It’s 5am and the early morning stillness is pierced by the day’s first call to prayer. The plaintive, melodic words are simultaneously echoing and diffusing over the city of 10 million from dozens of minarets that define the ancient skyline of Istanbul; a mystical chant that reminds us again that there are many worlds within our own and we are in one of those other worlds.
It’s true that we encountered a few raised eyebrows when people asked us what we were doing for spring break. A country that shares borders with places like Syria, Iran, and Iraq isn’t exactly the first place that pops up on most people’s radar screens when they’re planning to escape the tail end of a long Wisconsin winter. On the other hand, I was a little surprised when I entered Istanbul into the Northwest Airlines booking engine with a zone coupon code and came up with a fare of under $423 roundtrip. Upon further investigation into accommodations, amenities, complications and costs, there was just no good reason not to give it the green light.
Istanbul can trace its history back to the seventh century BC, which makes it one of the oldest cities in the world. Unlike the nearby site of the ancient city of Troy, there are miles of ancient walls that are still standing. This provides an interesting contrast to the monumental traffic that often clogs busy Istanbul as the major commercial hub that it is today. The Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires all saw the significance of the city’s geographic position during their periods of rule.
From our hotel just inside of the old city walls, we could easily walk about a mile and a half to a compact neighborhood that is home to the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the final resting places of various sultans. We could take a tram instead for a mere million lira, but our walk takes us into a bustling world of street life that winds past restaurants, shops, sidewalk vendors, a cacophony of sounds, a kaleidoscope of sights and a smorgasbord of smells. Uniformed children attend school near our hotel and instead of a staccato bell ringing to mark transitions in the schedule, a few computerized bars of Moonlight Sonata play. Begging and panhandling appear to be essentially outlawed, but there are people who quietly stake out a piece of sidewalk with a bathroom scale and charge 300 lira -- much less than a penny. There are some single-serving toilet paper peddlers.
Throughout the bazaar and elsewhere, it seems like half of Istanbul is either selling carpets or shilling for someone who does. And no matter where you live, a good carpet salesman will have a cousin who lives somewhere near you. You may indeed be able to pick up a prize Persian rug for less than it would cost you back home. Still it takes some background to know what you are buying, whether it is worth what you are paying and whether or not you can even count on it being delivered. Carpet salesmen have all the persistence of Florida timeshare peddlers.
A number of Istanbul’s most important tourism sites are located within easy walking distance of each other, including the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia (a mosque today, but originally built when Istanbul was the Christian city of Constantinople), Topkapi Palace and the Byzantine Basilica Cistern. From historic architecture, intricate mosaics and smaller bazaars that surround many of the mosques to Turkish baths and retail activity at every level, the Sultanahmet neighborhood and the Bazaar Quarter are easily enjoyed without a guide and barely even a map.
Almost every business that does much trade with visitors will have people on staff who are able to speak very passable English, so it is not all that difficult to get around. Menus offer English translations or you can simply see what is being prepared and take it from there. Food is plentiful, tasty and very reasonably priced. With the city so densely populated, there are bakeries, grocery stores, street vendors, restaurants, hookah gardens and watering holes galore. The most common style of cooking seems to be kabobs; from individual sized offering to giant pillars of various types of meat that are succulently prepared and then thinly-sliced from as fans of Greek gyros will find familiar.
Business owners that we spoke with told us that American tourism was way down in this country of mosques, where more than 90% of the population is nominally Islamic. But Turkey is a country with a secular government. Activities continue as usual on the streets during the five-times-daily calls from the minarets of this enchanting city, just as life continues in any U.S. city while church bells ring. We will always have fond memories of our visit and we expect to renew our acquaintance again with this ancient, interesting city.