Friday, November 30, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Four

The nostalgic tram at Taksim Square
It's another warm, sunny day, and we're all glad to be far from rainy, cold Germany.  A good day.  And it's good to hear Harun talking about my favorite topic, spirituality.  It seems this is also important to him.

He tells us a little bit about Sufism, the mystical part of Islam, the path that seems to fit best with Christianity and eastern spirituality as well.  It teaches its followers to go beyond dogma, into the heart of things, to develop a heartfelt relationship with their Creator.  Certainly that can be reconciled with any religion.

Mazhar Mallouhi, a man who calls himself a Muslim follower of Jesus, belongs to a group of Sufis.  The singer Yusuf Islam, also known as Cat Stevens, is a Sufi.  The poet Rumi (his name in Turkey is Mevlana) was a Sufi.  In fact, his son, also one of his followers, founded the famous Mevlevi Sufi order.  This is the group that we in the west call the whirling dervishes, those people dressed in white robes and funny high cones for hats, who use a whirling sort of dance as a means of abandoning their sense of self in order to unite with God.  I once went to see a group of these people dance at Columbia University, so I have some idea of what Harun's talking about.

Harun says, "Sufism has a lot to do with the Turkish culture.  In Sufism, you go the indirect way."  He says the Turks are indirect people who would rather sacrifice clarity than say something clearly that would offend another person.  "In Turkey, you'd rather hurt yourself than offend someone else."  He says that since they so often hide it, you might think that Turks were thick-skinned.  Just the opposite is true, he says, so try and be tactful when talking to Turkish people.  I wish I knew some Turkish people to be tactful to.  In Germany I feel like the narrator in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.  I see Turkish people every day, but know none of them.    

In Egypt, I learned that Sufis honor certain people as saints.  This is actually one of the traits of the Shiites.  The Sunnis, the branch most Egyptians belong to, believe that no one should be elevated above anyone else.  Even Mohammed is only another follower of God, albeit a prophet.  But a prophet is only someone who helps us come closer to God - not a holy person.

I get the feeling that spiritual practices are very important to Harun.  He doesn't talk individually with anyone in the group.  I noticed last evening that he didn't touch the wine.  His eyes have the clarity of one who values purity.  He's well organized and seems very disciplined.  I wonder how often he fasts.  For sure, I think, all of Ramadan, and that very faithfully.  But he does not ignore external things.  He comes to us every day dressed in quality casual.  His little beard is perfectly trimmed.  He seems to value high quality brand names - his jacket and backpack bear the logo from "North Face".

We're on our way to Beylerbeyi Palace.  Peter tells me how he remembers this complicated name - "Boiler Bay", a place in Oregon we go to with my sister when we visit.  In order to get there, our bus takes us along the European side of the Bosphorus for a while, until we reach a bridge that reminds me of the Golden Gate Bridge.  This is the Bosphorus Bridge.  Before we get to the bridge, we see gorgeous apartment buildings along the hillside.  What views these people must have!  One of them has a rooftop infinity swimming pool.  Harun tells us the obvious, that these apartments are for the wealthy.  He says these apartments go for at least $1500 per square meter.  Are these Sufis living in these apartments?

Beylerbeyi Palace
Beylerbeyi Palace lies in all its pomp just underneath the bridge on the Asian side.  We are not allowed to take photos, so you'll have to refer to the link I've provided on Beylerbeyi Palace to see what the inside looks like.  The palace is more opulent than the Versailles, and at least as luxurious as the apartments of Napoleon III that you can see in the Louvre.  There is a connection between these apartments and the sultan who lived in this palace, we learn.  Harun tells us that this nineteenth palace was built as the summer residence for Sultan Abdülaziz, and in contrast to the Topkapi Palace, is very European in style.  Turkey and especially their sultan, who himself was one quarter French, looked to the French as models of modern luxury.  He was very musical and even composed some classical music pieces.  Abdülaziz reigned from 1861-1876.  He became unpopular because of his excessive lifestyle, and at the end of his life was sent to another palace in exile, where he was forced to live in the tower.  I later learn in Wikipedia, not from Harun, that officially, Abdülaziz died by simultaneously slitting both wrists with scissors - something very unlikely to happen to one living as a prisoner in a tower.  Another sultan apparently murdered.  Abdülaziz was in power at the time the Suez canal was opened, and it was this sultan who introduced the first railroad to Turkey - the Orient Express.  We learn that one of his visitors was Empress Eugénie of France, the wife of Napoleon III, who came to visit the sultan without her husband.  Eugénie seems to have been a favorite guest of the sultan.  He took her to meet his mother, arm in arm.  Upon seeing the empress, the valide sultan - the sultan's mother slapped her across the face.  No foreign dignitary should be seen in her private quarters.  Perhaps she sensed something more.  Harun tells us that according to rumor, the sultan spent at least one entire night in Eugénie's room during her private stay of two weeks.  In her old age, she visited the sultan's son, and he told her something about his father that made her age years in just one hour.  Her room is elegant, as is the entire palace.  Each room of the palace has Bohemian crystal chandeliers.  All the ceilings are hand-painted with decorative motives, and each room is color-coordinated.  The banisters on the main stairways are made of inlaid wood.  We don't get to see the harem.  Sultan Abdülaziz had six official wives and ten children.  I see no traces of ascetic Sufism or of any religion at all in this sultan.  Is this what the Europe of the nineteenth centurey had to offer?  Canals, railroads and self-indulgence? 

