Airports can be cruel in their irony. After 9+ hours in coach behind two relatively unsupervised 4 year old boys who seemed to become more energized with every minute of sleep they borrowed from me I awoke (haha) at the Istanbul International airport. The transportation hub of what Napoleon once considered the only and best choice for a global capital city (“if all the world were a single nation…”) threw me for a bit of a loop. If one were to land in Hawaii a young lady in a grass skirt would promptly greet passengers with a lei. Arriving in the Dominican Republic I was welcomed with rum. When one enters Istanbul Antarak you are promptly greeted with… iPhone advertisements. That’s right, kids, iPhone. Oh, and Samsung flat screen TVs. Now, being a capitalist at heart I encourage the sale of goods on a global scale. But sadly the romantic at heart was expecting something a bit different. Like what, you might ask? Oh, perhaps the plane would travel under a roman aqueduct, or have to jolt quickly on the runway to avoid an ancient pillar or monument. Maybe we would exit the plane onto a city wall. I didn’t really expect this. But just for a moment I felt like I hadn’t even left JFK.
The good news is that the good stuff starts only minutes away. After a quick trip through customs I grabbed the first cab in a row of twenty little yellow cars driven by a nice man in a suit. Doing my best American impersonation, I proceeded to speak quickly in English and hoped we were on the same page and his language of birth was only a cover up for the English he MUST hear in his head (that would be a joke). We were close. I’m glad his English was better than my Turkish. I did ask him for help on a few Turkish phrases as we departed the airport. Here’s how it went:
Me: How do you say thank you in Turkish?
Cab: Tesekkür ederim
Me: Oh, Takshudaklf… huh.
Cab: No, no,no. Te. Tesek. ederim.
Me: Ok, Tesekcure….
Cab: (Laughing) Uh, I think we will understand just a “thank you”.
Me: Can I quote you on that?
Me: Whoops, idiom!
And away we go. Well, after transferring to the front seat as the seat belts were missing in the back. Drivers here are nuts. One of the highest traffic related death rates in the world.
After no more than three minutes pass you enter what was once an ancient city gate, walls, and the entry point for the old city. Growing up in the US I am fascinated with the age of objects in older places. These walls, which have survived countless wars and conquests, have been built upon and in. There are shops inside – 7-Eleven style stores built into walls that predate the earliest western monuments in North America by 700 or more years. This was more of what I was expecting. The short, and cheap I will say, ride to Eminonu, where I am staying and the region containing the sites I came for most of all, was fascinating. After leaving the four lane highway you are suddenly transported to the pictures you see in the books: old wooden and stone houses, dozens of minarets, clouds of small shops, all accompanied by the auspicious feeling that you are finally somewhere else. Somewhere else being a little abstract. I am after all blogging from my personal computer through a wifi port in the hotel – and not really that “far” mentally. None the less the smell is unique and new. This for me is a distinguishing factor of a new spot. Smells are eternal. Smell is the one sense we have that does not warp over time and can bring back old memories by a single whiff. I can still remember the smells of particular places: a cold night in Alaska (cold and snow do strangely have a scent), arriving in Tel Aviv, a Masai village, a guava orchard in El Salvador, my grandparents house from when I was a child… Smell is often, in my humble opinion, overlooked in travel. You can show the sites through pictures, you can bring back spices and taste exotic flavors, but no device can yet recreate the smell of a dirty street in fill in the blank or that perfect moment when you first smell the ocean.
So, after checking in at the hotel I ventured out to my first and only site of the day: Aya Sofia. Honestly, this one site is probably 40% of the reason I came. Aya Sofia was largest building on earth from when it was built in the 6th century until the 15th century – a good 900 years. The immensity was astounding. However, it wasn’t just large, it was ornate – a challenge we seem to have forgotten as a culture (compare a modern basketball arena with the Roman Coliseum and you will know what I mean). Every square inch was painted or carved. The art tells stories and carries messages about the triumphs and failures of being at the crossroads of many cultures and major, well funded, religions for 1500 years – the earlier mosaics from the Christian era of Roman history, Muslim calligraphy from the Ottoman period, later Christian mosaics from the post-Crusade and on. Christian and Muslim symbols stand side by side. The highest paintings, minus the dome, are all early Christian. The enormous calligraphy “coins” placed on each side are Muslim. The building is a living witness to the incredible changes and changes that have taken place in this city; something you don’t seem to see often. Relics are usually replaced. New people, new stuff. We are lucky this stuck around through war and even earthquakes. What struck me, strangely, about the Christian symbols was that “God” was not pictured, but rather and only Jesus and Mary. This alone, for a religious historian paints a picture of the changes in mentality throughout a religions history. Also of note is that Islam forbids the painting or reproduction of an image of God or Mohammed, much as Christianity did for the first few hundred years until the Council of Ephesus. Ah, so many angles to look at…
Left Aya Sofia for lunch and stopped at a small restaurant that grabbed my attention as I walked by. There is something about lamb kebabs being grilled over an open flame that I can not resist. Met a few locals and fellow travelers and chatted over kebabs and tea. The people I’ve met here have been very friendly. I spoke with a local man who sat on the bench next to me in this restaurant for over an hour. He told me quite a bit about Istanbul and we discussed random topics such as the Gypsy Kings, which was oddly the music of choice in this establishment, and the rapper 50 Cent. Even the waiter and owner sat down for a tea and talked a bit. Where would we be without food and drink? I am fascinated with how human culture was able to convert something so simple and necessary for life into an opportunity for connection. The next table over was populated by two older men in the kind of deep conversation only people who have been close for 40 years can have. Over plates of mezze (small bites much like tapas) and a bottle of Raki (more on this later), they drank and ate and laughed the afternoon away. Looked like a good life.
Baklava and Turkish Delights
Oh yea, baklava. Lets just say this was dinner tonight. Turkish delights here so far are much better than the version I had in the UK. But the baklava was like nothing I’ve ever had. The friendly gentlemen said I would need more than one piece and the little voice in my head agreed. Thank you little voice. Thank you Baklavaki Said. The amount of honey that went into each piece is astounding. Honey has been proven to last indefinitely. Archaeologists have sampled and tested many thousand year old honey from Egyptian tombs and said it checked out to taste fine and was chemically unaltered. So as the “you are what you eat” rational goes, I should be good to go for the next thousand years by the time this trip is over.
Long story for such a short day. I’m going to watch a little BBC World until I pass out from lack of sleep. Not a bad thing really. Big day tomorrow…