Between Tuesday, 11 May, and Monday, 17 May, my mother and I joined a group of 25 people for “A Six-Day Getaway” to Istanbul organized by the W&L Traveller, an extension of the alumni college of Washington and Lee University, my undergrad alma mater. The trip started at Dulles Airport outside Washington, so I took my usual Kosher Bus down on Mother’s Day, Sunday, 9 May, to give myself a day to help Mother with the last-minute prep for the trip. She insists she packed and repacked three times, but I don’t know if that includes the time she repacked my bag after I got to D.C.! (Because of the general awfulness of air travel now—and this voyage was not better than average, as you’ll see—we planned for an all-carry-on trip so economy of content and compactness were guiding principles.)
One of our fellow voyagers, Karen Boatright, who lives in Austin, Texas, has a daughter who lives not only in Washington, but right near my mom’s apartment. Karen had planned to pay her daughter a visit before leaving for Turkey, so she contacted Mom and suggested they meet and coordinate the trip out to the airport. (Mom has long asserted that she always gets lost driving into Virginia—and every time I’ve gone over there with her, we actually have gotten lost!) So on Tuesday morning, bright and early (very early!) Karen arrived in a cab to pick us up and we drove out to Dulles just ahead of the morning rush and the threatening weather. We arrived at the airport at around a quarter after 9 in the morning for a 1:13 p.m. flight to JFK. We'd been advised to allow as much as three hours to get through the check-in process, including security, and it almost looked like we’d need it when the check-in computer, which is supposed to scan our passports and then issue the boarding pass for our flight, got glitchy. It’s all supposed to be self-service for speed and convenience (yeah, right!), but we ended up requiring the efforts of a Delta employee to get us through what ought to have been a zip-and-go process. (As I so often tell my acting students: Don’t rely on technology. It will almost always let you down.)
So boarding passes in hand, we set out to find our departure gate. As we’d learn on the subsequent legs of this trip, our gates were always at the farthest point in the airport from wherever we were starting out. So we made the trek from the check-in counters through the TSA security checkpoint (which alone felt like it was in the next county), then a 10-mile hike to the gate. Once finally there, maybe 90 minutes before the flight was scheduled to board, we perched at a little table near some fast-food outlets and had our muffins and coffee and we settled in for a short break as the rest of the D.C.-originating members of our group of travelers—or travellers, as W&L would have it—began arriving. (The 19th-century spelling is a reference to Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller.)
The flight to JFK boarded pretty much on time and we took off in a tiny plane for New York. The plane was so small that it apparently can’t handle rigid-sided carry-on luggage, so attendants took those bags from passengers—mine was a soft bag that can be squished to fit under a seat—and performed a “planeside baggage check.” After the short flight, we deplaned onto the tarmac near the terminal building—something I don’t remember doing in maybe 40 years! The planeside-checked bags were returned on the ground and we entered a long, metal walkway that eventually led us to the departure terminal—after another of what would be recurring long, long walks. We met up with Karen’s Austin companion, Margene, and had lunch at an airport Chili’s and waited the hour-and-a-half to board the Delta flight to Istanbul, scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m. It’d already been a long day, but we were in for an unpleasant surprise shortly.
The flight to Istanbul actually boarded close to on time, and we stowed away our carry-ons and settled in to take off. I don’t remember how long we’d been on the plane when the pilot came on the PA system to announce that the safety check had found a problem with the wheel temp and we’d be holding until the techies could determine if the problem was in the gauge or in the wheel itself. It could be an hour, the captain said, but he asked us to remain on the craft in case they could take off before that. The hour passed and the pilot came back on the speakers to say that the aircraft would be sidelined and we’d have to change to another plane. One would be landing in about another hour, he explained, and the crew would go aboard as soon as the craft had been unloaded and serviced and we’d be leaving about 6:30. Needless to say, our new departure gate was not next to our old one, so we trudged to the end of the corridor—at least we didn’t end up at a different terminal or something—to wait for the replacement plane to be ready. Well, 6:30 turned into 7 p.m., and after we finally reboarded, we took off about 8 p.m. for the 10-hour flight to Istanbul. After so much enforced inactivity, starting pretty much at 8:30 that morning, we were pretty enervated by the time we finally took off from JFK, so (after getting up pretty early as well) it wasn’t hard to sleep most of the long flight.
