Monday, December 10, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Six

A rug weaver at a carpet manufacturer in Istanbul
Today we pay a visit to the beautiful showroom of the Nakkas carpet manufacturer and dealer.  We're greeted by a representative of the firm who speaks excellent German, and who shows us a woman weaving a silk carpet.  The threads are dyed with dye produced by Bayer, the company I get most of my English students from!  The dyes are weather and color-fast.  He tells us that these weavers have to be trained, but that any young woman who weaves carpets will have received training in her home.  The progress she makes is very slow – it would take a year and a half to weave a 1x1-1/2 meter carpet with ten knots per centimeter.  Carpets vary, we learn, by the knot technique and by the number of knots per centimeter.  The higher the number of knots, the finer the carpet.  Silk threads make a more lustrous carpet with more sheen, but wool can also make a beautiful carpet.  He shows us angora wool gathered in the warm months, when the sheep is outdoors and not lying in a muddy stall, dirtying his fleece.   He says that the term “angora” for the goat that provides this wool comes from “Ankara”, the origin of this goat. 

We learn about the different regions these rugs come from.  Armenia rugs are geometric, with stripes or angled patterns.  Hereke rugs have pictures, like the “tree of life”, which he shows us.  We meet the designer of one of these beautiful carpets – he has won an award for his design, which include a river and the tree, a typical Muslim theme which we’ve seen in paintings, wall hangings and in mosques.  Some of the rugs we see have been made with natural dyes such as saffron, indigo and pomegranate. 

The government of Turkey is actively promoting this handicraft.  It gives many women otherwise unemployed an occupation and it also helps an ancient craft to survive.  More and more carpets are being made industrially today, in Turkey too, and fewer and fewer handmade carpets are being made.  It would be a shame for this handicraft to die out.  But – the price of a nice rug is astronomical!  We see a beautiful silk rug only about 50x 80 cm in a beautiful pattern in turquoise and beige shades, more than twenty knots per centimeter, which would normally cost over €2000.  Two couples in our group buy carpets – one purchases this small rug for €2000 and another a rug about 1x1-1/2 meters, for over €3000.  The salesmen are aggressive in their tactics, but willing to go down if one is persistent.  One of them attacks me in the short period of time I'm separated from my husband to go to the toilet.  After Egypt, I'm much more on guard.  I use the broken record tactic - keep saying no, but tell him they’re really beautiful.  He finally asks me directly, “What is making you shy about buying a rug?”  

 “It’s the money,” I reply.  “I simply can’t afford one of these carpets.”  Which is the truth.   

I’m not sure all the carpets they sell have been made with double knots, but I learn that all Turkish rugs are made this way.  Double-knotted rugs last forever and don’t fray.  If I had loads of money, I would certainly buy a large double-knotted silk rug.

The Blue Mosque as seen from the roof of the Nakkas carpet manufacturer
After our salesman is satisfied that I don't intend to buy, he suggests that I go upstairs to the terrace, where I can enjoy a stunning view of Istanbul.  I follow his advice,and am overwhelmed to see the blue mosque so close-up.  “Don’t miss the basement,” says Harun as he sees me head upstairs.  “The building is built over a Byzantine cistern.”  So after gazing at the brilliant Bosphorus and admiring the best views yet of the monuments we have been admiring, I walk down to the basement, where there are the same Corinthian columns lined up in straight lines, exactly like what we saw before at the Basilica Cistern.  Here, you can smell the mold, though, and there is very little water in the cistern.  I read that this cistern stems from the sixth century A.D. 

Interior of the beautiful Rüstem Pasha mosque
A tile in the Rüstem Pasha mosque
We ride in the bus a short distance after our carpet exhibit to yet another, our final mosque of our sojourn in Istanbul, the Rüstem Pasha mosque.  This mosque was designed by Sinan, who built all of the other mosques we have seen except the Hagia Sophia, his model, which was originally a church.  This mosque is filled from top to bottom with gorgeous hand-made blue tiles.  This is much more of a blue mosque than the one named so.  Harun says that Rüstem had unbelievably good kismet – a word that seems synonymous with fate or karma.  Rüstem managed to live a happy, fulfilled life, not seeking to outdo his master, the sultan, but rising on his own to enormous wealth.  People tried to discredit him, but he always foiled them, rising above their tricks.  My guidebook describes him in less favorable terms.  It says that he and Roxelana, Süleyman’s wife, plotted to turn the sultan, Süleyman, against his favorite son, Mustafa.  The book says they succeeded in getting Süleyman to order Mustafa to be strangled. 

We walk to the edge of the new mosque and listen to the call for Friday prayers.  It is so beautiful, and the few moments of stillness, listening, bring me closer to God.  I stand there, eyes shut, smelling chestnuts roasting and coffee, feeling the hot sun.  I thank God for all of this, and bless the people in the group.  I love the way Harun talks about God and the beliefs of the Muslims.  Harun has said something not quite accurate about Christianity, however, and this bothers me.  He says that Christians and Jews don't believe in work as a means of glorifying God.  So, the first moment I get a chance, I show him 1 Corinthians 10: 31 – “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  I just happen to have an English translation of the Bible stored in my android phone.

Harun has told us not to be misled by the stylishly dressed, forward-thinking people of Istanbul.  He says, "Don't think these people are not devout Muslims, just because they don't necessarily have their heads covered, or you see their teenagers strolling down the Istiklal Cadessi hand in hand at night.  Just because you don't see them stopping everything to pray doesn't mean they don't pray.  When you see wine and raki here in all the restaurants, it doesn't mean the people drink alcohol every day.  These are people of deep faith and strict morals, who go to the mosque regularly."  He goes on to tell us that Istanbul, with its mushrooming population of poor Turkish people streaming in from the country to find work in Istanbul, faces many cultural clashes between the classical urban Istanbulians and the newcomers.  There are just as many problems trying to integrate these differing approaches to faith and life here in Istanbul as there are in Germany, which is also struggling to integrate Turkish and other immigrants into modern Germany.  

I take note of what Harun says, but I am not convinced.  I still think the people we've seen in Egypt appear more devout.  In Istanbul, we see many Turks drinking alcohol.  We hear western music as well as Turkish blasting from the discos.  Orhan Pamuk says in his book Istanbul that his family and many other wealthy people in Turkey were nonbelievers.  Atatürk, the man responsible for transforming this country in the early twentieth century into the modern, forward-looking nation it is, belonged to no religion at all.  He said, "I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men."  I have found this quote in the link above, and it can be found in Ataturk : The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (2002) by Andrew Mango.  Atatürk created Turkey into a secular democracy devoid of sharia law, into a nation that has written the death penalty out of its constitution.  I believe that his spirit is still strong in Turkey, despite the increase of traditional Islam which you can see everywhere as well.  The young women are much more modestly clad than those in Germany, but they fit right into the rest of Europe and the Western world.  Young men are all wearing jeans.  Commerce and consumption appear to be very much a part of life here.

