Exploring Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar:
Wandering the streets of the Grand Bazaar is one of the highlights of any trip to Istanbul. This covered market in the center of historic Istanbul has 4000 boutiques, mosques, fountains, restaurants, banks, and workshops bunched together along several kilometers of streets. Each profession has its own street or section of the market: the carpet-sellers, the jewellers, the potters. You can find copperware, leather jackets and handbags, chess and backgammon sets, ceramics, waterpipes, fabric, and jewellery. The market itself takes place in great domed hallways. Brightly colored lamps and belly-dance costumes hang from shop ceilings.

The Bazaar was created in 1461 by Mehmet the Conqueror with the object of creating a place where the city’s merchants would be organized and secure. With an area of 30,700 sq. m., it spreads over 65 streets. You can enter the Bazaar through one of 18 doors, which are guarded each night by 50 guards. The Bazaar burned five times. The earthquake of 1894 and the fire of 1954 destroyed over half of the Bazaar and erased the traditional characteristics that constituted the buildings. The “Old Bazaar,” the jeweller’s streets, dates from the 15th century.

Eager vendors harass tourists in the principal streets: “Come on, lady, don’t make me go any lower; you’re my first customer of the day…” “For you, my friend, I’ll make a deal…” You get away from that the farther from the center that you venture. These streets still attract their original clientel from Istanbul.

Young men carry tea on silver platters hanging from chains around the bazaar: “Cay, cay, cay!” All of the vendors drink tea, and offer a cup to anyone who buys something. Or to anyone who looks interested in possibly buying something. Or to anyone that they have an interest in talking to.

Bargaining in the Bazaar is definitely an experience. You have to be up to it. First rule of thumb is to never take anything at the first price offered. Second rule of thumb: never buy from anyone who is too eager or too pushy. Or from anyone who yells – literally yells – “Why do you need to look around? Why do you need to look around?” Always look around.

The Streets around the Grand Bazaar:
The streets around the Grand Bazaar cover a huge area. On the other side from Sultanhamet were huge crowds of people doing their shopping. No tourists. The interesting part is that each street or each section of street is devoted to one particular thing: clothing, wedding gowns (white, exactly in the same style as in the West), raw material for clothing, musical instruments, electronics, bike shops, even button shops! The commercial streets are divided like this in most areas of the city.

The Egyptian Market:
The Egyptian Market, or Spice Market, is the second largest market in Istanbul with 80 boutiques. It was constructed in the 1660’s among the buildings of the New Mosque, in front of the port at the Golden Horn. A succession of stands sells almost exclusively spices, nuts, dried apricots and figs, tea, a special virility gel, and candies called “Turkish Delight” (soft candies made either of honey and almonds, strawberry, lemon, or orange). Less interesting than the Grand Bazaar, its prices seemed expensive. The streets outside of the covered market were more interesting; the prices were cheaper and there were less tourists. There, we found nuts, fruit, cheese, meat, and fish. These streets are some of the most animated in Istanbul.

The Golden Horn:
The Golden Horn is a 7-km. long waterway that joins the Straits of Bosphorus and divides several neighborhoods of the European side of Istanbul. You can cross it either by ferry or by bridge. At one time, it served as the only port of Istanbul, as well as its naval shipyard. Along the Canal is the New Mosque (Pigeon Mosque), the Sulleyman Mosque on its hillside overlooking the city, and the Galata Bridge, with its long line of fishermen who stand shoulder-to-shoulder, casting their lines into the water among the passing ferry boats. From this bridge, looking in only one direction, we counted 14 mosques! Along the Golden Horn you also find the Egyptian Market, ships and ferries which shuttle passengers to and from the Asian side, and little boats set up to grill fish sandwiches and sell stuffed mussels all up and down the promenade.

The Bosphorus:
19 mi.-long strait which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and which cuts Istanbul in half, dividing the European and the Asian continents. Until 1973, you could only traverse the straits by boat; the Bosphorus Bridge became the fourth longest in the world. A second bridge was built in 1988. Ulysses is supposed to have crossed the strait. We took a ferry to the Asian side and explored the area near Kadikoy by daytime. We also took a night cruise and admired the city lit up by night. The European side had fashionable areas with fancy waterside restaurants and clubs, while the Asian side sported former palaces and summer residences of the sultans, which are now owned by the wealthy. There are waterside palaces on both sides of the Bosphorus.

