extra drinking water. This might tie into the modern Turkish belief that any standing water is unhealthy -- there are no bathtubs in most Turkish places, and even the sinks don't have plugs.

After lunch we went to the Mosque of Sulayman the Magnificent (or "Suleymaniye", as it's spelled on local signs). This Mosque was designed by the architect Sinan, who our guide feels is deserving of much more reknown than he currently enjoys. Our guide mentions that he is known as the "Michelangelo of the Orient", but he does not approve of this title either.

Sinan really was pretty amazing. At a time when the average lifespan was about 45 years, Sinan was appointed to the post of Royal Architect when he was 48 (fortunately he lived to almost 100). He built some of the most beautiful buildings in the Ottoman Empire, and constantly experimented to develop better building techniques. Our guide points out that because there were no electric lights, mosques had to be lit by torches and candles, and all of the smoke would gather and ruin the inner artwork of most mosques over the years. Sinan studied the winds at the site and then designed the building with windows in certain places; he also wrote instructions for which windows were to be opened and closed depending on which way the wind was blowing. The result is that the candle smoke was always channeled into a special chamber, where it was absorbed onto various filters and used to make ink for calligraphy. Sinan also discovered somehow that hollow ostrich eggs repel spiders, so the mosque has several of these hanging in different places.

Our guide also told us what's kind of a neat story about an arch that Sinan built. Apparently after standing for centuries, the capstone of the arch fell out one day in the recent past. In a hollow between the stones that was now accessible, they noticed a bottle, and inside the bottle was a note from Sinan. It said something like, "I am Sinan, the architect who designed this arch. I am worried that if the conditions are wrong, the capstone might fall out one day. If it does, here is the correct way to fix it," and detailed instructions. The guide then suggested that the whole world was stunned by this, but personally I hadn't heard about it.

Japan still wins the prize for most comical bad English, but Turkey had some good contenders. A prominent sign near the Mosque of Sulayman told us that "Your Touristic Restaurant is Around the Corner." It's also worth noting that like the Covered Bazaar, the Old City is absolutely filled with carpet stores. It seems like there are three on every corner, and most of them employ shills who try to get you inside by any means necessary.

We proceeded to the Topkapi Sarayi ("Topkapi Palace"), the historical residence of the Ottoman Sultans. Topkapi (which means "cannon", named after the cannons on the walls) is the largest single residence in the world, over 700,000 square meters (ugh). The Palace is organized like an onion -- the central complex is surrounded by layers of outer areas, with gated walls in between. Topkapi is inside the Old City of Istanbul, a few blocks from our hotel.

Topkapi is now open to tourists as a museum. The most fascinating part of it was undoubtedly their collection of relics; in well-guarded glass cases they had what they claimed were the rod of Moses (the one he turned into a snake and used to work his miracles), a turban that belonged to Joseph, a pot that belonged to Abraham, the footprint, hair and teeth of Muhammed, and a letter from Muhammed to the Coptic Christians instructing them to convert to Islam or face his armies. Clearly the letter is much easier to authenticate than the other ancient relics. The reliquaries were surrounded by traditionally dressed Muslims, many of whom were praying; I very much felt like an intruder.

The museum also had the (in)famous Piri Reis map, which some whackos think was drawn by aliens. The full story (including the plain ol' terrestrial explanation for it) is available here.

Our guide made a big deal about the Sultan's harem (which he pronounces hah-REM). He explained that western media portrays the harem as some sort of giant sex party, but in truth it was a scientific program for ensuring a good genetic base for future sultans. He then described how the girls in the harem (who were overseen by the Queen Mother) were each given ratings that reflected their suitability for production of the next sultan, and that most Sultans did not engage in massive orgies but were much more restrained. We were told that the harem only had between four and ten women at any one time; I'm reasonably sure that wasn't true across the entire Ottoman period. I think he doth protesteth too much, sort of thing. At least one Sultan had more than a hundred children.

Here's a nice story -- outside the main residence is a spot where ambassadors would wait for the Sultan to come meet them. There was a slot where the Sacred Standard would be displayed whenever the Sultan was not in residence. If an ambassador was summoned to meet the Sultan and saw the standard waiting for him, he knew that war had already been declared on his country.

Another high quality story: our guide shows us the room where the Sultan's advisory council used to meet. In the wall is a grating -- the Sultan would sometimes sit behind the grating and listen to the meeting, and no one knew when he was or wasn't there. Allegedly a Queen Mother ruled the empire for years by placing a Sultan-like statue behind the grate so that no one would know that her son was dead.

