Istanbul has long been at the top of my list of places I’ve wanted to see. The Bosphorus Strait, which bisects the city, also serves as the dividing line between Europe and Asia.
That seems interesting. The city has been the capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. Must be important. These days, it is overwhelmingly Muslim, and you can count on the call to prayer at 5:00 am or so to wake you up unless you’re a very heavy sleeper or you’ve remembered to put in your earplugs. At the same time, you can easily get a drink. It seems that you see just as many women in jeans as headscarves. What’s going on here? I’ve always wanted to know. For my entire adulthood, I have wanted to experience this amazing stewpot of history and culture.
There are three buildings that everyone associates with Istanbul, and for good reason.
The Hagia Sophia is maybe the most famous of the three.
It began its life as a church, was converted into a mosque, and is now a museum. It was built in less than six years by 10,000 men, many of whom, I suspect, would have preferred to do something else.
The Blue Mosque is an extraordinary artistic and architectural achievement, and welcomes millions of visitors of all faiths every year while clearing the place out several times a day so the observant can pray.
The Topkapi Palace reminds you that until the early twentieth century, a sultan ran an empire right here, complete with a harem full of eunuchs and concubines, among other anachronisms.
These three important structures are within five hundred meters of each other.
How can you not be fascinated by a culture such as this? On the other hand, is it possible to meet such outsized expectations?
Well, probably not.
In between all the history and all the east-meets-westyness, Istanbul is an onslaught of sales without marketing.
Walking down the Grand Bazaar helps me understand what a cocktail waitress at the Tailhook Convention must have felt like.Or maybe a nice Midwestern kid off straight off the bus at the Port Authority. Janine and I have a running joke about the shopkeepers who venture out into the street inviting you back to their shop, just to look. “C’mon, honey, let’s go back to my place. We’re just gonna talk.”
I have written in the past about the sheer terror that a tourist feels when trying to buy something in Morocco. Well, if Turkey’s not any worse in this regard, it’s certainly not any better.
There are thousands of carpet shops in Istanbul, and I would be willing to wager that if you ask about the price of ANY carpet in ANY one of these shops, you will be quoted a price that is outlandish and obscene. This is exhausting. If you ask me, if Istanbul wants to become a truly great city, it has to cut this out. It has to treat its visitors like guests, not marks.
On the other hand, if you are lucky and intrepid (and my dear wife is both) you can find stuff that is unusual and maybe even unique, and you won’t have to sell a kidney to pay for it. For example, Janine, who has made pilgrimages to flea markets in Rome, Athens, and now Istanbul, found a seven story market called the Horhor antique flea market in which we succeeded where many others fail. Mind you, we had to take a tram out of the city center and then stumble our way through a nondescript semi-residential neighborhood in the rain to find the place. Once we arrived, we discovered that we were the only customers in the place. In Istanbul! On the fifth floor, amid a graveyard of lamp parts and other detritus, we settled on an old Turkish lamp that will assume a prominent place in our apartment, if we can figure out a way to get it home.
We didn’t buy a lamp, we bought a chapter out of Homer and a story for the poor sap who looks up at the lamp back home and says, “That’s nice. Where did you get it?
Next time: We meet some of the archetypes of Turkey – let’s call them the Turquetypes.