Sunday, July 1, 2012

Istanbul: An Historic Amusement Park

Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

Tourists and fish. In Sultanahmet, Istanbul's historic section, and where I'm based, it is like one gigantic, historic amusement park and shopping mall, where everyone works on commission.

We tourists are fish in a river, we are like salmon to bears. We wind ourselves through the narrow streets, occasionally stopping at an intersection to look up for a landmark or down a street to get our bearings, or to decide which tout-concentrated gauntlet to pass through.

Some of us are outliers, some are couples, some members of packs. The age of the tourists is surprisingly diverse, ranging from gap-year students to septuagenarians. We're American (in the continental sense of the word), European, African, Asian.

Behemoth package-tour buses somehow negotiate their way through the narrow streets. They look wonderfully cool inside. The seats look comfortable. Passengers sit high up. I bet they have nice WCs on board. The giant white buses make gaseous noises, but don't seem to produce any visible or smelly exhaust.     

Mediocrity. I didn't start the day well. I had a stupidly unsatisfactory breakfast - eggs/sausage and bread. The bread was almost stale. The eggs a broken and ugly mishmash in a skillet. For which I paid a price commensurate with being in Sultanahmet. I felt quite annoyed, as this was the third day of uninteresting food in a country known to have good food. The cafe where I had lunch beguiled me with cool water jets from fans. I ordered a Caesar salad that was pretty, along with a lemonade, also pretty. Taste-wise: Not memorable. Pricewise: Too much.

Later in the afternoon, during my siesta time, I researched Sultanahmet restaurants. Ah!!! I've found the problem!!!! It's famous for its culinary mediocrity. OK, there are some exceptions, but at least now I know what I'm dealing with and can lower my expectations accordingly.

Reconnaissance mission. I intended to scope out the Aya Sofya and Topkapi situation, releasing myself from actually visiting either of them today. I just wanted to find them. Oh my God. The line to get into Aya Sofya was as long as one to get onto a roller coaster.  And I really cannot bitch about this because I was warned by Mustafa (and other research) to go in the morning before the tour groups arrived. So I settled in the shade on a bench and just people-watched. A fellow tourist approached me with a boiled ear of corn and asked if I'd tried one yet, to which I replied no, and he broke his in half and gave me one. He's an Indonesian tourist. When he told me he was from Indonesia, my erudite response was, "Ah, Indonesia's really big." He said something about Bali, but I don't know if that's where he's from or if he just wanted to reassure me with what he presumed would be a familiar Indonesian location.

By the way, the boiled ear of corn tasted just like a boiled ear of corn. Without butter, salt, or pepper . (My mother refers to corn on the cob as a delivery system for melting butter.) Oh, and I bought a Turkish round pretzelish item, a simit, covered in sesame seeds, which you'd think would be very delicious, but it was not. Tasted a little stale. If you come to Istanbul, feel confident in skipping these two street foods. (I also recommend skipping the Navajo taco if you're ever out west.)

I did learn that Aya Sofya is closed on Mondays and Topkapi is closed on Tuesdays. Good intel.

Blue Mosque. Since I was in the neighborhood and was in no danger of getting into Aya Sofya this afternoon, I thought I'd go check out the Blue Mosque. Big place on the outside. A lot of people milling about. I walked up some steps and into a courtyard with arches. More people. Read a sign in various languages, particularly for women: 1) head covering; 2) long skirt; 3) no shoes - well, that last applies to everyone. I'd brought a scarf, but had trousers on. And so did a lot of others, so I assumed the actual practice of who got in was more flexible than the written policy. As I neared the entrance, a genial guard informed me that visitors wouldn't be admitted til 2:00, after prayers, and that we'd be let in through a special visitors' entrance outside the courtyard and on the side of the mosque. It was now just a little after 1:00, and I decided to make myself comfortable and wait for entrance, since I was here already.

(Funny. As I write this, I realize I wouldn't have waited any longer to get into the Aya Sofya. Maybe it seemed different for the Blue Mosque because I could sit in the shade instead of stand in the sun.)

I found an unoccupied stone niche alongside some steps within the courtyard. A robust breeze kept me cool. Perfect spot to relax and people-watch. I soon heard my favorite muezzin's call.

In the video, looking at the women with the light-colored trench coats, you'd think it was a chilly day. You'd be wrong. It was very hot. The women have street clothes underneath these coats. Although they are of a light cotton, I feel disturbed when I see these coats and, even more so when I see the full-on black abayat and niqab. Not because of an affiliated religion - I don't care about that, and besides, some conservative Christians and Jews have similar constraints for women (and sometimes for men, too) - but about a practice that singles out women to suffer in the heat, to cover themselves as if they were objectionable beings, while men accompanying them wear shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and sandals.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

I saw a couple of little boys dance around in intricate costume: All in white, embroidered front, cape, hat. Coming from Georgia, I thought they might be preparing for or coming from a traditional dance performance. Note: Foreshadowing here. Stay tuned. 

So I passed a mostly pleasant hour and then walked around to the side of the mosque to get into line for entrance. No one there, really, though eventually visitors started accumulating. Women in shorts, a child munching on an ear of corn, somewhat loud voices, even though men were praying just inside. I felt a twinge of self-righteous disdain, thinking, where is the respect, people? We are in a place of worship. 

Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

And then I walked into this immense space, carpeted, devoid of furniture, and filled already with people sitting on the floor, snacking, walking around taking photos and videos, chatting. Children running. A little office available for those with questions about Islam. And I laughed to myself, thinking: Lighten up.

To experience a beautiful and quiet virtual tour, sans crowds, go here. You don't have to download anything. Just click on the inset box on the right side of the tour page. 

What works best for me is: Click on that inset box. When it comes up to full view, take your hand away from the mouse or touchpad. Wait. Allow the camera to take you where it goes. Just enjoy. 

Where everybody knows your name ... and are always glad you came. When I left the Blue Mosque, I wandered through an adjacent bazaar, then down some chichi side streets toward my base. I met several people who wanted to be my new friend and who happened to have a shop that I was certainly going to find fascinating. Istanbul reminds me somewhat of Lalibela and Harar, though there is more toutly charm in Harar, and besides, you never know in Harar (or Georgia, for that matter) when a fight will break out for a little street drama.

Continued my way. Encountered another bridal party! Loved what I presume to be the mother-of-the-bride's dress. 

Istanbul, bridal party.

Dinner. I was ready for dinner and thought about a little place along a street behind my hotel. I'd done some research earlier on some specifically Turkish menu items to order and was pleased to see this place had Turkish meatballs. It was good - not great - but good, which surpasses what I've experienced thus far.

Istanbul, Turkish meatballs

On my walk from dinner, I saw this on a wall:


My final stop before returning to my room was a c-market, where this caught my attention:


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