The Topkapi Palace is incredible -- there's far more than we could ever hope to see in one day. We spent a bit of time in the special costume and armor/weaponry exhibit, walked along the edge where the palace overlooks the Golden Horn, but we surely missed all sorts of valuable experiences. ("Are you from Germany? I have a cousin in Germany! America? I have a cousin there too! Come look at carpet.")

We returned to the hotel to rest before dinner. ("You look tired! Come into my carpet store and rest!") Apparently I noted at this point that the toilet paper is cut into rectangles, not squares. I watched a little Turkish television -- this proved highly enjoyable. There isn't much that's more entertaining than the Care Bears dubbed into Turkish. There were a lot of television choices -- from time to time I'd see something familiar (like Friends dubbed into Turkish) -- but mainly I watched the three video stations, two of which were MTV brands and one of which was local. For a predominantly Islamic country, they sure do have a lot of almost naked women in their entertainment. I was pretty surprised to see the video for Christina Aguilera's Dirty.

I used a public bathroom. ("You need to use bathroom? People who use bathroom also like carpet!") It wasn't abysmal. I was surprised. After dinner we walked around a bit through the old city. Because of all the historic buildings, much of the old city is designed for the benefit of toursts, so the streets are crowded with various shops and sidewalk stands. The dollar is very powerful here, 15 postcards cost $1. I bought a lot of postcards. There are very few beggars; I assume the government clears them out.

Whew, long day.

Day Three: Friday

We started the morning with a trip to one of the giant cisterns that had been opened for tourists. The unassuming entrance and exit held a set of stairs that no insurance company in the US would touch -- wet stone with no railing or landings. We survived the descent into a massive underground cavern made of stone. The floor was covered in at least several feet of water -- I don't know how deep it went. A wooden walkway allowed us to tour the cistern; stone columns, looted from temples all over the Byzantine empire, held up the ceiling (which dripped on us quite a bit).

There are 17 other cisterns just like that one -- they all held water for first the Byzantines, then the Ottomans. Of course, standing water isn't the healthiest possible thing to drink -- Constantinople suffered various plagues throughout its history.

The most notable part of the cistern was a pair of columns in the far corner -- they were carved with the head of Medusa, one upside-down, one sideways. It's illustrative of how little regard the Byzantines had for non-Christian cultures. For unfathomable reasons, the carvings were surrounded by Japanese tourists -- this was the only time I saw any large group of Asian tourists. ("Cistern very large, yes? You want to buy carpet?")

We then went back to the Covered Bazaar and bargained for a few minor gifts, but it quickly became clear that it was a very inefficient way of actually buying anything. Tour books suggest that the bazaar is mainly a tourist attraction now; decades ago, locals actually shopped there.

On the way back to the hotel we spotted a carpet store with a sign advertising Internet access. We inquired, the shopkeeper told us that we had to hurry -- Friday is the Islamic sabbath and he was very religious -- but we were welcome to use it. He must have been the least enthusiastic carpet seller in the whole city (trust me, I met them all), he didn't try to sell us any at all. The price was $2 per hour. He opened up a trap door in the floor and we went down into a well-decorated basement with a reasonably new PC on a desk -- Windows 98 and a dial-up connection. Windows is bad enough without having to deal with a Turkish keyboard where most of the vowels have dots on them -- I didn't use it.

After lunch we took a taxi to the other (newer) side of Constantinople, first to Military Museum to see the military band perform. We made it just in time -- the museum had a giant auditorium and we eagerly took our seats. First we were shown a movie about the military band and the horror it would inspire in the enemy, then the screen rose and the actual band marched in.

I can imagine how it could be scary. You have these poor Byzantine soldiers charged with defending some hill that they know can't really be defended. They've heard about how the Ottoman army has swept across Asia Minor, decimating the Byzantine armies left and right, but these guys have never actually seen an Ottoman before. Rumor has it they're all 10 feet tall and have four arms or something. They keep looking to the horizon for any sign of an approaching army, but it's a cloudy day and there's a lot of dust. Suddenly, just at the edge of hearing, the calm, measured beats of a bass drum. The men don't recognize it at first, but a cymbal crash jolts them into recognition. One of the bigger dust clouds tears open and out pour horsemen and footsoldiers, their war cries not quite drowning out the triumphant blaring of the band's horns. That would be scary.

