We arrived yesterday after an easy flight from Basel, and the bad weather seems to have followed us. We are staying in Sultanamet, the old city, which is full of tourists from all over the world, and feels very cosmopolitan, a bit like New York, but with tiny alleys and winding streets that help keep the traffic down. Many of the city's most famous sites are within easy walking distance. We have already been to the Hagia Sofia, which more than lived up to billing.
As did the Blue Mosque.
Tulips, which are native to Turkey, not Holland, are blooming everywhere, and the streets are full of kebap and crepe vendors, both cheap and good, though the restaurants in this area are somewhat pricey. We spent part of the afternoon sitting in one of the ubiquitous tea houses, or rather just outside of one, in a kerosene heated area covered with clear plastic which more or less kept us dry. We preferred that to sitting inside, because of the smoke from so many people toking up on nargileh, filled with sweet Turkish tobacco. We sat next to, and then chatted with a young Turkish couple, after we overheard the woman giving her boyfriend an English lesson. They were a delight to talk to, like many of the Turks we have met thus far, quite out going and jokey. For example, earlier we were buying some Turkish pastry, and the owner was joking with another foreigner that his sweets were better than Viagra for increasing energy and sex. I can see why. It was, just possibly, the best piece of pastry I have ever had, filo dough, pistachios, and honey. Nanette and I battled it out to see who would get the last bite.
After apple tea, we were off to the Grand Bazaar. Hectic, but it was more pleasant than in Marrakesh because no traffic is allowed within the crowded shopping district. Although there are touts in Istanbul, especially in the touristy sections, they are less pushy than in the big cities of Morocco.
We have been to the archeological museum, which was a little like the Egyptian section of the Met, but on a much larger scale. It was hard to take it all in, though we spent several hours there, with Greek, Roman, Trojan and Hittite objects, some more than 5000 years old. One particularly impressive sarcophagus, named Alexander and dating from 500BC, had very intricate battle and hunting scenes carved on its marble exterior. The piece de la resistance,as it were.
Detail from Alexander Sarcophgus
Park Scenes in Sultanamet Near the Museum
Just now, I am sitting in the breakfast room of our rather funky Tulip Guesthouse, gazing over the Bosphorus toward the Asian side of the city. The sun is out, and the tankers moving through the straights at a steady clip reflect the light of the late afternoon sun, as do the buildings on the opposite shore. There are hills, and even low mountains in the distance. Closer in, a section of the old wall of the city is visible, and a white lighthouse, long and thin, like the minarets of the mosques, sits adjacent to the straight. The jumble of buildings immediately in front, comes towards me from all angles and colors. There is the mustard yellow of the Metropolis Hostel, with its black spiral staircase running up to the roof deck, and the salmon, brown, and light grey of the pointy stucco building to the left. Seagulls careen and squawk over its ramshackle metal roof.
As a double exclamation point, two bright red tankers steam up toward the Sea of Marmara.
Our amiable and chatty host, Martine, who is often to be found in this room, is a Kurd from northeast Anatolia. He grew up on a sheep farm, and then was the first in his family to get educated. He now manages three hostels in town, including Tulip. We have also met his younger brother, a college student, of whom he is fiercely protective. His relationship with his parents, on the other hand, seems rather distant. He has a Turkish girlfriend, who is getting a Phd in economics. She wants to be a professor, but although he has not yet told her, he wants her to stay at home and have babies.
He indicates things have changed for the better under Erdogen's rule, though there is still a lot of prejudice against Kurds. This is exacerbated by the separatist PKK, whose members periodically commit terrorist acts. He has nothing good to say about Ataturk, whom he says, murdered thousands of Kurds.
We have spent a number of pleasant hours talking to him, as he has traveled widely and is knowledgable about history, though he is obviously quite traditional in certain ways.