I don't know, of course, what is going on inside the hearts and minds of the millions of people inhabiting this city.  To me, living in a place that is not radical would feel a lot better than being around religious fanatics.  Harun tells us the crime rate is quite low in Istanbul.  It looks as though tolerance is quite high. 

I believe it is possible to be spiritual, to be connected to God from the core, through to every pore in one's body and mind.  In fact, I believe those most deeply connected with their Source are the ones who are so connected, they have learned to live in love and harmony with others.  I am not afraid of spiritual people who are tolerant.  I hope I am one of those.  I welcome others who live and think this way.  It the fanatics who want to impose their way upon others who cause me concern.

For lunch, Peter and I eat fish sandwiches near the New Mosque and the Egyptian Market - on the shores of the Golden Horn.  This is a charming location to eat lunch.  The customers are on solid, firm land, whereas the fish sellers fry the fish from boats, rocking along with the movement of the water.  

Later we shop in the Egyptian market, where we can buy all the wonderful spices we bought in Egypt earlier this year.  We're already running out!  The spices here smell great, but not as intensely as those in Aswan, the best market I have ever seen for spices.  We also buy some Turkish delight - lokum -  at the Haci Bekir, a shop near the New Mosque, to bring back to Germany.  Harun says this is the best shop in Istanbul for Turkish delight.  He has shared cinnamon and rosewater flavored lokum - both of them delicious, so we choose the same flavors, among the many on offer.

The Bosphorus Bridge, seen from our boat ride
For the remainder of the afternoon, we enjoy a peaceful, beautiful boat ride on the Bosphorus.  Harun has hired a boat just for us.  The warm sunlight comforts us as we think about returning to colder climes tomorrow.

And later, dinner in the “Fish Point” Restaurant on the Galata Bridge, looking out in the evening darkness at the Topkapi Palace lit up in the distance.  Most of us have sea bass – and a host of different meze.  We have been a rather quiet, introverted, yet harmonious group.  By now, we all enjoy each other and are sorry to part.  We are all a bit sad about going home, leaving this wonderful, vibrant, sunny city for cold, rainy, wet Germany.

I intend to come back – next time with our son and his girlfriend in tow.  They would love the Istiklal Cadessi, the pedestrian zone filled day and night with thousands of young people.  This must be the liveliest city I have ever seen, except possibly New York City.  It is a lively, peaceful, vibrant city.  We must come back.      

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Five

A bath experience in a Hamam - photo courtesy of

Today we have another huge program.  We spend the morning visiting the archaeological museums, and the afternoon at the Suleymaniye mosque and the fourth most venerated Muslim site in the world, the tomb of Ayoub al-Ansari (Eyüp Ensari in Turkish).

Sarcophagus of the Crying Women
The archaeological museums are a huge complex of three buildings.  It is overwhelming, and I can't make much sense out of what I'm seeing.  We spend time in all three buildings.  Only a few impressions stick.  I see a beautiful tribute to women on a sarcophagus (Greek?  I have no idea.) of women mourning the loss of their loved ones in battle.   I manage to walk right past the Kadesh peace treaty without really noticing it.  This is a treaty  between the Egyptian Ramesses II and a Hattusili III, a Hittite king (ancient Turkish race), and is the oldest known peace treaty in the world.  

From the museums, we walk to the Suleymaniye mosque, the largest one in Istanbul, and also built by Sinan. We eat lunch in a restaurant run by the mosque.  Harun tells us that mosques run little businesses to serve the public and also to finance their upkeep.  We have a simple but delicious lunch of beans and rice.  The mosque is beautiful and surely impressive, but I'm getting tired of seeing one mosque after another, all built by the same architect in the same style.

A little boy on pilgrimage with his family on the day before his circumsion
Finally, we board our bus and drive to the end of the Golden Horn, where we find the tomb of  Ayoub al-Ansari.  We learn that this man was close to Mohammed, whom he met in Medina.  He was one of his most prized warriors.  He was buried outside the walls of Constantinople (Istanbul), and now his tomb is considered a holy site.  Many of the sultans were buried near his tomb.  This is still a popular pilgrimage destination.  We see a little boy and his family who are visiting the tomb on the day before his circumcision.  Muslims circumcise their boys at around age three or four.  Harun asks the boy if he is afraid of tomorrow.  He smiles and shakes his head no.  He has already been bribed by lots of sweets, his distinctive costume and a day out in his honor with the relatives. 

We are finally finished with our strenuous sightseeing program.  I feel tired, pious, in need of a more sensual sort of piety - in need of a rub-down.  I'd love to have one of those lovely scrubs, like the one I had in Egypt.  I've already been introduced to the lovely feeling of having a strange woman scrub me down, and if it's weird, it's only because it's weirdly wonderful.

On our first day, Harum recommended that we go to a hamam, a Turkish bath, at some time during our stay here.  He described what happens at a hamam.  It sounds a lot like what I experienced in Egypt, but I'm not sure.  I was in an Egyptian steam bath that day.  The only thing I really thought I knew about Turkish steam baths is that gays like to go to the Turkish steam bath in New York City.  I could only imagine what goes inside that kind of steam bath, so the idea of going to one here in Istanbul felt like a possibly decadent thing to do.  But I find Harum to be a very clean-living Muslim, and what he described sounds a lot like what I had experienced in Egypt.

By the time I return from the Suleymaniye mosque, it's too late to walk over to the Cemberlitas HamamI manage to squeak into the hotel Larespark hamam for a “Kese and foam massage”, a Turkish version of a scrub in a hamam.  I only get in because someone hasn't shown up for their appointment.  I'm completely unprepared, not even having a bathing suit along.  But this spontaneous event turns out to be the highlight of my day.  

I show up at the receptionist’s, and she hands me a thin cotton towel and a key.  “Put this in locker number seven,” she says.  Put what in locker number seven?  “Your clothes and towel – everything there.” 

“Shall I get naked?”

“Yes – I come for you.”

I enter the ladies changing room baffled.  I find locker number seven and open it up, only to find a thick pink bath towel and brilliant orange Styrofoam flip-flops in this handsome dark wooden cabinet.  I take off my clothes and contemplate sitting on the bench and waiting for the lady.  How will she know I'm ready?  How can I get into the steam bath naked and avoid being seen by men?  There are men wandering around the reception area!    I decide that I probably misunderstood the woman.  What she probably meant was, “Take off your clothes and wrap this towel around you.  You have everything you need in your locker, including another towel and slippers.”  So, I wrap the thin towel around me, put on the orange flip-flops and carry the locker key and thick pink towel back to the reception area.  Now there's a man working at reception  I ask him what to do.  He doesn't seem a bit surprised by my question, and simply points to a room.  He tells me to sit down there and wait.