Uskudar is a 20-min. ferry ride from the European side. The ferry offers great views and a great wind. The first thing you see upon arriving in the port are the ships, and then the kiosks selling gyro sandwiches and ice cream. The main square has a beautiful 18th-century fountain. There are several mosques along the streets. Today, Uskudar is a mainly residential quarter little visited by tourists. Its streets are animated, however, by shoppers on the commercial streets, fruit vendors on the residential streets, and families out for a weekend stroll.

We walked through several neighborhoods, up and down the steep streets. Its narrow streets and wooden houses have preserved their oriental character. We passed no other tourists. No one tried to sell us anything. We looked in at an old Muslim cemetery, with its stone gravemarkers and tombs covered in Turkish and Arabic writing.

We headed towards the Cinili Camii, considered the jewel of Uskudar by its faithful. This small mosque is unpretentious on the outside, but the inside is a different story. It is exquisitely decorated with a multitude of earthenware tiles from Iznik in blue, red, and turquoise floral motifs. Round black signs hung from the ceiling with Muslim prayers written in gold Arabic characters. There is a second-floor balcony and a high, narrow pulpit. The stained-glass windows were colorful, and on the carved wooden doors were colored beads hanging from little knobs. We went on a Sunday afternoon; the guardian unlocked the door for us. It is perhaps the nicest mosque we have seen, as judged by its beauty and its intimate setting.

We walked through the courtyard of another mosque and found a huge celebration taking place. It was a “sunnet” celebration. The sunnet is the circumcision of a boy between 6 to 10 years of age and which markes his passing into the Muslim faith, as a confirmation does in Christianity or a Bar Mitzvah in Judaism. After the surgery at a hospital, there is a big banquet with family and friends. The boy wears a white satin costume – complete with robe and cap – and a wide silk belt with the word “Masallah,” meaning “See the marvel that God wanted.” The costume is embroidered in gold or silver thread and the boy carries what looks like a royal staff in one hand.

Men were sitting at picnic tables on one side of the courtyard, the women and children on the other side. We were asked to join the celebration, and someone brought us plates filled with rice and chicken, yogurt and baklava. We were joined by several of the teenagers, who weren’t shy about trying out their English. The girls seemed disappointed that we didn’t know any Turkish singers.

On the European side north of Karakoy is the quarter called Taksim, the center of the European side, and a lively and modern area. Young people throng its streets in fashionable, European-style clothing. The main streets are lined with restaurants, airline companies, travel agencies, hotels, and shops. Brand-name stores abound. The side streets are filled with cafes, bars, night clubs, little shops selling gyros, sweets, Turkish fast food (such as moussaka), cheap jewellery, and men selling grilled corn, nuts, and fruit from wooden carts.

We liked Taksim because it was young and lively. The sidestreets were filled with sidewalk cafes with young and old people sitting at small, wooden knee-high tables, drinking small cups of Turkish tea and playing backgammon. Everywhere we heard the sound of rolling dice. There are many small music cafes, playing rock, jazz, or latin/afro music, and which you reach by descending a set of stairs into an “underground” world. Men were still have their shoes shined and beards shaved late into the night.

On the streets:
People sit outside on their doorsteps on hot afternoons. Laundry hangs from balconies or on lines hung across the streets. They picnic in small parks on the weekend. Here’s an ingenious way to do one’s shopping: women pass down buckets from the top floors of buildings to the ground below by a rope. They call across or down the street to the baker or grocer, who fills their bucket, after which the woman retrieves it by pulling on the rope! A great way to save a few steps!

We enjoyed playing backgammon at the sidewalk cafes while sipping on fresh-squeeze orange juice, for only $0.60. The Turkish pizza, rolled like a crepe, was also excellent ($0.50).

We met Hulya by the Mosque. She was with her husband and children, and hearing us speak to someone in French, she came over to us – she had lived in France 20 years ago. We spoke with her for several hours. I was very happy – it is hard to meet women in this city.

