An American Couple in Delft
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Istanbul. The name conjures up mystical images for me; snake charmers come to mind although we never saw anything like that while there. This place promised to be different from every other place weíve visited so far. In many ways, itís more "foreign" than anything weíve seen and in others itís not.

Upon landing at AtatŁrk Airport the first thing that happened was that we had to get visas. Lynn had gotten one on a previous trip a few weeks ago which was still valid. All it is is a sticker put inside the passport, good for a year for stays of up to three months. Nobody asked any questions, as usually happens, about the purpose of our visit, length of stay, and any articles we were carrying. The visa has a number on it but they didnít record the number as belonging to me. It seemed as though I was buying a season pass to a theme park, good for a year, come back any time.

It was almost midnight when we arrived and the drive to the hotel was pleasant as we drove along the Sea of Marmara past western style shopping malls on the outskirts of the city. As we turned inland from the sea, we went only two blocks or so to our hotel and had entered a different world.

First a little geography. Istanbul is at the eastern edge of Europe about 1800 miles from Delft and itís the only city in the world on two continents. Draw a circle on paper or in your head. Draw a vertical line through the center. Now draw a horizontal line from the center to the left edge of the circle. The circle represents the city. The lower left quadrant represents the old city, historic Istanbul. The upper left quadrant represents the new city, modern Istanbul. Both are in Europe. The semi-circle on the right is the Asian side and is mostly residential. The vertical line separating European Istanbul from Asian is the Bosphorus, a strait connecting the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara in the south. The horizontal line from the center to the left edge is the Golden Horn, an extension of the Sea of Marmara.

We decided to stay in old, historic Istanbul. The area has some streets that were barely wide enough for a small car to pass a line of small parked cars. All the streets were cobblestone. Stray cats and dogs were everywhere but none appeared malnourished. The buildings seemed ancient and some actually were. Others were from the early 20th century but appeared older.

We visited the Blue Mosque a few blocks away from the hotel which, as big as it is, is still only the second largest in Istanbul . If you look at the picture on the website, youíll see that there are several domes. This whole structure is one room. There are areas outside where those who come to pray have to wash their faces, arms, necks, feet, mouths and noses. Five times a day there is a call to prayer, the first being at sunrise. The call comes in the form of many very large loudspeakers attached to the mosque. Iím not sure if what we heard was actually a call to prayer or the prayer itself because whatever we were hearing went on for about five minutes. Wherever we went in the city, we heard the calls throughout the day. About 75% of the Turkish population is Sunni Muslim and most of the rest are other Muslim sects. However the Turkish Republic is a secular one and religion is not as significant here as in other Muslim countries. Many Turkish Muslims donít pray at the Mosque at all.

There is a beautiful open park in front of the Blue Mosque, the other end of which, maybe 1500 feet away, is Hagia Sophia (and also here, click on the picture at the right to enlarge). The structure you see in the photographs here was completed in 537. Thatís a three digit year, folks, which means weíre talking about some serious oldness. Hagia Sophia started out as a Christian church under the emperor Justinian. It later became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, and is now a museum.

Across from Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern that provided fresh water to Constantinople. The cistern is about 460 feet by 210 feet and about three stories underground. It was built, like a lot of things here, in the 6th century under the rule of Justinian, the same guy from the previous paragraph. This man thought big. If you look at the pictures, youíll see a lot of columns. There are 336 arranged in a 12 by 28 pattern. The ancients carved two Medusa heads in two of the columns at the far end. One is sideways, one is upside down. They were supposed to ward off the evil spirits which I can believe were down there. The place is really spooky. Sometime after the reign of Justinian and before the Ottoman conquest, the cistern was abandoned and forgotten about. It was discovered when the Ottomans found out that people in the area were lowering buckets below their homes and were retrieving fresh water and fish. There are still fish living in there in about 18 inches of water. If you have ever seen the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, youíve seen this place as it was used as a set in the movie.

Several blocks away from there is the Grand Bazaar. If youíre like me and hate to shop under the best of conditions, youíd hate this place but it is something to experience. Much of it is under a roof. There are 65 city blocks underneath filled with stalls selling everything except electronic gear, I think. There was clothing (a lot of which I will guess was counterfeit knock-offs of famous brands), chess sets, jewelry, pottery, ornaments of all types, all kinds of stuff. One of the guide books says, "Nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar." I concur. Close your eyes and picture how bazaars are presented in movies with the mass of people. Add the roof and thatís it.

