Istanbul, Turkey

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October 1st 2013
Published: October 8th 2013
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<strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;">Istanbul, Turkey

My hotel, the Byzantium, is located on a very narrow cobble stone street near Sultanhamet Square, the heart of old Istanbul. The streets here are crowded with small hotels and restaurants. If you are ever here I highly recommend the Byzantium, . The rooms are clean and the staff friendly and accommodating. The sidewalk café is a great place to sip strong coffee and watch the parade of locals and tourists. Breakfast is included and is very tasty. The rooftop restaurant has a commanding view of the Mamara Sea in one direction, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in the other. Have a glass of Raki and let the cares of the world fade away.

Istanbul is such a large city with so many layers of history and culture it is almost impossible to describe it adequately. It is the only city in the world that spans two continents, Asia and Europe, with the Bosporus Straight in between. It has a population of between 13 and 20 million people. No one knows for sure. Last night I took an open air bus across the Bosporus Bridge one of only two that connect the two sides of the city. At night the view from the Asian side is magical. On the way there the bus stopped for a time at Taksim Square, the site of recent violent riots directed against the current government. Right now the square seems calm and was full of locals taking a night stroll.

These are some impressions of this magnificent city: There are gorgeous ancient structures such as the Blue Mosque, a marvel of 15th century architecture but by no means as beautiful as Hagia Sofia, build a 1,000 years earlier. The latter was a Christian cathedral for a thousand years before it was taken over by the Muslims and became a Mosque. Then in 1935 the Ataturk government turned it into a museum as part of efforts to secularize the country. I was struck by the mix of conservative/religious and the secular here. Many of the older women still cover themselves head to foot in black or drab brown. With many of these only their eyes are visible. I saw one such woman struggling along with a large backpack over her garb next to her husband who had on jeans, a tee shirt, and tennis shoes. He stopped and as I watched he turned her around and removed his ipod from the backpack and then they continued on. The temperature was in the 80s so the poor woman must have been baking. On the other hand many of the younger women wear colorful head scarves or eschew them altogether. One morning I observed an older woman dressed in the conservative fashion eating breakfast with a young woman, probably her daughter, who had on western clothes. Her beautiful head of hair was exposed for all to see. Add to this the American and European girls I saw parading around in embarrassingly revealing scraps of cloth. There has to be a middle ground, doesn’t there?

Other observations: Mosques are everywhere, large and small. They are about as prolific as Starbucks stores in Seattle. But when the muezzins in the minarets sing out the call to prayer five times a day, I have yet to see a rush to the Mosques and business in the streets seems to go on uninterrupted. A stroll through the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market can take a whole day but is well worth the time. There must be a thousand carpet sellers. I settled for a ceramic tile wall hanging for 500 Turkish lira, which is more than likely more than it is worth but it is now mine. The ancient cistern near Hagia Sofia is also a must see. This was built in the 6th century using huge marble and stone columns pilfered from all over ancient Greece and Rome. Be sure to check out the two Medusa heads at the bottom of two of the massive columns.

Another interesting observation is that men in this city are often seen walking hand in hand or one with his arm around the other. Physical affection among men is considered completely normal here whereas in the U.S. it would unfortunately have other connotations. This is a city I would love to visit again. It has so much to offer. Tomorrow morning, very early, it will be off to Ataturk Airport for a flight home to Seattle through Amsterdam.


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