~ 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)
June 16 through June 27, 2000
(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.
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
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.
I'll start with the Sultan Ahmet Camii. Built by the sultan Ahmet in the
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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??
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.
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!
here to continue in Turkey with "All Aboard!"