A Guide for the Perplexed
Welcome to an online attempt to chronicle a visit to one of the great cities of the world. It is an attempt to record six days in Istanbul, from the end of November to early December 1998 and some time in Jerusalem. In six days, I only explored part of the European portion of Istanbul - Asia still awaits me!!
A bit about myself. I already have some familiarity with the cultures of the Middle East. While part of Turkey lies in Europe, much of its contemporary heritage comes from the East, not the West. For a long time, I have felt a general cultural affinity with that part of the world, though not a political sympathy with the politics of oppression, chauvinism, and religious extremism.
I lived in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and thus have a good understanding and experience of live in that divided city. Istanbul (and by extension Turkey), was something new for me, though I thought I had picked up some knowledge about Turkey through living in Jerusalem, which has a lot of Ottoman architecture and 20 years ago, there were still porters from Salonika who bore huge loads on their backs, balancing them on cloth and leather saddles. I saw a few of those in Istanbul. I had lived in a dorm in Jerusalem with a Ladino speaking Turkish Jew - Yossi Coyas, where are you? and another flatmate was of mixed heritage. Another acquaintance was a holocaust child who grew up in Istanbul.
I had also encountered Turks in Australia, many of whom came out as factory workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They came as 'Gastarbeiter', to a very distant part of the world. I, and many other people in the community, understood very little about their psychology. They weren't like Arabs, and definitely quieter than Greeks (and Israeli Jews for that matter). I knew that Ataturk was a great symbol of democratic secularism, even if we didn't know much about the politics of Turkish nationalism, though around some parts of Melbourne, posters on walls demonstrated the virulence of political division between the Turkish left and right.
Many (if not most)Turks came to Australia from rural and peasant backgrounds in Anatolia, and were used as cheap factory labor in this country. A substantial proportion of the community that remains here socially and economically disadvantaged and isolated from other communities by reason of religion and language. Turkish culture thus remains much more distant to many Australians than, by comparison, Greek culture. Politically, the Turkish community has also been strongly divided, reflecting the divisions at home, and the emergence of Kurds from the community has also been a political issue. Many Turks do not recognise Kurds at all, and I have met Kurds who have nothing but contempt for Turkish people.
There is also a community of Turkish Cypriots, some of whom came here many years ago, on British passports. More recently, Turkish professionals from the mainland, have migrated to Australia, and they are as cosmopolitan as any other European community in this country.
I thus approached going to Turkey with a great degree of curiosity and excitement, particularly because I wanted to learn about the earlier part of their heritage - that of the Greek Byzantines, and I wanted to know about the Ottoman heritage and contemporary Turkey. I don't know more than a few words of Turkish, but I have studied the very ancient civilisations of the region, and have always known a bit about their antiquities, but my agenda was a bit ambitious.
For those who believe that I may be a bit starry-eyed, and naive about what I saw and felt in Istanbul, or not critical enough of the Turkish government, remember, even Ataturk spoke of 'Peace at Home, and Peace in the World' If only that was extended to contemporary tolerance of their own minorities, whether Kurds, Greeks, or Armenians. The only Greek I spotted in Istanbul was a cook in a restaurant. Maybe his co-workers weren't so bothered, but life is hard for his community these days.
In the same way, the Greeks need to come clean about their oppression of Greek Moslems and the Turkish minority in Cyprus.
In the 15th century, the Ottomans, for all the corruption of the Sultans, gave sanctuary to Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal. While I am not of Sephardic ancestry, one can't help be grateful for that acceptance, which was exceptional for that period. One sees that gratitude in the continuing loyalty of Turkish Jews today, despite the ultranationalism and militant Islamist backlash.
I wasn't quite sure how my diary (and obvious additions) would turn out when I started writing. In fact - because of a recent hand operation - at first, I found it difficult to write in the exercise book that I bought in Istanbul. At first, I tried to stay factual, with a few comments, but as the days - or better still, hours, as there was really, so little time - went by, I started to write very quickly, and it was sometimes more a sociological commentary than a story of what the great art or building was. At times, I sat for an hour or more, and wrote long anecdotal accounts as distinct from the factual narrative and memos that I do for a living.
I also spent ages trying to get in order what sites I would see and in which order, but after a while (and with jet lag), it became a bit of a jumble, so some places and accounts are a bit out of sequence.