Sit down where and wait?  There's a bench outside the hamam, or there are plenty of niches inside the hamam.  I decide he wants me to wait for the attendant inside the hamam, so I leave my towel on the bench and open the door to a brightly lit steam bath.  There is very little steam, and the lights are so bright, anyone in there could see that I am naked, except for the towel tied precariously below my shoulder, and my flip-flops.  And I find that I am not alone!  Here's an elderly couple - people I even know!  - from my group, walking around the hamam barefoot.  The woman and her husband each have a bathing suit on.  I look at the woman with a questioning expression.  “What do we do here?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” she answers, “but I imagine you keep your flip-flops outside the steam bath.”  She sloshes around the room, which is filled with at least a quarter-inch of water.

“I’m here to get washed,” I say, “but I don’t know if I’m in the right place.” 

“We’ll leave,” she answers.

“Oh, no, you can stay,” I protest.  “I heard that the steam bath is free.”

“No, we’ll go now.  Then you can have your scrub.  My husband finds this boring, anyway.”

So I sit down in one of the niches.  I must have made the right decision, because presently the woman from the reception comes in, carrying a large bucket.  She's wearing a bikini with a towel wrapped around her.

“Go lie down there,” she says, pointing to a huge marble table standing in the middle of the room.  “Head at that end, feet at the other end,” she adds, pointing. 

And my slippers?  “Leave them on the floor.”  On the flooded floor.  OK.  So I clamber onto a table which turns out to be very hot!  With the towel wrapped around me.  “Is that right?” I ask, putting my head down at one end.

“Yes.”  Then she unwraps the towel, covering the lower half of my body with it, and pours warm water all over my legs and derriere, towel included.  And begins to scrub with a loofa glove.  One leg, then the foot, the other leg, the other foot, then up to my thighs, my bottom, my back, my neck.  What will happen to my hair?  We're going out to dinner at the Culinary Institute in just a little over two hours.  Will I have to wash my hair?  No explanation, so I don't ask.  This will work out, I think.

After the lady finishes massaging my neck, she tells me to turn over.  By now the slab is very slippery.  “Be careful,” she warns in English.  I turn over carefully, exposing my breast and private parts to her.  She quickly covers my lower parts with the wet towel and proceeds to massage the front part of my body, from the feet and toes up.  This time she includes my face.  I am getting not only a scrub, but also a very pleasant massage. 

“Will you use soap on me?” I asked.

“For the half-hour scrub I give you the loofa for fifteen minutes, and then soap the last fifteen minutes,” she answers.  I continue to lie there, waiting for the next phase to begin.  This time she takes a bed-sized mesh thing that reminds me of a pillow case.  She dips it in some soapy water.  She shakes it out as though she were going to hang it on a clothes line, then turns to me and squeezes it until billows of foam form a mound over my breasts.  This is not at all like the scrub I had in Egypt!  The stone wasn't there, nor was this pillow case foam bath.  The attendant shakes out the pillow case-thing a couple of times.  By now I must be completely hidden in foam.  She rubs my body with this foam, which lubricates my body like oil.  My legs feel silky as she massages them.  She massages my entire front side except for my private parts.  “Turn around again, please,” she says.  I carefully turn over, resting my cheek against the slab.  She massages this side.  What a smooth massage!  And I'm even getting clean in the process. 

When she finishes, she says, “You can sit up now, and walk over to this niche.  Be careful.”  I am not about to risk falling and breaking one of my scrubbed legs.  I make it to the niche and sit down as gracefully as I can.  She takes a silver bowl and starts pouring water from a tub next to the niche, all over me, rinsing off all the suds, wetting my hair thoroughly.  She now pours shampoo onto my hair, massages my scalp, and pours water over my head again.  Another round of shampoo, another basin of water rinsing it all off.  She does this several times and then asks me to stand.  As I stand, she continues to pour water all over me.  “You can do this, too,” she says.  So I take the bowl and pour water over myself a couple of times.  She pours a couple more bowls of water over me, then many bowls over the slab, which she finally wipes dry.  She gives a little bow.  “You can get dressed now,” she says, handing me the key and the pink towel.

I stand in the hamam and start to dry myself.  The lady has long since done away with the thin towel.  Now I have to find the changing room.  I wrap the terry towel around my body and tuck it in below my shoulder and, squinting without my glasses, take a little tour of the health center, looking for the changing room.  I pass the swimming pool and some people, men too, resting on chaise longues.  Ah, yes, the changing room is next to reception!

It's no problem getting dressed again, but I have nothing with me to comb my hair with.  I’ll have to ride the elevator looking like a wild woman.  I find ten Turkish lira in my slacks pocket.  They come in handy as a tip for the lady.

Fully dressed, with my hair wet and wild, I leave the changing room, throw the towel and flip-flops into two baskets, and go to the reception area.  The lady has left.  A man is standing there in her stead.  “Where’s the lady who scrubbed me?” I ask.

 “She’s bathing someone now,” he answers.       

He takes the money from me, promising to give it to her, and we arrange to put the bill for the scrub - €29, onto my room bill.

The only person I meet on the elevator is a guy on the staff.  I suppose he’s seen plenty of women with wet, snarled hair.  I am not wild, no matter how I may look.  I am mellow enough to lie down and rest in a state of satisfied stupor.  Instead, I cream myself, dry my hair and get dressed once again for a night on the town.  I leave for the next adventure, cleansed, creamed and calm.

Our dinner at the Culinary Institute is delicious, and the decor such that you could be anywhere from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, to London.  Industrial-trendy.  We order a combination of Western and Turkish food and enjoy being utterly spoiled at moderate prices.  We know the institution, having eaten in the Institute in Portland, Oregon.  The students at the institute are also the waiters and chefs.  We have a nice chat with one of the students after the meal.  This restaurant feels almost homey in its atmosphere - expats are here, celebrating the end of a conference.  We hear English spoken.  What a wonderful contrast Istanbul is.  We've seen ancient history today, I've had a wonderful old-fashioned scrub just like one the biblical Queen Esther might have had, and we've had a very modern night on the town.  Peter and I talk about coming back again - with our son.  He'd like it here.      

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Four

The nostalgic tram at Taksim Square
It's another warm, sunny day, and we're all glad to be far from rainy, cold Germany.  A good day.  And it's good to hear Harun talking about my favorite topic, spirituality.  It seems this is also important to him.

