Oct 18, 2009
|Istanbul is a feast for the eyes the mind, the heart and the soul. This is as good an introduction as I am able to come up with for a stay where we really were tourists, happily jumping from sight to sight and soaking up the atmosphere of a city that was for hundreds of years the epicentre of knowledge and culture. This is perhaps another way of saying that the anecdotes in this journal entry are few so if history and my rub on it is not your preferred reading tipple then, well, too bad.
Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and whose memory is honoured everywhere in both sculpture and portrait, was without a doubt a visionary. He virtually made modern Turkey basing its foundation on his philosophy of Kemalism. It’s a philosophy that abhors religious extremism believing instead that earthly happiness lies in an independent life without political, social or religious restraints. Although modern politicians have reversed some of Ataturk’s brave reforms, most have stuck and Istanbul is filled with overwhelmingly tolerant people who are willing to help with little but a smile and a chat expected in return.
Except for the multitude of Mosques each sounding their prayers five times a day – (sometimes as if in competition to outdo their neighbours) there is little else that would lead you to conclude that this is ostensibly a Muslim country. Everywhere we went we were asked what we thought of Turkey and told that Turks welcomed everyone. Muslim extremism is universally deplored and good will and peace on earth a mantra. Very few women dress in full Burkha and the Hijab is rare. As one Turk told me, ‘I believe in Allah, but don’t go to the mosque or always pray five times a day. This is common in Turkey. We are an educated people.’
It being our first visit to this, the second capital of the Roman Empire and also the capital to its successor the Byzantine Empire and the still later Ottoman Empire, we visited all of the iconic sights. We strolled neighbourhoods both poor and better off whilst children trailed and we handed them kangaroo pins. We took a boat up the Bosphorus to near where it widens into the Black Sea and peered at the Clashing Rocks where Jason and the Argonauts passed in search of the elusive Golden Fleece. We also searched, largely in vain, to find much variety other than price in the meat dominated Turkish cuisine. We descended into the Roman cistern, with its slightly eerie lighting and a sideways and upside down carved Medusa heads at the base of two columns (archaeologists still debate why they are there) whilst large carp swam in the shallow water between the other 334 columns. We ate freshly caught and bar-b-qued fish sandwiched in a first rate roll as we sat by the Golden Horn with the locals as evening swept in.
We arrived at the serene Blue Mosque when prayers were about to begin. We were politely told that we could not enter at that time but were captivated by the beautiful voice singing Koranic verses and so took a seat in the large courtyard. Although right in the heart of tourist land, this space was nearly empty of said tourists as the tour coaches used the time to transport their captives to something they could see, rather than feel. The words, in Arabic, meant nothing to us but the voice seemed so full of devotion and love that it gently led us into a near subliminal state. We returned later to admire the sparsely decorated and peaceful interior; a haven from the noise and bustle of the large metropolis surrounding it.
There are Mosques and Mosques but to my mind the Aya Sofya was the most beautiful we visited. Built in the 6th century it started its life as the largest church in Christendom. On the very day that Constantinople fell to the Turks it was ordered to be altered to a mosque. Although minarets have been added and extensions made it shows that these early places of worship, built in the then centre of the Christian faith, were far removed in shape and structure from the later western European cathedrals and churches. Although converted for Muslim prayer (now a museum) the exquisite Christian mosaics decorating some niches were retained and the interior is truly stunning.
After two nights we had to decamp from our hotel. I had only booked it for a single night, not knowing what we might be in for and when I asked to extend the stay I could only get one further night. Soner, the manager whom I got to know rather quickly, was one of the most genial fellows I had ever met. Nothing was too much trouble. He helped check out new hotels for us, suggested what we might like to do and rang his mate at the Iranian consulate when it was evident that our visa was in jeopardy.
Speaking of which, we paid a visit to the Iranian consulate in order to try and speed up the issue of the visa. We were shown in by a rather severe looking guy dressed, as one might expect, in black. We were directed to a booth where an Ayatollah Khomeini look-alike humbly answered our questions and phoned in search of the needed fax from the Iranian Foreign Affairs Department. It was not there. He apologised and explained that they had been on holiday in Iran for the last three days and that although they would be back at work in Iran the next day (Saturday), the consulate would close at 1 pm and not open till Monday. We were hoping to leave on the Sunday and had not yet booked flights just in case the visas never ended up nicely displayed in our passports. We left, wondering what to do and extended our stay another day.
Then it was off to the Grand Bazaar. This is reputedly the largest bazaar in the world with over 4000 shops within its old structure. Haven’t they heard of Westfield over here? It is largely occupied by jewellery and carpet sellers with a smatter of others flogging fake designer labels interspersed with the occasional genuine Turkish apparel store.
It was at one of the latter that we paused when a pair of leather ‘slip-ons’ caught our eye. This stall turned out to be a mere 1 m2 in size and Ahmet was on to us. Deciding to purchase, we started the bargaining ritual but after a couple of rounds, I said to Ahmet, ‘You know and I know that we will arrive somewhere in the middle after we do this for a few more times. How about you tell me now exactly what your bottom price is and if I reckon its OK, I’ll buy them for that. If not, I’ll just walk away.’ Ahmet bust into a huge grin, laughed and said, ‘David, you could really be Turkish. Are you sure you are not?’ The purchase was completed and we were offered tea which we drank whilst Ahmet, in the most sincere voice, told some young Americans that he could not sell the same goods to them for a price which was 20% higher than that which we paid, as it was below his wholesale price. The Americans caved in and bought.
The spice market is something else. All manner of colours and aromas and herbaceous produce abounds in huge sacks or trays or dangling down from an overhead hook. Every variety of nut known to man is presented in barrels or large dispensers. We had noticed that nuts appeared without fail in shop after shop that we had passed but the quantities available here were copious. Along with these delicacies are slabs, slices and strips of Turkish delight in their various pastel colours and flavours, just begging to be purchased by the kilogram. The smell of freshly roasted coffee beans also wafts through the crowded aisles as an assembly line of young men feverishly pack them in paper bags to be immediately sold to the next in the long queue.
Back at our hotel, I received an email from Iran saying our visas would be issued at Tehran airport so I went web surfing in search of a flight the next day. Nothing available for three days. A trip to a travel agent produced the same result. Knowing that we needed at least 8 days and preferably 10 to cover the Iranian itinerary we had planned, we made the reluctant and disappointing decision to put off Iran to another time. Further justification for this change of plan is that we still want to travel to the western areas of Turkey. Perhaps, I think, we could go overland into Iran next time and also fulfil another of my dreams; to continue on through the Stans (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan etc.) and eventually pop out in India.
With 8 days to fill before we headed west from Europe, an alternative destination came to mind; Jordan. A flight for the next days was found, a hotel of unknown merit but discovered on the Lonely Planet website, was booked and we went out for our last Turkish kebab dinner. The numerous cats that scavenge at restaurants (apparently loved by the Turks) were still in residence but bothered me little. Tomorrow is a new adventure.