A lot of the effect is lost when (a) you're in an auditorium, (b) there's no army, and (c) all of the band members are 40 years old and obese.

Other than the band, the most interesting part of the museum was a special exhibit dedicated to the life and military career of Ataturk.

Ataturk was a military man and believed that the military had to function as a counterbalance to the force of Islam, so he designed the modern Turkish state so that the military would have tremendous power. Twice in Turkey's history, when Islamic groups have gained control of the government through democratic means, the military has seized power, removed the Islamic government, and then quietly stepped back to allow a democratic government to reform. I'm not aware of any other military in the world yielding power so readily.

The military is also a great liberalizing force across the population in general. The military, a rabidly secular institution, is where the majority of young Turkish men learn to read and write -- and unlike most other predominantly Islamic nations, their first book certainly isn't the Koran. It is said that the highest officers of the military and of the civilian government are all atheists, though they give lip service to Islam.

We looked around the rest of the museum for a bit, walked around Taksim Square and the newer parts of the city, and then went to the observation lounge of the Hotel Marmara, one of the tallest hotels in the city. It was a beautiful view -- it's hard to realize how much space 15 million people can fill until you really see it. Every hill in sight was covered in buildings. From that height it was easy to pick out the Golden Horn, the Bosphorous and other landmarks. A major soccer game was coming up -- we could already see excitement around the stadium. We could even see the old city (and the reflection of my camera), the minarets are very distinctive. We went back down to the ground level; walking around the newer parts of Istanbul was relieving in a way -- no carpet stores, no random strangers accosting you on the street trying to act friendly and mentioning off-hand that they can arrange deals on carpets.

We then took a taxi back to our hotel.

The taxi system in Istanbul works really well for tourists -- there are taxis everywhere so they're easy to get and they're very cheap. Taxis (Turkish: Taksi) do not seem to have a connection to Taksim Square, a prominent area in the newer city. Our ride back to the hotel involved crossing major bridges and asking a street vendor and a young child for directions. Total cost: US $6. Here in Nashville, $6 won't even get a taxi to show up.

For dinner, we went to one of the local tourist-oriented cafes in the area around our hotel. They all served exactly what we were looking for -- Turkish food, but slightly adapted for a western palate. Without exception the food in every one was excellent, the service was generally fast, and the prices were very reasonable. I would return to Istanbul again if only to visit the cafes again. It's also worth mentioning one of the best parts of Turkish cuisine, the desserts. Turkish desserts seem largely to be modeled on baklava -- they're almost all various types of honey-soaked pastries. They're also all delicious.

After dinner we walked around the neighborhood a bit. We never worried about crime in Istanbul, perhaps because we stayed mostly in the touristed areas which are carefully protected by the government. The restaurant across the street from our hotel had Whirling Dervishes as part of their evening entertainment, and we watched briefly from the fence. The dervishes are individuals who attempt to achieve spiritual goals by spinning around very quickly in place; the movement was illegal for many centuries as part of the Ottoman campaign to crush heretical Islamic movements. I couldn't tell if this dervish was authentic or just an entertainer. He seemed very serene -- he would start spinning in place very slowly and gradually work up to a very high speed, his red robes flying up in the air, but remaining calm, and he had this quiet smile the whole time.

Day Four: Saturday

We decided to take a prepackaged boat tour of the Bosphorous today. The tour began with a trip to the Spice Bazaar, which was very similar to the Covered Bazaar but most of the stores only sold spices (some regular clothing stores had crept in). Most of the merchants sold their spices out of massive containers, but a few had prepackaged sets -- it's clear which were for tourists and which were for locals. It was sad to see yet another space become touristed, but I certainly didn't help matters -- I bought one of the prepackaged sets. The shopkeeper suggested that one of my ten million lire notes was counterfeit and I had to give him a different one -- I showed the guide and he said it was legitimate. We also tried some 'Turkish Delight', which is basically sugared gelatin. It's interesting, I wasn't delighted.