Frequently when we go to a new place, we like to take one of those bus rides around to get the lay of the land and see what we might like to come back to. The bus started from Hagia Sophia and shortly passed by the train station where the Orient Express terminated its trip from Paris. It then crossed the Golden Horn to modern new Istanbul. While crossing the Golden Horn, there is a clear view of the Bogazici Bridge to the north. This is one of the two bridges that cross the Bosphorus to the Asian side. At that point I had a major case of dťjŗ vu. As we had been walking around, we discovered that Istanbul is very hilly. At the tops of the hills one could look down between buildings and see the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, or the Sea of Marmara. Then while crossing this bridge on the bus over the Golden Horn and looking back at the hills on all sides, we saw that the hills were packed with buildings and there was almost no space anywhere. It was the Bogazici Bridge, though, a long suspension bridge across the strait that did it. San Francisco. Istanbul is topographically very much like San Francisco and that bridge resembled the Golden Gate Bridge.

Having had very few original thoughts in my life, I decided I couldnít be the first person who ever noticed this. A little research proved me correct. It seems that one John C. Fremont named the entrance to the San Francisco Bay "Chrysopylae" or Golden Gate because it resembled Istanbulís Golden Horn.

[As an aside here, the name John C. Fremont may sound familiar to some of you. He was a fascinating character. His was a very famous name in the mid 19th century exploration of the American west and later he became the first Republican candidate for president, subsequently losing to James Buchanan in 1856. He secured the nomination at the first Republican convention held at Musical Fund Hall at 806 Locust Street in Philadelphia. Thereís an historical marker in front of the building noting the occasion.]

The bus drove along the Golden Horn for several miles when it turned left at a wall. This is the Wall of Theodosius. Go back for a minute to the drawing of the circle and lines. If you would now draw a line from the bottom of the vertical line to the left edge of the horizontal line, you will see a triangle. The previous two lines you drew were water described above. This new line is the wall. The wall is about four miles long and perhaps 40 feet high or so. It varies in places. Some of it has been rebuilt but a lot of it is remains from the original. The wall was the western fortification of the city and was built from 412 to 422, presumably with no earth moving equipment. Just inside the wall at the north end are the ruins of Justinianís palace. The wall has 192 watch towers and 11 gates for entrance along its length. The gate at the southern end was the one most used by the emperor for ceremony and was called the Golden Gate. One wonders, then, if John C. Fremont even borrowed the name for the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.

Late one afternoon, we took a ferry ride to the Asian side. The ride takes less that 30 minutes and costs 1,000,000 Turkish liras (TL), 1 New Turkish lira (YTL), or about US$.72. A real bargain to go to Asia. When we got there, there was only the port and some buses waiting to take people home. We climbed a steep hill and walked towards a cliff that overlooked the port and then back to the European side. By now it was dark and the view was spectacular. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace were all brightly light. This alone was worth the trip to the Asian side and itís a good thing because thatís all we did there.

I left Istanbul with mixed emotions. While very beautiful and its mystique intact, I couldnít help but notice the rampant poverty in many areas. Even in new Istanbul, the modern downtown looked rundown and not well-cared for. Ramshackle buildings were everywhere. What I describe here is certainly not unknown in America but the amount of it and the existence in areas that seemed to be desirable parts of town seemed unusual.

As a matter of personal preference, there was something else I noticed that was different from America which I never did get used to: the proliferation of smoke. In America, things are moving in a direction that suggests that smoking is something that should be done in private either alone or among consenting adults. That seems reasonable to me. Europeans havenít moved that far in that direction yet. In the Netherlands, itís difficult to find no smoking sections in restaurants. The difference between the Netherlands and Turkey is that in the Netherlands, smoking is permitted almost everywhere but not everyone smokes so that dinner can usually be enjoyed in some degree of comfort. In Turkey, everyone DOES smoke. Eating dinner was a chore. One night we had dinner at a nice place where the table was small. The waiter set the table and went to get an ashtray. We told him we didnít need it. "Americans donít like smoke," he said. Whatís to like? Burning eyes, sore throats, and clothes that stink arenít things I generally enjoy. I wasnít sad to leave Turkey.

As long as this piece is, I have left out a big topic, that famous Turkish four-letter word: rugs. We escaped Turkey rug-free and there will be more about that soon.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008