The NATO Conference:
During the NATO conference at the end of June, large parts of Istanbul were shut down, including Sultanhamet, where we were staying. Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces were closed for four days, where it was said that the heads of government dined. The gigantesque Grand Bazaar was closed while they took a tour. The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn was closed, and all traffic in the ports was closed. No boats, no ferries!! No way to get to and from the Asian side. No fishing boats, no fish sandwiches. No cars, buses, trains, trams. No way to get out of Sultanhamet during the siege. It was almost as if a plague had struck the city. Almost all of the shops and restaurants were closed. The streets were semi-deserted and strangely quiet. We stopped to take a photo from an overhead pedestrian bridge; a security officer in a black and red uniform moved us on, saying “NATO Security, let’s go.” The only traffic was police cars, police motorcycles, and police boats. Plus, helicopters circling the city day and night. A young Polish man at our hostel was disappointed because he wanted to join the anti-NATO / anti-Bush demonstration in Taksim – thought it would be ironic to wear his T-shirt with the American flag – but all ways out of Sultanhamet were blocked. We were held hostages in the area. It was almost impossible to come or go from the city, barring the airport (and even that, I’m not sure about). The Turks were unhappy about Bush being in town because it was bad for business, seeing as how everything was shut down. (No one here talks about NATO, only Bush – I guess the other presidents and prime ministers are considered useless and non-existent?) Three people were killed on a bus by a bomb a couple of days before the NATO conference was due to start. The latest news is that is was a woman suicide-bomber from the Communist party. People who have lived here their whole lives have said that they have never seen the city like this, and could never have imagined that such a thing could be possible.

The Whirling Dervishes:
We went to see a Whirling Dervish ceremony in the old train station which was the final destination of the train route known as the Orient Express. The first half was a musical concert. Five men in black and white played the flute, a Turkish guitar, a sort of xylophone, a drum, and the cymbals. The music was relaxing. The second half of the concert was dedicated to the dancers. The music still played on. The costume is a long, full-skirted gown, which depicts the shroud – the death of the ego as they give up their “self” and become one with God. The men were dressed in white, the women in colored leggings and robes – yellow, lavender, and orange. They all wore very tall hats.

The ceremony was ritualized. After the music and chanting has taken place, a chanter recites the Naat-i Sherif, in praise of the prophet Mohammed. After the flute plays – representing the soul of the universe – the dervishes bow to each other in acknowledgement of the center of Divine Truth within the hearth of each. They remove their long cloaks and begin turning, one after the other, eyes closed and arms folded across the chest. They resemble a “one,” signifying the Unity of God. As they start turning, they extend their arms, with the right hand opened upward, the left hand turned downward. This signifies: “From God we receive, to man we give; we keep nothing to ourselves.” This spinning represents the birth of humanity.

Just as the planets and moon revolve both around their own axes and also around the sun, the dervishes revolve while circling the room. It is a means for humans to reach Divine Reality, a means of entering into spiritual union with God.

The Mevlevi brotherhood of whirling dervishes was founded in southern Turkey in the 13th century by the great mystic poet Celaleddin Rumi (baptized Mevlana – “our leader” – by his disciples). It is based upon Islamic beliefs and traditions, and was prohibited in the early days of the Turkish republic because of its ultra-conservative religious politics.

The Exalted Mevlana teaches that everything is within the human being and that they whole universe is under man’s command. One of his maxims reads: “Man is the most honorable of all creation.”

The Mevlevi beliefs are founded on love and tolerance. They believe in the unity of humanity before God, regardless of belief or religion. They are taught to always speak of love and to love all creation as being from the Creator. “Be a lover, a lover. Choose love that you might be a chosen one.” His greatest message was “Love, Divine Love, and Unity.”

The Mevlana embraced those of every language, creed, race, and color; for Mevlevis, he is the symbol of love, peace, brotherhood, and tolerance.

One of their poems:
One went to the door of the Beloved and knocked.
A voice asked, “Who is there?”
He answered, “It is I.”

The voice said, “There is no room for Me and Thee.”
The door was shut.

After a year of solitude and deprivation, he returned and knocked.
A voice from within asked, “Who is there?”
The man said, “It is Thee.”
The door was opened for him.

Butchering at the Barber’s:
I needed to have my hair cut for the summer, so we went to what looked like a hairdresser’s; unfortunately, it was a men’s barber shop, which became obvious after the first few minutes. The man told us that he cut women’s hair, but it is doubtful that he had ever cut men’s hair before, let alone women’s hair. Suffice it to say that I was completely butchered after TWO HOURS and a thousand “corrections.” I was lopsided; he had somehow managed to miss a lot of hair that was several inches longer than the rest of it, and the whole thing was cut in square steps.

Margje, a Dutch cyclist at our hostel, tried to fix it up the next day. Everyone kept saying that it looked butchered, that it was “bizarre,” “strange,” “ugly,” “the worst haircut (they) had ever seen.” Some people just started laughing. We couldn’t even cut it in the privacy of the hostel’s garden (the owners are paranoid about dirt) – and we had to go out on the street to cut it. So we were sitting in the middle of the street under scorching 90 degree heat, Margje cutting my hair. A Japanese tourist passed by and took my photo!