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Exploratory Mission: Istanbul

by T. Dietz

Adventure is always just around the corner. I found myself traveling to Switzerland for a business meeting in St. Moritz via Istanbul in each direction. With a few creative travel tweaks and despite a last-minute meeting in Paris, I managed to get myself a night and morning stay in Istanbul on my way home to San Francisco. The last thing I wanted or expected was bit of drama upon my late night arrival in Istanbul, requiring calls back to the US – Turkish immigration security, not very pleasantly, informed me that I needed a Visa despite the US State Department and the Turkish consulate saying I didn’t for my brief stay. Passport control refused entry, so after a Visa purchasing window magically opened for me (and closing just as fast) and demanding US dollars, I was on my way to my hotel on a narrow, cobbled street, just a block from the main entrance to the Grand Bazaar. Despite the late hour I was met by the two impeccably dressed establishment owner brothers whose enthusiasm for my arrival felt a bit awkward.

An unexpected wake up by the ezan or call to prayer considerably beat my alarm and followed a noisy night orchestrated by street cleaners and howling dogs. The ezan chant is performed by a muezzin who calls from a minaret carried over a public loud speaker system. Its beauty demanded I record it from my room’s window. It had a call/return feature with the elegant chanting echoing around the City as several mosques join in.

The morning was foggy with a clean smell to the air and the sounds of gulls permeating everywhere. I hustled up the steep street and entered the Grand Bazaar with great anticipation. The Bazaar was started around 1455 after the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) by the Ottoman’s and contains thousands of shops.

My enthusiasm quickly become disillusionment from what appeared to be a giant outdoor wholesale shop/ flea market. Boxes were coming and going with new merchandise being replaced by more new merchandise. Porters were moving tons of clothes wrapped up in large white bundles. I also expected the Bazaar to be crowded but it was just the early hour of my arrival as the masses appeared close to when I was departing late morning. Most shops had no pushy solicitations although commonly echoed was the ever popular “discount here as you are my first sale of the day”.

I spied this beautiful tea and spice display and asked the shop steward if I could take a photo. He kindly obliged and offered me a sweet from the opposite side of the shop. I commented on his excellent English and he explained he was from Syria and ended up in Istanbul by way of Russia. He learned English from rock and roll music and eventually taking classes. I played a bit of my Album, Drive All Night, and the next thing I knew I’d made a friend. He started putting a box of assorted candies together, for which I fought hard to get him to take some money, and had a tea porter bring us some of his hot aromatic wares to discuss the demise of the classic rock band. The tea porters were very active and cleaned up after folks. It was never clear to me if you pay as I saw no one do so.

I finally came upon an entrance to the inside of the Bazaar where you passed through a metal detector and police security. Expectations met. There was a mindboggling array of shops around every corner with one’s carrying beautiful hand-made textiles and others displaying lights or earthen ware. There were nautical and celestial antique shops, and food and tea stops abounded. I bought a beautiful table runner and admired the arched and vibrantly colored weathered ceilings. There were multiple directions you could take and considering my limited time I resorted to compass headings to find my way out. An analog one at that – which got me some interesting looks.

The vast majority of folks present were men, and my observation was that they exclusively ran the shops. There was an incredible social atmosphere in the Bazaar with men warmly greeting each other with two handed shakes or in several instances touching foreheads. Shop owners and stewards were constantly cleaning their immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, I was short on time and had to push myself hard to leave the Bazaar as I wanted to see the Blue Mosque complex before I ran out of time.

As I made my way from the Bazaar, on a sunny 50F day, to the Blue Mosque I noted that traffic and drivers were pretty bad, but at least a notch below those in Bangkok – that’s not saying much. I expected to see more scooters considering the narrowness of many streets. The street-side food was carb-rich and I grabbed a headcheese sandwich to fuel up. After a 15-minute walk I arrived at the Blue Mosque but my attention was first grabbed by an Egyptian obelisk – and surrounded by lots of tour groups with leaders and their “follow me” flags.

The Obelisk of Theodosius from the Pharaoh Thutmose III was set up by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century. And despite our proximity to Egypt and the fact this has stood there for close to 2 millennium, it felt out of place. The Obelisk lies in the Hippodrome, a large public entertainment area that over its long existence has seen everything from gladiator fights to car races.

I left the obelisk walking south and then east to get to the other side of the Mosque to avoid the accumulating tourists. The Mosque’s domes were muted in color and I wonder if was by design or from exposure to the elements. The Mosque and other surrounding structures are quite beautiful and highlight centuries of religious change and political/military power struggles. The Blue or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, constructed between 1609 and 1616, was built to highlight Ottoman power. I did not have time for a tour but the domes and minarets had a majestic beauty and through the Gateway entry I was able to see the large forecourt and it’s arcade.

I continued my journey around the Blue Mosque complex visiting Hagia Sophia, at one time the world’s largest building, built in 537AD, and lying along the banks of the Bosporus Straight. It has seen life as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic church, and an Ottoman mosque. The impressive structure is now a museum. I took a short break to sit facing the Hagia Sophia to soak in the diversity of peoples enjoying the view. It was “selfie-ville” and I was not immune.

And then three and one half hours after I entered the Grand Bazaar it was time to start the journey home. As I left the City, I was able to see the old Istanbul city walls that began their protective duty in about 200AD with many of the region’s conquerors erecting subsequent walls over the centuries.

Foreign sights and sounds can many times hit the soul in fantastic ways and this Istanbul reconnaissance mission certainly did. My brief adventure wandering a small part of Istanbul left me wanting to return and explore more.

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