Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Turkish Delights

"The Greek colony of Byzantium was transformed into Christian Constantinople in AD 330 and became Islamic Istanbul after the Turkish conquest of 1455....For over 2,000 years travelers have been dazzled by the marvels and mysteries of Istanbul."
John Feely, Istanbul (Penquin Books, 1996)

"It's amazing where life takes you if you take life as it comes," I wrote in my last post on Istanbul.

I was thinking about how I got from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Starobilsk, Ukraine, and from there found a way to Istanbul for Christmas 2009. It just happened. A convergence of time and place, a twist of fate, perhaps. Not that Jud, Jason and I didn't do some planning, but life just seemed to take us there.

Author John Feely is right: we were dazzled. Istanbul, a penisular city of 15 million people, brims with things to see and do. We absorbed as much as we could, and marveled at the city's beauty and diversity. We were also taken with simple things, like how clean the city is, everywhere we went; how excellent the public transportation system; how bright the lights, how clear the nights; how friendly the people, how welcoming, and so many spoke English.

Istanbul's textured life, woven from the threads of many cultures, fills the senses and feeds the soul like an exquisite Turkish carpet. Elegance and attention to detail are woven into the fabric of its urban life. The blend of cultures is as sublime as a Persian rug, as delicious as a Turkish stew.

The grand mosques and palaces, the lively neighborhoods, the busy harbour, fantastic shops and restaurants, the great bazaars, predominate. Yet, many Turkish delights on a more modest scale than those fit for emperors and sultans also amaze and amuse.

Topkapi Park on our way to the FerryWe were on our way to catch a ferry at Eminonu to take us across the Bosphorus to Asia when we discovered we could walk through a park. It was Topkapi Park, part of the grounds of the magnificent Topkapi palace and the famous Archeological Museums. Compared to these massive and elegant architectural giants, the park is simple and quiet. It was a nice day and we decided to keep walking rather than visit these popular tourists attractions. This kind of spontaneous thinking about where to go kept us from ever going inside either the palace or the museums, but, we assured each other, we would do that on our next visit.

I loved walking through the park at a leisurely pace with Jud and Jason. As we passed flower gardens, fountains, and a statue of Ataturk (a hero I want to learn more about), we could see the bustling harbor through the bare winter trees. The branches formed an archway that framed the harbour and the tall minaret of a mosque like an Islamic stained glass window.

Sometimes on the way to doing something you happen upon something else, lovely surprises. The Park was one of them. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from novelist Ursula:LeGuin: "It is good to have an end to journey toward: but it is the journey that matters in the end."

Standing in AsiaNone of us had been to Asia, so we liked the idea of taking a ferry across the beautiful Bosphorus to the other side of the city, the Asian side. It's incredible to me that Istanbul has a European and an Asian side, a true gateway between east and west. I think it's the only city in the world that can make this claim. The Bosphorus was a valley that split apart thousands of years ago to form the European and Asian continents. Just the idea astonishes.

We found the right ferry at Eminonu and took our seats. The crossing was pleasant but it seemed momentous, as if we were players in a great historical drama. Jud met an interesting man who formerly worked for NATO, lives in Budapest and was visiting his native land. The man invited Jud to visit anytime in Budapest. I told Jud I'd be happy to accompany him. PCVs can be very bold!

We walked off the gangplank into a another beautiful park, this one full of cafes, flower vendors, and shops. We didn't get very far into Asia. We were just glad to say we had been there. We stood on Asian land. We strolled a bit, smelled the flowers, and sat for a delicious cup of apple tea.

The Egyptian (Spice) Market
Warm hospitality and the vibrant colors of spices are among the main ingredients for a wonderful Istanbul adventure. That's why there's nothing like going to the Spice Market on a gray, rainy day. The colors of cinammon, saffrons, chilis and other spices from Egypt lit the Bazaar even when the lights were out. Yes,
in fact the lights did go out while Jud and I strolled among the various stalls buying some spcies and teas for gifts. No problem. Candles were light, lanterns fired up, and the colors of the Bazaar burst forth like fireworks in a dark night sky on the 4th of July.

BookstoresWalking along the tramway is a good way to see the city, and catch a ride if need be. The walk is wonderful for capturing the sights and sounds of Turkish culture, and that's how we happened upon two great bookstores. We spent quite a bit of time in the first shop browsing through books about Istanbul. We resisted the temptation to buy books (hard to do) and walked across the street to the second bookstore, called "Window to the World." This is a modern bookstore with a wide selection of books on every aspect of Turkish history and culture. "The widest selection in the world," its advertizing boasts.

Imagine browsing through books on Anatolian design ideas, Turkish cuisine, Iznik ceramics and carpets, Islamic architecture, Byzantine art, the Ottoman empire, the Bosphorus, Turkish poetry. Many of these books are in English, which meant Jud and I could spend hours going through them. And we did, I think to the manager's dismay. When I wrote down the above quote from the John Feely book on Istanbul (turns out he's one of the best-known authors on Turkey), the manager came to look over my shoulder. I put the book aside and went browsing again, selecting a package of beautiful notecards to buy, a dozen different tile designs. Jud noticed the transaction and said it looked like I was making amends! I think I was, but now I wish I had bought a few books.

A Turkish coffee and delicious pastry at a nearby cafe topped off our leisurely tour along the tramway. Turkish delights!

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