the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Fat Cats in Istanbul ~
June 16 through June 27, 2000
$1 U.S. = 615,000 Turkish Lire
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Istanbul, Turkey
June 16 through June 27, 2000

City by the Bosphorus  (ccl) We were impressed with Istanbul as soon as we stepped out of the jetway and into the brand new Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul.  A modern, gleaming facility, where every third person was deeply engaged in a cell phone conversation, it was like we had stepped out of a time warp, which shall be hereafter known as Egypt. 

Maybe it's not that Istanbul is so modern and westernized, maybe it's that Egypt is so backward.  At any rate, we were glad to be in a saner place, where we weren't accosted at the airport by touts and where we waited in a civilized queue for a taxi, instead of selling our business to the lowest bidder, as we had become accustomed to. 

We had picked up a Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey at the American University bookstore in Cairo, so we knew what area of town we wanted to stay in, and there we had targeted a hotel called the Star Pension.  We asked the cab driver if he knew it, and in broken English he said no, but he had a friend in that neighborhood who he could ask.  We said OK, and we were off.

Due to the woeful lack of geography taught in American public schools (notice that I assume it wasn't taught, not that I never learned it or that I forgot it), I didn't realize that Istanbul occupies both Europe and Asia.  The two continents come together here over the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and the thin stretch of turquoise blue water between them is known as the Bosphorus.  Istanbul's history stretches across three millenniums, from the ancient fishing villages that occupied this spot in 1000 B.C., to its days as the center of the Christian universe as Constantinople from 330 - 1453 A.D., to its status as the capital of the powerful and fierce Turkish Ottoman Empire from 1453 - 1922, to its position today as the Capital of the East.

Our trip from the airport took us along the waterway, which is quite lovely, complete with jogging trails, seaside restaurants, and good fishing.  Our cab driver pulled into a little neighborhood and announced that it was the neighborhood we were looking to stay in, Sultanahmet, so named because of the Sultan Ahmet Camii, or Sultan Ahmet Mosque, built, not surprisingly, by Sultan Ahmet.  After driving into the neighborhood a little ways, he pulled over and began talking with a man who eventually greeted us in perfect English.  Wonder of wonders, this guy owned the very hotel we were stopped at, told us that yes, he knew the hotel we wanted to go to, but his hotel was much better, would we like to see?  After haggling over the price, we checked out the room, which attracted us because of it's satellite TV and modern phone (needed to update the website).  We decided to stay one night, then check into a cheaper place.

Fat cats!  After putting our bags down we headed out to explore the neighborhood.  We were so happy to find many quaint hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars along the cobbled, tree-lined streets.  For the first time on our trip, we felt like we were back in our Atlanta neighborhood, Virginia-Highlands.  One of the first things we noticed in walking around the place was that the neighborhood cats were luxuriously fluffy and plump.  Now, you know if the neighborhood strays are eating well, everybody's eating well.  That's how we felt in our wonderful new environment: fat and happy.

We didn't get much done in the way of sight-seeing our first couple of days in Istanbul, because we were working furiously on this potential Pulitzer Prize-winning website.  We had decided to stay put at the hotel we stayed in the first night, because when we came down to check out, they came off the price by $10 AND moved us to a huge room.  Now this was a place we could put down some roots, and so we did, staying for ten days.

We had picked Sultanahmet because the guidebook told us that it was where most of the sights were concentrated.  Truly, it is a beautiful area.  With the sun glinting off the Bosphorus in the distance, the place is a magical sight.  Over the four or five days we visited all of the main tourist sights in Sultanahmet.

Blue mosque in the clouds  I'll start with the Sultan Ahmet Camii.  Built by the sultan Ahmet in the 15th century, it's a classic example of the Byzantine architecture you see all over Istanbul. It's impossible to get a really good picture of it from the ground, because of all of the huge, leafy trees that surround it, and because of its massive size.  It tends to remind you of Cinderella's castle at Disneyworld, with its six thin minarets that seem to point the way up to the heavens.  The mosque is a succession of semi-domes and full domes, topped by a single, large dome.  As you walk upon it, more and more domes began to reveal themselves, until you see the mosque in all its splendor.  Sultan Ahmet Camii is familiarly known as the Blue Mosque, because it's interior is covered with beautiful hand-painted blue tiles.  Inside the atmosphere is quiet and reverent, and colored light from the many beautiful stained glass windows filters down to the richly carpeted floors, where the faithful come to pray.  Light and color, Blue Mosque

Aya Sofya  Directly across a beautifully landscaped park from the Blue Mosque is the Aya Sofya, or Church of the Divine Wisdom.  Standing in this park and looking from right to left, first at the Blue Mosque, then at the Aya Sofya, there is almost too much beauty to comprehend.  The huge black dome of the Aya Sofya captivates, crowned by the gold cresent of Islam.  Birds wheel around the towering spires of the Blue Mosque, giving it a fairy tale quality.  Aya Sofya was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century in an effort to restore the greatness of the Roman empire, and the church was considered the greatest Christian church ever built until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks, at which time it was converted into a mosque.  So from the outside Aya Sofya, while beautiful, looks somewhat like a house that has been rebuilt and remodeled several times, each by different people.  But inside, the vastness of the sanctuary gives the place a palpable feeling of peace and tranquility.  

