The average Turk is extremely patriotic, but accepting of the fact that the country is largely run by fools or the corrupt.
While their savings are devalued and the country’s rate of inflation soars, the average Turk hoists the red flag with the white crescent and star with pride. The average Turk is Westernised, wants the country to play a greater part in Europe, but also embraces its Islamic and Asian past and present. In short, Turkey is a place of contrasts. Straddling Europe in the west and Asia in the East, Istanbul was to be our entry point into this country that is bigger than France and Germany combined.On the way to our hotel – the first of ten that we would be staying in over a two week period – we saw children braving the traffic at crossroads and traffic lights, trying to sell roses to car drivers. It was gone midnight. The children can’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old. There were no parents or other ‘supervising’ adults to be seen. I shuddered at this, watching these young girls fearlessly approaching cars, the thoughts of the two Soham girls who went missing (and subsequently found murdered) coming to mind.
Day 2 – Monday – Istanbul
The day began with a briefing on the terrace of the Ottoman Hotel (there are probably hundreds of hotels here with the same name!). Our Explore tour guide was called Neil, and he’d been doing the same tour for around three months. With a bit of luck, he would have already acquired the essential local knowledge that we could tap him for, like where not to exchange cash, what scams to look out for and what local brew is recommended (OK, that last one was purely for me, and for the record, the local brew appeared to be … Tuborg. The Danish lager. Brewed in Istanbul)
The view from the terrace was right out across the Marmaris, and over to the East I could clearly make out the outline of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). That was to be our first destination of the morning, with a walk through the not-quite-yet bustling streets of downtown Istanbul.
We were told at the briefing about the drivers in Turkey being, well, of the adventurous kind. While pavements are the realm of the pedestrian (except for where you have to negotiate around cardboard boxes, potholes or surprisingly situated stairwells to basement shops), the roads are for cars and cars alone. Forget about pedestrian crossings – the cars have right of way. Well, strictly speaking they don’t, but trust me when I say that you are not in a position to argue on this one.
Neil told us they believe in ‘Kismet and Kadur’ – or Luck and fate. As he put it, “If a car just misses you, it’s luck. If you are hit and injured (or worse), then it was fated.” We bore these words in mind at every junction.
We had a walking tour of the old part of Istanbul (or ancient Constantinople). That’s a damn lie, actually. There was no walking, it was all running! Beginning at Constantine’s Tower, and passing an Egyptian obelisk taken from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, we hot-footed it to the Blue Mosque. Our guide, Sergun, left us with little time for taking photos.
The Blue Mosque, strangely enough, is grey. So, why the name, I wondered, and the answer lies on the inside. Having removed footwear and covered up any particularly showy areas of skin, our group went inside the mosque to discover the incredibly ornate Islamic Iznik tile work, which was predominantly shades of blue.
There is freedom of religion in the secular republic that is Turkey, but 98% are Muslim through choice. There is a minority that want to see a more strict Islamic state with the introduction of Sharia law – which was so popular back in good old Afghanistan, as you may recall – but they are very much the minority here. And even though there are calls to prayer five times a day, not once did I see anyone actually react to this by praying wherever they may be. Apparently, Fridays are the most important day to make your ablutions (again, we saw no evidence of this during the holiday). Anyway, back to the mosque …
One reason why the decoration is so ornate, possibly, is because images and icons were not allowed – probably something to do with not worshipping false deities. The Arabic calligraphy is also incredibly artistic. I have no idea what it says, but I like it all the same.
Having taken the obligatory photos, we headed back out and took our shoes back out of the plastic bags provided. It was a little blowy outside, and I saw one bag catch a gust and blow back inside the mosque, tumbleweed-style, across the carpeted floor. I dove back in to try to catch it, doing my good deed for the day. However, I realised fairly quickly that I’d actually committed a faux pas, as I’d already put my shoes back on and was presently desecrating this place of worship. As I grabbed the bag, I could hear one of the mosque attendants flapping, shouting something in my general direction. Oops. Well, I was trying to do the right thing!
Directly facing the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul’s famous landmark, the Aya Sofia. Unlike other mosques in the city, this began life as a church but was converted. Inside the Christian decoration has been covered by huge medallions with Arabic calligraphy. We didn’t get to see this first hand (on this occasion) as we went straight on past towards Topkap? Palace.
Topkapi includes a number of different types of buildings within its walls, and all of these were described in detail by our guide. The Kitchens were one of the early stops on route where, rather than feeding the five thousand, when these were working at full capacity during the Ramadan festival, they catered for 15,000 of the local poor and needy. Now, though, it was being used to show off a large collection of Chinese ceramics.
Passing through the Gate of Felicity, we saw some restoration work going on as primer was applied to some of the flourishes, just waiting for the gold leaf (or gold coloured paint, which is more likely given Turkey’s soaring inflation rates).
