Sunday, May 07, 2006

Istanbul, Part II

Before you read this, check out Meaghan's account of our trip to Istanbul. During our five days in Istanbul, we stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, location of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Four Seasons Hotel. Our hotel was located on the old Byzantine hippodrome, directly across from the Blue Mosque. Here's the view from the terrace restaurant where we ate breakfast every day: Sultanahmet is probably the most touristy place I've been since the Upper City of Quebec - or perhaps Disney World. Walking out of our hotel every day, we would hear French, Italian, and English as much as Turkish, and pass enormous white tour buses with Korean signs in the window. This presented an unrivaled opportunity for international people-watching. Take clothes, for instance. To look like an authentic Turkish man, dress in the following costume: stylish but poorly tailored gray pinstripe suit, white dress shirt, light brown loafers, hair gel. Sunglasses and bright green tie are optional. Italian men, on the other hand, can be recognized at fifty paces by their dark sweaters over check dress shirts and their square spectacle frames of thick black plastic. Whatever they're wearing, women who visit mosques are usually requested to cover their heads. Non-Muslim women, unused to wearing headscarves, come up with a number of solutions. Meaghan bought a scarf in the Grand Bazaar and did a reasonable approximation of the Turkish style, although without that lower layer she did have some hair peeking out. Other solutions were less elegant, ranging from the knot-under-the-chin toothache look, to the one girl who actually tied the arms of her sweatshirt around her head, to a few who chose not to cover their heads at all. Having been to Morocco, where non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter any mosques except this one, we found their disrespect pretty classless. Our guidebook had its own suggestion of how we should show respect to our Turkish hosts:
At all times show respect for Ataturk, whose picture you will see in offices, shops, and public places.
In fact, you do see pictures of the founder of the Turkish Republic, a snappy dresser with piercing eyes, everywhere you go. When you step off the train, you see a three-foot-high bronze image of his face emerging from a marble wall. Our favorite restaurant, whose walls were covered with pictures of every sort, reserved one wall for Ataturk alone. Every denomination of the Turkish lira bears his picture. Now, it never would have occurred to Meaghan and me to make fun of these pictures. We're live-and-let-live sorts; every country shows its patriotism in its own way; and besides, he's a handsome fellow. But having read this advice in our guidebook put the idea in our heads, and much like Tolstoy and his white bear, we couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time we saw a picture of Ataturk, it made us want to laugh - at our guidebook! We were lucky not to embarrass ourselves. Istanbul is a great vacation destination that I would recommend to just about anyone. Its tourist hordes and hard-sell shopkeepers are overwhelming at times, but the locals know how to help you get what you want; it doesn't seem quite so foreign as Morocco does. Our book said that "nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar," but compared to the sensory onslaught of Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna, we felt practically at home. We read one tourist brochure that described Istanbul as "the capital of three empires;" its most famous sights outline the history of civilization. There's one moment when you're walking into the Hagia Sophia and you see above the arch an Orthodox Christian mosaic of St. Michael; as you look down, the arch frames a giant wooden circle bearing the name of one of Muhammad's relatives in Arabic calligraphy. In that moment, you sense a coming together of east and west, past and present, and the historic weight of our ancestors' actions.


Anonymous Expat said...

I've been wanting to go there for quite a while. Nice pictures!

Valerie Dho said...

I love Istanbul :) The culture, warm people, everything :)