Istanbul. The name conjures up mystical images
for me; snake charmers come to mind although we never saw anything
like that while there. This place promised to be different from
every other place weíve visited so far. In many ways, itís more
"foreign" than anything weíve seen and in others itís not.
Upon landing at AtatŁrk Airport the first thing
that happened was that we had to get visas. Lynn had gotten one on a
previous trip a few weeks ago which was still valid. All it is is a
sticker put inside the passport, good for a year for stays of up to
three months. Nobody asked any questions, as usually happens, about
the purpose of our visit, length of stay, and any articles we were
carrying. The visa has a number on it but they didnít record the
number as belonging to me. It seemed as though I was buying a season
pass to a theme park, good for a year, come back any time.
It was almost midnight when we arrived and the
drive to the hotel was pleasant as we drove along the Sea of Marmara
past western style shopping malls on the outskirts of the city. As
we turned inland from the sea, we went only two blocks or so to our
hotel and had entered a different world.
First a little geography. Istanbul is at the
eastern edge of Europe about 1800 miles from Delft and itís the only
city in the world on two continents. Draw a circle on paper or in
your head. Draw a vertical line through the center. Now draw a
horizontal line from the center to the left edge of the circle. The
circle represents the city. The lower left quadrant represents the
old city, historic Istanbul. The upper left quadrant represents the
new city, modern Istanbul. Both are in Europe. The semi-circle on
the right is the Asian side and is mostly residential. The vertical
line separating European Istanbul from Asian is the
strait connecting the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara
in the south. The horizontal line from the center to the left
edge is the Golden Horn, an extension of the Sea of Marmara.
We decided to stay in old, historic Istanbul. The
area has some streets that were barely wide enough for a small car
to pass a line of small parked cars. All the streets were
cobblestone. Stray cats and dogs were everywhere but none appeared
malnourished. The buildings seemed ancient and some actually were.
Others were from the early 20th century but appeared
We visited the
a few blocks away from the hotel which, as big as it is, is still
only the second largest in Istanbul . If you look at the picture on
the website, youíll see that there are several domes. This whole
structure is one room. There are areas outside where those who come
to pray have to wash their faces, arms, necks, feet, mouths and
noses. Five times a day there is a call to prayer, the first being
at sunrise. The call comes in the form of many very large
loudspeakers attached to the mosque. Iím not sure if what we heard
was actually a call to prayer or the prayer itself because whatever
we were hearing went on for about five minutes. Wherever we went in
the city, we heard the calls throughout the day. About 75% of the
Turkish population is Sunni Muslim and most of the rest are other
Muslim sects. However the Turkish Republic is a secular one and
religion is not as significant here as in other Muslim countries.
Many Turkish Muslims donít pray at the Mosque at all.
There is a beautiful open park in front of the
Blue Mosque, the other end of which, maybe 1500 feet away, is
Sophia (and also
on the picture at the right to enlarge). The structure you see in
the photographs here was completed in 537. Thatís a three digit
year, folks, which means weíre talking about some serious oldness.
Hagia Sophia started out as a
Christian church under the emperor Justinian. It later became a
mosque after the Ottoman conquest, and is now a museum.
Across from Hagia Sophia is the
Basilica Cistern that provided fresh water to Constantinople.
The cistern is about 460 feet by 210 feet and about three stories
underground. It was built, like a lot of things here, in the 6th
century under the rule of Justinian, the same guy from the previous
paragraph. This man thought big. If you look at the pictures, youíll
see a lot of columns. There are 336 arranged in a 12 by 28 pattern.
The ancients carved two Medusa heads in two of the columns at the
far end. One is sideways, one is upside down. They were supposed to
ward off the evil spirits which I can believe were down there. The
place is really spooky. Sometime after the reign of Justinian and
before the Ottoman conquest, the cistern was abandoned and forgotten
about. It was discovered when the Ottomans found out that people in
the area were lowering buckets below their homes and were retrieving
fresh water and fish. There are still fish living in there in about
18 inches of water. If you have ever seen the James Bond movie From
Russia with Love, youíve seen this place as it was used as a set in
Several blocks away from there is the Grand
Bazaar. If youíre like me and hate to shop under the best of
conditions, youíd hate this place but it is something to experience.
Much of it is under a roof. There are 65 city blocks underneath
filled with stalls selling everything except electronic gear, I
think. There was clothing (a lot of which I will guess was
counterfeit knock-offs of famous brands), chess sets, jewelry,
pottery, ornaments of all types, all kinds of stuff. One of the
guide books says, "Nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar." I
concur. Close your eyes and picture how bazaars are presented in
movies with the mass of people. Add the roof and thatís it.