Then on past the Sultan’s receiving room, we continued to the Tulip Room (I believe it was called), or rather we stood outside it and looked over the Bosphorous Sea, taking in the numbers of tankers going about their business. It was a very hazy day, but our guide pointed out various landmarks in the distance to us, including the Maiden’s Tower.
The Baghdad Pavilion came next – an extremely ornate and very small room (one might almost call it a folly). The Islamic tile work was beautiful, and there was a guide on standby to make sure that no-one decided to take away any souvenirs.
In the Privy Chamber of Holy Relics, we saw various swords belonging to the ancient Caliphs, treasured models of mosques such as that at Medina and a number of other valued relics that are significant to Muslims. In one room, which was crowded (with people, not relics), a man was sat in one corner in a booth reciting pages from the Koran over the loud speaker. It was all very melodious, if you like that kind of thing. I tried to film the scene with my camcorder, but was told off first by one woman who told me that I cannot film and that they would confiscate the film. Then I got clarification on this by the guard who began gesticulating wildly in the general direction of myself and another Muslim woman whose camera (and camera-work) was somewhat more discreet than mine. Thankfully, I didn’t get the film confiscated.
So, that was my second faux pas in one day. What could I do next to bring dishonour to the Islamic world? Well, they say these things come in threes, so maybe another one is around the corner, who knows?! In my defence, should I ever find myself in an Islamic court needing to defend myself, the signs did show a standard 35mm camera with a red slash through it that I took to mean ‘No Flash Photography’. No symbol for ‘No Camcorders’. Ah well, roll on number three …
We had lunch at The Pudding Shop in the Sultanhamet district. The shop has been there for years and has a reputation as being one of the start points on the hippy trail through Asia – a good place to get a good feed before discovering the culinary delights that await in India and so on. Despite the title, it does actually sell meat products – it’s not really a place to get stuffed on Angel Delight.
Afterwards, Manda, myself and Robert – one of the Aussies – took a walk back to Aya Sofia to get some more pictures (our last stop had been somewhat brief). Pictures over, we then headed back towards the Grand Bazaar with a brief detour at a bank to change money (where, incidentally, the teller completely failed to understand my pigeon Turkish and resorted to the little English that he knew).
The Grand Bazaar is not called that for nothing. It’s huge. Every route you take there are side routes and off those are more side routes. It’s quite a maze. There are streets/aisles/lanes (not sure how best to describe them) that have specialised areas, like leather lane or gold lane. Generally speaking, though, you can see the same things throughout. And outside every shop sits the owner trying to assess what country you are from and coming up with the best line to entice you in. The best one I heard was so simple: “You are looking for me – I need money. You can help me!” We didn’t though. Instead, we continued on to a tea shop and helped ourselves to Turkish and apple teas. Point to remember – try the apple tea before putting sugar in. You may well not need that extra sugary sweetness!
We then tried to get our bearings in this maze to head out towards north in the direction of the Suleymaniye mosque. This is the largest of the mosques in Istanbul, but evidently not the easiest to find. Despite having huge minarets, it’s very difficult to spot when you are at street level. It’s obvious from a distance, but when you are right next to it, you could walk all the way around it and not know it’s there. Believe me, this is eminently possible. We pretty much did just that! 1 hour or so after trying to find the mosque, and very exhausted thanks to the afternoon heat, we finally got there just in time for the 5pm call to prayer.
When the call to prayer happens, the whole city seems to buzz. From this location at the top of the hill overlooking the Golden Horn, we could hear this general din in the distance as all the other minarets throughout the city filled with the wailing renditions of the Koran. Some might compare it to the sound of a strangled cat, but if you take a break from Westernised preconceptions and just listen to the voice, you can hear that it is often pitch-perfect – it’s just a musical scale that is different to what we are used to.
We then got a taxi – or taksi – back to the hotel. Luckily, we had a card from the hotel which showed the location. This made it easier for the driver, and just to be sure that he didn’t attempt to take us on another trip around the city – heck, we’d almost done that ourselves on foot – I kept a map open to make it appear as if I was checking his route with the desired route. Truth was I hadn’t a clue. He didn’t know that though! We got back without being ripped off. Result!
We finished off the day with a group meal at a place called The Olympiat. It’s in the fish district of town known as Kumkapi, and our meals were largely based around this. I opted for a bluefish (lufer), Manda had sea bass. I even braved the anchovies that were provided as starters … And found them delicious, much to my surprise (I had always regarded them as ‘those stinky things that ruin an otherwise perfectly good pizza’).
We were also joined by a group of cats who also seemed to want a bit of fish and a group of musicians who played traditional Turkish songs (including the recent Turkish hit ‘Kiss Kiss’ which Holly Valance did a cover of. Yes, it was a Turkish song first, folks). The cats were dismissed with either a piece of fish (or a push/kick/whatever), the musicians with tips. They were good though.
*For the full story of Ian Lloyd travels visit his website www.lloydi.com