Before I describe the mind blowing tour of Istanbul we had today, I want to get out some random thoughts I have about this place:
There are many contradictions and contrasts here. Turkey is European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Western, Eastern, all at the same time. And it is also its own thing. 99% of the country is Muslim. The majority of them do not go to mosque. The call to prayer is sounded loudly 5 times a day. The government is secular.
This City of millions is quiet.
Throughout History, many societies here have surpassed the rest of the world technologically and culturally. It’s hard to tell where that stands today.
Istanbul is The crossroads of the ancient and modern world. This part of the earth has enormous significance to each of us, both our past and our future. We tend to ignore it.
Not many Americans visit here (just 2% of all tourists). Our influence is here is apparent in fashion, media, and all the shiny things people want to buy.
There is little showing off here. You generally can’t tell who is rich or poor, devout or agnostic.
Recycling is done by hand in Istanbul, by street pickers with carts they pull behind them. Trash is then removed daily by modern garbage trucks.
The people here have a look, a skin tone all their own. They have blonde, brown, black hair. At times I have thought that the men look similar but the women look different from one another. I don’t know. I can’t say they are short or tall. They do not have our obesity problems. I haven’t seen anyone exercise here. Many people wear running shoes.
Even the smallest merchant accepts credit cards, more than I can say about my home state of Maine.
There are stray cats everywhere. They are fed and seem to be adored. I am starting to navigate with them, recognizing street corners by individual tigers and calicos.
I sense tolerance here. Patience.
People sit in cafes for hours and stroll at a slow to medium pace on the sidewalks. They drive fast when they can, though, and that is rare because of the 24-hour traffic.
People in this culture take care of each other. I found no obvious contradiction to that.
Some streets here look like a leafy suburban street in Maryland, lined with designer shops. Some look like the French Quarter of New Orleans. Some look like you could be in Istanbul. Oh yeah, I am.
History here is impossibly deep and complex. The future here seems uncertain. The Turkish people seem to have an eye on both of these things as they build, modernize, and protect their history.
Nationalism is apparent here against a backdrop of a history of rotating empires buried beneath and poking up through the city. People are also very much individuals here.
The historic structures here speak of permanence, the culture here has tides.
The societies that have lived in this area of the world throughout history have been swept over, plundered, removed, enslaved. The people here are very welcoming.
There’s a permanent sense of impermanence here.
Back to the tour we had today:
As part of this scouting trip for a future swimming vacation, we are also scouting Istanbul, as many of our guests will be arriving here, and may want to spend a few days. We arranged for a tour of the city today with a tour company called Peten Travels, hoping to offer a tour with them if we run a trip next year. They really rolled out the red carpet for us.
We were picked up by a driver and our guide, Koray, in a Mercedes SUV that had been fitted with niceties such as a stocked refrigerator and iphone chargers. After a quick tour of our neighborhood, we hopped aboard a 48′ private yacht for a look at Istanbul from the Bosphorus. Europe was on our left, Asia on our right. Tea was served.
The city just barely started to reveal itself. Of course we saw dolphins. We passed by Sultans palaces and ancient forts. Koray slowly fed us information about both modern day Turkey and the past empires and civilizations that have occupied these lands. In Turkey, tour guiding is a well respected and highly regulated profession. Koray went to college for 4 years, then went through lengthy training, several exams, and then field work all over the country before gaining his license.
I took my first ever step onto the Asian continent as we hopped off the yacht. We checked out a Sultan’s summer palace, then drove up to a hilltop park for a view of the city. It’s massive. It goes on further than you can see.
Next we checked out a modern mosque, where a funeral was being held. We hung out in the back during prayer. They handed out candy and asked us to pray for the deceased. It was a friendly although somewhat serious place. I’m glad I experienced it. Lunch was at a local’s joint for gyro meat and peppers over bread. A waiter came over and covered our food in hot brown butter. How could that suck? We also tried some sweet musty grape drink and another beverage made from yogurt, salt, and water. That one is an acquired taste, I think.
We took the new subway back under the Bosphorus, back to the European continent. Recently there was a great article recently in the New Yorker about the incredible archaeological finds during construction of this tunnel. Worth the read.
In the year 537, here in Istanbul, the Byzantine Emporer Justinian had the world’s largest building constructed by 10,000 slaves and 1,000 master craftstmen in 5 years. It’s still here. Every brick. It has layers of restorations, scars from wars, graffiti made by a real Viking, christian mosaics that were covered by Islamic plaster and paint. It has columns that were made 1500 years previous. It was the world’s largest building for over 1,000 years. Emperors were coronated here, Popes roamed the halls, Richard the Lionhearted held court here. The history is so rich in this place, I’m still dizzy from it. You must visit this place. No matter who you are, you are connected to the history here.
I can’t overstate the depth of knowledge that our guide, Koray, has about Istanbul, Turkey, the region, its history, its present. I’m better for it. Today I was reminded of the importance of travel in understanding one another. I read a lot, but I’ve also been trapped on a conveyor belt of bad news coming from this region. I still don’t really know much about this place. I do know that the people here want the same things we do. I’m also certain that our pasts and our futures are tightly connected, and to ignore that would be bad for all of us.