I taught my morning class on Thursday, March 31, then hailed a taxi and was at the Lviv airport by 10:30am for a flight to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople: the city of sultans and emperors, mosques and churches, baklava and Burger King. A lot of Turkish tourists come to Lviv to work and/or hit on Ukrainian women, so flights between the two cities are quite cheap.
Biggest surprise in planning the trip was that, while Americans do need a tourist visa to enter Turkey, this can be obtained online for a small fee and presented at passport control as a print-out. I assume the process only exists so they can run a check of name/passport number against their database of undesirables. And collect a few dollars along the way.
The plane heading to Turkey was half-empty, so I abandoned the two Polish girls seated next to me and upgrade myself to a window seat on an empty row. Thus, I was rewarded with a falcon’s eye view of the Bosporus Straits and the Marmara Sea, both criss-crossed with mercantile shipping. There’s a set of islands just off the coast of Istanbul called the Prince’s Islands (or the Princess Islands–signage differed) which look lovely, both from the air and from the ground. Someday maybe I’ll take a trip long and well-financed enough to see them closer. The most striking thing from the air wa
s the mosques scattered throughout the suburbs. I had never been in a city with mosques (Madison only manages one or two “Islamic Centers”, sans minarets), and was impressed with the way minarets and domes dominate the Istanbul landscape.
Ataturk Airport itself felt a lot more exotic than any of the European or American airports I’ve passed through. It’s an intersection point for the Muslim world, so there are planes from Iraq and Saudi Arabia parked alongside Turkish Airlines jets, and people in styles of dress from around the Middle East wandering the concourse. For me, who’s pretty well enmeshed in a Western, primarily Christian world, it was an interesting look at a very different cross-section of humanity.
In fact, all of my stay in Istanbul was like this. I saw more tourists I could identify as Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Iranian, or Saudi Arabian than ones who were clearly American, British, or Australian. English is the language of travel (for which I thank God), but not all of it is used by native speakers. In addition, I heard some restaurateurs and shopkeepers who could speak Mandarin to their Chinese customers.
This also meant that I _really_ stood out, being not only fish-belly white, but also wearing combat boots, Levi’s, a semi-military looking green jacket, and (after a trip into the bazaar on Day 3) a camo-patterned sunhat. Not only did everyone know at a glance I was American, I looked so American I had a couple people guess “Texas” as my home state.
I managed not to get my pockets picked. My secret weapon was keeping both hands jammed in my pockets whenever pedestrian traffic got thick. Still, I can remember a couple incidents when I could tell I was being at least scrutinized as a target. While browsing shops near the Spice Market on Day 2, I had a young Turk slap my back as he sprinted past, presumably hoping I’d take my hands out of my pockets in surprise. I didn’t see the actual pick-pocket in that case, but I’m certain he wasn’t far.
Also somewhat unnerving are the guys hanging around Sultanahment Square who call out to pretty much any lone tourist “Hello my friend! You speak English?” or, in my case, “Hello my friend! I like your hat, where did you buy it?” Common sense tells me not to trust anyone who has nothing better to do than hang around and call out to tourists, and internet research confirmed that this is the opening move of several scams. At best, they want you to shop for carpets.
I did buy a carpet, but it was a factory made, 5 lira prayer rug.
Turkish sales tactics in general are super-aggressive. They often have someone standing on the side-walk in front of the shop or restaurant calling out to any likely passerbys. I found myself a bit offended by this. In my culture, the courteous thing for a shopkeeper to do is ask if I need help once, then leave me alone if I express a desire to browse. The hard-sell turns me off. On Day 3, though, I did choose my dinner restaurant partly because, while I was browsing the menu, one of the waiters caught my eye, smiled, and beckoned me in. So hey, the Turkish way isn’t all bad.
Speaking of restaurants/Turkish food, the desserts were the best things I had. Baklava and Turkish Delight are incredible. On my first night in Istanbul, I bought a small box of Turkish Delight (in cherry, pomegranate, and fig varieties) and sat on the rooftop terrace at night, looking out across the Bosporus at the Asian-side skyline and listening to the final prayer call from the muezzins.
Speaking of muezzins, here’s a few thoughts on my first experience of mosques. As I understand it, Islam doesn’t technically call for mosques–the prayers can be said anywhere, and they don’t have anything like the Blessed Sacrament. Mosques constitute a convenient way for Muslims to pray together and listen to sermons. They also, historically, are designed to be visible markers of Islamic dominance over an area. Minarets maximize visibility, and the calls of the muezzins (now broadcast over massive loudspeakers) are a daily reminder of Islamic worship. There are churches in Istanbul–I think about 1% of the population is either Christian or Jewish–but they sure aren’t as visible as the many mosques.