Istanbul feels far away in this park at the top of a hill on the Asian side
From here we drive to the top of a hill above the palace, to the highest place overlooking the city.  The view is inspiring.  We see all of Istanbul - in fact, the city stretches far beyond what the eye can see.  And water is everywhere.  We can see the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and even the Marmara Sea.  There are hills and forests just outside the city.  And it all looks prosperous.  Harun tells us that on the Asian side many Greeks have moved back and built lovely villas.  Saudis and other Arabs are also living on this side.

We have tea and date-filled pastries in a tea house in the garden.  Here, Istanbul feels tranquil - nothing like the Istanbul we join later in the evening at Taksim Square.  Harun sits off to the side, avoiding any private conversations. 

I am exhausted and feeling a little ill, after all.  I'm not sure if it is from the food from the previous evening, or what it is - I'm just a bit out of sorts.  I leave the group and find my way, alone, to our hotel by way of the Tünel train and the nostalgic tram.  In this city it is no problem at all for a woman to travel alone.   

In the afternoon I listen to a talk and discussion by Frau Ingrid Iren, one of the translators of Orhan Pamuk into German.  She impresses me with her humility, simplicity and loyalty to Turkey.  Her Turkish husband died only a few years after their marriage, but his family took her in.  Out of love for him and gratitude to his family, she has chosen to spend her entire life in Turkey.  She is encyclopedic in her knowledge of Turkish literature.  I want to read more. 

In the evening we join two people from our group for a traditional Turkish dinner in the restaurant Harun has recommended to us - Türes, just off the Istiklal Cadessi.  We join the racing pulse of Istanbul night life.  Don't these people ever stay home?  The food at our restaurant is good, the prices are low, and the service is great.  But it's just not the same caliber as the Develi restaurant.  

I like it here in Istanbul very much, but it doesn't tug at my heart like Cairo does.  There are some similarities, such as a Muslim culture, but perhaps it is this very culture that separates the two.  Istanbul, despite all Harun says about Sufi spiritualism, feels much more western and materialistic than Cairo.  It is certainly more comfortable.  It feels more like life in Europe.  If I were to choose a place I felt safe to live in, it would be Istanbul - over any European city.  It has less crime than any European city I know, and is beautiful, modern except for all the old mosques and palaces, and comfortable.  How many of these comfortable people are spiritually hungry?  I have no idea - I don't know anyone at all, except for a very little bit of Harun.  Perhaps there are many more like him.

I go to sleep reading more of Rumi:  

"Humble living does not diminish.
It fills. 
Going back to a simpler self gives wisdom."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Three

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the "Blue Mosque"
This is not a trip for the idle.  We are busy from early morning till evening.  And Harun doesn't waste a minute as he spoon-feeds information into our heads.  During our bus rides, he reads literature or explains the things we are seeing, as we gaze down at the sparkling blue shores of the Golden Horn.  It's a beautiful, sunny day, and I feel refreshed.  But how am I to make sense of the many things on the program for today?

I guess it is spirituality that is impressing me the most today.  My longing is to unite all these religions into one spirit.  But it doesn't seem to work, and that makes me sad.

