Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Harem and Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul

We woke up and scouted around for a Turkish breakfast which consisted of salad, slices of tomato and cucumbers, a bowl of black olives, some cold cuts, and a couple of cheeses, one of which was beyaz peynir, a "salty white cheese made from ewe's or goat's milk". I had to try a Turkish coffee despite not touching the stuff in the US. Apparently it's mostly a tourist thing. The locals prefer tea. It was really black and thick. I won't be ordering another one but I'm glad that I tried it.

I am trying to help Lydia conquer her fear of olives with mixed results.

While we were eating several groups of police walked down the street, many of them with riot gear on. Ruh roh. After finishing our breakfast we walked down the main street that was packed with people the night before. Some of the side streets were blocked with more police and the occasional armored vehicle. It's a trap! We were a little concerned about what the heck was happening so we popped into a Starbucks and asked around. A nice gentleman with solid English explained that this was the anniversary of some protests in Taksim Square. We felt a little better that nothing was imminently going to explode but the potential for danger was still there.

We continued to Taksim Square because that's where the metro station was. There was an army of police there and the metro station was closed. I counted around 6 of those tank looking vehicles with water cannons.

We decided to take a taxi and that point was the end of our use of public transport. With a group of four it made financial sense to take cabs and was much less hassle as well.

Our destination was the Bosphorus Strait. The Bosporus runs through and divides Istabul's European and Asian components, and it connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.

Istanbul straddles two continents. Lydia thinks this counts as having been to Asia but the rest of us know the truth.

We were planning on taking a cruise but didn't have anything booked so we just wandered a bit and figured things out. It didn't take long before we were accosted by a cruise pusher with a colorful map. I default to telling people that approach me selling things to get bent but this guy was really helpful and polite so we booked through him.

From the strait Istanbul seems like a much different place. There were several palaces facing the water, as well as fancy mosques and other nice buildings. There were a couple of forts guarding passage through the strait as well.

I bought some chestnuts from one of those street grilling guys and they were pretty darn good. They brought to mind a similar thing in Japan but were prepared a bit differently.


This guy was selling leaches.

We popped into a free museum that we stumbled upon that explained the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I, the French and British's thwarted attempt to capture Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out the war. It was fun because I'd never heard of it, but apparently it was a very big deal for the birth of Turkey as well as national consciousness for Australia and New Zealand. It was random and interesting.

We kept seeing these little boys dressed like little sultans and I just had to know what's up. I asked our tour guide from yesterday Ekrem what the deal was and he said that it was a sort of entering manhood day for the boy which includes circumcision. Not only do I wish I could unknow this, but now every time I see one of these kids I am reminded of that fact that I can't unknow this.

Next on our tour was the Topkapi Palace. The palace is kind of hard to explain. It seemed both fancy but kind of understated at the same time. For example the sultan didn't sit on a big golden throne but a pretty simple couch thing.

The most interesting aspect of the compound was the 400 room harem. Administrated and guarded by African eunuchs, the harem housed more than 800 female slaves by the mid-19th century. Apparently there were also white eunuchs at the palace but they had a different function.

Gate of Felicity

I was reading about the Ottoman Empire on Wikipedia and saw this picture and was like, "I've been there!" This is Selim III receiving dignitaries during an audience at the Gate of Felicity, Topkapı Palace.

We had a water break at a cafe and watched feral cats beg for table scraps.

At this point we broke into pairs and Lydia and I continued on to a Whirling Dervish show we'd booked for the night. It was amazing! I won't get into the details but the Dervishes are a mystical sect of Islam that does a spinning dance that's meant to put its participants into a type of trance. The venue was an old domed bathhouse with really cool lighting. They projected scenes from the universe on this dome which made the whirling even more epic. A band playing exotic instruments and chanting rounded out the experience. Also amusing was a girl whose job it was to make sure no one took any photos. She would zap offenders with a large green laser pointer from across the room in an excellent cross between laser tag and whack-a-mole.

The venue was pretty sweet.

This is a giant version of little Dervish dolls they were selling in the lobby. So far I am proud to report that Lydia and I are knick knack free and sober for three days now.

We had a final kebab and headed home. Luckily there hadn't been any riots in our neighborhood once we returned. That would have ruined my lovely night.

Turkish Delight seems to be a general term that covers lots of different sweets. They are awesome but a bit annoying because there are so many types that I would risk some sort of sugar seizure if I tried them all.

A kebab guy. Throughout the day I took every chance to ask the locals what they thought about all of the extra police and the subway interruptions. The guy just rolled his eyes and said something to the effect that it's all nonsense. 

This intrepid youth was running a tea shop out of a shopping cart. Lydia made an insightful comment that I appreciated. She said it seemed like countries other than the US were all similar. For example, people selling things on the street is the norm in the vast majority of countries we've visited while in the US it's not very common.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Istanbul's Really Big Mosques


This morning we had our sights set on Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest (if not the largest) covered markets in the world. Merchants were selling everything from Turkish Delights to fancy stained-glass light fixtures, to Adidas brand shoes. I particularly liked the light fixtures. Since I don’t have room in my backpack to carry one around the rest of the trip, I’m hoping they sell similar ones at Ikea.  Then I can just tell everyone it’s from Turkey.

The area around our airbnb apartment.

These grilling guys are ubiquitous in Istanbul. They primarily cook corn on the cob and chestnuts.

The entrance to the Grand Bazaar.

Angela bought some traditional Turkish shoes for one of her kids. They are pink and pointy with a little pom-pom at the end.  However the best part of the story isn’t the shoes, it’s the haggling.  Angela and the man we’re going back and forth on the price when the merchant-man decided to ask Zeke what he does for work. I think we all kind of winced at this point hoping Zeke would respond with plumber or lawn mower or toilet cleaner. Instead, he told the truth, banker. And with that, the price went back up. Lesson of the story, if you want a good deal, don’t tell a merchant-man you’re a banker.

