Saturday, August 18, 2012

Jordan Challenge 38: A Whirlwind Tour of Istanbul

I'm back in Vermont now, and my experience as a Fulbrighter in Jordan has been done for some weeks.  In fact, Ramadan has come and gone during the time that I've been back, and having my Jordanian friends write on the occasion of Eid has got Jordan front and center in my brain again. It's reminded me that I got to have a few more fabulous adventures before I left the Middle East, and I wanted to write about them before any more time had passed.  One of these adventures was visiting Istanbul with my wonderful friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Elizabeth.  We only had a weekend to do it, and therein lay the challenge.  For as we realized, Istanbul is a world-class travel destination, and absolutely jam-packed with amazing things to see or do. 

If you're going to Istanbul, my first piece of advice is to learn from our experience and give yourself much more than a weekend to begin with.  But if, like us, a weekend is what you've got to work with, my second piece of advice is to do with we did, and seek help from others who have been.  My friend and former student Alexsis is not only an impressively intrepid Middle Eastern traveller, she also lived in Istanbul for a semester.  Elizabeth and I were grateful to her for her exquisitely detailed written suggestions.  And so, to pay her good deed to us forward, here are some suggestions for others of some of the phenomenal sights and experiences of Istanbul.

1. Istanbul has perhaps the most intriguing position of any city in the world, It literally sits on the line between two continents, and figuratively defines the edge between East and West.  Where else in the world can you take a boat ride with Europe on one side of you and Asia on the other, or have the first site along your tour be the Aghia Sophia, still bearing traces of having been both a mosque and a church of great renown? The most fascinating places in the world are the ones that bring cultures and even civilizations together, and nowhere I've ever been (except maybe Stonetown on Zanzibar) does it with such a punch as Istanbul.

A must-do activity in Istanbul is to take a ride on one of the many ferries plying the waters of the Bosphorus and allowing tourists to stand on the deck of one boat to look at two continents.

A view from inside the Aghia Sofia.  Once a Greek Orthodox basilica, then a Roman Catholic cathedral, then an Islamic mosque and now a museum, the interior bears signs of all these previous uses.

2.  Istanbul is a feast for all five senses.  Feed them all while you're there. Like any other amazing tourist city, there's so much to see, but there's also music and dance, the sound of the call to prayer from the huge mosques, and so much good food to taste and smell -- from the scent of roasting kebabs everywhere to tantalizingly beautiful trays of sweets in shop windows to apple tea that I came away addicted to drinking.
I was sorely tempted to buy a lamp, not least because I loved passing the lamp shops at night and seeing the glorious and gorgeous patterns they made in the dark.

As in Jordan, there seemed to be a sweet shop on every corner, selling the most beautiful and delectable sweet treats, only in Turkey you can also get Turkish delight, which most Americans only vaguely remember reading about in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

At dinner our first night, Elizabeth and I were overwhelmed by not only the taste of the food but also the brightness of colors of everything on our plates.

The only thing better than Turkish food is getting to eat it several stories up at an open-air restaurant overlooking the water.

3.  In some places, the tourist meccas really are all they're cracked up to be.  Most major cities have a particular area that is prime real estate for tourists, and in Istanbul, that is Sultanahmet.  And inch for inch, I don't think I've ever been to a place that has so much of interest to outsiders crammed into a space. I was warned by locals and previous tourists alike that some visitors never get outside Sultanahmet at all, and having visited and stayed there, I can see why.

This was my favorite unexpected sight in Sultanahmet, the basilica Cistern.  It doesn't look like much at all from the outside, then you go down underneath to this amazing dark cavern full of partially lit columns, strange carvings and schools of carp swimming in the water that fills the floor of the cistern.  It's very beautiful and other-worldly.

A magnificent park and promenade, composed partly of the old Roman Hippodrome, separates the Aghia Sofia from the Blue Mosque.  It's open to the public (except, of course, during prayer times) and makes a great companion stop to the Aghia Sofia.
The Disney-esque front entrance to Topkapi Palace doesn't begin to do justice to what it's in store inside.  The complex is simply enormous, and was home to a long line of Ottoman Emperors and their harems. A visitor could easily spend multiple days inside taking in all the buildings and exhibits of life behind the walls of the palace throughout the centuries.

Islamic art doesn't show people or animals, but one of the things it does feature is intricate geometric patterns and designs.  This room was part of a library, and the walls were panelled with all kinds of differently-patterned tiles.  The three vertical dark shapes here are actually a set of special shelves cut into the wall to hold turbans.

4, I'm not a big shopper but...anyone who is will never find a better place to explore.  First, there is the famous Grand Bazaar where one can everything from high end imitations of designer bags to housewares of all kinds. Then there is a spice bazaar and sweet shops selling delectable pastries and Turkish delight. Istanbul is also crammed with carpet shops selling -- of course -- Turkish rugs.  Anyone who knows me well, particularly my sister Katrinka, who begins any shopping trip we make together by asking me how many minutes I will be able to tolerate being in the store (true story), will be shocked to learn that I voluntarily spent an entire morning in a rug shop, while Elizabeth and I each bargained our way towards buying our very own Turkish rugs. After three rounds of apple tea, two narrowly-avoided walkouts, and several viewings of photos of the shop's famous carpet customers (including our favorite, a young Donald Sutherland in geeky walking shorts and black socks), we both walked out with our very own rugs, packed to an astoundingly compact size in their special little cases with handles.

The nephew of the shop owner fell in love with Elizabeth instantaneously.  I'm pretty sure if she would have just accepted any of the hundred marriage proposals he made in the course of our morning's bargaining, she could have negotiated a better discount for both of us.  But sadly, she decided that the life of a rug vendor was not for her, and that particular bargaining avenue went untapped.

It was so much fun to watch the masters at their work.  We would mention a particular color or design, and suddenly there would be five variants unrolled on the floor, each with its own story, village of origin and proof of some aspect rendering it uniquely desirable.

5. Just go! This was the last international trip of my time in Jordan.  When Elizabeth and I booked our tickets, waning budgets, diminishing days left in the country, and competing priorities were all conspiring to suggest that we might need to forgo it.  But we threw caution to the wind, and went for the weekend, and it's one of the best decisions I made in my ten months in the Middle East.  It was also a lasting reminder of a truism that takes many forms.  Basically, there are always a million reasons not to travel -- not enough time, not enough money, work needs to be done, something in our daily routine might suffer.  We can live our lives letting these excuses make our decisions for us, or we can just go.  Istanbul is my lasting reminder in favor of the latter choice.

The view of the Bosphorus from the backside of one of the grand buildings within the Topkapi Palace compound.

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