Hagia Sophia
This morning we visit the Hagia Sophia, on the same hill as the Topkapi palace.  We learn that this structure is the model for almost all the mosques built ever since - but this was built as a church.  There are minarets around this building, as with all the mosques, so at first it feels like just another mosque we are entering.  The first thing you notice is the huge inscriptions in Arabic writing on placards on the walls.  Then, when you look a little closer, you see that this building is full of mosaics with Christian motifs.  It was built in 537 A.D. by the emperor Justinian.  One of the spectacular things about this building is the feeling of light and space - you can't see any of the structural supports, which are hidden in walls.  This church was the headquarters of the Eastern Church for hundreds of years until one spring day in 1453, when Sultan Ahmed turned it into a mosque.  It remained a mosque until 1931, when it was secularized and turned into a museum in 1935.  Harun explains that the Muslims only painted over the mosaics, taking care not to deface anything, because they also respected Jesus, Mary and all the Jewish and Christian prophets.  For me it is sad to think of something that was once Christian lose its Christian identity.  But how does God look at this?  Perhaps the most comforting thing I gaze at this morning is a cat resting on the top of a railing inside the church/mosque/museum, unaware of all these religious conflicts, simply glorifying its creator by being.

A cat adds to the glory of this place
Baptismal pool
Peter is delighted to find a baptismal pool in a small building adjacent.  It is obviously a pool meant for immersion, proof that people were immersing believing Christians even into the 500s. 

The Hagia Sophia was a very important mosque for the sultans to worship in; there is a covered passageway between Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, and a special section for him and his entourage to sit in.

The Basilica Cistern
From here we walk a few steps to the Basilica Cistern, also built around the time of the Hagia Sophia, during the Christian era when this city was known as Constantinople.  It is hushed, mysterious, deliciously eery down here, with columns stretching along as far as you can see, reminiscent of an ancient church.  The old town is full of these underground cisterns, but this one is the largest.  There is still water flowing down here in a huge shallow pool, illuminated by dim lighting.  "I could imagine a crime taking place down here", I whisper to Peter, not knowing that this very cistern is used in the opening scene of the James Bond film "From Russia with Love", one of Sean Connery's time as 007, in 1963.

After lunch, we walk over to the the Museum for Islamic Art.  I'm too tired to take much in, so I leave the museum and browse in the bookstore.  I find a book of Rumi poems which I buy and read for a while.  Rumi was a mystic poet from Iran, but he lived much of his life in Turkey and was buried in Konya.   This is a man who digs beneath the surface, getting to the bottom of things.  Rumi is interested in sources, the ground of being.  He's interested in heartfelt worship and a life dedicated to seeking God.  If you want to read a Rumi poem, go to the top of this blog under "Thoughts from Traveling Companions". 

By now I'm exhausted, but our day is far from finished.  Harun pushes us on.  We walk on to the "Blue Mosque", as the tourists call it because of the many blue tiles lining the walls.  The Turks call it the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, honoring the Sultan who conquered Istanbul from the Byzantines.  This mosque was built by Sinan, Harun tells us.  We will encounter many mosques built by Sinan during this trip.  This is a gigantic, very impressive building, but after being in the Hagia Sophia, the huge pillars supporting the building get in the way.  Sinan later learned to hide them, making the mosque similarly spacious, like the Hagia Sophia.  Harun tells us about the Muslim call to prayer.  Each time it is recited, there are some different elements, he says.  The longest call is on Friday midday.  The gist of it is, "Allah (Arab for God) is great, there is no one greater than God, and Mohammed is his prophet.  Come to pray.  There is no one more worthy than God."  I wish I could reconcile all this with my Christian belief, but am not sure I can.  Was Mohammed a prophet of God?  That for me is the question.  I hear Harun on this trip, Muhammed during my last trip to Egypt, praising their religion.  The way they talk about it, it doesn't sound that much different in its goals from Christianity, as far as worship of God and morals go.  But we Christians see Jesus as much more than a prophet.  Through his word, the entire universe was created.  Through Jesus' death, the entire universe was reconciled - all the sickness, darkness, sin and death of the universe has been overturned by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is a different message than the Muslim one.  And yet, I worship my Creator, my Sustainer - and my Saviour - with all my heart when I hear the call to prayer.  I figure this prayer is meant for all to heed, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, pagan, pantheist, anyone who has a sense of the supernatural.