He tells us a little bit about Sufism, the mystical part of Islam, the path that seems to fit best with Christianity and eastern spirituality as well.  It teaches its followers to go beyond dogma, into the heart of things, to develop a heartfelt relationship with their Creator.  Certainly that can be reconciled with any religion.

Mazhar Mallouhi, a man who calls himself a Muslim follower of Jesus, belongs to a group of Sufis.  The singer Yusuf Islam, also known as Cat Stevens, is a Sufi.  The poet Rumi (his name in Turkey is Mevlana) was a Sufi.  In fact, his son, also one of his followers, founded the famous Mevlevi Sufi order.  This is the group that we in the west call the whirling dervishes, those people dressed in white robes and funny high cones for hats, who use a whirling sort of dance as a means of abandoning their sense of self in order to unite with God.  I once went to see a group of these people dance at Columbia University, so I have some idea of what Harun's talking about.

Harun says, "Sufism has a lot to do with the Turkish culture.  In Sufism, you go the indirect way."  He says the Turks are indirect people who would rather sacrifice clarity than say something clearly that would offend another person.  "In Turkey, you'd rather hurt yourself than offend someone else."  He says that since they so often hide it, you might think that Turks were thick-skinned.  Just the opposite is true, he says, so try and be tactful when talking to Turkish people.  I wish I knew some Turkish people to be tactful to.  In Germany I feel like the narrator in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.  I see Turkish people every day, but know none of them.    

In Egypt, I learned that Sufis honor certain people as saints.  This is actually one of the traits of the Shiites.  The Sunnis, the branch most Egyptians belong to, believe that no one should be elevated above anyone else.  Even Mohammed is only another follower of God, albeit a prophet.  But a prophet is only someone who helps us come closer to God - not a holy person.

I get the feeling that spiritual practices are very important to Harun.  He doesn't talk individually with anyone in the group.  I noticed last evening that he didn't touch the wine.  His eyes have the clarity of one who values purity.  He's well organized and seems very disciplined.  I wonder how often he fasts.  For sure, I think, all of Ramadan, and that very faithfully.  But he does not ignore external things.  He comes to us every day dressed in quality casual.  His little beard is perfectly trimmed.  He seems to value high quality brand names - his jacket and backpack bear the logo from "North Face".

We're on our way to Beylerbeyi Palace.  Peter tells me how he remembers this complicated name - "Boiler Bay", a place in Oregon we go to with my sister when we visit.  In order to get there, our bus takes us along the European side of the Bosphorus for a while, until we reach a bridge that reminds me of the Golden Gate Bridge.  This is the Bosphorus Bridge.  Before we get to the bridge, we see gorgeous apartment buildings along the hillside.  What views these people must have!  One of them has a rooftop infinity swimming pool.  Harun tells us the obvious, that these apartments are for the wealthy.  He says these apartments go for at least $1500 per square meter.  Are these Sufis living in these apartments?

Beylerbeyi Palace
Beylerbeyi Palace lies in all its pomp just underneath the bridge on the Asian side.  We are not allowed to take photos, so you'll have to refer to the link I've provided on Beylerbeyi Palace to see what the inside looks like.  The palace is more opulent than the Versailles, and at least as luxurious as the apartments of Napoleon III that you can see in the Louvre.  There is a connection between these apartments and the sultan who lived in this palace, we learn.  Harun tells us that this nineteenth palace was built as the summer residence for Sultan Abdülaziz, and in contrast to the Topkapi Palace, is very European in style.  Turkey and especially their sultan, who himself was one quarter French, looked to the French as models of modern luxury.  He was very musical and even composed some classical music pieces.  Abdülaziz reigned from 1861-1876.  He became unpopular because of his excessive lifestyle, and at the end of his life was sent to another palace in exile, where he was forced to live in the tower.  I later learn in Wikipedia, not from Harun, that officially, Abdülaziz died by simultaneously slitting both wrists with scissors - something very unlikely to happen to one living as a prisoner in a tower.  Another sultan apparently murdered.  Abdülaziz was in power at the time the Suez canal was opened, and it was this sultan who introduced the first railroad to Turkey - the Orient Express.  We learn that one of his visitors was Empress Eugénie of France, the wife of Napoleon III, who came to visit the sultan without her husband.  Eugénie seems to have been a favorite guest of the sultan.  He took her to meet his mother, arm in arm.  Upon seeing the empress, the valide sultan - the sultan's mother slapped her across the face.  No foreign dignitary should be seen in her private quarters.  Perhaps she sensed something more.  Harun tells us that according to rumor, the sultan spent at least one entire night in Eugénie's room during her private stay of two weeks.  In her old age, she visited the sultan's son, and he told her something about his father that made her age years in just one hour.  Her room is elegant, as is the entire palace.  Each room of the palace has Bohemian crystal chandeliers.  All the ceilings are hand-painted with decorative motives, and each room is color-coordinated.  The banisters on the main stairways are made of inlaid wood.  We don't get to see the harem.  Sultan Abdülaziz had six official wives and ten children.  I see no traces of ascetic Sufism or of any religion at all in this sultan.  Is this what the Europe of the nineteenth centurey had to offer?  Canals, railroads and self-indulgence? 

Istanbul feels far away in this park at the top of a hill on the Asian side
From here we drive to the top of a hill above the palace, to the highest place overlooking the city.  The view is inspiring.  We see all of Istanbul - in fact, the city stretches far beyond what the eye can see.  And water is everywhere.  We can see the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and even the Marmara Sea.  There are hills and forests just outside the city.  And it all looks prosperous.  Harun tells us that on the Asian side many Greeks have moved back and built lovely villas.  Saudis and other Arabs are also living on this side.

We have tea and date-filled pastries in a tea house in the garden.  Here, Istanbul feels tranquil - nothing like the Istanbul we join later in the evening at Taksim Square.  Harun sits off to the side, avoiding any private conversations. 

I am exhausted and feeling a little ill, after all.  I'm not sure if it is from the food from the previous evening, or what it is - I'm just a bit out of sorts.  I leave the group and find my way, alone, to our hotel by way of the Tünel train and the nostalgic tram.  In this city it is no problem at all for a woman to travel alone.   

In the afternoon I listen to a talk and discussion by Frau Ingrid Iren, one of the translators of Orhan Pamuk into German.  She impresses me with her humility, simplicity and loyalty to Turkey.  Her Turkish husband died only a few years after their marriage, but his family took her in.  Out of love for him and gratitude to his family, she has chosen to spend her entire life in Turkey.  She is encyclopedic in her knowledge of Turkish literature.  I want to read more. 