We finally landed at Ataturk Airport at about 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday (6 a.m. New York time). The arrival was accompanied by a lot of confusion as our W&L companion, Dr. Florinda Ruiz, tried to corral all of us and direct us through the processes of getting our visas (obtained, for a $20 fee, at a booth at the end of a long, long walk from the arrival gate), passport control, baggage claim (for those who checked luggage in Washington or New York), and customs (of which there wasn’t any!). Of course, those of us with only carry-on luggage had to wait for the ones reclaiming checked bags, but we also had to find our local guide, Semih Adiyaman, who couldn’t meet us inside the security area. (Of course, we had to trust that Semih knew of the flight delay in New York and, first, hadn’t been waiting at the airport since the original 10 a.m. arrival time and, second, had been informed of the new ETA.) Dr. Ruiz sent me out to find Semih, but, of course, I had no idea where to look. I exited the main doors and was confronted by a mass of people—thousands, I’m sure—behind barricades, all waving little white signs with names of passengers or organizations written on them. I took a chance and began moving to my right—the throng extended in both directions—trying to read the signs as I walked along the barricade. Then I spotted someone waving frantically and shouting at me; it was a young woman, but I went over anyway and saw that the sign she was waving had “Washington and Lee” printed on it in the same typeface as the name tags we all were now wearing around our necks. (I felt like a second-grader, but we all mostly wore them for the first couple of days or longer. It not only helped us learn each other’s names—and W&L graduation classes if applicable—but it was a way for Flor Ruiz and Semih to keep us in view when we needed herding.) The woman, Nouray, was Semih’s assistant and she was running point, spotting for “W&L” label-wearers as we emerged from the airport. Nouray ushered me toward Semih, waiting behind the gaggle of assembled greeters in an area where there was a little space to gather.
I’d guess it was about 2 or 2:30 p.m. by now, maybe later, but many of the group hadn’t gotten the checked bags yet because our luggage, having been transferred at the last minute from another craft, was the last to be pulled off the plane and routed to the carousels where the arriving passengers were waiting. Obviously, this all resulted in more standing around. My feet and legs were already getting tired and we hadn’t gone anywhere yet! (It was also at this point that I discovered that the weather in Istanbul was considerably warmer and more humid than I had expected, having looked up the average May temps during our planning stage. I was hot all during the flights and the waiting time in the two airports, but I chalked that up to the climatization in the planes and terminals and our constant hiking through airport walkways. I still don’t know if Istanbul was having a heat wave just then or if the temps reported in the guidebooks and websites—all around 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16º Celsius) and spring-like—were plain wrong. We encountered low and mid-80’s—25-30º C—bright sun, and 40-50% humidity.) Finally, everyone who was supposed to be there was, and Semih led us off to our bus. Another walk, of course, and out into the sun and heat, but at least we’d arrived and were on the way to our hotel, the Arcadia, and a wash and quick change of clothes. (We’d been in our travel togs for about 23 hours, walking through airports and lugging baggage.) Respite was at hand.
We got on our bus, a gleaming white, sleek, modern Mercedes, after loading our bags beneath the passenger compartment. Our driver, Mustafa (who’d be with us the whole stay except one day), pulled away and we were on Kennedy Caddesi into the city. (Semih and Mustafa were thoughtful enough to bring bottles of cold water which was most welcome by this time—and would be a constant necessity during our five days in Istanbul. Kennedy Caddesi took us along the European shore of the Sea of Marmara and Semih pointed out sights along the way, such as the remains of the ancient city wall built between 412 and 422 CE by Theodosius II (401-50 CE), as the traffic got denser and denser the closer we got to the Old City. Semih explained that this was how traffic always is in Istanbul, a city of about 12.7 million inhabitants (plus uncountable business and tourist visitors on any given day). Both automobile and pedestrian traffic is horrendous all the time, and the trams and buses we saw were always packed to the gunnels. We were headed to the district of Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the Old City, with narrow streets that twisted and turned without apparent logic or any concern for 21st-century automobile traffic. Mustafa was stuck at the turn off Kennedy Caddesi into Sultanahmet for a long time while other buses and cars, some coming from the opposite direction, all tried to turn the same corner. In any case, the drive to the Arcadia Hotel took us until 4:30 in the afternoon, extending our travel “day” to 26 hours.