Grand Bazaar
All the major sites seem to be within walking distance of each other.  From the Blue Mosque, we walk on to the grand bazaar.  I really look forward to this, remembering the fantastic maze of stalls in the Khan El Khalili bazaar in Cairo.  But - I've been forwarned - through the guidebook, which tells me most of the private vendors have had to give way to big commercial undertakings.  I'm not quite sure what this means, but I soon find out.  The bazaar is all under one roof, and Harun says it is so huge, you can get lost in it.  Peter, a guy from our tour group and I enter the bazaar.  It is attractive, with tiled walls and little signs to help orient the shoppers.  But the shops are upscale, and many are the same ones you would see in a shopping mall - Benetton, Oilily, and Esprit.  As we venture further into this mini-city, we see other stalls like those we were expecting to see - leather goods, scarves and clothes, jewelry and beautiful ceramics shops.  I buy a small leather handbag and a coin purse.  We sit down for a cup of Turkish coffee.  Three days into this trip and still not a sign of abdominal problems.  What a marvelous place Istanbul is!

Harun grants us an hour to visit the bazaar, and then we meet to walk to the bus, which will take us to our hotel.  On the way, we pass an inviting large, old building.  Harun explains that it is the Cemberlitas Hamam, one of Istanbul's oldest, most prestigious old bath houses.  I make a mental note to go there another day.  Today we have no more time, although we could probably all use a massage.  After walking all day, we are all so tired we can hardly take in another fact.  But, tireless Harun (do I see sagging shoulders and wrinkles of exhaustion even on his face?), explains the city's plans for renovation as our bus lumbers up the hill to Taksim Square.  We stumble out of the bus as soon as we reach the hotel.  Peter wastes no time in climbing into bed for a nap.  I type notes about the day in my laptop.

At 7 pm, we all pile back on to the bus.  We're all going out for dinner.  Back down the hill, this time through a traffic jam that is tame, compared to those we encountered in Cairo.  Tireless Harun reads to us from a book by Orhan Pamuk.  He reads a passage about Beyoglu, the part of the city we're staying in.  The story is interesting.  Old Istanbul used to have so many cultures living together, something else this city has in common with Cairo and Alexandria.  But many of the foreigners have left.

Our bus ride takes us past the road leading to the Topkapi Palace and along the Bosphorus for several minutes.  Finally, we stop at a location that looks almost creepy, it is so empty and dark.  But as soon as we pass through an underpass, we enter a crowded, lively little village called Fenerbahce, where we are surrounded by people on their way to, or already seated in fish restaurants or taverns, enjoying the night life.  But we're going to a kebab restaurant, the Develi, where we're supposed to get excellent Anatolian grilled food.  We get the rooftop all to ourselves, and we have a marvelous view of the village and the twinkling lights along the Bosphorus.  I invite Harun to sit with us at our table.  He declines.  He's going to eat with the bus driver.  We sit with a nice couple who live in Belgium.  The people on this tour are all friendly and uncomplicated, which is nice for us, but perhaps a little boring for the blog!  I have no one to complain about.  Not the food either.  The food is much better than any of the Turkish food I have eaten in Germany - and plenty of it!  Fried meatballs, an eggplant appetizer, feta cheese, beans, hummus, a salad with pomegranate balsam, delicious homemade pita, three kinds of grilled lamb dishes, and flaky, tender, buttery baklava for dessert.  If only we could sleep off all this food and laze around tomorrow.  Harun leaves us to our own thoughts and full tummies.  We wouldn't pay any attention to him anyway.  The dark road and gentle rumble of the bus lull many of us into dozing as we return to our hotel for the night.  I have enjoyed my meal so much, I feel almost drunk on it.  One day back in Germany, when I've had enough of feasting, I will fast.  I think of the words I discovered in Rumi, earlier in the day:  "There's a hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.  We are lutes, no more, no less.  If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music.  If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire." This evening my entire being has been sung to by delicious food, nice company, and a view of the waters of the Bosphorus.  And now I am ready for sleep.  There is plenty of time another day for fasting.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Taste for Turkey - Day Two

Entrance to Topkapi Palace
I'm calling this "Day Two", but I'm actually writing this over a month after our return from Turkey.  As I write, Tahrir Square, back in Cairo, is again filled with protestors.  Their new president, Muhammed Mursi, has claimed absolute power for himself, bringing his country into another uproar.  My heart goes out to the Egyptians, whose situation is so dramatic and so desperate.  I have begun to connect to them.

But now I need to write about Turkey.  In a way it's a shame that I keep comparing Turkey to Egypt, but the fact is, I do.  Both are ancient civilizations that over time have become Muslim.  Both Cairo and Istanbul have mushroomed into megacities of over 17 million inhabitants.

