|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Tongue-tied in IstanbulBy Nyier Abdou
I had a little trouble purchasing a guidebook to Turkey -- not that there's any lack of them, but simply because I was looking in the wrong section of the travel books. Naively, I went first to the "Middle East" section, poking my fingers confusedly in between books on Saudi Arabia and Syria to see if there was something I was missing. I wiped my brow and wondered -- is it really so little travelled? As I was looking up to the heavens for an answer, I noticed that the top shelf was crammed full of books on Turkey. They graced the ends of the "Europe" section.
The sparkling and sprawling Atatürk International Airport outside Istanbul was the first sign that my preconceptions of Turkey as heavier on the Arab world were grossly misconceived. I was drawn, I admit, by tales of low fares, cheap living and stunning backdrops; what will bring me back is everything in between.
Bogged down in recent setbacks -- most notably last year's Abdullah Ocalan trial and the devastating 1999 earthquakes -- Turkey has suffered a dip in tourism that it is eager to overcome. Consequently, planning our trip was by all accounts a breeze. Visas were procured with ease from the Turkish Embassy, tickets on Turkish Air (LE1,000 round trip from Cairo during this tail end of the high travel season) were booked only days ahead of departure, and hotels were queried and booked via the Internet with nothing but prompt efficiency. In short, Istanbul is no trip that needs methodical and plodding preparations; if you like what you hear, you could be there in a matter of days.
Perhaps the most difficult facet of a trip to Turkey is getting one's head around the currency. At the time of writing, one US dollar was equal to roughly 650,000 Turkish lira, which means that if you change $100, you'll be given TL65,000,000, which can be rather disorienting. As always seems to be the case, confusion is further compounded by the fact that notes for, say, TL10,000 and TL1,000,000 look very similar -- a mistake that, unfortunately, the occasional dishonest merchant is aware you are bound to make; but my experience was a more humble one. More than once I was gently reminded, with a patronising smirk, "No, this is five million." So while you're splashing the cash around feeling like a really big spender, just be careful.
With only a week's holiday, we were determined not to stretch our travelling spirit thin and remained in and around Istanbul for the entirety of the trip. The seat of two empires and a strategic port, Istanbul claims the honour of being the only city in the world to straddle two continents -- a fact that you will no doubt hear more than once. Snaking between the European side and the Asian side is the Bosphorus, along which you can arrange a cruise (or go the thrifty route: hop the ferry). The sights you came to Istanbul to see are in Sultanahmet (the old city), where the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya face each other like cowboys in an eternal showdown, the immaculately manicured Sultanahmet Park stepping in between them.
She goes by many names: Known as Hagia Sophia, Saint Sophia, and the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the Ayasofya (above) has been both a church and a mosque, but for the visitor today, it is a museum that tells the tale of transfer of power in mighty Istanbul
Converted into a museum by Atatürk in 1935, the Ayasofya, (Hagia Sophia in Greek, Saint Sophia in English), oozes its former grandeur like an aging debutante who is holding her elegance against all odds. The brainchild of Justinian I, who wanted to crown Constantinople (then capital of the Byzantine Empire) with the grandest testament to Christian faith, the Hagia Sophia (or Church of the Holy Wisdom) was completed in an amazing five and a half years in the early sixth century. It was transformed into a mosque by the Ottoman ruler, Mohamed II (known as Mehmet the Conqueror), when he conquered Constantinople in the mid-15th century. Eternally under restoration, the massive scaffolding complex at the centre was perhaps one of the most fascinating sights during my tour of the place. I sat transfixed as restoration teams trooped up, and up, and up the column of stairs growing smaller and smaller, and finally reaching the top, from which workers could painstakingly chip, wipe and polish the reliefs on the structure's ceiling. Watching from only the second-floor balcony, my knees were already weak.
At the back of the cathedral-cum-mosque, one gets a glimpse of the building's long history of religious glory. A restored mural of the Virgin Mary hovers on the inside of one of the Ayasofya's many domes, and below hang two of the enormous and magnificent calligraphic discs hanging in the building's four corners carrying the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohamed and the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman (unrelated to Ottoman lineage) and Ali.
The Blue Mosque is what you dreamed of when you pictured the exotic flair of the Ottoman sultans (in this case, Sultan Ahmet I in the early 17th century). Stained glass sparkles like coloured lights around the subdued interior. From the courtyard you can contemplate the extravagant collection of domes and minarets while watching testy foreigners fiddle with taking their shoes off and donning modest headcovers. The Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque, so unless you are there to pray, you will be kept outside during prayers.
