Istanbul/June 5 - 2003 --liClick Here for Printer Friendly Version

Hearing the call to prayer echoing about the evening cityscape reminds you that you are not in Kansas anymore - Hearing the call to prayer at 5 AM reminds you that you have a minaret (prayer tower) about fifty yards from your hotel window and it contains very loud, loudspeakers.
Needless to say I was up early this morning, sometime around 5 AM. Breakfast is not served until 8, so I walked around Old Istanbul ( Saltanahmet ) for a couple of hours and watched the city come to life - produce trucks, street sweepers (both the motorized and the manual kind), bakers and vendors, all setting up for the day. No carpet salesmen yet, I guess they sleep late.
Istanbul is a city of wonderful smells - flowers and spices, olives, dates, and coffee. The streets in Sultanahmet are clean but beware, there is not a level surface to be found -stairs and cobblestone ramps, curbs and cliffs -no street is straight in any direction -left, right, up or down. There is a reason that sultans made this area their seat of power for 400 years - it is easy to defend and allows for successful ambushes -a fact not lost on the carpet salesmen.
Istanbul is beautiful - the people are kind, friendly, generous, and wonderful - even the carpet sellers are polite if not persistent - In Istanbul you cannot throw a rock without hitting a carpet salesman but I do not think throwing rocks would keep them away. Most think I am in need of a carpet, the rest know I need one.
The weather is perfect. High 70s to low 80s - no clouds, no humidity - soft and gentle breezes. Feels much like the weather I left at home.
My hotel, the Hotel Empress Zoe, is perfectly situated in Saltanahmet - about a five minute walk from the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) , Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia or St. Sophia - Justinian's 537 A.D. Greatest church in Christendom), the ancient cisterns of Istanbul (Yerebatan Cistern), and the Topkapi Palace (Turkey's Forbidden City). I visited all today.
But first, I ate - the hotel has a breakfast to die for: ripe olives, goat cheese, fresh strawberries, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, fresh bread, homemade preserves (apricot and strawberry), hardboiled eggs, and Turkish coffee. I ate outside in the hotel's private garden with a cat (there is always a cat where ever you eat in Istanbul).


The guidebook said to visit the Topkapi Palace first. It said to get there as soon as it opens (at 9 AM) to avoid the crowds and to be first in line for tickets to the Harem: "Head straight for the Harem when you enter; the crowds are so thick and the tour groups so numerous that individual travelers sometimes are out of luck as the groups book all of the tours in advance." I did as I was advised only to find that the "Forbidden City" has become the "Lonely City" since 9/11. If it had not been for the school children and their teachers, I think I would have been alone.
5000 people once lived at the palace. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 over the ruins of Constantine's Imperial Palace, the Topkapi Palace was the seat of power and intrigue for 400 years. In 1855, Abdulmecid moved the imperial residence up the Bosphorus to Dolmabahce Palace -too many people, too much noise, and from what I could see, the place needed a lot of work. Walt Disney and William Randolph Hearst did a much better "Harem" than Mehmet did. Being a Sultan gave you a lot of mouths to feed and some really crabby wives and wife-wanta-bes. I saw the "Hall of Sultan Portraits" and they all looked fat and unhappy. They also look very much like a family of dwarfs - In the book of rules for painting Sultans, I guess it is stated that "no Sultan can be painted standing." Unfortunately, there was nothing in the rule book about "how to paint a seated Sultan." One or two artists got it right but the majority just painted what looks like very short and deformed legs on otherwise normal torsos.
School children were great - all in uniforms, most holding hands. Many noticed me and wanted to speak English, "My name is ...., what is your name?" "Hello, do you speak Turkish?" "Why does your President hate us?"
Three hours at the Topkapi Palace and on to the next architectural treasure. But first, a carpet salesman story:
I decided to experience a carpet sales pitch. It works something like this - You are walking along and you hear a voice, "Excuse me sir, could I offer you some tea? "Excuse me sir, are you American or Canadian?" "Do not be concerned, I am not a guide." "Can I answer a question you might have?" If you respond in any way, you have entered into a negotiation for your time and possibly your money. The goal here is to give you something of value and have you reciprocate. A friendly man in his fifties began a conversation with me about what to see and do in the Old City. He took me into the Blue Mosque through a side door, told me about the history of the building, pointed out features I would have missed had I been on my own, and then spent at least a half hour showing me short-cuts to other buildings in the area. His spontaneous tour of the old city was his gift to me as a friend - how could I refuse his offer of a cup of Turkish tea at his place of business?
I was taken a short distance to a very nice carpet shop - spacious, Spartan, tasteful, and I was introduced to the owner - quiet, dignified, and well dressed. He asked his assistant to bring us two chairs and my choice of drink (I chose a spiced apple tea). We talked politics and family and at no time did we discuss carpets (my spontaneous guide had since vanished). We talked for an hour. At the end of our conversation, my host noted that I was not motivated to negotiate for carpets and that we could do that at another time of my choosing and he offered me more tea. My time was worth his tea - we both met our obligations honorably and parted. Very civilized, but the process can take valuable time if you let it - I let it and I am glad I did.
I still had time to tour the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, and the Yerebatan Cistern (the ancient cistern of Istanbul). All are enormous, awe-inspiring, beautiful, and old. I shot over five-hundred photographs today and produced at least four panoramas of the sites I visited. Many pictures to share with you when I return (If Betty can't go to Istanbul, I will bring Istanbul to Betty -You know, that Muhammed and Mountain thing).

Another great meal tonight at yet another cheap restaurant with a cat to keep me company. Tomorrow I cruise the Bosphorus.

The Lonely but Well Fed Photographer,

Return to Turkey Letters Homepage - Updated 9/9/03