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Istanbul, not Constantinople - Istanbul, Turkey

Greetings from Turkey and a dedication to the fabulously lovely Emma, our Aussie pal who we are traveling with again.  

But the matter of Turkey remains to be settled. When we left off, we were heading to Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, which carries the baggage of over two thousand years of history. Home to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Crossroads of Europe and Asia, East and West. And also the largest concentration of carpet dealers in the world. (Yes, we did buy)

Some highlights of Istanbul:  

The Hagia Sophia has a checkered past as the home of the Eastern Orthodox Christian church and its uncomfortable transition to a Mosque, and finally its present day status as a museum. Inside, you can see the vast history played out. The original Christian mosaics are side by side with large panels of Arabic writings, as imagery is forbidden in Islam. One is thankful that the mosaics survived a very turbulent period relatively unscathed. But the vast interior is awe-inspiring and very architecturally advanced even for this day and age. Not bad for a building built in the fifth century.

Istanbul was home to the Sultans of the great Ottoman Empire, and nowhere better to see their wealth, glory, excess, cruelty and artistic accomplishments than Topkapi Palace, the seat of the empire. It houses all 86 karats of the Spoonmakers Diamond, though you have to compete with the crowds to get a glimpse. And the legendary Topkapi dagger, the knife portion an afterthought stuck in three enormous emeralds. Maybe you will dazzle your enemies to death. 

But the most fascinating part of the complex is the infamous harem, a place of intrigue and debauchery. The Sultan and his family and concubines lived in the harem and it was forbidden for any man other than the Sultan and his immediate sons to enter. Instead, an army of eunuchs catered to their every whim. It was a maze of room after splendid room designed to wrap them in the art of luxury as they lounged in court lifestyle and took part in cerebral entertainment like belly-dancing and tumbling midgets.


Seal of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

We have visited many mosques here in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque being the most inspirational of all. As all are working mosques, women enter only if they are properly attired, this translating to completely covered. This is where the handy-dandy headscarf comes into play. Your hair, shoulders, arms, and legs must be covered. If not, they will provide you with the appropriate clothing. Oh and shoes cannot be worn, as a sign of respect and humility. The interior of a mosque consists of row after row of prayer carpets, with everyone sitting and kneeling on the floor. There is no furniture of any type inside.The women are separated from the men in a gallery in the back and the tourists are kept behind a gate separating them from the worshippers.  

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Turkey has been the first Islamic country that we have visited with 97% of the population Muslim, however Turkey is run by a very secular government and military.  The tension between the two is palpable. Seeing young Turkish girls in the latest Western fashions next to women in full black chador, eyes the only visible part of their body. Having been wearing the headscarf on occasion, I have definately noticed more respect from many of the men and women, as I am showing respect for their religion. But even just a headscarf can be a very divisive issue. For example, the local university just decried that headscarfs were not allowed to be worn, an issue in which the secular government decided to flex their muscles. Some women were outraged that they were actually being denied the right to wear a headscarf, if they chose.

Not only are the sights of Turkey alien but the sounds as well.  Five times a day, from every minaret of every mosque, you can hear the Arabic call to prayer.  In fact, you can find the exact times in the newspaper, as they change daily.  Roughly, they are morning, lunchtime, mid-afternoon, evening, and bedtime. Every minaret is topped with two or three huge loudspeakers and having been close to one at the right time, it gives new meaning to the word of God. At these times, many businesses close and the mosques are closed to visitors, as people hurry to pray.  

On of the more unusual sites in Istanbul is the Yerebatan Saray or the Underground Cistern. Descending the stairs, you enter into a vast subterrainean world, a space dominated by enormous supporting columns and elevated woeden walkway over pools of water. . Classical music can be heard over the sound of perpetual dripping, as you wander through the caverns. Such an unusual space is the perfect backdrop for art and alternative theatre.

Hamami Turkish Bath Interior

In Istanbul, we met up with the fabu Emma and will be traveling with her for awhile.  Its great to have a gal pal especially when we visited the Turkish bath or Hamami as its called. In Turkey, the bath is quite different.  Hygiene is an extremely important facet of the culture as ritual ablutions(washings) must be done before every prayer.  One should take care in the bath as a chance splash from an infidel(me) would cause them to have to start again.  The bath, a beautiful stone dome structure with natural light piercing through stars shaped openings, has a huge hot marble stone at its center. We first rinse ourselves at the perimeter faucets and then lay on the hot stone naked, toasting and awaiting our massage and cleansing. That began with a loofah scrubbing that took off about three layers of my epidermis, followed by a lathering massage that left me drowning  in bubbles. Lastly, sitting under a faucet, I felt like a kid again as she shampooed my hair squeaky clean.  Afterwards, we  relaxed on the stone til they kicked our naked asses out.