Madonna and Child mosaic, Aya Sofya  The highlight of visiting the Aya Sofya is seeing the glittering golden mosaics that are masterpieces of Byzantine art.  The mosaics were made from small pieces of glass.  Two pieces of glass were sandwiched together, and in the middle is gold leaf or colored paint.  It's interesting to note that the church and state later fought a fierce civil war over these images.  The Bible passage in question was Exodus 20:4:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.

While the Bible seems clear, images were extremely popular, and those who wanted to break the icons ("iconoclasts") were ultimately defeated.  The Muslims are crystal-clear in their belief that icons of any kind constitute idolatry, and when the church was turned into a mosque, these beautiful mosaics were covered with plaster.  Luckily many have been successfully recovered, including one of the Empress Zoe and her third husband with Christ.  The rulers were fond of depicting themselves with Christ to indicate their supposed position in the religious world.  Empress Zoe's mosaic is somewhat amusing because the image of her husband was originally her first husband, and as each successive husband died and was replaced, she had the last guy's face chiseled out and replaced with the new guy.  

Only part of the Topkapi Sarayi  Upon exiting the Aya Sofya, immediately to your left is the incredibly beautiful Topkapi Sarayi, or Topkapi Palace.  Built by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the Ottoman Conquest, the palace was occupied by sultans, their families, and the members of their court for three centuries.  The grounds and palace occupied hundreds of acres, many of which have been converted to public parks now (One of the many wonderful things we have noticed about Istanbul is the proliferation of trees and public parks.).  The picture at the beginning of this paragraph is of only part  of the palace, as seen from the tower in the harem area, so you can get a feel for the size of the actual palace itself from this.

Sultan's court room in the Harem  The harem, as you may have guessed, is where the sultan's mother, wives, children, and concubines lived.  The harem contains over 300 rooms, of which we saw only a few.  The sultan's mother, or valide sultan, was the top dog, and a woman of immense power.  The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have as many as four wives, but could have as many concubines as he could support, and he could typically support a lot.  In the later days of the empire, the sultans kept only concubines; apparently they weren't anxious to repeat the legal issues faced by another famous ruler of the time when he tired of his wives, Henry the VIII.  

The women of the harem had to be foreigners, because Islamic law forbid the enslavement of Muslims, Jews, or Christians.  Often girls as young as ten were sold into slavery by their parents.  Girls from northern Russia were well-known for their beauty, and were popular harem choices.

The young princes lived in the harem as well, until age 16; some of them longer.  For much of Ottoman rule, there was no provision for the automatic ascension of the eldest son to power upon the death of the sultan, so bloody conflicts often followed in order to determine who would be the next sultan, resulting in death for the losers.  Ahmet I, who couldn't bear to kill his younger, mentally deranged brother, began the practice of kafes hayati, or cage life.  The young prices were kept essentially under house arrest, living in luxury and being corrupted by the pleasures of the harem.

Don't put these in the dishwasher! Diamond-encrusted dessert bowls  While there are many other interesting areas to the palace, I think the most interesting were the many rooms of relics, jewelry, art, and other pieces collected by the Ottoman sultans over three hundred years.  There are many incredibly beautiful things, including an 86-carat diamond (the fifth-largest diamond in the world), a collection of sultan's robes, and a huge room full of ornate silver serving pieces.  But perhaps the most intriguing thing in the palace, for me, was the preserved hand of John the Baptist, encased in metal.  Our guidebook doesn't even mention it, much less tell us how or why it's there, but while somewhat gruesome, it was pretty amazing to gaze upon it and speculate that it might have been the hand that baptized Jesus.  The hand of John the Baptist?