In the evening we join two people from our group for a traditional Turkish dinner in the restaurant Harun has recommended to us - Türes, just off the Istiklal Cadessi.  We join the racing pulse of Istanbul night life.  Don't these people ever stay home?  The food at our restaurant is good, the prices are low, and the service is great.  But it's just not the same caliber as the Develi restaurant.  

I like it here in Istanbul very much, but it doesn't tug at my heart like Cairo does.  There are some similarities, such as a Muslim culture, but perhaps it is this very culture that separates the two.  Istanbul, despite all Harun says about Sufi spiritualism, feels much more western and materialistic than Cairo.  It is certainly more comfortable.  It feels more like life in Europe.  If I were to choose a place I felt safe to live in, it would be Istanbul - over any European city.  It has less crime than any European city I know, and is beautiful, modern except for all the old mosques and palaces, and comfortable.  How many of these comfortable people are spiritually hungry?  I have no idea - I don't know anyone at all, except for a very little bit of Harun.  Perhaps there are many more like him.

I go to sleep reading more of Rumi:  

"Humble living does not diminish.
It fills. 
Going back to a simpler self gives wisdom."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Three

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the "Blue Mosque"
This is not a trip for the idle.  We are busy from early morning till evening.  And Harun doesn't waste a minute as he spoon-feeds information into our heads.  During our bus rides, he reads literature or explains the things we are seeing, as we gaze down at the sparkling blue shores of the Golden Horn.  It's a beautiful, sunny day, and I feel refreshed.  But how am I to make sense of the many things on the program for today?

I guess it is spirituality that is impressing me the most today.  My longing is to unite all these religions into one spirit.  But it doesn't seem to work, and that makes me sad.

Hagia Sophia
This morning we visit the Hagia Sophia, on the same hill as the Topkapi palace.  We learn that this structure is the model for almost all the mosques built ever since - but this was built as a church.  There are minarets around this building, as with all the mosques, so at first it feels like just another mosque we are entering.  The first thing you notice is the huge inscriptions in Arabic writing on placards on the walls.  Then, when you look a little closer, you see that this building is full of mosaics with Christian motifs.  It was built in 537 A.D. by the emperor Justinian.  One of the spectacular things about this building is the feeling of light and space - you can't see any of the structural supports, which are hidden in walls.  This church was the headquarters of the Eastern Church for hundreds of years until one spring day in 1453, when Sultan Ahmed turned it into a mosque.  It remained a mosque until 1931, when it was secularized and turned into a museum in 1935.  Harun explains that the Muslims only painted over the mosaics, taking care not to deface anything, because they also respected Jesus, Mary and all the Jewish and Christian prophets.  For me it is sad to think of something that was once Christian lose its Christian identity.  But how does God look at this?  Perhaps the most comforting thing I gaze at this morning is a cat resting on the top of a railing inside the church/mosque/museum, unaware of all these religious conflicts, simply glorifying its creator by being.

A cat adds to the glory of this place
Baptismal pool
Peter is delighted to find a baptismal pool in a small building adjacent.  It is obviously a pool meant for immersion, proof that people were immersing believing Christians even into the 500s. 

The Hagia Sophia was a very important mosque for the sultans to worship in; there is a covered passageway between Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, and a special section for him and his entourage to sit in.

The Basilica Cistern
From here we walk a few steps to the Basilica Cistern, also built around the time of the Hagia Sophia, during the Christian era when this city was known as Constantinople.  It is hushed, mysterious, deliciously eery down here, with columns stretching along as far as you can see, reminiscent of an ancient church.  The old town is full of these underground cisterns, but this one is the largest.  There is still water flowing down here in a huge shallow pool, illuminated by dim lighting.  "I could imagine a crime taking place down here", I whisper to Peter, not knowing that this very cistern is used in the opening scene of the James Bond film "From Russia with Love", one of Sean Connery's time as 007, in 1963.

After lunch, we walk over to the the Museum for Islamic Art.  I'm too tired to take much in, so I leave the museum and browse in the bookstore.  I find a book of Rumi poems which I buy and read for a while.  Rumi was a mystic poet from Iran, but he lived much of his life in Turkey and was buried in Konya.   This is a man who digs beneath the surface, getting to the bottom of things.  Rumi is interested in sources, the ground of being.  He's interested in heartfelt worship and a life dedicated to seeking God.  If you want to read a Rumi poem, go to the top of this blog under "Thoughts from Traveling Companions". 

By now I'm exhausted, but our day is far from finished.  Harun pushes us on.  We walk on to the "Blue Mosque", as the tourists call it because of the many blue tiles lining the walls.  The Turks call it the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, honoring the Sultan who conquered Istanbul from the Byzantines.  This mosque was built by Sinan, Harun tells us.  We will encounter many mosques built by Sinan during this trip.  This is a gigantic, very impressive building, but after being in the Hagia Sophia, the huge pillars supporting the building get in the way.  Sinan later learned to hide them, making the mosque similarly spacious, like the Hagia Sophia.  Harun tells us about the Muslim call to prayer.  Each time it is recited, there are some different elements, he says.  The longest call is on Friday midday.  The gist of it is, "Allah (Arab for God) is great, there is no one greater than God, and Mohammed is his prophet.  Come to pray.  There is no one more worthy than God."  I wish I could reconcile all this with my Christian belief, but am not sure I can.  Was Mohammed a prophet of God?  That for me is the question.  I hear Harun on this trip, Muhammed during my last trip to Egypt, praising their religion.  The way they talk about it, it doesn't sound that much different in its goals from Christianity, as far as worship of God and morals go.  But we Christians see Jesus as much more than a prophet.  Through his word, the entire universe was created.  Through Jesus' death, the entire universe was reconciled - all the sickness, darkness, sin and death of the universe has been overturned by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is a different message than the Muslim one.  And yet, I worship my Creator, my Sustainer - and my Saviour - with all my heart when I hear the call to prayer.  I figure this prayer is meant for all to heed, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, pagan, pantheist, anyone who has a sense of the supernatural.

Grand Bazaar
All the major sites seem to be within walking distance of each other.  From the Blue Mosque, we walk on to the grand bazaar.  I really look forward to this, remembering the fantastic maze of stalls in the Khan El Khalili bazaar in Cairo.  But - I've been forwarned - through the guidebook, which tells me most of the private vendors have had to give way to big commercial undertakings.  I'm not quite sure what this means, but I soon find out.  The bazaar is all under one roof, and Harun says it is so huge, you can get lost in it.  Peter, a guy from our tour group and I enter the bazaar.  It is attractive, with tiled walls and little signs to help orient the shoppers.  But the shops are upscale, and many are the same ones you would see in a shopping mall - Benetton, Oilily, and Esprit.  As we venture further into this mini-city, we see other stalls like those we were expecting to see - leather goods, scarves and clothes, jewelry and beautiful ceramics shops.  I buy a small leather handbag and a coin purse.  We sit down for a cup of Turkish coffee.  Three days into this trip and still not a sign of abdominal problems.  What a marvelous place Istanbul is!