I told Peter on one of our last trips, I need to feel a connection to a place in order to relate to it.  I think we always need to find and build more connections in all aspects of life.  What were my connections to Turkey before traveling there?  Not many, unfortunately.  Only that I read about Constantinople in history class in school and college, and that I see Turks daily in Cologne.  Sometimes I go shopping in a Turkish super market.  Once in a while I even exchange a few words in a shop, or now and then a Turkish person wanders into one of my English courses.  But I have very little connection to Turkey, certainly nothing emotional.

I did have more of a connection, once - Keklik.  I met her through my church.  She was an atheist, originally a Muslim, who wanted to know what we Christians believed in.  I really liked Keklik.  She had been a Communist once, way back, while living in Turkey, but it was illegal to be a Communist.  She got arrested, sent to prison, and somehow escaped one day when allowed out on a day pass.  By the time she settled down in Cologne she was thoroughly disillusioned with the Communists, as she was with the Muslims, whom she called a purely political movement.  By now, she didn't fit in anywhere, but she could never go back to Turkey, she said, or she'd be arrested again.  We lost touch with one another somehow.  She just disappeared out of her apartment, out of the phone book, out of my life.  Did she get back to Turkey after all?  I wish I knew.   I've heard Turkey has made enormous strides in becoming a modern, western country.  Germans are starting to acknowledge their Turkish immigrants as part of their culture.  There's a popular German crime show that takes place in Istanbul.  As I write, I want to explore and to deepen the tentative connections that I do have, and then somehow convey this to you.  So here we are, as I segue into "Day Two".


Our first morning in Istanbul.  The sky is a pale, washed, gauzy baby blue.  We board a bus and leave Taksim Square, heading for the sparkling waters of the Golden Horn.  We cross one of the bridges, the Ataturk Bridge.  Off to our left is the Galata Bridge.  I can already recognize this bridge by looking behind me to see the Galata Tower.  Before today, I only knew about the Golden Horn from a novel I used in one of the English classes I teach.  It's so nice to be able to see it now.  We travel along the Horn a while, heading for the Bosphorus, then turn right, once the two bodies of water meet.  We're going to the Topkapi Palace, something we also read about in my little novel for English class.  Harun tells us that we will be spending a lot of time in the area around the Topkapi Palace in the next few days.

I'm surprised to learn that the famous church/mosque I've heard about, the Hagia Sophia, is on the same grounds as the palace.  There's another church that seems to be closed most of the time except for occasional concerts - the Hagia Irene Church.  I wish we could go inside that.  It's supposed to be beautiful, and to have amazing acoustics.  It's supposed to be the oldest church in Istanbul.  But we can't go there this time - there are no concerts happening there this week.

The domed roofs are the former kitchens of Topkapi palace
We walk through a long, tree-lined path, passing the Hagia Sophia, the Hagia Irene, and an archeological museum before we finally get to the Topkapi Palace.  Topkapi Palace, Harun tells us, was built shortly after the Ottomans conquered the city on May 29, 1453, transforming what was once a predominantly Greek Orthodox city called "Constantinople" into a Muslim city whose name gradually changed to "Istanbul".  Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) first conquered the city in a dramatic battle by tricking the Byzantines.  The Byzantines had a high city wall that had protected them for centuries.  The water inlets to Constantinople were also all protected - there was a chain stretching across the Golden Horn, and boats protecting the shores.  But Mehmed thought of something ingenious - he and his soldiers travelled up and down all the seven hills on one side of the Golden Horn, seeking entrance through the back side of the city.  They found one gate to the city wall unlocked.  Two by two, the soldiers passed through, and conquered the city from within.  Once Mehmed had the city in his control, he wanted a palace he could call his own.  The palace of the Byzantine rulers was not for him - so he began construction of the Topkapi Palace in 1459, six years after his conquest, and finished building it in 1465.  The Topkapi Palace is actually composed of several parts, each part surrounded by a courtyard.  It does seem to bear some resemblance in feeling to the Egyptian temples, in that each courtyard one enters is more private and exclusive than the last.  By the time you reach the last, the fourth courtyard, you are in the harem, the private living quarters of the sultan and his enormous family, sometimes up to 4,000 people, including all the civil servants. 

A pavilion where the Sultan could meet with visitors
It turns out that Mehmed was only able to live there for one year, and reigned only twelve years before he was poisoned, probably on orders of his son.  He and another brother were in turn later murdered.  There was so much murder in the harem, fratricide was even a legal means for a while of establishing succession to the throne.  We learn that Mehmed's last wife was also strangled in the harem in order to make way for another relative.  The harem was not a safe place, despite all the pools, inlaid wood, stained glass, gorgeous tiles and tranquil carpeted pavilions.   