After turning up the hill, we moved at a stop-and-go pace through those narrow, cobbled streets until, stalled halfway up, Semih suggested that anyone who wanted to get off and walk would get to the hotel faster—after a “short” uphill climb. Many of us chose that, but Mother’d had enough trudging and was too pooped and I wasn’t feeling much more chipper, so she and I and a few others stayed aboard. We lucked out, too, because the bus wasn’t supposed to drive up to the front of the Arcadia—Dr. Imram Oktem Caddesi, our little block, is usually blocked by other vehicles; we met our bus for touring at the edge of the Hippodrome at the bottom of a short, steep street—and we were delivered, with the luggage, at the Arcadia’s front door. After room assignments, we went up in the tiny elevator (there were two, each holding about three adults without baggage) to splash our faces with water, put our feet up for a few seconds, and put on fresh clothes. We’d effectively lost half a day, and Semih had planned to give us a quick city tour in the afternoon of our arrival, but that was gone now. Instead he took those who were more intrepid than Mom and I on a walk through part of Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, but once we had gotten to our room, neither of us could gather the energy necessary to make the trek. We had a welcoming cocktail party at 7 in the Horizon, the Arcadia’s roof restaurant, so we elected to stretch out for an hour instead of doing more walking. (We’d get plenty of that in the days to come.)
It was certainly an inauspicious start to our Six-Day Getaway in Istanbul!
We had our cocktail party, with Turkish hors-d’oeuvres (meze, like Middle Eastern tapas), and we all schmoozed and got to know one another a little. Mom was easily the oldest among us, the “grandmother of the group,” as she put it. (I wasn’t far behind: there were two grads from the ‘50s and one from ’67. The rest were younger than I.) Semih pointed out some of the sights from the terrace of the Horizon Restaurant, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the old city. We were within sight of the Hippodrome with its Egyptian Obelisk, St. Sophia (everyone there calls it Hagia Sophia, its Greek name which means “Holy Wisdom”), and the Blue Mosque (AKA: Sultan Ahmet Mosque); Topkapi Palace is within view. The Sea of Marmara is in the background of the cityscape as we would see it at breakfast, often fogged in in the morning. The noshes were the same kinds of meze we’d see at most meals, including stuffed grape leaves (yaprak sarma); patlican salatasi, an eggplant puree; barbunya pilaki, a tomato-based red-bean salad; and ezme, a mash or spread that Flor said was like gazpacho without the “soup.” It was enough to make a meal, and we planned to skip dinner in favor of turning in early after a very long day of travel. But first, Mother and I initiated a quick walk into the neighborhood for a little ice cream with Karen and Margene. We sat along the curb of Divanyolu Caddesi, the big shopping street near the Hippodrome, and enjoyed a cone as we watched the still-busy shopping street throng with people as the tram rolled by up and down the street next to us. It was about 8:30 or 9 p.m. by now, and we finished our ice cream and returned to the Arcadia and turned in, exhausted and hot from the day’s travails.
While we were at our cocktail reception, we experienced the first of what would become a regular occurrence during our time in Istanbul. At about 8 p.m., the entire city, it seemed, rang with the sound of muezzins calling Muslims to prayer. The call, one of five during the day, was for the sunset prayer, the most important, and seemed to issue from minarets all over the city at once as each muezzin chanted in his individual style and rhythm. (The muezzin used to make the call from a balcony high up in the minaret, but today’s calls all come from loudspeakers mounted on those same balconies.) The calls at other times seem to be sung by fewer muezzins, and I never asked why that might have been. It’s just as well, though, because the call that comes at sunrise, about 5 a.m. at this time of year, was enough to wake us for the first couple of mornings; I must have gotten used to it, though, because after waking up part way through the call one morning, I slept through them after that.
