The Great Theatre with its spectacular acoustics in the ancient Greek/Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey is attended mainly by visitors these days, a historic relic of a much older civilization. Below, the ruins of the 2,000-year-old library, also found in Ephesus.
Photograph by: Mike Grenby , Postmedia News
You might think that after staying at a palace, staying at a prison would be traumatic. But if the palace and prison both happen to be called Four Seasons, you would soon change your mind – although you might still wonder why this Canadian-based hotel chain had chosen to take over two such disparate locations.
Perhaps it’s because they perfectly capture two of the dominant feelings of a visit to this bridge between Europe and Asia: The palace, on the banks of the Bosphorus, is modern Turkey – from the everyday fishing boats on the river to the half-million-dollar wedding on the hotel grounds.
The prison, in the old town, puts you in the heart of the city, surrounded by the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Hamam Turkish Bath and outdoor restaurants with live Turkish music and whirling dervish dancers. The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are only a short distance away.
And wherever you go, you hear the call to prayer. Although many tourists cancelled plans to visit because of the political unrest earlier this year, unless you go looking for the demonstrations you won’t find anything other than normal life in this city of close to 14 million people.
It certainly doesn’t get more Istanbul Turkish Muslim than this – standing between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, which was once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum – two such important symbols, and such large, dominant structures.
It’s always an amazing feeling to be in front of famous places you have previously seen only as pictures. These two highly venerated buildings are not only prime tourist attractions but also play a vital and living role for Muslims, especially the Blue Mosque which is closed to non-worshippers during the daily prayer times.
Probably the one thing that stands out most for the visitor is the frequent call to prayer throughout the day, from early hours to late. To hear that prayer call really lets you know you are in a different country with a different culture and a different religion.
The slightly discordant call lasts for about 20 minutes. While this used to be a job for humans, now most of the calls to prayer are automated and broadcast from loudspeakers mounted on minarets.
From the moment you land in Turkey, you notice these ubiquitous minarets – and once again you know you are in a Muslim country. The slender towers symbolize the Middle East, marking Istanbul as the gateway between Europe and Asia – but really only a gateway: there is nothing Asian in the sense of the Far East on the Asian side of the Bosphorus River.
Nevertheless, the minarets and mosques, from grand structures to the very simple and basic yet all exotic, remind you time and again where you are.
Exotic for a different reason is the way young boys dress up like little princes after being circumcised (hopefully some time after the painful experience, which often takes place without anesthetic). The boys proudly wear their special outfits, and are the focus of attention of family, friends and foreigners alike.
When it comes to women, even if their traditional black religious dress shows nothing more than the tiniest slit for their eyes, many still manage to be fashionistas. Check out their stylish shoes, or more likely their Gucci or Coach handbags.
In the very sunny and hot Turkish summer, these women must really feel the heat. It would be interesting to talk to them about both the tradition versus fashion and also the (dis) comfort factors, as well as what determines the degree to which they cover up.
Another very Turkish moment comes from watching a whirling dervish dancer, typically at a restaurant. While you have your meal, you listen as the musicians play the music and the traditionally clad dancer whirls around and around and around, posture perfect, gracefully and carefully placing his feet and moving his arms … and not appearing in the least dizzy.
He does take fairly long breaks between dances to recover, standing still on the stage, near the musicians. Then he starts to move once more, his face remaining impassive throughout the dance. Find more information about the significance of this dance at www.whirlingdervishes.org/whirlingdervishes.htm Turkish food, with one exception, is very healthy, often featuring small, flavourful mezze/snack size portions, with plenty of fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.
The exception? All those sticky sweet treats, so popular at any time of night or day especially with Turkish tea or strong coffee. As well all those sweet Turkish “delights,” the local people love their Turkish tea, drunk black at every occasion and almost any time of the day. Even in the hot summer, the hot tea is refreshing – and more cooling than ice tea.
Smoking is alive and well here, and is often part of a ritual ceremony especially at restaurants where you pay for your choice of tobacco and a hookah – a setup of pipes and water bowl through which to draw the smoke.
Another major attraction is the Grand Bazaar, which turns out to be grand enough, but focused mainly on jewelry – the light glistening off gold and silver, and sparkling off diamonds, real or otherwise. Nevertheless, it’s crowded with people looking for bargains, and knowing they can bargain.
“Local people do shop at the Grand Bazaar but usually only for jewelry,” a guide says. “You can expect to pay about half of the initial asking price.”
However, at the Spice Bazaar you do indeed find mostly spices and sweet treats – and such a variety, the colours matched only by all the flavours.
While some jewelry shops and stalls are making inroads as the market becomes more commercialized to help boost the bottom line, most of the products are related to food, although you can also see some handicrafts. I was pleased to find pillow covers decorated with a proud horse to take home to remind me of my visit.
The Turkish script might be hard to read, but English is widely spoken. Although young professionals are likely to be the most fluent, generally people can manage at least a few words of English. It’s always an unusual but reassuring feeling to visit a country that is so clearly different yet be able to communicate relatively easily.
People tend to be friendly: it might be a genuine welcome, it might simply be a way to get to sell you something. And when, stung by too many locals trying to sell you too many things, you brush off the approach, the individual adopts a hurt look and even says “You don’t have to be so rude.”
Is this just another ploy, or was the individual really only trying to be friendly? Around the tourist hot spots, chances are it’s a sales pitch, but in other areas, it is more likely to be a genuine welcome. Perhaps it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt until his intention becomes clear.
For example, when you leave from Ataturk, one of Istanbul’s two main airports, suddenly a man attaches himself to you, guiding you to your check-in counter, then pointing you in the direction of the lounge and gate.
Is he a hustler or somebody employed by the airline or just a helpful volunteer? Can you trust him when he asks for and walks ahead with your passport and e-ticket information? It all turns out well, and you find yourself boarding the correct plane, relieved to be once more in possession of your passports.
Istanbul indeed turns out to be a Turkish Delight.
Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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