After the bazaar, we were led onto a giant ferryboat that proceeded down the Bosphorous. We sailed down for a while and the guide pointed out a bunch of the larger residences along the water -- these massive buildings were mostly purchased by various countries for use as diplomatic buildings. A few of the nicest structures were apparently residences of the Sultans. He also pointed out Ataturk's yacht -- I don't know what it's used for now. There was also a large fortress used by the Ottomans for something or other. (Mahcem writes: "That fortress is called 'Rumeli Hisari' or one word Rumelihisari, meaning 'The Fortress of The Roman Country'. The Ottomans called the Asian side of Istanbul 'Anadolu/Anatolia' and the European side 'Rumeli/Roman Country' a terminology which we still use. (Rum = Roman, El = Hand, side, stranger, someone or something of the otherside, hence Rumeli = Roman side or country)")

The Bosphorous has played a vital role in European history since the time of the ancient Greeks. Exports from the vast grain fields of the Black Sea have always been fundamental to the survival of ancient colonies, and whoever controls the Bosphorous controls those exports. The Romans, through their control of the Bosphorous, managed to maintain a reasonably stable food supply and thus strengthened their hold on Italy and their Empire.

In more recent times, things have changed a bit. The Bosphorous is still vitally important for shipping in Eastern Europe -- it's one of the most navigated channels in the world, 40,000 ships pass through every year. We saw literally hundreds of massive tankers sailing through. Of course, all this modern traffic has made the Bosphorous terribly dirty -- Turkey has been involved in a long-term campaign to clean up the water. Our guide said that they hope that by next year, the water will be clean enough for swimming.

For unknown but probably corruption-related reasons, our tour took us to an incredibly dull wooden house that had been turned into a museum. We spent about two minutes looking at plates and furniture, two more minutes in the gift shop (everything has a gift shop) and then twenty-six minutes waiting for something to happen. I also blame corruption for our lunch -- same place as the last tour.

After the dull house we went to the Summer Palace. It was actually reasonably interesting -- first we walked through the gardens and onto the riverfront, where we had a great view of the bridge that connects Europe and Asia, then we were given a tour of the palace. It's a lot smaller than my palaces would be if I were a Sultan of a giant empire, that's for sure. At least it was beautifully decorated. The main room upstairs had a sort of old-fashioned air conditioner -- a large central repository would be filled with water which would evaporate and help cool the room's occupants. A special room upstairs was designated for the Queen Mother and another for whichever of the Sultan's wives were chosen to accompany him to the Summer Palace. The entire structure was in fact divided into two sections -- one where women were permitted, and one where they weren't. The room for diplomacy, of course, was in the latter section. Some of the furniture was cool, they showed us a chest of drawers with hidden compartments.

Our Bosphorous Tour then took us on a trip to a very high hill at the edge of the city which had a beautiful view. Women in traditional dress enclosed in little huts were baking bread in what seemed like a traditional style -- by the time we figured out how to purchase it (it was a two line system), it was time to go.

Our final stop was a lighthouse that had been turned into a cafe and restaurant in the center of the Golden Horn. It was interesting, beautiful views from the top.

In a way, the most interesting part of the tour was driving through traffic. We took a boat down the Bosphorous and the bus met us on the Asian side and took us back through the city, so we had quite a long drive. Traffic is incredibly chaotic here, drivers run through traffic lights several seconds after they change, lane markers are ignored entirely as people force three lane roads into holding four cars at a time, but paradoxically the drivers are very courteous and polite. Always, whether we were in a taxi or on a bus, other drivers were glad to yield to us (and each other), waved each other through at complex intersections, and generally just drove much more politely than I've seen anywhere else. There was a lot of honking though.

A major election was scheduled for the next week, so we saw a lot of election propaganda. Besides posters and flyers and banners, some of the candidates would drive around in busses stuffed with their supporters -- I don't really know what those were supposed to accomplish. I saw the radical Islamic group's bus go by, didn't really know what to think about that. They seemed very rowdy for a radical Islamic group. Now that I write those words, I see how ridiculous they look.

The Islamic parties won that election, we learned a few days after we returned home. Turkey's current leadership is one of the most religious ones they've had in decades. In the past, the military has interceded to restore secularism to the government, but commentators say it's unlikely that they could do that today.

Dinner was once again in a little sidewalk cafe. We wondered about the pork products and wine on the menus -- these things are forbidden to Muslims -- but then, these places were designed primarily for tourists. Again, excellent food.

Day Five: Sunday

I was up early (because of the call to prayer) and watched some VH1 in English -- at exactly 8:00am, in the middle of a video, it switched to a man shouting in Turkish. Actually it was 7:00am -- I went downstairs to discover that today was the end of Daylight Savings Time.