Doug on the trolley to Taksim Square

Deciding a hamami (remembering his wonderful experience in Hungary and not wanting to spoil that) was not needed as much as a shave and haircut, Doug visited a barber instead, an experience not to be missed. An craftsman, he spreads a foot thick layer of foam and takes a straight edge to within a millimeter of your jugular. He shaved every corner and crevice with such finesse and flourish that he never felt his nose to be in peril, as big as it is. And once the shave was done, he threw on gallon of aftershave. Now that's a pick-me-up.  

One of our more spiritual experiences was a Sufi Sema Ceremony practiced by religious followers better known as the whirling dervishes. The followers of the twelfth century mystic master Mevlana, they espouse love for all of Allahs creatures and send themselves to another level through dance.  

Sufi Trance Spinning

The ceremony is actually an analogy of the creation of the world and the dervishes are humanity.  Their spinning is representative of the awaking and rise of humanity and sends them into a mystic trance that enables them to whirl indefinately. They enter the trance 'seeking annihilation in Allah' to become one with God. They first spin with their hands tightly wrapped around themselves, and once they enter into a trance, their arms are flung wide and their heads fall to the side. They spin to the chanting and haunting music til the head sheik calls them back.  The ceremony is open on only a few occasions but a must-see if you can.

As the melting pot of east and west, the hotspot on the trading routes of old, Istanbul is a shopping mecca. Most tourists head immediately to the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world and a labyrinthine city onto itself. It is a jumble of baubles and hookah pipes, carpets and chess sets, gold jewelry and cheap trinkets and other exotic playthings to tempt the tourist's eye. 

For a more authentic experience, we headed to Eminonu which draws city residents to its more mundane houseware offerings and the always exotic Egyptian Spice Bazaar. We scored Turkish Viagra (hmmm, it seems more like a coconut candy) and authentic tea servings, the miniature hourglass shaped glasses sitting in silver saucers.

Spice Merchant in Eminonu



For all the sights, it has actually been the people of Turkey that has shown us the beauty of this land. Here in Istanbul, we were befriended by Atilla and his friends.  Atilla runs a wholesale carpet shop and we have spent hours there playing backgammon, chatting it up, drinking tea, and generally having a fabu time together. He taught us the basics of backgammon, (he was the Cappadocia area champion at one time) and then drilled us until the strategy was burned into our subconscious. He has made us feel a part of the city, a part of his life and we are eternally grateful. 

Attila and friends, showing off their wares.

But the generousity hasn't stopped there.  There's Murat at the fish market. We wandered into the famous Fish market in Istiklal Caddesi off of Taksim Square in the new part of the city. A small shop off to one side served up fried seafood and these fabulous rice-stuffed mussels and the owner Murat was a riot. We ate and talked and generally goofed off and then he way undercharged us. We came back a few more times, and each time, he refused to take money as hard as we tried to pay. I even felt guilty for eating there but it was so damn good and we had fun helping him hold down the fort.

Now for the bizarre:

From Istanbul, the three of us purchased bus tickets to travel to Cappadocia, in central Turkey.  We were taking an overnight bus there.  The bus station is outside of town and the bus company offers a shuttle to get there.  Twelve of us, complete with twelve large backpacks were stuffed as tight as could be into a minivan and off we go. Now we haven't mentioned Turkish driving but it can be a harrowing experience, with only a variety of different horns and honks to keep drivers apart. Well, somehow, the 'I'm moving into that lane' honk failed and we collided with another car. Now this was not a big deal, mainly consisting of broken lights and a few dings, but we pull over and our bus driver and the other guy get out and the pushing and shoving began. Now, there is really nothing we can or should do, as we are about wedged in like sardines. The shoving and exchanging of words only leads to enflamed tempers. OUR driver retreats to the minivan, reaches across the driver seat and into the glove compartment and pulls out what looks like a long flat stick wrapped in masking tape. 

As he passes by twelve pairs of wide-open eyes at the side of the van, he unsheathes a foot long dagger. What exactly he intended  to do with it, we can only guess, for as the other driver shrank away from the sight of the dagger, another man arrives on the scene. Thankfully its the police. He confiscated the knife, yelled a lot at both drivers and then, to the amazement of the twelve, now even wider pairs of eyes, he made the two combatants kiss and make up.  No joke, literally kiss and make up. A call was then made to delay our bus and alls well that ends well.

Over and out

ann and doug  

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