And having never been to Turkey, why not stretch the return connection for a weekend exploration? That was before the wedding bombing and the Ataturk airport attack, before there was an attempted coup in July, before Turkey sent troops into Syria, before a summer in which hundreds of people died from terrible violence. Oh, and did I mention that our return flight was on 9-11?
Nevertheless, when your support account is only marginally on the positive side, once you buy tickets you want to honor them. Turkey, like Kenya, has responded to the escalating risk with tightened security. So on our way back from our meetings in Crete, we stopped over in Istanbul for 48 hours.
And how thankful we are. This is a world city, rich in history, diversity, commerce, life. The helpful Turkish Airlines stocked the plane seat-pockets with a magazine-length explanation of the attempted coup. Hour-by-hour logistics with compelling photos, extolling the resilience of the Turkish people who took to the streets, stopped the tanks, saved the day. Reassuring, and inspiring in many ways. The flight attendant asked us about prior visits, and seemed genuinely incredulous that this was our first. How anyone who could afford an airline ticket had not been to Istanbul was beyond comprehension. Whether it is the unbroken line of written history, a strong family connection to an admirable culture, or a Mediterranean bravado, in both Greece and Turkey there is a refreshing confidence that comes of being convinced they are the center of the world.
We arrived on a Friday evening just before sunset, and took the convenient and inexpensive bus service to Taksim Square. This section of the city has been upgraded in the past century, providing a large open space that is the favored location for demonstrations, thankfully not at the time we arrived. From there we followed thousands of milling Friday-night locals, strolling down the nerve-cord of the city, a pedestrian mall that stretches a couple of miles from Taksim down to the Galata Tower. Perky red carts sold roasted chestnuts and pretzels, aproned men hawked doner kebabs from their shop-fronts, dramatic ice cream sellers with long spoons delivered cones with a flourish. Food, we learned, is a theatrical production. Friends arm-in-arm, women in full hijab (rare) to women in shorts and tank tops, families pushing strollers, the full gamut of society. The atmosphere was friendly, festive, alive.
Our Airbnb turned out to be a tasteful refuge with 12-foot (or more) arched brick ceilings and a comfortable bed/bath/living room in the old Venetian district a block from the Galata Tower (Vildan's place, if you're looking). The tower was built in 528, upgraded in the 1300’s, and several times since. Originally a testament to Christ, then a fire-watch point, then a military base, now a tourist monument that is surrounded by artsy shops and small cafes. Late dinner on a terrace in view of the tower, and we called it a day.
Saturday we walked the two miles or so across a bridge spanning the “Golden Horn” waterway and through narrow twisting cobblestone streets to the Sultanahmet district, the most historic area of the city. We spent most of the morning at the Topkapi Palace, which is basically the equivalent of the Smithsonian museums. Pottery and cauldrons from the 1400’s to the 1800’s are displayed in the kitchens, weaponry, clocks, calligraphy and other artifacts fill the rooms of this complex of buildings that once housed thousands of people. There are spacious rose gardens, intricately tiled “kiosks”, throne rooms, and a harem. One section is decidated to the most precious relics the Ottoman Empire collected: pieces of Mohammed’s beard, his and his followers’ swords, not to mention the purported staff of Abraham, sword of David, and turban of Joseph, all displayed with reverence while an imam continuously reads aloud from the Qu’ran over loudspeakers.
Aya Sofya (Haggia Sophia), which was the largest cathedral of Christendom for a thousand years. Completed in 536, the full name really refers to the 2nd person of the Trinity, the Holy Wisdom of God. As we walked through, I thought of the chilling parallels to Rwanda in 1994: when the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine empire in 1453, many Christians took refuge in this church and even attempted to continue services while the conquerors were allowed three days of unchecked rape and murder (which was not dissimilar to the actions of the Western European Crusaders in the two preceding centuries). For the next half-millenium the Aya Sofya became a mosque, with many Biblical mosaics destroyed and Qu’ranic writings added. But the secular state of Turkey decided to change the structure into a museum, so now one can see the juxtaposition of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus surrounded by Arabic script extolling Mohammed. The massive scale, the span of history, the witness to suffering, and the mingling of East and West, Christian and Muslim, makes this spot of ground something like Jerusalem, a geographical confluence of spiritual significance. The mosaics which remain are haunting in their simplicity and timelessness. Evidently even this place remains vulnerable to religious posturing though, as calls for a return of the structure to the Eastern Orthodox church have been met with a resumption of the call to prayer from the minarets for the first time in over a century.