I mention this because, aside from being a salient aspect of life in Istanbul, a city of mosques big and small, this phenomenon is emblematic of something significant about modern Istanbul and Turkey. Turkey is a society battling with itself and Istanbul, its ancient capital and largest city, is the showplace of that battle. As economist Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times column, the country’s “in an inner struggle over [its] identity.” Let me make a few superficial observations, starting with the thousands of mosques (around 3,000) with their towering minarets and prominent domes—they’re everywhere. Five times a day, the city reverberates with the call to prayer. Istanbul’s the most important city in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the home of most of the holiest Muslim relics (all at Topkapi Palace). The Blue Mosque is the 17th largest in the world and arguably one of the most famous among non-Muslims. Turkey’s population is about 99% Muslim, and I’d guess Istanbul echoes that. Yet Friday, the Muslim sabbath, is not the country’s day of rest. That’s Sunday, just like in Christian Europe. Stores and other businesses don’t close on Friday; they do close on Sunday. While some women and girls do wear the hijab and a few even cover themselves entirely in black, flowing robes and veils, most Turkish women dress like their European neighbors. (At one time, the headscarf was even forbidden in schools and government buildings.) Turkish banks do business on the European model, lending money at interest and so on; banks in the Middle East work within Sharia law (which prohibits interest). Arab banks with branches in Turkey may practice according to Sharia, but Turkish banks line up with the capitalist West. There are religious schools in Turkey—in recent years, Iran has sponsored what sound to my ears like madrasahs, much to the concern of many Turks—but most schools are secular. The military is adamantly secular, in opposition to the present Islamist government in Ankara.
Despite Istanbul’s status as a Muslim city, it is the seat of several Eastern Orthodox Christian sects, including the Patriarch of the Greek church. At a recent meeting of the Eastern Orthodox communion, the Greek Patriarch declared himself the Ecumenical for all the orthodox sects and met with no objections. So in the middle of one of the largest Muslim cities in a country that’s 99% Muslim, the leader of an alliance of Christian churches sits. Not in Moscow or Athens or Yerevan or Sophia or even Jerusalem. He sits in Muslim Istanbul.
In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was also the Caliph, the leader of the Islamic world. Our guide, Semih, compared the Caliphate to the Papacy but it rings to me more like the British monarch who is ex officio Supreme Governor of the Church of England (except, of course, that there are far more Muslims than there are Anglicans). When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the modern Turkish republic in 1923, the Caliphate was abolished and the new Turkey was declared to be a secular, western-looking state instead of a theocratic, Asian one. But this new orientation was established by decree and enforced by the military; it didn’t evolve organically and develop gradually—and it certainly wasn’t a confirmation of an existing status as was the constitutional establishment of the new American nation and society in the 18th century. It was Ataturk who declared that men would no longer wear caftans and fezzes, that Turks adopt family names, and that the official weekend would be Saturday and Sunday like Europe. Instead of the Arabic script that Turks had used for centuries to write their language, Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet, purging the language simultaneously of many Arabic and Persian words (and rendering instantly obsolete every book, document, and sign in the country). Turks would dress like Europeans, write like Europeans, and think like Europeans. (Ironically, a similar change was decreed recently as Turkey tried to conform to the demands of the European Union to which it had applied for membership. Just as Ataturk wanted his new republic to be westward-looking in order to move into the modern era from its almost-medieval feudalism, 20th-century Europe wanted the country to move further westward because they still feared a Muslim and potentially Islamist state within their alliance.) But when you force something to change precipitously and inorganically, there will be rifts and cracks from the tension—and today’s Turkey is rife with them.
