Our last two and a half days in Istanbul were interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot to blog about. We bought presents for people back home. With no sense of paradox at the time, the Art Student bought two books about Turkey and I bought a miniature painting of a bearded Sufi. The Art Student came down with a tummy bug that may have had something to do with eating an unwashed nectarine. Several men wished us a happy honeymoon – whatever the Turkish is for blarney, there’s a lot of it around in Sultanahbad. Several more told us that ‘Aussies’ are their favourite tourists because we have a sense of humour. (There may be a kind of truth in that, as Australian and Turkish senses of humour show signs of great compatibility. My best example of this was somewhere in Anatolia when a chickpea stallholder demonstrated to me how he could tell from our faces that I was a visitor and Burak, our tour leader, was Turkish: he pointed at me and his face became a picture of wide-eyed, mildly idiotic curiosity; he pointed at Burak, actually a very cheerful person, and became the personification of long-suffering grimness. Burak and I both enjoyed the performance.)
We weighed up the pros and cons of a Bosphorus Cruise, a night at the opera (which would have let us see the inside of Haghia Irene), a Turkish dance performance that’s Istanbul’s top rated attraction on TripAdvisor, but ended up not opting for any of them.
We did go on two excursions, each to places off the beaten track for which getting there was a good part of the fun. The first, on day 7, was to the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art. We gleaned from Time Out Istanbul and the museum’s website that the museum was in Maslak, 20 k or so out of town. Wikipedia told us to catch the Metro from Sishane. This we did, and the metro is a striking contrast to the tramvay – quiet, smooth, with plenty of available seats and passengers who could have been from a city that’s not infested with tourists. At our second stop, a couple of older men tried to tell us something, including, mysteriously, that we had to get off. We did as we were told, and then understood, because the train almost immediately went back the way it had come. We managed to get on one going in the direction we wanted, but … Wikipedia had said to go to Maslak station, and there was no such place on the metro map. We finally asked someone, ‘Maslak?’ He didn’t speak English, but led us to the map and showed us the stop we needed, Ayazaga ITU, which we had just passed. So we swapped trains once again, and soon we were there.
Like Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, this is a private museum set up to exhibit its owners’ collection. It was well worth the effort to get there. A charming young woman greeted us warmly, told us a bit about the gallery and the collection, and engaged in arty conversation with the Art Student. We had a good time strolling around. There was contemporary Turkish art displayed alongside work from Europe, the US and China – nothing from Australia, though our hostess said she’d like it to include some Aboriginal art. My favourite pieces were a shiny evening dress made from beetle carapaces and in the sculpture courtyard a marble Cybele (that is, the many-breasted Athena of Ephesus) only without the arcane insignia and – such a relief – nipples on her many breasts. Here are a couple of the Art Student’s snaps.
The other excursion, to the Rüstem Pasha mosque, took two attempts. We had visited this tiny mosque on our first day with Intrepid. I wanted to see again, the Art Student was ‘over mosques’, so on Day 8 I left her alone and queasy in our luxurious hotel room and struck out by myself. I didn’t have a map, but I knew its general location. The Fatih municipality has deployed hordes of keen young people in bright blue T shirts to help tourists. My quest turned out to be an opportunity to get into conversation with a number of them. None had heard of the mosque, and it wasn’t on the map they had been issued. With the third group, I said I thought it was near the tomb (‘Toom?’ ‘Turbe.’ ‘Ah! Turbe!’) of Sinan the Architect. We found the tomb on the map, but after trying to tell me how to get there (‘Go through Gate 2 of the Great Market and turn left …’), they offered to come with me. So I wandered through the narrow streets with two university students, studying environmental engineering and child psychology respectively, and a high school student. I don’t know about them, but I enjoyed our awkward conversation hugely. I now know that the best football team in Istanbul is Galata Sarayi, and the names of the others don’t matter at all. I know that the women with veiled faces around old Istanbul are Definitely Not Turkish. I know that the level of English taught is high school in Istanbul is very high. We found the tomb. I had misremembered: it was right outside Suleyman’s great mosque. I gave my young guides my email address and went into that beautiful structure for a moment, before inadvertently taking a long way back to the hotel.
This morning, on our last day, we set out together to find the Rustem Pasha mosque. This time, armed with a map that showed it as clear as day, we found it with only a little confusion, turning right in the spice market where we should have turned left. And then a street vendor had parked his pretzel cart in front of its modest gate and we almost missed it. Once inside, it was every bit as beautiful as I remembered.
Goodbye Turkey, land where a man will say you break his heart by offering 45 lira instead of the 49 he’s asked for, then refuse the four lira you hold out to him, where two vehicles come face to face in a single lane street that’s marked as one-way and the drivers negotiate cheerfully the question of who will back up, where the call to prayer drowns out conversation five times a day and waiters make jokes about your manhood if you don’t drink alcohol, where a hotel employee will say to an embarrassed guest who has no small notes for a tip, ‘The tip does not matter. The humanity is important.’ Goodbye sweet Turkey.
(Written on the plane to Rome.)