Harun grants us an hour to visit the bazaar, and then we meet to walk to the bus, which will take us to our hotel.  On the way, we pass an inviting large, old building.  Harun explains that it is the Cemberlitas Hamam, one of Istanbul's oldest, most prestigious old bath houses.  I make a mental note to go there another day.  Today we have no more time, although we could probably all use a massage.  After walking all day, we are all so tired we can hardly take in another fact.  But, tireless Harun (do I see sagging shoulders and wrinkles of exhaustion even on his face?), explains the city's plans for renovation as our bus lumbers up the hill to Taksim Square.  We stumble out of the bus as soon as we reach the hotel.  Peter wastes no time in climbing into bed for a nap.  I type notes about the day in my laptop.

At 7 pm, we all pile back on to the bus.  We're all going out for dinner.  Back down the hill, this time through a traffic jam that is tame, compared to those we encountered in Cairo.  Tireless Harun reads to us from a book by Orhan Pamuk.  He reads a passage about Beyoglu, the part of the city we're staying in.  The story is interesting.  Old Istanbul used to have so many cultures living together, something else this city has in common with Cairo and Alexandria.  But many of the foreigners have left.

Our bus ride takes us past the road leading to the Topkapi Palace and along the Bosphorus for several minutes.  Finally, we stop at a location that looks almost creepy, it is so empty and dark.  But as soon as we pass through an underpass, we enter a crowded, lively little village called Fenerbahce, where we are surrounded by people on their way to, or already seated in fish restaurants or taverns, enjoying the night life.  But we're going to a kebab restaurant, the Develi, where we're supposed to get excellent Anatolian grilled food.  We get the rooftop all to ourselves, and we have a marvelous view of the village and the twinkling lights along the Bosphorus.  I invite Harun to sit with us at our table.  He declines.  He's going to eat with the bus driver.  We sit with a nice couple who live in Belgium.  The people on this tour are all friendly and uncomplicated, which is nice for us, but perhaps a little boring for the blog!  I have no one to complain about.  Not the food either.  The food is much better than any of the Turkish food I have eaten in Germany - and plenty of it!  Fried meatballs, an eggplant appetizer, feta cheese, beans, hummus, a salad with pomegranate balsam, delicious homemade pita, three kinds of grilled lamb dishes, and flaky, tender, buttery baklava for dessert.  If only we could sleep off all this food and laze around tomorrow.  Harun leaves us to our own thoughts and full tummies.  We wouldn't pay any attention to him anyway.  The dark road and gentle rumble of the bus lull many of us into dozing as we return to our hotel for the night.  I have enjoyed my meal so much, I feel almost drunk on it.  One day back in Germany, when I've had enough of feasting, I will fast.  I think of the words I discovered in Rumi, earlier in the day:  "There's a hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.  We are lutes, no more, no less.  If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music.  If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire." This evening my entire being has been sung to by delicious food, nice company, and a view of the waters of the Bosphorus.  And now I am ready for sleep.  There is plenty of time another day for fasting.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Taste for Turkey - Day Two

Entrance to Topkapi Palace
I'm calling this "Day Two", but I'm actually writing this over a month after our return from Turkey.  As I write, Tahrir Square, back in Cairo, is again filled with protestors.  Their new president, Muhammed Mursi, has claimed absolute power for himself, bringing his country into another uproar.  My heart goes out to the Egyptians, whose situation is so dramatic and so desperate.  I have begun to connect to them.

But now I need to write about Turkey.  In a way it's a shame that I keep comparing Turkey to Egypt, but the fact is, I do.  Both are ancient civilizations that over time have become Muslim.  Both Cairo and Istanbul have mushroomed into megacities of over 17 million inhabitants.

I told Peter on one of our last trips, I need to feel a connection to a place in order to relate to it.  I think we always need to find and build more connections in all aspects of life.  What were my connections to Turkey before traveling there?  Not many, unfortunately.  Only that I read about Constantinople in history class in school and college, and that I see Turks daily in Cologne.  Sometimes I go shopping in a Turkish super market.  Once in a while I even exchange a few words in a shop, or now and then a Turkish person wanders into one of my English courses.  But I have very little connection to Turkey, certainly nothing emotional.

I did have more of a connection, once - Keklik.  I met her through my church.  She was an atheist, originally a Muslim, who wanted to know what we Christians believed in.  I really liked Keklik.  She had been a Communist once, way back, while living in Turkey, but it was illegal to be a Communist.  She got arrested, sent to prison, and somehow escaped one day when allowed out on a day pass.  By the time she settled down in Cologne she was thoroughly disillusioned with the Communists, as she was with the Muslims, whom she called a purely political movement.  By now, she didn't fit in anywhere, but she could never go back to Turkey, she said, or she'd be arrested again.  We lost touch with one another somehow.  She just disappeared out of her apartment, out of the phone book, out of my life.  Did she get back to Turkey after all?  I wish I knew.   I've heard Turkey has made enormous strides in becoming a modern, western country.  Germans are starting to acknowledge their Turkish immigrants as part of their culture.  There's a popular German crime show that takes place in Istanbul.  As I write, I want to explore and to deepen the tentative connections that I do have, and then somehow convey this to you.  So here we are, as I segue into "Day Two".


Our first morning in Istanbul.  The sky is a pale, washed, gauzy baby blue.  We board a bus and leave Taksim Square, heading for the sparkling waters of the Golden Horn.  We cross one of the bridges, the Ataturk Bridge.  Off to our left is the Galata Bridge.  I can already recognize this bridge by looking behind me to see the Galata Tower.  Before today, I only knew about the Golden Horn from a novel I used in one of the English classes I teach.  It's so nice to be able to see it now.  We travel along the Horn a while, heading for the Bosphorus, then turn right, once the two bodies of water meet.  We're going to the Topkapi Palace, something we also read about in my little novel for English class.  Harun tells us that we will be spending a lot of time in the area around the Topkapi Palace in the next few days.

I'm surprised to learn that the famous church/mosque I've heard about, the Hagia Sophia, is on the same grounds as the palace.  There's another church that seems to be closed most of the time except for occasional concerts - the Hagia Irene Church.  I wish we could go inside that.  It's supposed to be beautiful, and to have amazing acoustics.  It's supposed to be the oldest church in Istanbul.  But we can't go there this time - there are no concerts happening there this week.

