Upon disembarking from the bus at the hotel, we were met by a small army of street vendors thrusting objects in our faces and shouting "Rolex!", "Izod!", "Chanel!", and other brand names as we fought our way to the entrance and in to the safe haven of the hotel lobby. These guys with the sweaters, socks, polo shirts, perfume, watches, and all manner of things were at the hotel entrance whenever we entered or left the hotel, no matter what hour of the day or night. The most troublesome fellows were the shoeshine boys, who smeared a gooey mass of polish on your shoe when you weren't looking, then followed you down the street negotiating a price to remove it by virtue of a shoeshine.
Take a brief walk with me and check out what these people are selling. Here is man squatting down with his back against a low wall peeling a potato. He has spread before him six potato peelers and he is demonstrating their use to no one in particular. Next to him is a man seated in front of a torn, gray cloth upon which he has spread his wares: a small transistor radio held together with rubber bands, several AA batteries, three bic lighters, a green rubber duck, and the parts to an old, hand-cranked meat grinder. A little further along is a guy selling two bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch. A prospective buyer is carefully examining the bottom of the bottle. Here's the guy with the sunglasses (I'm sure I saw him in Florence just a few weeks ago), and this guy making his way towards us has a tray full of "Rolex" watches -- men's and women's (how does someone who looks so scruffy come by a couple of dozen Rolex watches?).
|Meze; Dolma, Hummus, Sarma, etc.|
We started our tour of Istanbul on Monday with a visit to the Suleymaniye, or Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. It was built in the 16th Century when the Ottoman Empire was at its peak. It was designed and constructed by the great Turkish architect Sinan, chief architect of the Ottoman Empire for some fifty years. One is required to remove one's shoes before entering a mosque and a nice little business has sprung up selling knitted booties to tourists eager to insulate their feet from the cold floors of the many mosques on most tours' itinerary. According to Esra, one of the biggest sins in Islam is to steal shoes left at the entrance to a mosque. Still, I saw some of the faithful carrying their shoes with them as they entered the holy place. I left my sneakers at the entrance and wore a pair of bright, yellow booties I bought from an old man running a thriving "booty booth." From the Suleymaniye we went to the Blue Mosque, which was designed and built by a student of Sinan's between 1609 and 1616. Both these mosques were beautiful inside and out, featuring multiple, interlacing domes, soaring minarets, stained glass windows, wonderful tiled walls and columns (the Blue Mosque gets its name from the exquisite blue Iznik tiles on the interior walls), graceful arches, carpets, and exotic calligraphy quoting from the Koran. It's impossible, really, to describe the effect these places have you. They are awesome and exotic; a unique experience.
We visited Hagia Sofia on Wednesday, shuffling along with our group trying to hear what Esra was saying: "Deese old staychews doan belong here. Day were taken from ahther ruins." Day should leave dem where day belong."
The church itself, now a national museum thanks to Ataturk, is an enormous structure; the dome is still among the largest in the world. From the outside, Hagia Sofia looks massive. The blocks of stone are immense, and give the whole structure a fortress-like feel. The feeling inside is all together different. The dome is supported by the outside walls; there are no columns to interrupt the travel of the eye to the dizzying heights of the ceiling, or the beautiful, stained glass windows, with a golden light streaming through. There is a sort of soaring feeling that one gets standing in the middle of this huge edifice. In the time of Justinian, the church was decorated with gold, ivory, and jewels, but all this was looted by the crusaders in the 12th Century.
The street was crowded with people going off to market, strolling, selling, and just wandering about aimlessly. One was constantly turning one's shoulders sideways to squeeze through the foot traffic. At the square, we had a nice view of the Blue Mosque off in the distance. I hadn't seen the cistern, so I asked a young man nearby where it was. He said he'd show us and led us a block or so to a very plain looking building, the entryway and ticket booth, that I would have missed without guidance.
It was now lunch time. I wanted a chance to talk to Ersin about life in Istanbul, so we took him to lunch, not to the very expensive "Hippidrome Restaurant" Edwin recommended, but instead to a little sidewalk cafe where we all ate for the price of one meal at the Hippidrome. Ersin was 25 years old. He was an unusual looking Turk; light complexioned, curly, reddish-brown hair and light, hazel eyes. According to Ersin, this was the result of Norman and Celtic strains in his ancestry. He lived about 30 Km outside the city. He had gone to a private school to learn English after high school. He hadn't gone on to University, because it was very expensive and he had to earn a living. His father was sick; something wrong with his stomach. "Was he seeing a doctor?" I asked. "No, he doesn't like doctors. He just eats a lot of yogurt; about 4 kilos a day." Later, I calculated that this was over eight pounds of yogurt! Either Ersin had his figures wrong, or his dad's stomach problems were due to yogurt poisoning. Ersin told me that children go to school in Turkey from 8 AM to 1 PM, and that secondary school was free in Turkey. Still, not everyone sent their kids to school. "The Kurdish family in my building has six kids and they don't send them to school; they make them work. And a lot of parents don't send their daughters to school." I asked him why not. "They don't see any need to."
Saturday, Patricia and I revisited Topkapi Palace. We were approached by a fellow with a name tag that indicated he was an "official" guide. He offered to show us the Harem for 80 Turkish Lira each and we said okay. His name was Mahmut Zeren, and he spoke excellent English. He told me he also spoke German and French. There was a long line at the entrance to the Harem. Mahmut told us to look around the Palace a bit and meet him back at the Harem entrance in twenty minutes; he'd have "arranged things" by then.
Topkapi Palace was built by Mehmet the Conqueror after his conquest (hence the name) of Constantinople in 1453. It became the nerve center of the vast Ottoman Empire. Built on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara, the Topkapi is a sprawling complex of buildings that together made up a kind of inner city in Istanbul. At one time, over 50,000 people lived and worked on the Palace grounds. It even had its own zoo, where gifts from foreign rulers of tigers, bears, elephants and other exotic beasts were kept. We walked through the kitchens of the Palace, now converted to a museum for the fine collection of porcelains housed there, but still containing the fire places and huge, copper pots used for cooking. I was told by our guide that all the chefs at the Topkapi had been men. The dish ware used in the Harem and by the Sultan and princes was a jade green celadon from China that was said to change color when poison touched it.
On the map, this looked like a fairly straight shot to the Sulymaniye. In reality, it wound around and disappeared. I'd go up to a traffic cop standing in the middle of a narrow street being ignored and ask directions, saying "Sulymaniye," and pointing to the place on the map. They'd just wave me on in the general direction we were going.
The streets were crowded with vehicle and foot traffic going every which way and following no discernible rules. We ended up back at the Egyptian Bazaar. I knew Sulymaniye was Northwest of here so we started out in that direction. This route took us into the heart of the real commercial district of Istanbul. A complex of narrow, winding streets so crowded with people, cars, animals, produce, and every manner of thing that we began to despair of ever making our way through to the Sulymaniye.
Patricia looked as if she felt dreadful (she did), suffering the combined affects of the heat, dust, noise, and smells (e.g., food cooking, exhaust fumes, sewage, and the smell of hundreds of bodies crammed together). We finally broke free of the mob and, after a climb up a hill and past the walls of Istanbul University, we came to the Mosque and very shortly found the restaurant; truly an oasis after what we'd just been through.
On the bus again, Esra asked if we'd been to the "lady's stores." She said, "Turkish men are so bad. They go in deese stores and stare at the underwear and imagine tings. Well," dramatic pause, "in Turkey, for men, life begins afta marriage; for women it ends afta marriage. Dis is true."