At a time when international travel is filled with hassle, my recent trip to Istanbul was a breeze. Finding the right flight from the west coast may have been the trickiest part. Even obtaining a visa, a process that typically requires numerous documents, was so simple that a jaded traveler like me was dumbstruck. It turns out that U.S. citizens can obtain a Turkish visa at the port of landing for 20 dollars.
As I stepped off the aircraft and followed the directions to baggage claim/immigration I was still skeptical that the process could be that easy. At the designated counter I pulled out the exact bill and, a few seconds later, the official behind the glass barrier had stamped my passport with the official seal followed by a lyrical greeting, “Have a good time in our city.” Voila! I had permission to stay in this foreign country for up to three months. Despite language difficulties and the foreignness of the culture, I could feel the bounce of the welcome mat as my feet stepped into Turkey.
Istanbul is a true Mecca for tourists. There are currency exchange kiosks galore, cybercafés at every corner, and a city teeming with historical sites that speak of the ancient times just as fluently as its residents talk about current events. Looking Indian helped a little; there was an unspoken bond of shared heritage that underlined an eagerness to please, making me even more comfortable.
“You Hindi, you from India?” they asked in broken English “Come eat in my place,” or “Come see what lovely things we have for you,” they urged, as they pulled out a bag covered with intricate embroidery or a tiny lamp carved with designs reminiscent of the craftsmen of old Delhi. The manager at the cyber café I walked to check my emails in the evening offered steaming Turkish tea in the tiny glass cups that are present everywhere.
This middle-aged cyber café host seemed to live in his place of business, quickly appearing from the ante-room to serenade me with an old Bollywood hit, lilting out 70s pop tunes with exaggerated theatrics, smoothly shifting to “O sole mio!” as soon as he found out that I had come from a Western country. At a little bistro, in the more historic area of Sultan Ahmet, a bowl of red chillies appeared without being asked; there was an unspoken understanding of my tongue’s hankering for extra spice.
When I was finding my way around Turkey on my own I was constantly assured by the locals, as well as friends who had been to that part of the world before, that it was quite safe to get around as a solo woman traveler, though the continuous soliciting by roadside Romeos did make me somewhat wary at times. I quickly realized they were harmless, though the frequency and persistence of their amorous advances could be daunting.
A few days later, I ended up sharing a room with Janice, a fellow attendee at the conference I was in Istanbul for. She had already established a connection with the shop-keepers in the neighborhood, made friends with the waiters in the tea stalls as she enquired about their children with great ease.
Every morning the two of us left the clean, if downright homey, mid-eastern décor of the the California Hotel (that was the name of our humble abode!) and made our way into the narrow, cobbled alleys of old Istanbul. Following Janice’s lead, I took a turn at the open oven of the neighborhood restaurant where we had many of our meals. Inflating the flat bread on the glowing flames into a gigantic flour balloon in a spotlessly clean yet cramped kitchen became part of a folksy experience.
Smiles beamed from every face as we ate with our fingers and debated vigorously about the mayhem caused by the rest of the world; if only politicians would gather and break bread together more often, we might have a more peaceful planet.
It was not the personality of this crowded Turkish urban sprawl that attracted me to Istanbul, neither was my interest aroused by its proximity to different civilizations. The contrast and contradictions between its European and Asian personalities were intriguing but what struck me again and again about this city was that it shared the characteristics of three other cities I love: Edinburgh, Mumbai, and San Francisco.
The winding streets that flow up and down the hills are reminiscent of San Francisco, while the tall buildings almost leaning on each other and plastered with billboards and colorful signs that compete ferociously, the people and cars constantly on the verge of colliding along narrow, crowded lanes brought Mumbai to my mind. The steep cobbled alleys and stone steps, the “closes” that appear mysteriously between buildings, just like in Edinburgh, give the city a Scottish aura.
The European identity of Istanbul is very evident around the Taksim Square, where modern amenities merge seamlessly with reminders of the past. But then its Asian essence can be inhaled on the tapered, thin lanes of Sultan Ahmet, with infinite number of vendors enticing you to taste Turkish delights of countless variety.
Byzantine relics and Ottoman leftovers mix in this metropolis. At a moment’s notice you step into a Roman or Egyptian relic while a few moments later it is a 21st century bistro that beckons you. A very modern train system makes journeying through complicated urban arteries extremely convenient.
I would have loved to steep myself in the smells and sounds of this city on the Bosporus but I had come here on business—to attend a conference, coordinate a workshop, read a research paper.
Every two years ISTR (International Society for Third Sector Research)—an organization that works with non-profit agencies engaged in the creation of social capital and civil society—holds a conference in different parts of the world. What had started as an unexpected caper about ten years ago in the South African city of Cape Town, had become an integral part of work for me.
I was part of a small group of activists and academicians who had come together from many parts of the world to take on the task of exchanging and advocating for gender issues at the bi-annual conferences hosted by ISTR. My interest in social issues had given me another opportunity to visit a different part of the world both intellectually as well as culturally.
The venue where the conference was housed had witnessed many waves of immigration. Kadir Has University, one of the leading teaching venues in Turkey, is spread across refurbished historic buildings. The bulk of the university premises is a former tobacco factory renovated for modern use. Here archeologists have discovered layers and layers of Roman and Ottoman remains. Every room or courtyard through which we wandered and presented workshops in was of great historic value. Several of these halls had been turned into living museums. For a storyteller like me it was a virtual treasure-house.
