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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Istanbul, Turkey

With the tensions of war and culture pitting the Islamic world against the West, I had hesitancy at first to travel to Istanbul, Turkey - an exotic destination with two millenniums of history - but a country that is 99% Moslem. But Turkey - because of its founding father, Ataturk - is the only Islamic country with a constitution that mandates a secular government. And, though clearly religion plays an important part in the life of Turks, Istanbul was a tourist friendly city.
After a long flight from Los Angeles to London, it was another three hours from London to Istanbul. We landed late in the evening, quickly passed through customs, and after navigating horrendous and anarchic traffic through central Istanbul, arrived at the Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel (www.ciragan-palace.com). This luxury hotel is set on the shores of the Bosporus on the northern outskirts of the city with views to the south of Topkapi Palace and the great mosques; and views north of the great suspension bridge that spans the Bosporus, connecting Europe to Asia. The Kempinski hotel melds modern with classic. The main hotel, built in 1990, has 304 rooms and suites. It sits next to the Ciragan Palace, an opulent residence of the last Ottoman Sultans, remodeled to house banquet rooms and 11 palatial suites. Our room was rich with marble and tile and fine woods but it had an unimpressive view overlooking the hotel's porte-cochere and a tree shrouded park across the street. For $645/night - a few hundred dollars more than my "park view" room - you can have a view of the sea. But I figured I would have plenty of time to view the Bosporus from one of the hotel's four restaurants or from its seaside infinity edged pool. The Ciragan Palace section of the hotel caters to the very, very rich and famous. For $11,500/night you can stay in the "Sultan's Suite." On a tour of that suite, the tuxedoed concierge informed us that "Russian black marketers and President Bush have stayed here." I'm sure someone will find irony in that.
We began our exploration of Istanbul early the next morning. The chant of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer woke us. If you discover when the five daily prayer times are called, you can do away with an alarm clock.
Istanbul, a city of more than 10 million people, has been a crossroads of commerce for thousands of years. In the 4th century AD, as Rome was crumbling from centuries of decadence and incursions by barbarian armies, Emperor Constantine decided to move his capital to this "crossroads" city he called the "New Rome." It soon came to be called Constantinople or "Constantine's City."
The Latin speaking Western European Empire with its capital in Rome fell in the 5th century. But the Greek speaking Eastern Empire, the Byzantine Empire, survived for another 1000 years, and its capital, Constantinople, became the richest city in Christendom. Great cathedrals were built there, like the Hagia Sophia; grand sporting arenas, like the Hippodrome; and ancient engineering marvels, like the Valens Aqueduct and Basilica Cisterns.
After a millennium of valiant defense, the old Roman imperial city of Constantinople finally fell to the Muslim conquest. After several more centuries as a crossroads of Mid-East trade, the name Constantinople became garbled. The name con-STAN-tino-PLE became slurred, pronounced as STAN-PLE - until eventually it became ISTANBUL.
In the 16th century, under the rule of Suleyman "The Magnificent," the Ottoman Empire reached the height of its greatness. Suleyman's architect, Sinan, built many of the great buildings that are landmarks to this very day - 131 mosques including the grand Suleymaniye Mosque and 200 other buildings.
Most of the city's great historic venues are located in the Old City, south of the Golden Horn - a river harbor that empties into the Bosporus. In the area called Sultanahmet, you'll find the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia. The Hippodrome is a remnant of the ancient Roman sporting arena. It is now occupied by tourist vendors and two derelict obelisks - a 3500 year old Egyptian transplant and a newer replica, once clad in bronze, but now just pock marked. There's a large square in the midst of the Sultanahmet district with fountains and attractive landscaping. At one end of the square is the Blue Mosque notable for its six surrounding minarets and so named because of its interior blue tile décor. At the other end is the Hagia Sofia, a Holy Roman Empire cathedral cum 1st millennium mosque cum 2nd millennium museum. These great domed religious palaces are dramatic architecturally but have bland interiors. Unlike the great cathedrals of Western Europe with their riches of statuary and painting, the great Islamic mosques permit no such interior drama. Inside there are simple low hanging lights and old carpeted floors. The walls are decorated with mosaic tiles and large medallions with beautiful flourishes of Arabic calligraphy attesting to the heroes or lessons of the Koran. But no more.
Just across the street from the Hagia Sofia is the entrance to the Basilica Cistern. This is an unusual tourist destination but an interesting one. It is a vast underground reservoir built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D. You descend a long staircase to find yourself in a great water filled cavern supported by 336 ancient Byzantine columns. Mystical new age music plays in the background accompanied by the echo of water dripping from the cavernous ceilings as you walk along concrete gangways through the pillared, arch vaulted cistern.
When you exit the cistern, you'll find yourself across the street from the Best Western Hotel St. Sophia (www.saintsophiahotel.com). Although I didn't stay there, the hotel is well located, only a block from the Hagia Sofia, and seemed quite comfortable with bed-and-breakfast rates from $110-170/night, including transfers from the airport.
You can't depart Turkey without experiencing a Turkish bath or hamam. The two most famous and historic baths are located in the Old City - Cagaloglu and Cimberlitas. We chose Cimberlitas - 28 new Turkish lire (about $20) buys a bath, scrub, and 15 minute massage. There are two identical sides - for men and women. After changing in a private "locker room," I draped myself in a red print towel and entered the baths. A 15-foot diameter raised circular marble slab was in the center of the "hot" room. A dome above had multiple round holes that let a planetarium of sunlight stream into the room. I paced slowly around the central slab with a few other men and began to feel the eerie sensation that I was in a scene from Midnight Express (1978), a movie about a guy caught smuggling drugs into Turkey who ends up nearly going mad in a horrific barbaric prison. Finally, a mustached fellow, my masseuse, entered and had me lay down on the central hot marble slab. As he proceeded to aggressively wash, scrub, soap, and massage, in his broken English he kept emphasizing his good service and how he deserved a tip. When he was done, I indeed felt super clean and he got his hefty tip.