The domed roofs are the former kitchens of Topkapi palace
We walk through a long, tree-lined path, passing the Hagia Sophia, the Hagia Irene, and an archeological museum before we finally get to the Topkapi Palace.  Topkapi Palace, Harun tells us, was built shortly after the Ottomans conquered the city on May 29, 1453, transforming what was once a predominantly Greek Orthodox city called "Constantinople" into a Muslim city whose name gradually changed to "Istanbul".  Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) first conquered the city in a dramatic battle by tricking the Byzantines.  The Byzantines had a high city wall that had protected them for centuries.  The water inlets to Constantinople were also all protected - there was a chain stretching across the Golden Horn, and boats protecting the shores.  But Mehmed thought of something ingenious - he and his soldiers travelled up and down all the seven hills on one side of the Golden Horn, seeking entrance through the back side of the city.  They found one gate to the city wall unlocked.  Two by two, the soldiers passed through, and conquered the city from within.  Once Mehmed had the city in his control, he wanted a palace he could call his own.  The palace of the Byzantine rulers was not for him - so he began construction of the Topkapi Palace in 1459, six years after his conquest, and finished building it in 1465.  The Topkapi Palace is actually composed of several parts, each part surrounded by a courtyard.  It does seem to bear some resemblance in feeling to the Egyptian temples, in that each courtyard one enters is more private and exclusive than the last.  By the time you reach the last, the fourth courtyard, you are in the harem, the private living quarters of the sultan and his enormous family, sometimes up to 4,000 people, including all the civil servants. 

A pavilion where the Sultan could meet with visitors
It turns out that Mehmed was only able to live there for one year, and reigned only twelve years before he was poisoned, probably on orders of his son.  He and another brother were in turn later murdered.  There was so much murder in the harem, fratricide was even a legal means for a while of establishing succession to the throne.  We learn that Mehmed's last wife was also strangled in the harem in order to make way for another relative.  The harem was not a safe place, despite all the pools, inlaid wood, stained glass, gorgeous tiles and tranquil carpeted pavilions.   

The "Spoonmaker's" Diamond
We see splendid jeweled sabers, daggers and swords.  We hear the story of the "spoonmaker's diamond".  A homeless person found a huge rock and sold it to a spoon maker.  He got three spoons for it.  The spoon maker sold the stone to a Jewish jeweler, who took to polishing it.  It turned out to be an 86 carat diamond.  It is the fourth largest known diamond in the world.        

I learn about a film that takes place in the palace -  "Topkapi", with Peter Ustinov, and it's all about that diamond.  I can't wait to download it and watch it when I get home.  I have a website I use to watch all the more current as well as classic movies - Movieberry.

We learn about the Nubian eunuchs who served in the harem.  Now that I've been to Egypt, I know that the Nubians were the blacks who lived in southern Egypt and Sudan.  Some were sold as slaves to the sultans.  The sultans had many of them castrated and gave them important jobs in the harem.  They were in no danger of impregnating the women in the harem.  I learn that most of the women in the harem had no contact with the sultan, sexual or otherwise, and that many of them married other civil servants working in the palace.

The palace is beautiful, huge and overwhelming for someone like me, who has no background in Byzantine or Ottoman history.

Finally, after a rich but bewilderingly complex four-hour palace visit, our feet are longing for a rest.  We walk over to the Sultanahmet Koftecisi, an old, famous kofta restaurant right in the middle of the old city.  After hours at the palace, it is a relief to sit down and eat a couple of meatballs, even if we have to climb up three flights of stairs to get a seat.  The restaurant is overrun with tourists and Turks, and we taste why.  The food is tasty and economically priced.  Harun says I can eat the salad.  A welcome change from Egypt, where the salads made me sick.

Wooden houses in Istanbul
A mosaic in the Chora Church - courtesy of Wikipedia
By now the weather has changed, and our bus sloshes through rain as we are driven to a museum that was once a church - the Chora Church.  This is in an old, somewhat run-down part of the city, where we see more traditional architecture. The houses are made of wood!  The wooden structures remind me old-fashioned American homes.  I could almost see a house like these in an old part of Minneapolis or Queens, New York.  many of these houses have since burnt down in some of the many fires that have ravaged Istanbul.  This church is supposed to have excellent examples of early Byzantine mosaics.  I can't take it in, and I'm not even allowed to take any pictures.  I am cold from the rain, and exhausted from our long tour of the palace.

Finally, we are finished touring for the day.  Our bus drives back to Beyoglu, the section of Istanbul we're staying in.  Even though it's rush hour, there are no huge traffic jams like in Cairo.  We drive along streets the Nobel literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk wrote about in his book, Istanbul.  He comes from this section of Istanbul - and logically for us, it's the most European part of the city.  It feels really comfortable, almost like any other European city.   

In the evening, Peter and I ride for the first time in the historic tram that takes us along a huge pedestrian shopping street over two miles long, called Istiklal Caddesi.  It starts out at Taksim Square and goes all the way to the Galata Tower.  We get ripped off by the ticket seller at a kiosk.  We wanted a round-trip ticket, but he sells us one-way tickets for the price of a round trip.  No matter, we will walk back from our restaurant anyway.  This is a wonderful area of the city to explore.  I want to come back and see more.  It has all the usual European and American chain stores and restaurants like Burger King and MAC cosmetics, cafes, pubs and discos.  There are even English book stores here.  And it's loaded with Turkish young people out for the evening - thousands of them!  They seem to have plenty of time and money.  They are dressed just like young people in Germany or New York.  Istanbul seems to be a really hip place, with disco music blaring from the clubs along the avenue.  If I were young, I'd fly out here for a long weekend in October and enjoy warm days at the beach and balmy weather in the evening, strolling along the Istiklal Cadessi with my boyfriend - or girlfriend, hoping to meet someone at one of the clubs, or shopping.  The shops seem to be open until late into the evening. 

But Peter and I are too old for clubbing and too tired to shop.  We enjoy each other, holding hands as we meander back to the hotel.  Old Istanbul is exotic.  Modern Istanbul is - well, western and well-to-do.  We still hear the muezzin calling for prayer in the mosques, but the people look so secular, I wonder how important their religion is to them.  I'm torn between relief at finding a comfortable, western city with mosqes and disappointment that this city is not more exotic.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Taste for Turkey - Day One

Taksim Square, Istanbul

 Could anything top Egypt?  After our last trip there, still overwhelmed by this strange, yet magnetic country, my husband Peter and I talked about other possible travel destinations.  The city that kept coming up in our talks was Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey.  Istanbul, like Cairo, is an ever-expanding city, sucking people from the surrounding countryside like a vacuum cleaner.  Like Cairo, no one is sure exactly how many people live there, but the estimates are, also like Cairo, somewhere between 15 and 17 million inhabitants.

