Like Tourists In Istanbul
Two weeks anywhere isn’t enough time to do anything more than be a tourist. You can’t penetrate the surface of a place or gain any real insight into what it’d be like living there in a couple of weeks’ time, so better simply to embrace your traveler role.
These past two weeks in Istanbul, our traveling caravan was enthusiastic and committed in our touring. We hiked hills like those in Montmartre, hopped trollies like those in San Francisco, to see palaces, churches, and mosques like nothing else anywhere. Versailles and Notre Dame pale alongside Dolmabahçe Palace and Hagia Sophia. This latter once-basilica, once-mosque, now museum is one of mankind’s greatest architectural achievements, a kind of couldn’t-we-all-just-get-along witness to this city’s complicated religious history.
We toured the cisterns and the archeology museum and wandered through and around the parks and gardens of the former Hippodrome. We saw dervishes whirl and created custom tea blends in the Spice Bazaar.
We took a cruise from the city center 20 miles up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. Tip: Don’t believe your guidebook if it tells you either that this extended cruise isn’t worth the time or that, taking the river cruise all the way to Anadolu Kavağı, its final stopping point, it’s likewise not worth the investment to climb the hill to see the medieval ruins at the top. Both things are untrue. The cruise made for one of our most pleasant days and gave us perhaps our most relevant view of the entire trip. Istanbul owes its place in history to its unique water setting, so you should see it from the water. And, yes, once you’ve made the voyage to this point by boat, the hike up to the ruins at Anadolu Kavağı is worth the further 20 minutes. Why come all this way not to take those final few steps?
Our touring took us to see some of the most impressive Byzantine mosaics in the world (at the Patriarchal Church of St. George) and the remains of other important mosaics plastered over by long-ago government administrations who didn’t find them all that important (inside Hagia Sophia). We joined the faithful at the Süleymaniye Mosque where, seated cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the immense open space inside, this Catholic schoolgirl sensed an ageless, nondenominational peace.
This Catholic schoolgirl also admits that she was particularly interested to learn about the workings of the harem at Topkapi Palace. None of the women in this household group were Muslims; they were all imported and then schooled in the ways of state service, as it were. The harem apartments at Topkapi included more than 300 rooms, 9 bathhouses, 2 mosques, a hospital, and a laundry, all connected by a series of paved halls and courtyards.
In this small, secluded, walled village, those enlisted for service were trained first in the laundry or the kitchen. Girls who were particularly pretty and who showed particular aptitude were selected for further tutelage in reading, writing, languages, sewing, music, and dancing. The sultan chose his company from among these young ladies. Those who bore him a child were elevated to the status of wife.
Our tourist roles took us to rooftop restaurants and garden cafes, art galleries and antique shops, bookstores and vinyl record shops, tavla games in the squares and nargile lounges. As I said, I wouldn’t say that, as a result of all our out-and-abouting, we know what it’d be like to live in this historic, layered, and eclectic city, but we did pick up some insights along the way. Here are a few remarks from native Istanbulis I thought worth jotting down…
“Where are you from? The United States? What city? Near Washington, D.C.? Here is better…” (We told this young shopkeeper that he might just have a point.)
“Turks don’t celebrate Ramadan. They only think they do…”
“This is a great city, but it is very hard to live here. In the summer, the heat. In the winter, the cold. And the population is great and always more. So many people…we need more space. I live 40 kilometers outside the city and come in to work every day on the metro bus…”
“I am not keeping Ramadan. Maybe half the people here keep Ramadan. Half and half…”
“Are you smoking? Can I bring you an ash tray? No? You’re not smoking? Why not?!”
More to come…
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