We started the day with a walk around part of the old walls of Byzantine Constantinople. The Ottomans used the walls for building material, so most of them are gone. Sometimes people built homes or stores using the walls as they stood. Of course, now the walls are protected landmarks, but it's too late for most of them. In the worst neighborhoods, some remained -- we went there.

This is what a third world nation looks like, I thought to myself, as we walked through some of the worst squalor I've ever seen. It was every stereotype of poor neighborhoods -- piles of fetid garbage, maimed cats, a few skinny children trying to play soccer with a leaking ball. Most of the buildings could only charitably be called houses; "shanties" is a better word. Burnt-out husks of cars littered the sides of the roads. A man walked by us pushing some sort of cart which held two bicycle wheels and what looked like a vacuum cleaner hose. People stared at us pretty hard as we walked through, I think because they were surprised that any tourists would even think about touring this area. So was I. And yet, the whole time I tried to remember that most of the rest of Turkey was much, much worse.

Istanbul, or at least the parts that tourists are likely to visit, largely enjoys a first world lifestyle. The US State Department suggests that precautions for travellers in Istanbul are largely the same as those for Western Europe -- be careful at night and don't trust the water. But, if you plan to travel in the rest of Turkey, the State Department recommends a long list of innoculations and a longer list of safety precautions. Istanbul is a (comparatively) secular, peaceful, healthy, well-off city; the rest of Turkey is largely devoutly Islamic, crime is a major problem, and in general it's much poorer than the city of Istanbul. To combat the increasing dichotomy between Istanbul and the rest of the nation. Ataturk moved the capital to Ankara, at the other end of Asia Minor, but so far the effects have been less than substantial.

There was only one point that morning when I felt worried for my safety. We had followed one of the walls to the edge of the city where we noticed a small window set into one of the buildings -- men in traditional dress were entering the building. We walked by and I quickly glanced in and caught a few details. It appeared to be a place where men gathered to worship, with some sort of special remembrance for a certain cleric. The men did not appear pleased to see Westerners in the area -- as we walked by, more and more traditionally-dressed men appeared from various places. A few of them came out of the building, but we had already begun retracing our steps.

We then found a church that was billed as having "one of the world's most beautiful paintings" by one of our guidebooks. The art was fairly impressive, but the church seemed most proud of its mosaics; they covered just about every space. The gold was stripped off the mosaics as high as one could reach, but shined clearly above that level. Outside the church were a number of boys selling knotted sesame seed dough things from trays balanced on their heads -- I was curious but passed on them.

After the church we walked around the wall a bit and we found the ancient gate through which Mehmet the Conqueror broke through and the Ottomans entered the city. We then walked through the poorest neighborhoods until we made it to what seemed like a more solidly middle class area; a wedding was taking place in one of the streets and the people seemed much less interested in us. We found our way to the waterfront where a small public park with a playground had been set up, then we took a taxi back to the hotel.

We wanted to try seeing the Blue Mosque again in more detail, but just as we were approaching it the call to prayer sounded -- of course, it is closed to tourists during prayer times. Instead we took a taxi to the largest shopping mall in the city -- I was very curious to see what non-historic, non-touristed Istanbul looks like.

The answer, as predicted, is: a lot like non-historic, non-touristed America. Most of the stores were the same familiar ones that our malls are filled with here. Here the people were all dressed in Western style, though we were quickly to discover that no one spoke English. Yet everything was familiar, the stores, the products, the layout and design of the mall, even the foodcourt featured Burger King and Arby's alongside a few Turkish places.

American products were substantially more expensive in Turkey -- I suppose the transport costs are non-trivial. Western European products were available in a far wider selection than we have, again probably due to transport costs. Turkish products, of course, were very cheap -- whereas US CDs were US$30-US$50, I bought the CD of a Turkish artist I had seen on a Turkish video station (Petek Dincoz) for US$4. I liked Petek's song Foolish Casanova -- sadly, I was to discover that the rest of the CD was in Turkish.

We returned to the Blue Mosque, but once again just as we approached it the call to prayer sounded. A polite man walked up to us and explained that it was a holy time and the mosque was going to be closed for the next half-hour or so. We were very smart, he could see, so we should feel free to visit his carpet store instead. Boy did I see that coming. A block later another man walked up to us, told us we looked very intelligent and asked if we were interested in carpets. After a few minutes of walking around the mosque opened up again and we took yet another look inside.