I visited two: the Sulimaniye Mosque, built by the famous conquering sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Blue Mosque, built (I believe) 150 years later. They’ve got a few features churches don’t have: large enclosed courtyards, the obvious minarets (six on the two mosques I saw), stools, faucets, and fountains for the pre-prayer ablutions Muslims practice. On the inside, they were both. . .massive. Both seemed to be modeled after the more ancient Hagia Sophia (which I also saw), which, more than some churches, is built to maximize open space. There are no pews, dividers, or side chapels breaking up the space; just an ocean of carpet, a niche to indicate the direction of Mecca, and a single pulpit for the imam to use when delivering a sermon. Any evangelization offices or libraries are tucked away to the outer edges.
They were impressive. . .but I still like churches better. Partly this is because churches are an expression of my own faith, not an alien faith, but there’s an aesthetic component as well. I simply appreciate images, icons, paintings, frescoes, statues, and murals more than I appreciate Arabic calligraphy and painted floral patterns. I might feel differently if I could actually read the Koranic verses spelled out. . .but I don’t think so.
I did encounter one familiar phenomenon in the Sulimaniye mosque: the charismatic youth pastor/imam! They had some imams there in non-threatening, casual clothes to essentially explain and preach Islam to tourists. I hung about to listen for a bit, and was kind of bemused to see how much he resembled some of the Protestant preachers (and even Catholic missionaries) I’ve interacted with, although he was more wedded to a script, since he does this every day with various people who probably don’t know much about Islamic doctrine. He didn’t engage much with me, I think sensing that I was not a receptive audience for a quick dose of Islamic proselytism, but it was interesting listening to him.
I also tried the historic Cagaloglu Turkish bath, which loudly proclaimed itself as being on some prestigious list of 1,000 Things to Do Before You Die. That’s one checked off! I didn’t actually think being manhandled by a strange man would be relaxing, so I opted out of the massage, and just got basic bath admittance for the low, lo
w rate of 40 euros. I went in, dressed in nothing but a towel, and was suddenly faced with a dilemma. . .do I whip the towel off to bathe, or no? Context wasn’t much help. The guys getting massages were naked except for a towel tossed atop their unmentionables, but the attendants had their loins girt, and I didn’t see anyone else. I solved the problem by finding a mostly sheltered alcove to strip and bathe.
I didn’t find it worth the money. There was no cold room (something I expected from my knowledge of ancient Roman baths), and so apart from a beautiful marble bath chamber and brass spigots on the individual tubs, the bath didn’t offer much that a humble Minnesotan sauna/swimming pool combo can’t match. I left before too long, only to face an attendant telling me to use that towel for something, this towel for the other thing, pointing at a stack of identical towels from across the room and speaking in a heavy Turkish accent. He eventually came over and dressed me up in towels by hand. I read some Newsweek in the lobby and beat it.
Stray cats are abundant in Istanbul. And they beg. I’d never seen a cat stand on its hind legs before. It left disappointed, because that there kebab wrap was only big enough for the one of us.
Overall, I had some decent food, but the meal I have the fondest recollection of was lunch at a tiny cafe in a street market, where I got a can of Coke, a plate of some kind of spiced potato pastry, pre-sliced into bite-sized hunks, and some baklava. The guy didn’t speak much English, but the service I got at my little plastic table was every bit as good as what I’ve had in classy restaurants.
I didn’t see many Americans, but I chatted with some really friendly Australians in line for the Blue Mosque, and got to see plenty of Chinese, Japanese, and Saudi tourists going about their sight-seeing. A Saudi guy on the boat tour of the Bosporus I took wanted a picture with me. I hope he captioned it “I met a real cowboy!”
Other things I didn’t think were worth the cash: The Dervish show. For some reason, I expected a little more dance, a little less turning in place while holding up their arms. I also felt extremely young in the kind of crowd such an Oriental curiosity attracts. At least the Turkish music was interesting.
Overall, I found what I enjoyed most was simply walking around the city, seeing the sights. I felt I got infinitely more value from long walks along the Bosporus or through the street markets, not to mention my tours of the Basilica cistern and the Hagia Sophia, than I did from the handful of expensive attractions I shelled out for. This is a valuable lesson to carry forward to Italy.
Also, Istanbul takes the prize of being the second largest city I’ve ever visited, falling just a few places below the New York City metro area. The residential areas I saw were densely packed, with streets that looked just wide enough to admit a single car (and not a wide one). I’d have felt overwhelmed if the tram route between the airport and my hostel hadn’t been reasonably simple.
Next up: Italy. UCU has a two-week academic break (corresponding with the Orthodox date for Easter on May 1) and I’m planning an 11-day journey through Venice, Rome, and Naples. God willing, it’ll be a grand adventure!