Ever since we landed in Munich we've been hearing about those awful Turks – how glad western Europeans are that they were defeated in Vienna, statues commemorating victories against the Turks, etc. etc. The way people talked about it, it felt like these events took place last week rather than 500 years ago. Now that we we are in Istanbul, we are hearing the other side of the story. Our guide today spoke about how challenging it is to be Turkey, located as it is in both Europe and Asia, not quite belonging to either side. Being surrounded by water on three sides gave it a position of strength and vulnerability. Our impression of Turkey (95% Muslim) today is that it is “Islam with a friendly face.” Mosques are everywhere and the cries to prayer sound out five times a day, but Turks are free to manage their lives and religion as they see fit. We saw women wrapped in robes from head to toe, women dressed in the latest European fashions, and women with their hair died blue and piercings through their cheeks. It's up to you.
This vibrant city of 15 million moves its huge population efficiently with ferries that line the shore of the Golden Horn, Straits of the Bosphorus, and Sea of Marmara. As we sailed out we stood on our balcony and counted twelve within our view. They have tried to build subways, but there's that ancient Roman ruin problem again. Every time they excavate especially on the European side of the city, they run into evidence of their forbears. A project to construct a subway under the river came to a stop when they ran into a treasure trove of sunken ships from Roman times.
First timers here have an extensive list of must sees – the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Haiga Sophia. They are magnificent, but we've seen them a few times, so we decided to eat our way through Istanbul. The tour started at the Spice Market, a sort of half inside, half outdoor Walmart of items the every day Turk needs to live and eat. The colorful piles of spices smelled aromatically and the vendors gave samples of Turkish delight apple tea, and other nuts. This country has a moderate climate and with irrigation feeds itself and exports many foodstuffs to the world. An animal market was on a side street with cages full of ducks, chicken, pigeons, sparrows, quail, and rabbits. I would like to think that these creatures ended up as pet and there was pet food for sale in the area, but judging by the rest of the market, their future was uncertain. Leeches were also for sale here. I hate to think what they were for.
Then we traveled to a more modern pedestrian mall where Burger King was next to shops selling all manner of traditional pickled foodstuffs including pickled pine cones. A mixture of classy European style buildings were along side more generic, modern buildings. We couldn't read the signs, but shopping here felt quite comfortable and familiar. Our guide bought simti a traditional fast food item, for us to sample. It was like a large pretzel with a coating of sesame seeds rather than salt.
For serious eating we went to restaurant overlooking the Golden Horn and our ship. It served a variety of kebabs; the one made with ground meat mixed with pistachio nuts was especially yummy. They also served a very thin Turkish pizza that had no cheese, but tomato sauce flavored with mystifying (to us) herbs. Appetizers were tomato salad, cheese, yoghurt, and tabouli. While we think of baklava as a Greek item, they served two varieties of that as well. An interesting and satisfying meal!
Then we were off to the fish market. The three bodies of water that surround Istanbul vary significantly in temperature and the fish migrate between them depending on the time of year. Right now the anchovies are coming south out of the Black Sea, so they are the featured menu item, but the market sold many other types as well. We were surprised to see that nothing was stored on ice. It was a cool day and the guide said they sell so fast there is no need for more refrigeration, but I still felt dubious.
Then we went to a carpet factory, a must on any Istanbul tour. They demonstrated how the rugs are made and the different looks from cotton, wool or silk thread. As they rolled out rug after rug and twirled them around in the air, their colors changed depending on how the light hit them. I kept thinking about the women back in the villages, sitting in front of their rug frames, making knot after knot. The silk rugs made with fine detail to hang on the wall have up to 2,000 knots per square inch. The Turks are excellent salesman and I remember from past visits how many things they have sold me that I never really thought that I wanted. It was a challenge to get out of the store again without buying a rug.
The final stop was the Grand Bazaar, a mostly under roof market about the size of the Mall of America. It would be easy to spend a week here alone and for navigationally impaired people like me, a life time. Once you got deep inside the twisting lanes, you could eventually find an exit, but it wouldn't necessarily be the same one you came in. Salesmen hung around outside their doorways and had a steady patter of catch phrases designed to lure us inside. It could have been intimidating, but they were polite and took “no” as a sign to ease up.
As is often the case the guide we had today really made the tour. She really wanted us to know as much as possible about the culture of her country. As we drove back to the ship, she had the men on the bus doubled over as she described the circumcision ceremony which boys go through between the ages of five and seven rather than as newborns. It had many aspects of a bar mitzvah, with a large party and dancing and drinking, and a large bed in the middle of the party hall, where the newly circumcised boy would lay in pain while friends and family showered him with gold coins and congratulated him on being a man.