The "Spoonmaker's" Diamond
We see splendid jeweled sabers, daggers and swords.  We hear the story of the "spoonmaker's diamond".  A homeless person found a huge rock and sold it to a spoon maker.  He got three spoons for it.  The spoon maker sold the stone to a Jewish jeweler, who took to polishing it.  It turned out to be an 86 carat diamond.  It is the fourth largest known diamond in the world.        

I learn about a film that takes place in the palace -  "Topkapi", with Peter Ustinov, and it's all about that diamond.  I can't wait to download it and watch it when I get home.  I have a website I use to watch all the more current as well as classic movies - Movieberry.

We learn about the Nubian eunuchs who served in the harem.  Now that I've been to Egypt, I know that the Nubians were the blacks who lived in southern Egypt and Sudan.  Some were sold as slaves to the sultans.  The sultans had many of them castrated and gave them important jobs in the harem.  They were in no danger of impregnating the women in the harem.  I learn that most of the women in the harem had no contact with the sultan, sexual or otherwise, and that many of them married other civil servants working in the palace.

The palace is beautiful, huge and overwhelming for someone like me, who has no background in Byzantine or Ottoman history.

Finally, after a rich but bewilderingly complex four-hour palace visit, our feet are longing for a rest.  We walk over to the Sultanahmet Koftecisi, an old, famous kofta restaurant right in the middle of the old city.  After hours at the palace, it is a relief to sit down and eat a couple of meatballs, even if we have to climb up three flights of stairs to get a seat.  The restaurant is overrun with tourists and Turks, and we taste why.  The food is tasty and economically priced.  Harun says I can eat the salad.  A welcome change from Egypt, where the salads made me sick.

Wooden houses in Istanbul
A mosaic in the Chora Church - courtesy of Wikipedia
By now the weather has changed, and our bus sloshes through rain as we are driven to a museum that was once a church - the Chora Church.  This is in an old, somewhat run-down part of the city, where we see more traditional architecture. The houses are made of wood!  The wooden structures remind me old-fashioned American homes.  I could almost see a house like these in an old part of Minneapolis or Queens, New York.  many of these houses have since burnt down in some of the many fires that have ravaged Istanbul.  This church is supposed to have excellent examples of early Byzantine mosaics.  I can't take it in, and I'm not even allowed to take any pictures.  I am cold from the rain, and exhausted from our long tour of the palace.

Finally, we are finished touring for the day.  Our bus drives back to Beyoglu, the section of Istanbul we're staying in.  Even though it's rush hour, there are no huge traffic jams like in Cairo.  We drive along streets the Nobel literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk wrote about in his book, Istanbul.  He comes from this section of Istanbul - and logically for us, it's the most European part of the city.  It feels really comfortable, almost like any other European city.   

In the evening, Peter and I ride for the first time in the historic tram that takes us along a huge pedestrian shopping street over two miles long, called Istiklal Caddesi.  It starts out at Taksim Square and goes all the way to the Galata Tower.  We get ripped off by the ticket seller at a kiosk.  We wanted a round-trip ticket, but he sells us one-way tickets for the price of a round trip.  No matter, we will walk back from our restaurant anyway.  This is a wonderful area of the city to explore.  I want to come back and see more.  It has all the usual European and American chain stores and restaurants like Burger King and MAC cosmetics, cafes, pubs and discos.  There are even English book stores here.  And it's loaded with Turkish young people out for the evening - thousands of them!  They seem to have plenty of time and money.  They are dressed just like young people in Germany or New York.  Istanbul seems to be a really hip place, with disco music blaring from the clubs along the avenue.  If I were young, I'd fly out here for a long weekend in October and enjoy warm days at the beach and balmy weather in the evening, strolling along the Istiklal Cadessi with my boyfriend - or girlfriend, hoping to meet someone at one of the clubs, or shopping.  The shops seem to be open until late into the evening. 

But Peter and I are too old for clubbing and too tired to shop.  We enjoy each other, holding hands as we meander back to the hotel.  Old Istanbul is exotic.  Modern Istanbul is - well, western and well-to-do.  We still hear the muezzin calling for prayer in the mosques, but the people look so secular, I wonder how important their religion is to them.  I'm torn between relief at finding a comfortable, western city with mosqes and disappointment that this city is not more exotic.