Despite being classified as a Muslim nation, Turkey has a secular constitution. It has had a mixture of the Christian and Islamic ways of life for centuries, as can be seen in the conversion of many buildings like the Hagia Sophia—first a cathedral, then a mosque, and currently a museum. In Istanbul contradictions thrive with great ease; strapless dresses walk alongside burkas, girls in shorts mingle with women wearing the chador, and no one blinks an eye.
There is so much to explore in this fascinating city that has been designated the 2010 European Capital of Culture.
If you have only one day in Istanbul, then a visit to the Hippodrome square, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar are essential. So, on my first day in Istanbul, I decided to take a bus tour that included these highlights and then explore the rest of the city with colleagues expected to join me later.
The original Hippodrome was built in 203 AD by the Roman Emperor when he rebuilt Byzantium, and later reconstructed, enlarged and adorned with beautiful works from different parts of the empire by Constantinople the Great, who decided to make it his capital. The crusaders plundered and destroyed the Hippodrome in 1204. Today only a few relics remain.
The Blue Mosque, a 17th century edifice, is named after its special tiles. Not far from it is the Hagia Sophia, at one time possibly the world’s biggest building, barring the Egyptian Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. The original, built in 390 AD, burned down in 404 AD. Over centuries, this expanse of buildings has served as a church, a mosque, a place where emperors were crowned. With every succeeding reign it was enhanced to meet the specific requirements of that ruler.
In 1934 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, ordered the Hagia Sophia to be turned into a museum. Since then, visitors from across the world are welcome. Just a short distance away is the Topkapi Palace Museum that the Ottomans used as their second palace in Istanbul. Besides providing a place for the imperial residence, the Topkapi Palace was also the seat of governance for the Sultans. The mark of different rulers in its environs can be seen in various parts of this historic compound. The stone wall bordering it can be viewed from numerous parts of Istanbul, periodically reminding the visitor that, even though the city has advanced tremendously, it still continues to retain its former roots.
Walking through the seemingly infinite historic buildings whets one’s appetite, not only for the variety of food available in the countless cafes spread across the area but also for the intermittent glimpses of the traditional artifacts that are ready to entice you to empty your pocketbook. All paths lead to the Grand Bazaar.
The bazaar was a major trade center both during the Byzantine and Ottoman times. In the succeeding years modifications have been made but the essential character of the souk has been retained.
It is imperative that the visitor remember where he entered the bazaar because the exotic flavors of Arabian nights inside its narrow and crowded lanes can be thoroughly intoxicating and confusing. With over 5,000 shops that melt into each other not only does the visitor travel back in time but also in geography, as these vendors declare their fraternity with the legendary Aminabad shopping area in Lucknow or Chandni Chowk. Just as I began to feel a twinge of homesickness I was brought back to the Mediterranean by the smells and taste of nut-filled pastry, a gentle reminder that the occident is not that far after all. Even though I had vowed not to shop for anything I found myself taken in by sweet- talking vendors who successfully persuaded me to fill my bags.
No trip to this amazing city is complete without a visit to the hamam. The one we chose was hidden in the back alleys of Sultan Ahmet. It was a historic bathing site that had been in use for many centuries. As we walked down the marble steps of this traditional bathing house admiring the carvings on the entrance, the cleanliness and the welcoming aura was reassuring. We were able to communicate what we needed through gestures. With the help of smiles and the firm yet affectionate prodding that the attendants used to win our confidence, I was able to peel off the many layers of Indian sense of decorum that are second nature and let my body be smothered and massaged under the heavy curtain of the rising steam.
Then it was time to figure out how we were going to ride down the Bosporus; after all, a trip across the Marmara Sea was a highpoint without which a trip to Turkey could not be complete.
We set off early next morning, by bus and train, to the place where frequent ferries for the islands leave. Princes Island is an archipelago of nine islands just a few miles away from the Asian side of Istanbul. The islands are free of cars and offer a natural atmosphere of peace and quiet. In the Byzantine period they formed a collective religious center with many monasteries but during the Ottoman rule they became neglected backwaters. The islands gained their current name because princes who were regarded as pretenders to the throne were often sent there in exile.
After a restful day riding the horse-drawn carriages along lanes thickly lined with flower bearing trees, it was time to take the boat back to California Hotel. The last day was spent browsing the shops in the Grand Bazaar, picking up souvenirs and mementos as well as making the difficult decision about how many boxes of Turkish delight the already bursting suitcase could tolerate.
Janice and I walked along the bylanes of Sultan Ahmet wondering when, or if, we would be able to return to the city that had been such fun to explore. The day was of particular significance for me personally since it was my 65th birthday. Janice rose to the occasion and found us the perfect restaurant. Atop the roof of the Meyhane and Fish bistro we gazed to our hearts content at the starlit Blue Mosque, sipping a glass of raki, planning and dreaming of our next rendezvous.
Who knew where my poetry or social calling would take me next, but for now I was at peace with myself and the world, savoring the fresh fish and, even more, relishing the gentle breeze that soothed our aching muscles on that July night.
Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, and storyteller.