After dinner we went to a traditional Turkish bath. It was an interesting experience -- besides general admission to the hot room and steam room, you pay for whatever extra services you want -- massage, shampoo, etc. I opted for the really fancy package, full massage, shampoo and foot massage. I left my clothes locked in a little side room and, wearing only a towel, was led into the heated room. There was a large stone dais in the center from where the heat was coming; I laid down on the edge of it. An enormous Turkish man gave me an excellent back, neck and leg massage, led me to a hot water basin and shampooed my hair pretty roughly -- then he did this amazing neck cracking thing that I thought would kill me, but actually felt pretty good. (It's worth noting that the Turks dislike standing water -- the taps over the basins were running and they were constantly overflowing.) The main room was reasonably warm but not as hot as I would have liked; a side room was supposed to be the main steam room but it was very disappointing. As we left they pressured us to stay and order drinks, I guess that's a big part of their profit margins, but we just tipped our masseurs and left.

Day Six: Monday

The day began on a high note -- the Turkish video station showed a George Michael video where President Bush, dressed as a cowboy, turned a soccer ball into a football, fought Iraq (personified), rode England like a motor boat and lassoed the Statue of Liberty.

We took a taxi to the Galatea region, at the center of which is the Galatea Tower. The region was settled by Jews in the middle ages and they lived there undisturbed up through modern times. We walked through various neighborhoods in the area -- much of the region was clearly upper middle class and it was interesting to see how they lived.

There was a trolley car system that ran through the city, down the center of the main streets. There were very few cars -- we walked mostly in the roads and had no problems. We saw lots of little bazaars and store clusters, bought a few pictures and some fruit, and explored a few of the little shops that were hidden deep inside various buildings. We even found a fascinating old book store where everything must have been nearly half a century old at minimum.

We then headed back to the familiar Old City. I wanted to buy a few pairs of jeans so we took one more shot at the Grand Bazaar. I bought two pairs of jeans for $30, one I knew was counterfeit, one that seemed reasonably high quality. Having worn them several dozen times between now and then, I can tell that both pairs are probably counterfeit. Good jeans though. ("You like jeans? I like jeans! Let us discuss in my carpet shop.")

I finally got to try the sesame seed dough knots -- nothing special. Had a bit more baklava though, that was high quality. We shopped around the little bazaars in the area a little more. and then went to dinner, at our favorite of the sidewalk cafes. Afterwards we walked around a bit and I bought some fresh saffron -- it's very hard to get in the US, but plentiful here.

I think somehow the carpet sellers could tell that it was our last night in Istanbul because they were getting desperate. Every few minutes, as we walked along, merchants would try to guess our country and city of origin, as if somehow someone might say "New York City!" and we'd immediately be seized by the desire to posses a carpet. We walked by one carpet seller who tried to tell us all the different types of carpets he had for sale -- "Hereke! Summer rug! Wall tapestry! Magic carpet!" Magic carpet definitely got my attention. On the plus side, though, there was this exchange:

  • Me: (walking down the street)
  • Boy: Hey, you dropped something!
  • Me: (cautiously looking back) What?
  • Boy: Carpet! (smirk)

We didn't get to go to a lot of the places that people often visit in the area of Turkey. There's a spot out in the desert, Cappadocia, that allegedly has very beautiful stones that have been sculpted by the winds and ancient volcanos; there's also the hot springs of Terapi, which are said to calm and soothe the spirit. A guide book suggests that this is where we get the word "therapy", but I'm doubtful.

The Blue Mosque was lit up in a decorative pattern. We had no idea what it said. (Mahcem says: "the lighting script between two minarets reads 'Only a republic[an lifestyle] would suit Turks', sending a clear message to reactionist confused people. We're only two-three generations of people into the republican time and there are still residues in the corners of some people minds about being a subject of a dynasty one day. Democratization is a continuous challenge I tell you. So appreciate what you have in your country and don't ever let it slip away, whatever the form.")

Day Seven: Tuesday

The taxi to the airport was set to pick us up at 8:15am -- we wanted to see the Hagia Sophia one more time before then, but it wasn't open so we had to be content with one last view of the outside. Turned out that today was the Turkish Day of the Republic (hence the Mosque lights), as proclaimed by Ataturk. How did we find this out? How else? "Excuse me, are you wanting to go to the Hagia Sophia? You cannot go today, it is the Turkish Day of the Republic. Instead, why don't you come to my carpet store?" What a perfectly appropriate way to end our vacation.


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