The Ottomans were not satisfied with adding minarets to a cathedral, so a couple hundred years into their rule they also constructed the Sultan Ahmet Mosque across a fountained courtyard. The scale is similarly vast, but here the interior remains unscathed, intricate patterns of mosaic with a blue predominance (hence the “Blue Mosque”). Tourists are given long skirts, long tops, and skirts if any of those parts of their dress are lacking, and a plastic bag to hold their shoes, so they can enter the mosque even as non-tourists kneel and pray. I am not an unbiased observer, but in spite of the beautiful tiles and domed architecture, this place lacked the gravity of the Aya Sofya for me.
By this time it was mid-afternoon, and after asking a few of the hawkers who stand in front of the dozens and dozens of small restaurants that spill into the streets, we located the one place showing Premier League football so we could eat a late lunch while watching the Manchester Darby. Nothing like football to connect with locals; we and they were equally crushed by the match’s outcome.
For dinner, we checked yelp to find Karakoy Lokantasi, which was packed with locals, a 12 minute walk to the waterfront, and delicious. Certainly the above tour could have been stretched over several days, but the cluster of history we saw is certainly accessible in one or two days with a bit of walking. We bought individual tickets to the palace, Aya Sofya, and Galata Tower, but it was only a couple dollars more to have just bought the Istanbul pass and in retrospect that would have been simpler.
Sunday we set out to sample one of the two coffee-roaster-café’s we had noticed in the neighborhood. Only one was open, so we sat down for a much-appreciated cappuccino (though the chocolate croissant was acutally just nutella spread on a croissant). Our walk to church was quick, so we had time for a second more authentic Turkish coffee (thick strong rich espresso - but the bottom third is a thick sludge which necessitates the small glass of water for the post-coffee rinse) with variations on pistachio/filo/honey pastries. The English-speaking service we attended has been held since 1857 in the chapel of the Dutch embassy—a small collection of international workers who worship together and reach out to immigrants.
Since most of the historic sites are on the European side of the Bosporus, we had yet to cross to the Asian half of the city. short walk to the waterside again took us to the ferry, which serves as public transport, so for just over a dollar apiece we enjoyed the brisk winds and scenic perspectives across the strait. On the other side we found another neighborhood of narrow streets and bustling shops, persuaded after a few blocks to sit at sidewalk tables next to a display of freshly caught fish while a sea bass was grilled just for us. Back to the ferry landing, and we secured a return trip on the top deck, with views of the old train terminal (built to help pilgrims complete the Haj), massive stacks of shipping containers at the port, scores of boats going about their business, the bridge which spans the two continents, and the sprawling silhouette of Istanbul punctuated by domed mosques with their slender minarets, and modern skyscrapers.
Our last visit was to the top of the Galata Tower for its 360-degree city view, and then it was time to return to the airport. Rather than lug our now bursting carry-on bags to the metro or bus (yes, I fit a new bedspread in my handy North Face small duffel) we splurged for a $20 taxi back to the airport. Which was about as entertaining as any other aspect of our 48 hours. First, there were no functional seat-belts, but our affable driver assured us that his stingy boss was about to upgrade him to a better car so we shouldn’t worry that this one looked so old, he’d just drive slowly. Or not. As soon as he determined we were Americans, he began to gush about George Bush. “Oh, George Bush! Like Rambo!”. Did we know George Bush? Well, we explained the president now is Barak Obama. “Oh, Obama, he (incomprensible Turkish word). You know (incomprehensible Turkish word)?” No, we didn’t, but no problem, as he sped through intersections he spoke into his mobile phone to Google Translate....which rendered the English translation:“Funky! Obama he Funky! You know this word Funky?” Which goes to show that a lot of politics is perspective. If you border Iraq and Syria, you might prefer Rambo as your president.
In spite of the inauspicious confluence of 9-11's 15th anniversary, a war in Syria, an American connection to the purported mastermind of the coup last month, and the eve of the Eid al-Adha, the holiest festival of Islam which signals the end of the Hajj and the commemoration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of (in Muslim teaching) Ishmael . . . we felt at peace in Istanbul, surrounded by that majority of people in most places whose concerns lie more with family, business, health, and life than with harming others.
So, we left wishing Turkey well. It is no small task to be attempting an integration of Muslim faith and Greco-Roman-Byzantine heritage, of a thriving trade and European influence alongside ancient near-Eastern values. To placate neighbors who do not tolerate tolerance to the east, and neighbors who do not tolerate intolerance the west. To embrace education for women and allow freedom for some to choose the hijab. Istanbul is a microcosm of today’s world, and if they can figure it out, there’s hope for all of us.