Shopping on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)  There is so much to see and do in Istanbul, I doubt if it's possible to do it all, but we tried.  We spent a day wandering around the Taksim Square area of town, which is a trendy shopping area with designer fashions, great book and music stores, movie theaters, and restaurants.  That night we went to a concert of the Phillip Glass Ensemble.  Phillip Glass writes a lot of music for movies, and also does some performance art and has written an opera.  His ensemble consisted of himself on keyboards, along with three other keyboardists, once of whom also sang, and three woodwinds players, who played flute, piccolo, and saxophones.  Although we weren't familiar with his work, we were so desperate to hear some live music that we bought the best seats we could get.  The concert was tremendous - it's so amazing to hear really accomplished musicians playing really difficult, intriguing music.  We really enjoyed it, and the house was packed, as Turks love to get out and go to cultural events.  Afterwards, we went back to a blues bar that we had seen earlier in the day, and got a dose of the music we really love.  Even though the band had never played together, and there were some rough edges, we enjoyed hearing some of our favorites.  During one of the breaks we began talking with the guitar player, who told us that he was from Iran.  At age 16, he heard a Muddy Waters recording, and it changed his life.  He told his family that he had to play the blues, and he snuck out of Iran over the mountains, got a fake Israeli passport, and went to Canada.  He later traveled to the cradle of the blues, the southern United States.  It was really amazing to meet someone as committed to his passion as this guy. 

Winning the title for the "Most Unusual Activity" of the visit to Istanbul was the afternoon we spent in a hammam, or Turkish Bath.  While declining in popularity amongst the local folks since the widespread availability of hot and cold running water, the hammam continues to be a "try it once" type activity for all tourists who visit Turkey.  Before everyone had a bathroom, a trip to the hammam on Friday was essential, in order to perform your ritual cleansing before Friday noontime prayers.  Just what goes on in a hamman?  Let me see if I can fill you in...

Get a good scrubbin' in a Turkish hammam  First of all, they want your money.  Wiley and I paid 10 million lire each for our scrubbings.  Then we parted, as the hammam we were in wasn't co-ed, but apparently many are today.  I didn't really want a guy giving me a bath, so we specifically hunted this place down.  Once in the women's changing area, I was given a thin cloth, a locker key, and told to "take everything off".  I obeyed, somewhat tenuously, and silently wished that I had read more closely the section of the guidebook that describes exactly WHAT you're supposed to do, once inside.  The changing room attendant pointed the way into a hallway, which I followed, until it came to a large, domed room, with a round marble slab in the center, and marble sinks all around the outside.  There was one woman in there already, laid out on the slab, so I followed her lead.  I took off my cloth, spread it out on the warm marble, and laid myself out.  I was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but more and more women came into the room, and it became obvious that none of us had a clue what was going on, so I relaxed.  It was very warm in the room and I was sweating profusely, but it was quiet and calm in there, and I just laid back and looked lazily at the warm sunlight filtering in through the small circular windows in the dome.

Eventually I was called over to another part of the slab by a large Turkish women, who was wearing nothing but navy blue panties and the evidence of a Caesarean section.  She spread out my cloth, and motioned for me to lay down.  She then proceeded to pour buckets of warm water all over me, then scrubbed me down with some type of exfoliating mitt.  Then she brought over a bucket of warm, sudsy water and began my "soap down".  I'm pretty sure I've never been so clean.  The cleaning also included a light massage, which was nice.  Once she had soaped me up and washed me, she rinsed me with more warm water, then lead me into another room, where she washed my hair.  After a couple more rinses with warm water, she hit me with a final bucket of cold water, which felt really good.  After that, I dried off, dressed, and met Wiley back in the lobby.  We both agreed that it was a somewhat bizarre experience, but that it certainly must have been luxurious in the days before hot running water.

One of many gorgeous Turkish carpets  Most people don't get out of Istanbul without stopping in at least one carpet store.  Turkish carpets are gorgeous, and we, too, have done some shopping, although we haven't bought one yet.  We just haven't found that one carpet that we both love, so we'll keep looking.  We have been taking pictures with the digital camera, writing down prices, and comparing what we've seen when we get back home to the computer.  The carpet-shopping experience here is much more low-key that it was in Morocco, and we have actually met some really nice people in the shops.  Our favorite guy so far has been Paulo, who is actually Greek, and told us that he is a Buddhist and that he carries veterinary equipment in his car so that he can help hurt cats when he sees them.  Is that too good to be true??

Sarchophagus of Alexander the Great  While in Istanbul we also made our first "connection" with home.  We met up with a friend of our friend from Atlanta, Harry Zegers.  Susie Goliti was a successful hardware reseller when she decided to quit her job and spend five months traveling and reassessing what she wanted to do with her life.  She's currently working on a children's book, which she plans to illustrate as well.  We visited the excellent archeological museum at the Topkapi Sarayi, and then had some lunch and beers on the waterfront.  It was really nice seeing someone from home.

Tomorrow we leave Istanbul, and while I will miss this amazing and beautiful city, I am anxious to see more of the country.  We have bought passes on something called the "Fez Bus", which allows us to travel around a specific circuit in Turkey, get off the bus when we want, spend some time in a place, then get back on the bus and continue the circuit.  On with the adventure!

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