Indeed, the geography of the country itself serves as a metaphor for this conflict. Split between Europe (3%) and Asia (97%)—Friedman called it “a country at the hinge of Europe and the Middle East”—the country has often shifted its focus from the West to the East and back. Anatolia was settled in the 7th century BCE by Greeks who dominated the region until the Romans defeated them there in the 2nd century BCE. Greece and Rome were, of course, European powers and both, especially the Greeks, left their stamp on the Anatolian culture. It wasn’t until the 11th century CE that the Central Asian tribes that became Turks moved into Asia Minor and established an Islamic sultanate there, turning its orientation eastward. (The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, changing its name to Istanbul.) It remained that way until World War I when, after a disastrous alliance with Germany, the Ottoman Empire was forcibly dissolved and the Republic of Turkey took its place in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, the small portion of the nation that occupies the southeastern corner of Europe in the Balkans. But while Turkey is 97% Asian and only 3% European, Istanbul (itself divided between continents) was its capital for centuries and remains its largest city by far (Ankara, the capital since 1923, is a third Istanbul’s size) and the business and financial center of the country. The city is expanding rapidly, but its expansion is into Europe, toward the Black Sea, not south- or eastward into Asia. The newest part of Istanbul today is the new business center, with its giant, modern highrises (at least one of which has a very familiar name: Trump Tower) that look like anything you might see in L.A., Houston, or Vancouver (or another city that’s building fast these days: Berlin). With the possible exceptions of Hong Kong and Tokyo, the models are not Asian. (And except for Dubai, it’s not Middle Eastern or Muslim, either.) The country, whose economy last year was the fastest-growing in Europe and the third fastest-growing in the world (after India and China), has business interests from Central Asia and southern Russia through the Caucasus and the Balkans to the Middle East. Turkish Airlines (recently named the best in the region) reaches destinations throughout Central Asia and the Middle East where few other carriers go.
It seems to me that our guide, Semih Adiyaman, is something of a individual example of this dichotomy. Born in Izmir on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, he went to universities there and in Ankara, also in Asia. He now lives not in Istanbul but far south in Bodrum, another Aegean coastal city. Yet he’s insistently Western in outlook and secular. In his recounting of Turkish history (one of his two degrees is in history; the other’s in engineering) and, especially, Turkish politics, he makes clear that he opposes the growing influence of Iran on Turkish culture and the rise of the Islamist movement in Turkish politics. (On our first full day, as we walked down to our bus parked on Atmeydani Sokak, alongside the Hippodrome, Semih pointed out one of the new religious schools opened by Iran. It was with decided distaste that he explained this recent phenomenon. On other occasions, he said that the people of Iran “don’t deserve” the government they have.) Semih was also most pleased with the visit just before we arrived in Istanbul of the Turkish prime minister to Greece, Turkey’s historic enemy for about a century. “If Turks can go to Greece, what else might be possible?” he asked. Certainly, he may have been dissembling for our American tour group, but his passion was too apparent for me to conclude that it wasn’t sincere. (Interestingly, he pretty much glossed over Turkey’s participation in WWI as an Axis power. I think he mentioned it once in passing.)
What Semih sees for the future—perhaps not in his own lifetime (he’s 65), but in his sons’—is a resurgent Turkey decidedly in the Western camp but serving as a bridge (as distinguished from a buffer, which is how it was treated in past centuries) with the Middle East and Asia. (He also sees a potential alliance with a democratized Iran.) Many of Semih’s countrymen, however, see the idea of a mere bridge as paltry. These Turks see the country as a “center,” the Times’ Friedman writes, considering the country’s new-found economic strength. With such economic power, they feel, Turkey should play its own political role in world affairs. Of course, Turkey has to do a lot of work to reach even the prospect of such a role. Semih, an optimist as well as a dedicated Westernist and secularist, is looking at the present through rose-colored glasses and with not a small dollop of wishful thinking, I believe. The Republic of Turkey, an associate member of the EU since ’92, has just been rejected by the European Union; the current Islamist government was not as strongly disposed to push for membership as its predecessor was when the country applied in 1987. EU members, in turn, had been less than supportive of a Turkish membership and the current Turkish government moved away from its embrace of Europe. When the EU informed Turkey it would not be a member, the country turned further toward the Middle East. “Despite being physically and historically connected to Europe,” commentator Fareed Zakaria opined, “Turkey is increasingly playing a role that distances itself from these roots.” As the incident of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla on 31 May exemplifies, Turkey has shifted from being a staunch ally of the West and Israel and founding member of NATO to an Islamic activist that lends support to organizations like Hamas. The Turkish government has also played host to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who’s been indicted in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Friedman reports that moderate and secular Turks are “alarmed” at this radical shift and, for the first time since it took power in 2002, the Islamist AKP, the ruling party, polled behind the secularist Republican People’s Party in a survey taken just before the flotilla incident.