We have spent the past few days exploring the city and enjoying the people, including a visit to Istanbul Modern, a relatively new museum, which reflects the thriving art scene here. We also took the ferry to Uskudar, on the Asian side, from the Eminonu pier, a 20 minute ride across the Bosphorus. From there, we walked to a hillside park, full of tulips and pansies of all colors. At the top, there was a teahouse and restaurant with expansive views of one of the bridges across the straight, and the buildings on both shores.
After a nice respite with time to admire the view, we continued back down to the waterfront until we came to a non-touristy neighborhood, with small cafes, several ice cream shops, and a quite wonderful art gallery.
We also noticed an old synagogue, though it was boarded up and unused for many years. Stopping for ice cream, we talked to Fatima and Fozimet, two sisters of indeterminate age, who spoke fluent English. Their father had owned a barge and delivered water to other ships. For many years they had both worked in the family business, but eventually, after he died, they sold the barge and opened the shop. Both are avid tennis players, and hope to visit New York in order to go to the Open to see the tennis championships.
We returned on the same ferry, and dined in a rather upscale place in the old city, not far from our hostel. The restaurant was located over a series of subterranean rooms, built by the Roman emperor, Justinian, about 300 AD. We were shown an entrance in the back, and spent a few minutes exploring after dinner. Many parts of Sultanamet are built on even older walls and ruins.
The sense of history here is almost breathtaking in its scope. Greek, Roman, European, Ottoman, Arabic, and even Asian influences and objects can be found, and of course the city, at different periods of time, has been home to both Christians and Moslems, even some Jews.
Yesterday, we took a long walk along a different stretch of waterfront to another ferry dock, where we picked up our tickets for the ferry that crosses the Sea of Marmara. We will later make our way to the small Aegean town of Ayvalik. On the way back it started raining hard again, and we got soaked, but we made it to a crowded teahouse near the Grand Bazaar. There, we ran into Ahmed, who we had briefly met at our guest guest house. A most interesting man in his 60's, originally from Peshawar Pakistan, he spent ten years teaching physics in various colleges around Boston. He has also lived in many places in the Middle East, including, Sudan, Saudia Arabia, Oman, always teaching physics in English. He said he never got a permanent position in the states because there were issues with his green card, although he now has a US passport. After spending two years in Oman, separated from his wife and son who stayed in the US, she divorced him,despite the fact that he was supporting them. He ended up in Crete where he met his present girlfriend, and they now own a house in, you guessed it, Ayvalik. He encouraged us to look her up when we arrived. He was on his way to Boston to visit friends, and then see his son in New York. He told us all of this, while explaining some of the finer points of quantum mechanics in a way that we could actually understand it.
Today started out dark and dreary, but we took the tram and the new underground funicular to the top of Beyoğlu, in a now fashionable part of town. We did not ascend the Galata Tower, built in the late 15th century, but continued back down a wide shopping street near the old funicular tracks. Blissfully, there was no vehicular traffic amidst the Turkish eateries, and many US clothing stores. We then walked across the bridge to Eminonu, which by now was full of its daily quota of fishermen casting off into into the wicked currents of the straight. The bridge is a multistoried affair, one level of which has many fish restaurants and sandwich shops, some of which are quite a bargain. They all compete for your business as you stroll past. The trick seems to be not to make up your mind too quickly so you can see who offers the best price.
Eminonu Bridge with Galata Tower in Background
Another Beautiful Mosque near Bridge
The high point of the day was a two hour cruise up the Bosphorus, past Uskudar, and three major bridges, weaving in between the tankers. The sun came
out for a while, and we could see both shorelines lined with impressive houses, old and new. Some were renovated, others dilapidated, and old cemeteries clung to the steeply wooded hills behind them. Castles were also to be seen here and there. Like so many things in this ancient city, it was a hodgepodge of of styles and character.
I am once again back in the breakfast room with a view. The brick red Arcadia Hellas, steams toward the Black Sea. I hope tomorrow will prove a fair day because we make our crossing of the Sea of Marmara, and we are both prone to seasickness.
Yours Truly, with The Founder of Modern Turkey