Before this city was named Istanbul it was called Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, a city we read about in history class.  Constantinople is the name of the city I was most familiar with, because of history classes.  But now that I live in Germany, I keep hearing about Istanbul.  And Istanbul seemed a logical place to travel to – it is another Muslim culture to explore, now that we’ve seen much of Egypt.  It’s also a city with a lot more sunshine and warmth in October, when we decided to travel, than Cologne.  

            But Turkey as a travel goal?  The name is reminiscent of big, fat, clumsy Thanksgiving birds.  Believe it or not, the two names are connected.  Way back in the 1500s or so, traders brought a bird species from Madagascar to Europe through Turkey, the guinea fowl.  It was thus nicknamed the “turkey fowl”.  When Spanish explorers to the new world returned to Europe with a similar-looking bird, they simply called this species “turkey”.  Turkey – something to eat for Thanksgiving.

            Turkey gets a pretty bad rap in Germany.  Turkish immigrants form the largest group of foreigners living in Germany – estimates range from one and a half to two and a half million people, depending on whether children are counted.  Turkish children born in Germany are considered German until the age of eighteen, when they must decide which nationality to take, so they don’t count in the statistics.  We hear stories about parents who keep their children home from school, or children who do go to school, but who aren’t allowed to take part in sports.  We hear about strapping macho teenage boys who terrorize other students, who then have to keep their mouths shut about it, because Germans dare not say anything negative about non-Germans.  Germans are always afraid of being called Nazis if they open their mouths to protest about anything.  We hear about Turks who have lived in Germany for over thirty years and who don’t speak a word of German.  I heard my mother-in-law talk when she was still alive, of unhygienic Turks who polluted the air with their garlic breath.  Of course, these people are different from those in Istanbul, many Germans are quick to say.  Germany gets the uneducated, religiously conservative peasants from villages in Anatolia.  I have even heard it said that the Turks living in Istanbul are a different race from those living in east Anatolia.

            On the other hand, Turkey is one of the USA’s most important allies, and it is a very important, strategic NATO power.  Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union for several years, but roadblocks keep getting put up in their way.  They are not modern enough, not democratic enough, not western enough, Turkey is not in a literal sense even European, write the pundits.  And yet, we also hear of tremendous leaps forward in their economy.  We hear that this is a nation that is working.   

            It was time to go and see for ourselves.

            We travel with a group of Germans through the same tourist agency as our first trip to Egypt.  On a soggy, cold, gray October morning, we leave Cologne, arriving in Istanbul’s glistening, modern Ataturk airport in warm sunshine.  I, as an American, have to buy a visa at immigration, but Peter, as a German citizen, doesn’t have to.  After picking up our baggage, we are met immediately by our agent, who leads us into a van with a bunch of other Germans traveling with the same company.  Before long, we view the sea, which is really a narrow stretch of water separating Europe from Asia, on our right.  But it’s broad enough to remind me of the sea.  We drive on along an endless grass-lined beach, filled with families barbecuing, enjoying Sunday off.  You can almost smell the mixture of meat and charcoal burning from our car, but the windows are sealed shut.  From this drive into the city, we can already see that Istanbul is doing a lot better financially than Cairo.  Everywhere we look, we see green trees and lawn.  OK – no desert here, so no dust.  But everything looks clean and tidy too.  The roads are in great shape, the buildings we pass look like something we could live in, and the Bosphorus looks awfully inviting for a swim.  In October!  Back in Cologne, it’s in the 50’s.  Here, we’re enjoying a balmy 80° Fahrenheit on this sunny afternoon.  In a way, it reminds me of a California beach city filled with apartment buildings.  The people we see picnicking look more like the Turks we see in Germany – most of the women have headscarves on, but the teenagers, kids and men are dressed like any European.  

The Golden Horn, with the Galata Tower inthe center
            It takes us over an hour and a half to get to the hotel – Prime Minister Erdogan happens to be officiating at the opening of a water purification plant which also just happens to be on the road we’re driving on, so we pass car after car, red Turkish flag after flag.  Finally, we get to the famous Golden Horn, a stretch of water turning inland from the sea.  Our hotel is on the other side of the bridge, in the modern, western part of Istanbul.  The city’s many mosques are laid out in front of us, their slim minarets gracing the blue sky.  The city looks a bit exotic, maybe like a movie set, with all those minarets, and yet fully European.  “There’s the Galata Bridge,” says our escort.  “And the tower over there.”  I’ve heard of the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge and tower.  I’ve seen them in movies.  But now, I can finally see the whole thing.  Now I know how they fit into the rest of the city.

            One of the things I have discovered about living and traveling abroad is that a place becomes one’s own as you actually physically begin to inhabit the squares and buildings you may have heard about.  You may have seen Central Park a hundred times in movies, but until you’ve set foot in it yourself, it can’t become a part of you.  Now, Istanbul is already becoming a part of me.

            We check into a lovely hotel, the Larespark, located in the middle of a section of Istanbul called Taksim Square.  Four and a half stars!  Our room is roomy and comfortable – western!  Everything looks so European.  Well, why not?  We are in Europe!

            Later in the evening, we meet our guide, Harun, a pleasant-looking man with laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He’s got a three-day beard, and looks like he’s under forty.  Harun tells us we shouldn’t drink the water in the hotel, but there’s no problem using it to brush our teeth.  And I can eat the salads in the hotel with no reservations – they use filtered water in their cooking!

            Harun tells us that our hotel is located in the most European, most progressive-thinking part of Istanbul.  It’s the area where Orhan Pamuk lives when he’s in Istanbul.  Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.  A waiter walks into our conference room, and Harun tells us to order drinks.  He first lists all the non-alcoholic drinks we can choose from before he gets to the alcohol.  He announces that he will be drinking juice, but we’re welcome to order alcohol if we want to.  I order a raki, expecting it to taste like the ouzo I drank in Greece.  It does taste of anise, but I don’t like it.  

            Later in the evening, Peter and I walk out onto Taksim Square.  “This is THE hot spot of Istanbul,” he tells me.  It certainly appears so.  There are people out all over, strolling along the pedestrian zone outside our hotel.  We pass fast-food restaurants and general stores selling everything from toothpaste to animated stuffed animals that dance for us.  Young men speak to us in English, trying to get us to eat at their restaurants, but leave us alone when we say we’ve already eaten.  They don’t seem to have that Egyptian pushiness.  They’re more like the hustlers in New York City.

            It may not be as exotic as Cairo, but I know I’m going to feel very comfortable here in Istanbul.