Ethnically, too, there’s a dichotomous posture in the country. Semih was keen to explain that despite the history of violence between ethnic Turks and Armenians and Turks and Kurds, that was no longer true. “There are no more [ethnic] Turks, Armenians, or Kurds,” Semih insisted. “We’re all Turks now.” In the days of the Ottomans, the sultans decreed religious freedom and they imported the best and the brightest from throughout the sultanate to be educated in Istanbul. The sons (education was only for boys, of course; some discriminations can’t be breached, it seems) of Turks, Jews, Arabs, Persians, and Europeans were brought to Topkapi itself to be trained to serve the empire and many rose to high positions in the military, civil service, and arts and letters. But in contrast with Semih’s optimistic pluralism—and I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in his belief even if it is somewhat wishful—Friedman also states that Turkey is again becoming “more aligned with the Islamic world and values,” going far enough even to claim that Israel is backing the Kurdish People’s Party in its violent struggle for autonomy.
It’s not just politically, socially, and religiously that Turkey is in conflict with itself. As seen in its tourist attractions in Istanbul, the country’s history is in tension. In many countries, especially ancient ones, the region’s history is a palimpsest, a layered image of the periods and upheavals it has seen. There is a throughline from the earliest dwellers to the present ones that connects them all in a chain of history that reinforces the continuity the people sense in their very existence in the place. In other lands, the continuity is disrupted and one history ends and is replaced by another that is barely related to its predecessor. Such a break can be seen, of course, in the history of North America where the dominion of the Indians was halted by the arrival of Europeans and a new story line began. In some places, it seems, however, that the discontinuity is blurred or ignored. When I was in Egypt, I saw that the present-day Egyptians, an Arabic people, lay claim to the heritage of the ancient Egyptians, the builders of the pyramids and the sphinx. Of course, no such heritage exists. The Arabs swept out of the Arabian Peninsula and displaced the earlier inhabitants of all of North Africa, including the original Egyptians. (I’m glossing over other invasions and take-overs, such as the Greek and Roman occupations, but they didn’t displace the population, just the rulers.) Nonetheless, modern Egyptians maintain the sense that they are the inheritors of the culture of the Pharaohs.
Something similar is going on in Turkey. The modern Turks are not descended from the Greeks who settled in Anatolia and built Troy, the Romans who followed them, or the Byzantines who built Hagia Sophia. The Turks whose legacy is the present nation didn’t arrive until the 11th century; the Ottomans not until the 15th. Hagia Sophia is something of an exemplar: It was built by the Byzantines 1,400 years ago, a magnificent architectural achievement. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, essentially usurping not only the Christian edifice but the Byzantine culture for itself. But the sultans didn’t obliterate the Byzantine structure—they added minarets and interior details, but simply adopted the Christian and Byzantine features as their own the way a hermit crab moves into another creature’s shell. Soon after the Republic of Turkey assumed control of the former sultanate, the mosque-that-was-a-church was secularized and turned into a museum, essentially freezing—and exposing—the dichotomy. But just as the modern Egyptians take pride in the construction of the pyramids, though it wasn’t their ancestors who built them, Turks present Hagia Sophia as a wonder of their own past though their forebears didn’t even arrive in Constantinople until centuries after it was erected.
Unlike my visit to Egypt, where little of the history shown off to visitors is Arabic, most of Istanbul’s tourist sites are Ottoman. But even there there’s a tension between the ancient and the current. A century ago and more, when sultans and harems occupied Topkapi Palace (also now a museum) and Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul was the capital of a vast and opulent empire that spanned three continents, occupying lands from southeastern Europe to western Asia to northern Africa. Even before that, as Byzantium and then Constantinople, it was the crossroads not just of world trade but of ideas and culture. Today the city’s a little shabby, threadbare; it’s more frantic than vital. The Grand Bazaar, a name that conjures an image of exotic goods for sale, a place teeming with bargaining buyers and sellers, is no more today than a cheap-jack shopping mall run by hustlers and souvenir hawkers. But there’s a disconnect between what that city is compared to the image of what it was once.
