Tag Archives: Istanbul

My Trip to Turkey 1: Istanbul

Having a great time in Istanbul. Wish you were here!

I’ll be doing occasional blogs over the next couple of weeks mainly so I have a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. It never feels like I’ll forget things while I’m there but bitter experience has taught me otherwise. For example, I know I’ve been to Fatehpur Sikri in India, but every detail of it that comes to mind turns out in reality to be a memory of the Red Fort in Delhi. So here goes on my couple of days in Istanbul.

As the Turkish Airlines plane touched down at Ataturk Airport there was a round of applause, of the ‘Nice job’ rather than the ‘Thank God’ variety. If this moment of collective grace was a good omen, it was soon followed by another: a young woman in rimless glasses, a stylish black full-length coat and a pale blue scarf over her hair, took a moment from her extraordinarily calm parenting of two very active little boys to wish us – in Turkish – a pleasant trip, and then explain in gestures what she meant.

That was on Wednesday night. We reached our hotel – the excellent two-star Best Town Palace Hotel – close to midnight. On Thursday, after a wonderfully eclectic breakfast (borek, cereal, hardboiled egg, olives and salad meat, meze dips etc) we headed out for a morning of art galleries and other exhibitions. In Singapore we’d seen a Miro, a Warhol and stunning art from Papunya Tula and Yuendemu; in Istanbul it was Leonardo and Goya, but we did also find some contemporary Turkish work. The most interesting show was a photographic exhibition about the Village Institute Program, in which promising young people from poor villages were educated in boarding schools and returned home to spread their learning – a powerful strategy for remedying the endemic rural illiteracy that was the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and cultivating an informed democracy. (I’ve just found out from Wikipedia that the program was attacked by reactionaries who used the moral panic tactics – the Institutes included girls – and accusations of Communism. The exhibition didn’t do the opposition the honour of mentioning them.)

This morning, our small group tourism experience began in Ernest with a four-hour walk, taking in:

  • the Hippodrome
  • the Blue Mosque, which is extraordinarily beautiful but felt cold and showy to me
  • a tea house, where the eight women of our group were the only women but there didn’t seem to be any awkwardness
  • the Grand Bazaar, which is not, as I expected, a chaotic scene of makeshift stalls filled with the sound of bargaining and a thousand smells, but a vast, orderly shopping arcade, perhaps the world’s oldest mall
  • the Suleymaniye mosque, full of light and air, a totally different experience. It’s the work of the architect Sinan, who seems to have a status in Turkish history not unlike Shakespeare’s in English. His modest türbe (look at me, using Turkish words) is just around the corner
  • the Rustum Pasha mosque, also by Sinan, decorated with fabulous tiles, with a sense of light like the Suleymaniye mosque, but intimate. Even as ignorant as I am, you get a sense of why Sinan is a rockstar.
  • the Spice Bazaar, more what I had expected, only clean. Insert here the olfactory equivalent of spectacular.
  • .

    In true Intrepid Tour style, we were then cut loose for the ret of the day. My little trio had lunch that was like no lamb kebab I’ve ever had, then went to Hagiya Sophia / Aya Sofya. Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the building, there’s a delicious irony in this piece of Christian triumphalism being conquered by a triumphant Islam, and now it’s a museum.

    We’re being called to,our ride to the ferry, so that’s all you get.

    John Freely’s Istanbul

    John Freely, Istanbul: Imperial City ( 1996, Penguin 1998)

    20120617-184203.jpgOn a friend’s recommendation, I borrowed this from the library as preparation for our trip to Turkey. As it became clear I wasn’t going to finish it in time, I also bought an eBook, which I finished on the plane. I’m jabbing this entry on the iPad keyboard in the air.

    The book is a bit of a hybrid – a biography of the city from 658 BCE to 1995, and a guide to the monuments and relics of that long history. It doesn’t aim to make sense of the history so much as to help reader–travellers understand what they are seeing. Istanbul is not the capital of modern Turkey, but it was an imperial capital for many centuries, so perhaps it’s inevitable that the book’s backbone is a chronology of a series of rulers – of Greek and then Roman antiquity, Christian Nova Roma / Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire and finally the Turkish Republic. We are told the name of each new Augustus/Sultan, how many relatives he killed on his way to power or after getting there (one new Sultan killed a record nineteen younger brothers), his age, and what monuments he left. Court intrigue, exile, mutilation, assassination and heroic exploits in war may make for high drama in close up, but in a narrative that covers more than 1500 years in 300 or so pages, they become a bit of a slog. Freely does his best to keep it lively. The quotes from contemporaries over the ages bring welcome insight into the look and feel of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul at a given time, in particular the substantial passages from the fabulous seventeenth century writer Evliya Çelebi are just fabulous.

    I’m glad to have read it and I’ve probably retained enough to enrich my impending visit, but I found myself constantly asking why – why did the populace sometimes support an invading leader, and why did they often turn against him soon after his coronation, how come a section of the army could just decide to make their leader the emperor, and so on. I would have appreciated a little discussion of, say, the relationship between secular and religious authorities in both Christian and Muslim empires, or the status of women, or the lives of everyday people. Without such discussion, a lot was left mysterious.There are plenty of events that raise questions about these issues. For example, though Turkey had its first woman prime minister when the book was being written, the Byzantine Empire had more than one Augusta and some women seem to have wielded enormous powered behind the Ottoman throne.

    So I’m not sure I’d recommend the book but I wouldn’t recommend against it. Now our German pilot is telling us to prepare for landing, so I’ll stop poking at keys and switch off my electronic equipment.