Istanbul (not Constantinople)

3 Jul

We started our Turkish excursion in Istanbul. We had visited for two days back in 2008 and enjoyed the city- partly because it was such a clean and organized contrast to Cairo. Istanbul is a city of similar size to Cairo, with a similar ancient history of multiple civilizations, conquerings, etc. And yet. And yet, Istanbul is clean, well-planned, hygienic. Basically there is sense that someone is in charge and that someone isn’t completely asleep at the wheel. Sorry Cairo, I love you, but…

The two days we spent in Istanbul at the beginning of this trip were jam-packed. We hit the ground running from morning to night and saw and learned more than I would have ever guessed one could fit into the time we had.

We had been brought to Turkey through a foundation in Indiana that seeks to promote friendship and goodwill between Americans and Turks. It seemed amazing to us that someone would pay our way and set up what has turned out to be an amazing travel experience just so we would have a good opinion of Turkey. I was sure that there was a hidden agenda and once we arrived in Turkey we would be inundated with propaganda. I may have been too cynical because although there is a philosophical movement behind this foundation that we’ve heard about and discussed on multiple occasions, the overall goal is entirely benign- this group and adherents of the movement really are concerned about creating interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Works for me. The only dialogue I’d been experiencing lately usually went something like this: “Finn, don’t cover your sister in bunnies.” “No!!”

We arrived in Istanbul exhausted after a loooong day of travel and were met by Bilal, who runs this foundation in Indiana and leads groups in his native Turkey. We met up with the rest of our group at the hotel and dropped our bags, then headed out for a boat ride on the Bosphorus, which is the strait that runs from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and separates two parts of the city- one in Europe and one is Asia. It was a lovely night with a huge full harvest moon rising over the hills, lighting up Ottoman mosques all over the shoreline. We were able to meet and get to know the other members of our group. There were twelve of us, including Patrick and I, Scott, director of the peace institute where Patrick works, and Barb, Scott’s administrative assistant. Others in the group included the president of Butler University and his wife, the CEO of an energy company, several attorneys, a woman who works in the aerospace division of Rolls-Royce, and several academics. Everyone has been really interesting to talk to and the small number plus the shared experiences we’ve had have brought us all close together.

We woke up bright and early to start our first day in Istanbul. Being able to get an uninterrupted night of sleep, even a short one, was amazing. I woke up ready to see the world. We started at Dolmabace Palace, a grand and gaudy palace styled after Versailles on the banks of the Bosphorus that had been the seat of government for a time. We were led by a government tour guide who ran uncharismatically through a memorized explanation of everything and barked at people when they stepped out of the line. We ignored her and talked instead to Bilal about the Gulen movement that inspired this trip. It was interesting to hear his take and get a primer in Turkish politics- something we would learn much more about over our time here. We were so involved in our conversation that we missed most of the tour. Really though, if you’ve seen one palace, you’ve seen them all. The grand hall was very impressive though, with a massive glittering chandelier in the center. The grounds around the palace were spectacular, lush flowers and magnolia trees everywhere.

Our travel group

From here we went to the Hagia Sophia, an amazing structure that had functioned as a medieval church, then a mosque, and finally a museum. It was far more crowded that the last time we visited (on Christmas Day). We were joined by a tour guide who was very knowledgeable but had the annoying tour guide habit of telling terrible jokes and then pausing for a laugh- which is always awkward when no one laughs.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

We went to lunch on the roof of a building overlooking the Blue Mosque. The view was spectacular, with the domes and minarets rising above us and the sea behind us. We had lentil soup, which beat the socks off the lentil soup in Egypt, juicy kebabs,  and the buttery puffed up flatbread that we fell in love with on our last trip. In the middle of our meal, the call to prayer started up. I love love love the call to prayer and the setting plus the fact that I hadn’t heard it in such a long time made this the highlight of my day. After our meal, I started getting sleepy and just wanted to take a nap. I headed downstairs to use the restroom and remembered that a sign on the door of the restaurant said wifi, so I took out my iTouch and checked my mail. My mom had sent an update of how the kids were all doing. Hearing about them gave me a renewed burst of energy. I perked up and was ready for the rest of the day.

We headed into the Blue Mosque, which was as stunning as I remembered. It’s covered in tens of thousands of blue tiles in various floral motifs, all symbolic. I wish I could lay on the floor and spend an hour looking up at everything. From here we walked to the Underground Cistern, a Roman cavern right under one of the main intersections in the city where water was stored. It’s dark an eerie, lit up by orangish glowy lights. Apparently it was featured in a James Bond movie, so as soon as we got down there, Patrick started humming the 007 theme. There were tons of fish in the water, making me think of Finn.

The eerie glow of the Underground Cistern

Coming out of the Cistern, we embarked on a long walk uphill to reach Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman seat of power. Last time we were in Istanbul, we got there shortly before closing and rushed through. This time, it was mid-afternoon so we had plenty of time. The palace is surrounded by lots of green space and covered in huge trees. People were have picnics everywhere. We went into the Palace, visiting various parts, including a room of relics important to Islam, including Mohammed’s sword, Moses’ staff, and Joseph’s turban. At one point, everyone headed into another section full of jewels and weapons that I had already seen, so I found a shady spot under a tree and people watched for a while. There were visitors from all over the world. As usual, the Russians were the easiest to identify- I just looked for tacky clothes and obnoxious behavior. Ugh, Russians really bother me.

Kids playing in the park

Leaving the Palace, we walked down the hill through another park, filled with Turkish families having picnics- one thing we’ve noticed everywhere we’ve gone is that Turks love being outside and take advantage of green space. We went to dinner at a small café overlooking the sea. The table and chairs were teeny tiny and short so we all felt a little silly. We had a traditional Turkish stuffed potato. I had decided to be adventurous on this trip and try whatever Turkish foods were put in front of me, but this potato was a little overwhelming. It was stuffed with dozens of ingredients, including corn, cucumber, mint, couscous, potato salad, carrots, cheese, tomatoes, olives, and more. I ate a bit of it but had to dump out a few ingredients that were just too offensive to me.

It had been a long day and by the time we arrived at the cultural theatre where we were going to watch a Whirling Dervish show, we were all wiped out. I had been a little worried when I saw this on the itinerary because it said Dervish show-Hammam. Hammam is the word for Turkish bath, so I thought we’d be having Turkish baths. Last time I was in Istanbul I decided to go for the cultural experience and went to a Turkish bath which ended up being one of the more surreal experiences of my life. I won’t go into detail except to say that it involved a room full of naked Europeans and a 300lb Turkish woman with BO rubbing my skin off with sandpaper. I’ll provide a Wikipedia link if you want to know more about Turkish baths, because if you google it, you’re going to come up with a lot of nekkid pictures.

To my relief, Hammam on the itinerary referred to the building where the Dervishes performed. It was a medieval Turkish bath. Whew. We took our seats and waited for the show to start. Within minutes of sitting I heard snoring. I looked left and right. More than half of our group was sound asleep. Most of them slept through the Dervish show as well. It wasn’t a loud exciting colorful show like the Dervishes in Egypt perform. They did the actual religious ceremony instead with traditional music, which is very peaceful and lulling. The whirling was impressive though.

An outdoor cafe on the Bosphorus

After a long day, we finally headed back to the hotel where we Skyped the kids, made sure my parents were surviving, and then headed to bed.

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One Response to “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”

  1. Liz July 3, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    Mohammed’s sword?! Moses’ staff?! Do they claim to have the actual originals, or copies? That’s pretty cool.

    Turkey looks amazing. Perhaps they want to bring me over so that I can sing its praises to all of my friends. 🙂

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