Frequently when we go to a new place, we like to
take one of those bus rides around to get the lay of the land and
see what we might like to come back to. The bus started from Hagia
Sophia and shortly passed by the train station where the
terminated its trip from Paris. It then crossed the Golden Horn to
modern new Istanbul. While crossing the Golden Horn, there is a
clear view of the Bogazici Bridge to the north. This is one of the
two bridges that cross the Bosphorus to the Asian side. At that
point I had a major case of dťjŗ vu. As we had been walking around,
we discovered that Istanbul is very hilly. At the tops of the hills
one could look down between buildings and see the Bosphorus, the
Golden Horn, or the Sea of Marmara. Then while crossing this bridge
on the bus over the Golden Horn and looking back at the hills on all
sides, we saw that the hills were packed with buildings and there
was almost no space anywhere. It was the Bogazici Bridge, though, a
long suspension bridge across the strait that did it. San Francisco.
Istanbul is topographically very much like San Francisco and that
bridge resembled the Golden Gate Bridge.
Having had very few original thoughts in my life,
I decided I couldnít be the first person who ever noticed this. A
little research proved me correct. It seems that one John C. Fremont
named the entrance to the San Francisco Bay "Chrysopylae"
or Golden Gate because it resembled Istanbulís
[As an aside here, the name John C. Fremont may
sound familiar to some of you. He was a fascinating character. His
was a very famous name in the mid 19th century
exploration of the American west and later he became the first
Republican candidate for president, subsequently losing to James
Buchanan in 1856. He secured the nomination at the first Republican
convention held at Musical Fund Hall at 806 Locust Street in
Philadelphia. Thereís an historical marker in front of the building
noting the occasion.]
The bus drove along the Golden Horn for several
miles when it turned left at a wall. This is the
of Theodosius. Go back for a
minute to the drawing of the circle and lines. If you would now draw
a line from the bottom of the vertical line to the left edge of the
horizontal line, you will see a triangle. The previous two lines you
drew were water described above. This new line is the wall. The wall
is about four miles long and perhaps 40 feet high or so. It varies
in places. Some of it has been rebuilt but a lot of it is remains
from the original. The wall was the western fortification of the
city and was built from 412 to 422, presumably with no earth moving
equipment. Just inside the wall at the north end are the ruins of
Justinianís palace. The wall has 192 watch towers and 11 gates for
entrance along its length. The gate at the southern end was the one
most used by the emperor for ceremony and was called the Golden
Gate. One wonders, then, if John C. Fremont even borrowed the name
for the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.
Late one afternoon, we took a ferry ride to the
Asian side. The ride takes less that 30 minutes and costs 1,000,000
Turkish liras (TL), 1 New Turkish lira (YTL), or about US$.72. A
real bargain to go to Asia. When we got there, there was only the
port and some buses waiting to take people home. We climbed a steep
hill and walked towards a cliff that overlooked the port and then
back to the European side. By now it was dark and the view was
spectacular. The Blue Mosque, Hagia
Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace were all brightly light. This
alone was worth the trip to the Asian side and itís a good thing
because thatís all we did there.
I left Istanbul with mixed emotions. While very
beautiful and its mystique intact, I couldnít help but notice the
rampant poverty in many areas. Even in new Istanbul, the modern
downtown looked rundown and not well-cared for. Ramshackle buildings
were everywhere. What I describe here is certainly not unknown in
America but the amount of it and the existence in areas that seemed
to be desirable parts of town seemed unusual.
As a matter of personal preference, there was
something else I noticed that was different from America which I
never did get used to: the proliferation of smoke. In America,
things are moving in a direction that suggests that smoking is
something that should be done in private either alone or among
consenting adults. That seems reasonable to me. Europeans havenít
moved that far in that direction yet. In the Netherlands, itís
difficult to find no smoking sections in restaurants. The difference
between the Netherlands and Turkey is that in the Netherlands,
smoking is permitted almost everywhere but not everyone smokes so
that dinner can usually be enjoyed in some degree of comfort. In
Turkey, everyone DOES smoke. Eating dinner was a chore. One night we
had dinner at a nice place where the table was small. The waiter set
the table and went to get an ashtray. We told him we didnít need it.
"Americans donít like smoke," he said. Whatís to like? Burning eyes,
sore throats, and clothes that stink arenít things I generally
enjoy. I wasnít sad to leave Turkey.
As long as this piece is, I have left out a big
topic, that famous Turkish four-letter word: rugs. We escaped Turkey
rug-free and there will be more about that soon.