None of this is to say, however, that Istanbul isn’t a fascinating city or that visiting it isn’t a terrific experience. It was hot and humid, but that isn’t anyone’s fault; the city goes up and down hills (there are, as in Rome, seven) and the old streets are uneven cobblestones, but that’s what makes Istanbul what it is. The view out over the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, and the reverse panorama from shipboard onto the landscapes of both European and Asian Istanbul is captivating. Topkapi Palace Museum, with it’s exotic history—the Harem, the Circumcision Room, the Treasury (the focus of the famous 1964 caper movie)—is as intriguing as a story from the Arabian Nights. Hagia Sophia, seen just as a monument to human ingenuity and genius, is magnificent, with its soaring dome (182 feet—about 15 stories) and the remains of the beautiful mosaics for which Byzantine culture is justly renowned, is literally awe-inspiring. How could anyone build such a structure as long ago as 537 CE? How could it have lasted, intact and still beautiful, for so long? The Blue Mosque, for all its fame, is a little disappointing because . . . well, it’s not very blue. I had expected a lot of gorgeous blue tile—we saw a lot of examples at Topkapi—but in the natural light of the afternoon (this was the explanation from Semih), the blue color is washed out and the custodians haven’t figured out how to remedy that. For all the fuss they make getting you in there, it ends up being no more than a huge mosque (it accommodates 10,000 worshippers). Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans lived in the 19th century after abandoning Topkapi, is grand in the sense that it’s a deliberate attempt to emulate and out-do the palaces of Western Europe—there’s too much of everything and nothing really fits. (There are huge crystal chandeliers that just seem outsized—and must have given off horrendous heat in the days of candles or gas.) Our Six-Day Getaway was really only five days, and we lost most of the first one because of the aircraft problem. I can say that four days in Istanbul is barely enough to get a taste of this immense city, which, after all, has been inhabited by one people or another for at least 26 centuries (Byzantium was founded in 667 BCE).
The city has modern sights as well as historic ones, such as the five-year-old Istanbul Museum of Modern Art which concentrates on indigenous artists from the end of the Ottoman period to today. The older art here is derivative and not terribly interesting in itself, with artists having been sent to Western European capitals (mostly Paris, of course) to study Western art and bring the techniques and motifs home. But as we moved into the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, as Turkish artists began finding their own visions and incorporating not only the learned techniques of the West but the images and subjects of Asia Minor, the work becomes more and more interesting. When we visited both Quebec and Vancouver, we made a point of checking out their art museums to see what local art was up to. My only conclusion is that there’s a reason there are no world-famous Canadian artists. We had a similar experience in San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico. The examples of Turkish art, including some ultra-modern pieces using video and computers, suggest that the same deficiency isn’t endemic to that culture. There are no internationally known Turkish artists yet, but what we saw at the Istanbul Modern shows immense promise and potential. (There’s another art museum that concentrates on modern and European works, the Pera, also established in 2005. While we were in Istanbul, it hosted an exhibit of Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist in whom my mother is especially interested, and we had intended to stop there on our own, but the time, considering the effort we’d been putting in for the scheduled sights, just wasn’t sufficient in the end and we left the Pera out. Istanbul is a designated European Capital of Culture for 2010 and is attracting exhibits and visits from all over the world in that capacity. While we were at Topkapi, there were displays from Japan and Russia in galleries of the palace museum.)
Our return flights on Monday, 17 May, were blessedly without problems, but the normal process of flying is so tedious and user-unfriendly that even an uneventful journey takes much of the pleasure out of a vacation. (Our flight back from San Juan a few years ago, which included a delay at the airport because the crew of our plane was determined to have been in the air too long and had to be switched out for a fresh crew that had yet to arrive on the island, nearly ruined a more than pleasant sojourn in the Caribbean during a winter week up north. It almost makes you wish you’d never left in the first place.) The worst that happened this time was that the plane from JFK to Dulles switched gates at almost the last minute and, of course, our arrival gate in Dulles was as far from the location of our shuttle to the city as geography allowed. We returned to Mom’s apartment at just before 10 p.m. D.C. time (we’d left Istanbul at 12:15 p.m. Istanbul time, which is 5:15 a.m. EDT) and simply went to bed. Somehow that’s just not a fitting way to end a trip to such a fabled place as Constantinople—even if it’s called Istanbul now.