For lunch we ate on the roof of a little kebab place. The view was nice, the food was good, and the waiter kept giving us free things. He started with bread and a yogurt dip appetizer, a lemony drink for John, and Turkish tea for the table.  We ate some delicious kebab meat and a Turkish style pizza. It was shaped like a little boat.  It’s topping was kebab meat and it didn’t have any sauce or cheese. John and I agreed that it was better than most American pizza. So tasty.

Next we walked a few blocks to the Hippodrome. Back in the day the Hippodrome was used for chariot races.  We all agreed that chariot races should still be a thing.  Today you’ll find the Obelisk of Theodosius at the center of the Hippodrome. It was carved in pink marble in Egypt around 1500BC and brought to Istanbul by Theodosius the Great in AD 390.  There’s also a spiral column near by that was brought from Delphi in AD 330 by Constantine the Great.

Obelisk of Theodosius

The base of the obelisk has seen better days.

Spiral column

Adjacent to the Hippodrome is the Blue Mosque. Sultan Ahmet built the Blue Mosque in the 1600s. Its name comes from the thousands of blue tiles that decorate the inside. The outside is even more impressive with its cascade of domes, 6 minarets, and the largest courtyard of any Ottoman mosque.

To visit the inside of the mosque, there are some strict clothing requirements. In order to accommodate all of the incorrectly dressed tourists, they were passing out some lovely blue clothes as we waited in line. I had to use one to cover my head, and Zeke had to use one to cover his knees. We looked super.

Rules. So many rules.

Leaving the mosque we wandered some more. We ran into a couple more markety areas. We liked these better than the Grand Bazaar because there were fewer people and everything was much more laid back. One store I liked had some really cool backgammon games and chessboards. I have to say Turkey has some of the best souvenir type things of any country I’ve been to.

[This is the face I'm confronted with when I tell Lydia no when she wants to buy something frivolous].

Angela doing some jewelry bartering. Angela barters so hard that I think merchants just give in so that she'll leave and they can go cry into a pillow.

[Lydia was pretty enamored with this lady bug. "Look, it's black with red spots!"]

We eventually made it to the Aya Sofia. This building was originally built as a church by a Byzantine emperor in 537, but it was later converted to a mosque in 1453, and eventually turned into a museum in 1935. The interior of this building is amazing. It’s just so big! According to our book, the Aya Sofia was the best building in the world for almost 1000 years and during this time it was the dream of all architects to build something better.

[The Blue Mosque and the Sofia were really close to each other. The Blue was nice on the outside but uglier on the inside, and the Sofia was the opposite.]

[There was this column where some Byzantine emperor leaned against and was cured of some ailment. Obviously, according to science, that means the column is magical and countless tourists should jam their finger in it for good luck. Science.]

[The two creatures to either side of my head are seraphim. They have six wings, two to fly, two to cover their feet, and two to cover their faces.]

Educational video.

Part of the building’s allure today is the mix of Christian and Islam symbols inside. For example, above the Apse is a mosaic of Mary with baby Jesus. On either side of this image are Arabic words relating to Muhammad and Allah. I like this because it shows that no matter the religion, buildings can be big, beautiful, and long lasting.

Mary with the Islamic things on either side.

[This one depicts two Byzantine emperors presenting the Aya Sophia and the city of Constantinople to Jesus. Baby Jesus would totally just put the city of Constantinople in his mouth. I feel like a god baby would be hard to say no to. How do you potty train Jesus? If he wants to poop his pants you pretty much have to let him. His dirty diapers would have to preserved in cathedrals and prayed to. I digress.]

Kids trying to swindle tourists with baubles.

The last thing on our agenda for the day was dinner with a local Turkish family. We met our guide, Ekrem, in the Old City and he led the way. We landed at a small apartment with a woman named Bedia inside. (I was excited that her name rhymed with Lydia.) The apartment consisted of a small living area, a tiny, tiny kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. We learned that Bedia lived there with her husband and two tween-aged sons.

Anyway, we sat around a table on the floor and Bedia served a delicious dinner.  The first course was some soup that John said reminded him of Spaghettios. For the main course we had chicken, potatoes, and stuffed peppers.  They seemed to have all been cooked in the same pot which is confusing. For dessert we had irmik. It was sort of like pudding, but stiffer and not as sweet. It was good!

[I said I wanted to wash my hands before we ate but I really just wanted to see their bathroom. Am I a bad person?]


The most exciting part of dinner was having an opportunity to speak with real legit Turkish people. We talked about everything from the Turkish opinion of Americans to vaccinations to the Ottoman Empire. When we asked Ekrem his opinion of Americans he said that we aren’t evil per se, just “evilish.” We all got a kick out of that. Angela also had Bedia (and her neighbor friend) show her how to use her scarf as a head covering. That was fun.

After dinner Ekrem took us to a café for some traditional Hookah smoking. John and I chose Rose flavored sheesha. I think Ekrem is the best tour guide I’ve ever had. He was friendly, honest, and super knowledgeable. He knew everything about Turkish history.  It makes sense that he was great because not only did he study Tourism in college, but he also went to a “tourism high school.” In addition to all of this, tour guides in Turkey have to pass some sort of really difficult test in order to get licensed. I think the tour guide training in Turkey is more intense than teacher training in America!

I could tell when the coal man was behind me from the heat.

[There are an unfortunate number of child beggars in Istanbul. Ekrem said that many of them are Syrian refugees who figure out that they can make more money begging in the city than doing real jobs other places. He said that women can make so much with these kids that sometimes they steal babies.]