So you might notice that the site becomes more of a commentary at times, than a chronicle. And sometimes, just what can you say: this is stunning, ad nauseum? Better, come visit Istanbul.
What is a good guidebook?
I frequently refer to 'Freely' in the diary - this is John Freely & Hilary Sumner , Strolling Through Istanbul, Redhouse Press.
This tome has over 500 pages of detail,and is preferable to the Lonely Planet Guide for historical and artistic detail, thought it doesn't offer very good directions, or coverage of things 'other than' the past. But you can get a good map of Istanbul for about $2 to find your way, and look around....Freely has also written the Blue Guide to Istanbul, which in some respects is better - it is illustrated, and maybe more up to date (but double the price - around $30 US. Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other is what I say!! There are also any number of scholarly works such as those by David Talbot Rice on Byzantine and Christian art, and the references therein. If you can find it, Rice's large format Thames and Hudson book on Byzantine Art which came out about 1960 has the best plates (because they are big and high quality), of various monuments.
Freely has written lots of other guides to other parts of Turkey. I didn't get any more of them as my bags would have been overweight!! The Guides aren't that all easy to find, but just near the Side Pension in Sultanahmet there is a newstand/bookshop which sells the guides. And no bargaining on the prices either!! There are also a couple of Penguin Books under his name. The British Museum in its series....has an excellent little overview volume on Byzantine Art, including an historical overview, and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity shows how closely related are the cultural and religious histories of Rome (East and West), and early Islam, which in turn had a big influence on what the Ottomans built and thought.
Where to stay?
I found the Pension Side in the Lonely Planet guide.
It's a very clean, small pension, just a few yards from the Four Seasons in Sultanahmet - so if you can't find it - just ask someone where the Four Seasons is. The map on the hotel card (or in Lonely Planet is not very good - you really need to find it to know where you are, but it is in the neigbourhood on the sea-side side of Sultanahmet mosque, on Utangac Sokullu. Fax or phone for a reservation form at 212-517-65-90.
I got a small room with a double bed for $20/night - and you could share this room with a partner. They also have larger shared rooms. The hot water tends to run out, so be frugal when bathing!! I think they will change your sheets and towels everyday, but sometimes, I just forgot to ask.
A great free breakfast is included - French/Italian bread, an egg, jam and butter, tomatoes, all the coffee you want, and that is served on the top floor terrace area, which must be great in the summer. There is a view directly across to Aya Sofya.
Just a few yards away is the cheaper Orient Hostel (if you are into action and late nights, which is very cheap, and they serve meals too). You can also check your email there, and read draconian notices about getting drugged in night clubs. Well, I am too old and jaded for that now!!
The friendly staff at Side - all of whom appear to be related (well, I am speaking of the males of course, the only women are cleaning staff), will point you in the right direction for everything you want, including laundry. I had an absolutely fantastic barber shave around the corner - just ask the staff to take you there...the barber only speaks German, and is a very nice guy. The cigarette-lighter-in-the-ear trick has to be experienced to be believed!!
The ONLY disadvantage - but I think this applies to every hotel in the Sultanahmet district - is that they are very, very close by the minarets of Sultanahmet - so expect an early warning awakening!! And the rooms have 40 watt bulbs, and like everywhere else, they are victims of an erratic power system. So don't forget a torch/flashlight!!
There is no need to get ripped off - but we always do a bit...there are a strip of tourist oriented restaurants on Divanyolu Caddesi, just near the tram stop. The best of them - as I only discovered on my last night there - is a place called Koftecisi, where all the locals go. There are about 5 similar restaurants in a row, and Koftecisi is one of them. It looks, and feels very old fashioned inside. For kofte (sausage) freaks, this place is a delight, and all the locals go there. Another place has a large glass front that must be open when it is hot, and a crazy chef who announces the contents of the bain maries in about 4 languages - a great trick "Meat, no meat, meat, no meat etc".
I'd also strongly recommend lentil soup wherever it is sold, and in fact, it is not hard to be a vegetarian. For lunches, and some dinners, I bought a loaf of bread from one of the bakeries in the Sultanahmet area (there is one near the barber), and magnificent olives and stunning yogurt from one of the little shops. There is thin yogurt, thick yogurt, with tasty scum on top, and all sorts of cheeses. And only drink bottled water.
