The land of domed mosques, bustling bazaars, chewy lokum (Turkish delights), honey-soaked baklava (yummmm doesn’t begin to cover my reaction to the baklava), beautifully painted Iznik tiles, pink and seedy pomegranates, nazar (blue eye, protector from evil), stray dogs and cats, roasted chestnuts, spirograph (?), brilliant textiles, carpets, and tourists.
We visited Istanbul (and into western Turkey) a few years ago, but with good airfares from Budapest, a little bit of time, and the burning desire to travel more, we decided to re-visit Istanbul. This time around, there was no jet lag. I found it interesting that we experienced very little culture shock despite the fact that more than 90% of the population is Muslim. Turkish people speak Turkish (not Arabic), many are wily salesmen (I don’t think I saw one saleswoman), and all that we encountered were friendly. Turks seem to be (justifiably) proud of their cuisine, and cay (tea) is everywhere – there are men in neighborhoods, the bazaars, and in the streets carrying the handled trays of tea-filled, tulip- shaped glasses atop small white and red plates, small metal stirring spoon, and white sugar cubes delivering all day and evening. Light, hot, and refreshing – a treat that I would love to continue at home but probably won’t.
Our first afternoon we arrived at the lovely Sari Konak Hotel where we could see and hear the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia Mosque from the comfortable and spacious terrace. We decided to wander a bit past the touristy square that connects these two mosques and found our stomachs growling as we approached the Grand Bazaar. Without a restaurant plan, this can feel like an insurmountable decision (just ask Chris, the non-foodie, how important it is for Beth, the foodie, to find a suitable place to satisfy our hunger). My two mere demands (besides the obvious – no McDonalds and must be clean) were: (1) No pictures of food because this means that it is just a tourist trap (not necessarily true in Istanbul) and (2) No cafeteria style food. Where do you think we ended up? A ready-made food place where you point to what you want and then you put it on a tray with photos displayed on the placard out front, ANNNDD it was one of the most delicious meals we ate in Istanbul. Let’s just say I’m learning about letting go of pre-conceptions. Moving along with the food theme, later for dinner, we arrived at a restaurant (Albura Kathisma) around the corner from our hotel. I had a delectable chicken dish served over mashed eggplant then rounded out with a luscious, honey-oozing, pistachio infused and flaky baklava. Here we met Mehmet, a Kurdish fellow with an easy smile, and engaging eyes. Given the Kurdish conflicts and troubles in the news, Chris was hungry for information so Mehmet agreed to meet over coffee the next morning. He told of his family, his failed arranged marriage, the village he came from, the politics from his perspective, being Muslim, and his current plans to marry a Turkish Christian woman (I think we may be invited to the wedding!). Another connection made with someone from a completely different world.
We decided on a half-day cruise on the Bosphorous strait – the narrow body of water that separates European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul and connects the Marmara Sea (we had a view from our terrace) and the Black Sea. From here we traversed the long city of Istanbul and saw many mosques and historical buildings, then came to the mouth of the Black Sea. Here we were deposited into a small fishing town where we had tea, took photos, watched the fishermen cleaning their haul amongst the well-fed stray cats looking for fish guts.
Istanbul Whirling Dervishes. Wow. The dramatic, in-the-round performance was given in a dance theater converted from a Turkish Bath (no photos allowed during the performance). We learned that the Whirling Dervish performance is really a spiritual ceremony commencing with Turkish music, then building up to the men in long full white robes, black cumberbunds, tall cylindrical tan felt fez hats, and soft flat black shoes. Five men whirling protractedly, meditatively, moving into different spots on the floor, eyes closed, both arms extended (one straight up, the other at an angle with cupped hand). It was serious and mesmerizing.
Of course, with the ubiquitous Muslim population, there are many mosques (over 3000 in Istanbul. The mosque is a place to pray (with accommodations for washing before and after) – for the devout, 5 times a day. The call to prayer is projected from the minarets voluminously and timed according to the position of the sun (conceivable this means that around the world, there is always prayer happening). Typically when a mosque is built, services for people in need are established around and near the mosque (which, we surmised, is the reason for so few homeless people in Istanbul – at least that we saw). There are many characteristics of the mosque including the dome, the pillars that uphold the dome, the Arabic symbols for Allah and the prophets (no human images allowed), the direction toward Mecca indicated by a wall niche, the men who stand shoulder-to-shoulder going through their prayer rituals (women pray separately), no shoes, all women’s heads covered. We saw people praying but not during their call to prayer – non-Muslims aren’t allowed (I think as it should be). As we experienced at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Chris and I both had a visceral reaction to these religious places – the power of prayer and intent can feel spiritual without feeling religious – this has been our reality.
There are several different degrees of headdress worn by the Muslim women of Turkey (and beyond). I did not see one burka (fully covered with a screening material for the eyes). Many women wore the niqab (all black, fully covered but with a slit for the eyes. This intrigued me; some women had no make-up, but many had very detailed beautiful eye makeup. They must partially lift the face flap to eat and drink – obviously, but interesting to see. On our first day in Istanbul, I was drooling over – you guessed it – baklava – in the window (it’s everywhere and I only ate it four times ). A young woman in her niqab saw me – we made eye contact and I could see her smiling without even seeing her mouth. The jibab and hijab are the same level of covering – everything covered except for the face but while the hijab is all black, the jibab is usually a fitted long jacket with a colorful head scarf wrapped and pinned – this was the most common. I realize that this would not be for me (or most of the western women I know) but I respect this aspect of their culture.
The bazaars are fascinating places to be in the midst of and of course to shop in (we obliged and came away with many Turkish souvenirs!). We have become accustomed to the lures, the conversations and tactics of these salesmen and must carry ourselves as such because we were not terribly accosted…”can I help you find something special?”, “I’m just looking”, “I’m just selling” or “”where are you from?”, “New York”, “Ahhh! Manhattan or Brooklyn? Come into my shop!”. It seem to be a game, a challenge, and they are not offended if you ignore them or say “no thank you”. We were in the spice bazaar with the conical piles of colorful spices, breathing in the potent mixture of aromas – tea, saffron, pistachios, cinnamon, soaps, dried fruits, curry, and more. I’m sort of in an aromatic daze and a spice vendor says to me “Nice hair!” (I thought he was referring to my messy hair coming from the scarf in the mosque but Chris reminded me of my blonde beacon).
Another beautiful adventure with my Honeybuns…