There are many, many more stunning mosques throughout the city designed by the über-architect Sinan and his disciples. The Yeni Camii and Süleymaniye Mosque (considered Sinan's crowning triumph) hold distinctive spots on the Instanbul skyline. The Eyüp Sultan Mosque, built by Mehmet the Conqueror over the tomb of Halid bin Zeyd Ebu Eyyžb, the standard bearer of the Prophet Mohamed, is one of the holiest shrines in Istanbul.
Behind the Ayasofya you will find Topkapi Palace, and there's no use in hiding it -- everyone knows you want to see the harem (that's why you have to pay extra for admission to it). You will be admitted to the sprawling complex in small groups and taken through by a guide (you have no choice), which is truly necessary, considering the little, juicy details one would otherwise miss out on, be they true or hearsay -- like the fountain that the sultan turned on if he wanted to have a private conversation with someone in his bedroom, and the fact that all the eunuch guards were dismissed when a new sultan took the helm; as if they were to be changed like curtains.
There is more to see in Topkapi Palace than you will probably be able to handle, but do not leave without a visit to the religious relics, where one can marvel at the astounding curio assembled there, among them what is reported to be the Prophet Mohamed's footprint (hairs from his beard are also on display), a letter from the prophet to a Christian leader, and even more remarkable items, such as a staff of Moses.
But not everyone can sustain their interest in historical sights day after day; and Istanbul is not a city only to be visited for its past. In the more commercial parts of the city, we found all the trappings of a pulsing, modern city. The streets of Beyoglu, particularly the area of Taksim, are filled with restaurants, clothing shops, booksellers, bars and coffee spots; all of which are clearly tailored to an urbane and distinctly Turkish clientele. Turkish clothing lines range from smart to trendy; restaurants and bars serve predominantly Turkish beer and wine; and bookshops sport every modern and classic text, from Salman Rushdie to Jackie Collins, translated into Turkish. Music stores carry truckloads of CDs, both Turkish and Western, and needless to say, Hollywood movies are shown and sold uncensored.
You will be paid little heed here, as foreigners are hardly an oddity and Western-style clothing is no indication of your foreign status (the clueless look that is probably plastered on your face is a dead giveaway, though, not that anybody is looking at you long enough to notice). Women dress along every inch of the conservative spectrum, with some squeezed into skimpy tank dresses and others modestly covered with hegab (headscarf) -- neither of which seems incongruous. But when we spotted more than one transvestite sauntering down the street without a care in the world, we tried not to gawk in surprise -- New York, London, Berlin, sure; but Istanbul?
Once we felt sufficiently acclimatised to our surroundings, we tackled the Grand Bazaar. Housed in a sprawling maze of halls and corridors, this bazaar was a whopping reality-check that we were still in a place where the souk (market) reigns supreme. Though perhaps less aggressive than sellers in souks elsewhere in the Arab world (the ferocious salesmen in the medina (old city) at Fes, in Morocco, comes to mind), we still got the eerie feeling that as we strolled past the shops, we were being ogled like prize cattle at a fair. One imagines that filtered through salesmen's eyes, guileless foreigners look something like walking dollar signs. It became immediately obvious that the initial price offered was in fact over three times the price we could ultimately attain. Stand firm and don't get suckered, because nothing we saw after exploring the place was unique to any store.
And, of course, you will be offered enough rugs to carpet the Sahara twice. If you are not Turkish and you have come to Turkey ... obviously, you want a rug. This assumption may start to truly grate on your nerves, as everyone from your taxi driver to the guy hanging around the newsagent will try to take you to his father's/brother's/cousin's rug shop. Be patient, and don't rule out the purchase just because you're being told that you want a rug, and why not? You don't think it's nice? You may come home and wish you hadn't given up the chance.
We rounded out the trip with a two-day stop at the Prince Islands, which dot the south-eastern corner of the Marmara Sea; a summer spot for weekend jaunts of swimming, sunning, diving, and seafood. Ferries to the islands depart from the wharf in Eminönü, a few steps from Yeni Camii and the so-called Egyptian Spice Market (although there's now little there that is Egyptian, and the spices are only a small portion of the elaborate array of wares on sale). If you're an early riser, you could make it a day trip, but with a few days, you can really soak up the atmosphere. No cars are allowed on the islands (although, I must admit, I saw one or two pickups stashed away), so all transport is by horse and buggy. Being naturally averse to the farce of traipsing around New York's Central Park in a horse and carriage while rollerbladers speed by in aerodynamic helmets chugging sports drinks out of water bottles, I found the experience to be radically different when the only vehicles on the streets were carriages, particularly while navigating the picturesque hills of Big Island (Büyükada), where we stayed.