Although the Blue Mosque is perhaps the most famous landmark in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque in the Bazaar Quarter is perhaps the architectural star. Built in 1550 by the great architect Sinan, it has a great dome, soaring inner space, and an impressive tiled interior.
Every great mosque has an outdoor area for the faithful to ritually wash their feet. And inside, on the wall facing Mecca, is the minbar, a solitary staircase leading to a high pulpit where the imam addresses his congregation during prayers.
In any tour of Istanbul, you have to visit the Grand Bazaar where it has been business-as-usual for 500 years. Unless you're intent on buying a souvenir carpet in Turkey, make every effort to skip the requisite carpet store tour and take more time to explore the Bazaar. In a maze of streets and alleyways, there are literally hundreds of stores and seemingly thousands of aggressive shopkeepers hawking their wares. We were warned not to head off into the Bazaar's many side alleys for fear of getting lost - but leave a few crumbs to follow or ask for directions and you'll find your way out. Plenty of people speak English. Hospitality is part of doing business here and when shopkeepers offer you refreshment, you don't have to feel obligated to buy. But I spilled my "apple tea" in a tiny closet-sized leather store, made quite a mess, and I think I am a persona non grate now in the Grand Bazaar. Lesson learned - don't drink hot tea in a closet.
In the Old City area called Seraglio Point, in the midst of a hilltop park, sits Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was the palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 until it was vacated in 1853 in favor of the newer Dolmabahce Palace. There are royal rooms to see and a variety of museums. There is the Treasury with exhibitions of the royal jewels, the Armory, and the Imperial Costume collection with silk kaftans worn by the sultans. But most interesting were the rooms housing the holy relics of Islam. Here one finds Mohammed's swords, his mantle, even the prophet's footwear, hair, teeth, and ashes. A holy man sits in a nearby glass booth perpetually chanting verses from the Koran. Topkapi also has a section of rooms for the harem - the residence of the sultan's wives and children; and even a beautiful blue tiled "circumcision" room.
The last residence of the sultans was the sumptuous Dolmabahce Palace on the northern border of the city along the Bosporus. This huge palace with great halls and room after elegant room is the Turkish equivalent of Versailles. Purchase both tours offered - the Selamlik tour of the palace's ceremonial areas; and the Harem tour of the living quarters of the Sultan and his entourage. One passes into Dolmabahce through a great Imperial Gate where a giant Turkish soldier stands ceremonially at rigid attention. Beyond the entrance gate are ornamental gardens and a central Swan fountain. You become immediately aware of the ostentatious grandeur of the palace after you enter and walk up a dramatic horseshoe staircase with brass and Baccarat crystal balusters and polished mahogany rails. Then you pass from one columned, tiled, painted, mirrored, gilded, massive stateroom to the next. The Ceremonial Hall with a massive crystal chandelier, reputedly the heaviest in the world, was most recently used for a NATO conference. The tour of the Harem section ends in the bedroom of Ataturk - the George Washington of Turkey, who died there on November 10th, 1938. All the clocks in the palace are fixed at 9:05 a.m., the hour of his death, and his bed is draped with a Turkish flag.
On our last morning in Istanbul, we again awoke to the muezzin's morning call to prayer. The Ciragan Palace is located in an area called Ortakoy, in the city's northern suburbs. It is just a few blocks from a quaint seaside café area were we sat at an absolutely wonderfully located café along the seawall, in the shadow of a mosque to one side and the great Bosporus Bridge to the other. Fisherman in small dinghies meandered among a myriad of ferry boats and great oil tankers with Cyrillic names. It was a Saturday and a nearby flea market was busy. And hidden down one alley was a windowless Jewish synagogue with several wary plain clothes security guards out front. Despite the world's religious wars, Jews and Christians are still free to worship in Islamic Turkey - albeit with security.
We had a ship to board that evening to depart Istanbul but because traffic is so horrendous, we elected not to go back to the Old City to explore more historic sites. We simply walked a few blocks south of our hotel to the Besiktas area. There's a bus station and ferry boat stop there; the Besiktas Square Market selling fish, fruits, and vegetables; and the Naval Museum and Museum of Fine Arts. But most interesting were the masses of people that spill through this area from the main avenue, Barbaros Bulvari, from side streets, and disgorging from crowded buses. We sat down at an open air café to people watch. I should note that smoking is prevalent and terribly bothersome here. Almost anywhere I sat, I found myself next to chain smokers. Turks are generally thin people. I saw little obesity here. And Turkish women come in every variety - those with the sexy, bare midriff Western look; those with simple head scarves; those with long coat dresses and cone-like head coverings; and those covered head to toe in black veiled robes.
Istanbul was once the epicenter of great ancient civilizations. Today it is a modern crossroads of Islamic secular and religious culture. When our ship finally departed Istanbul, I stood at the rail until the mass of domed mosques and spires of minarets that dotted the city's landscape faded away in the distance. We headed into the Sea of Marmara, toward Gallipoli, to the Dardanelles, the Aegean, and to new adventures.