I sat in the Sutanahmet park, near the tea garden, and no one but the birds disturbed me. For a sugar hit, get a pudding.
As there were two systems of banknotes in operation, and the notes all looked the same, it was hard to tell if I was getting the right change all the time. I got my first batch of bills spat out of a machine at the airport (see below) I think I made one mistake buying things, and that cost me about $20, so if the two systems are in operation, be careful. But everyone seemed to be pretty honest - in fact, at times, I just handed over bills and let them sort it out. people weren't too happy to get the 5 million lira bill, so try and keep small change bills on you, or use dollar bills when necessary.
I probably got by on spending $20 for getting around and $20 for accommodation a day, so Turkey is a real bargain for the budget traveller with a strong currency to spend. With more practice, and shared accommodation, it could be far less. Of course gifts - including a rug or two, can push that right up. Entry to the different monuments will also cost you. All the above costs are US dollars - for poor unfortunates like me, that amounts to a lot more!!
A great site for the Mosaic Museum, and many other links, maintained by Tim Spalding
Explore Turkey, with extracts of Ilhan Aksit's travel book titled "Treasures of Istanbul". The images, unless otherwise indicated are drawn from this web site. So, thanks to that site - I hope that takes care of the legalities!
For a Greek Orthodox perspective - from those who grieve the loss of Byzantium, with lots of information about the Byzantine heritage, see the Orthodox Patriarchate's website.
The images, unless otherwise indicated are drawn from these web sites. So, thanks to them, and what a great job they have done in putting such stunning images on line - I hope that takes care of the legalities!
You might also notice that the photos stop after a while - it has been a lot of work collecting them, but by assiduously working through the above sites, you will get an overload of images as a treat for the real thing!
The Turkish airlines website also puts their flight magazine on line - some of the articles are actually useful!!
Arrival: A bit stream of consciousness, but you know how arriving is...
The Turkish Airlines Airbus A300, my god (have you seen the safety record & I don't like it how Airbuses rattle on takeoff and landing!! ), ...landed at the airport - actually, the Atatürk International Airport, via Singapore. I survived.
Actually, the view of Istanbul as the planned wheeled in for landing was spectacular - just hundreds of needle-sharp minarets, the Bosphoros, Asia and Europe dead ahead.
There was a little kettle of water on the boil for tea in the customs area and the general grot, queues that never move, babes in arms and no-one bothering to give them (ie mothers) priority, cigarette smoke (despite the no-smoking signs), make me realise that this was Asia/Middle East, and the toilets have that characteristic smell (squat jobs again!)
An official, seated at a desk, was giving someone a hard time, leafing back and forth through the paperwork, and the clerk at the hotels' reception desk seemed less than useless.
The ATM spat out 25 million lira - and a barely legible receipt. What account has it come out of...? As I found out when I got home, it came from the right account.
I managed to find my way to the airport bus (and the chaos of getting the bus going, building around the airport), and I was immediately struck by the smell of unwashed people - I notice it later as army recruits went by Aya Sophia later that day . But that was redeemed by finding out about hamams (public baths).
Conscripts were everywhere, in thick, buttoned-up uniforms. The bus followed the coastal road around the sea of Mamara - lots of seaside restaurants and parks that look spotless (is this usual)? and bits of Byzantine walls on the other side of road. There were a few Americans on the pass who turned out to be off-duty service personnel on holiday, walking advertisements for ugly Americanism...but don't get me wrong. I lived in the US, and my partner is American...
From the Airport bus I got off in the Aksaray district, and tried to find the tramline to go to Sultanahmet. Of course, I walked in a circle before finding the tram and my bag (stuffed with gifts for friends in Israel) destroyed my shoulder!! Once figuring out how to buy a tram ticket (first the man in the booth, then put the ticket in the slot at the tram stop etc), the man at the tram stop motions that I don't need a ticket - it is free rides for a couple of days during the national anniversary celebrations. Hey!! This is like Melbourne trams when there are no inspectors, and despite feeling tired, I feel very happy to be avoiding tram fares again.
By the way, before you turn to the next page, you will also find an op ed piece that appeared in a newspaper in Australia about inter-communal relations in Jerusalem. I just hope that I am not breaking any more copyright laws!! If you are also heading in that direction, you might find it interesting.