We set up camp at the perhaps ambitiously named Hotel Splendid (Tel. (216) 382-6950; Fax (216) 382-6775), a sort of palace of old-world glamour gone somewhat shabby, housed in a converted mansion on the hilltop. By September, the weather was already quite brisk, and evenings were positively cold, so you don't really need the pool at the back. We braved a swim anyhow and the attendant seemed to get cold just looking at us. But an off-season stay is still absolutely worth it, if not for the serene atmosphere and fresh air, then for a scenic walk, like the short 20-minute hike up to the picturesque monastery just beyond the somewhat dull but agreeable Luna park. From here the view is staggering, and from the rickety, though satisfying restaurant on top, you can admire the aqua waters over a few drinks and write a rapturous postcard to those poor suckers back home toiling behind their desks at work.
Everything in between
Travel, we all know, is one part tourist sites and three parts food, drink and board -- even the most sanguine traveller likes to feed his body along with his soul. Still in the whirlwind planning stages, I had been advised that positively everything is negotiable in Turkey -- advice I've heard many a time before for various parts of the world, but have only acted on in situations where I faced a steely-eyed market vendor or a wily, self-employed tourist-monger.
Prime real estate: Perched on the tip of the Golden Horn, it is virtually impossible to grasp the fact that the sprawling and lavish Topkapi Palace was the residence of one sultan
photos: Nyier Abdou
But funds were tight, so I figured I'd give it a go. When pricing our options, I negotiated on hotels, package trips, you name it; and I'll be damned if it didn't always work. This point cannot be underscored enough -- everything is negotiable. If wheeling and dealing isn't your cup of tea, then you may be better off with an agent. I was suspicious, but the agency I queried was top-notch in efficiency. Credo Tours (Tel. (212) 254-8175; Fax (212) 237-9670; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) answered my e-mails within half a day and invariably offered me rates comparable to those I had haggled for straight away.
We stayed at the Hotel Avicenna (Tel. (212) 517-0550; Fax (212) 516-6555; e-mail: email@example.com), a charming restored Ottoman home in Sultanahmet (the old city), a few minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and the Ayasophia. The somewhat deserted terrace bar has a jaw-dropping view of the Marmara Sea -- a satisfying place to wind down from aggressive sightseeing and crowds of camera-hugging foreigners with a cool local beer. Breakfast was served in the setting of their peaceful garden and though the service was a bit light-headed, it was more than made up for by a genuine eagerness to help.
There are many hotels in Sultanahmet, but if you're not wedded to staying in the old city and you're willing to splash out to stay in a place where Atatürk himself holed up, why not book a few nights in the famous Pera Palas Hotel (Tel. (212) 251-4560; Fax (212) 251-4089; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)? All manner of famous glitterati have graced its doors and a visit to room 411 is worth a stop to see where Agathie Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express.
When the rumbling in our tummies started to grow fierce, our high expectations of Turkish food were rarely disappointed. Try the reasonably priced Amedros restaurant in Sultanahmet (Tel. (212) 522-8356) for heavenly Turkish fare and pleasant, though unobtrusive service. The slightly touristy, but ultimately charming Masal restaurant (Tel. (212) 511-2922; (212) 519-4996) nearby is another outlet for sidewalk dining, and though we felt conspicuously foreign, we still enjoyed the nice little spot next door, where you can sip sweet Turkish apple tea, puff on nargileh (waterpipe), and watch street kittens bat their hungry eyes at diners and rough-house with anyone who is willing.
When you've grown sufficiently sick of kebab and stuffed vineleaves -- and hard as it is to believe, you will -- branch out with Dubb restaurant (Tel. (212) 513-7308), also in Sultanahmet, which serves tasty Indian cuisine in elegant and artfully decorated quarters. If you're in the Taksim/Beyoglu area, dine at Sarabi (Tel. (212) 244-4609), which offers a menu that is best described as "modern European" and has a comforting wine bar ambience.
Our most telling encounter with local night-culture was to be had at Sal's Café Bar, in Beyoglu (Tel. (212) 243-4196), where drinkers and diners ranging the gamut of Turkish society raised a brow to sniff a foreigner in their midst, but we were welcome all the same. Soulful folk music was performed by a trio of musicians playing what were clearly old-time favourites, as most of the audience were raising their glasses and breaking out into song. Judging from bursts of appreciative applause during the performance, the singer was obviously doing marvellous things with his repertoire of standards, but despite our ignorance, we enjoyed it immensely. During the break, the smartly-dressed kaval player retired to the bar for a drink and a smoke (I was marvelling at the capacity of his lungs to endure), while the singer happily accepted an invitation for drinks at the table next to ours. Sadly, the language barrier barred us from joining the conversation, but the warmth was unmistakable nonetheless.
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