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Images of Istanbul
There are a handful of cities around the world that draw me back again and again. Some, like Paris, Vienna or Buenos Aires, do so because of the sheer visual pleasure of wandering around the streets, soaking up the sights and ambiance of the city. Others, like San Francisco and Sydney, fill me with excitement and a sense of joie de vivre at just being there.
But there are yet others -- but not many -- where I not only instinctively love the city and find its people both interesting and friendly, but also get enveloped in the enormous sense of history that seems to put an extra patina onto everything I see. Venice is such a city. So is Istanbul.
And now I'm standing on one side of the main passage of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, engaged in my favorite occupation when in this city -- people-watching. This is the most fascinating as well as the largest covered market in the world, and the passage I am standing in hasn't changed very dramatically in the last hundred years or so.
You find all these here, but if you shop well, the prices can be as little as a quarter of what you would have to pay for the same items at home: fine carpets that beckon with their silky luster; fabulous hand-shaped silver, from delicate jewelry to large samovars; ceramics adorned with graceful Arabic wording and designs; soft leather jackets in every imaginable size and design; gold, ranging from heavy necklaces and bracelets to superb modern Western jewelry in designs that could have come straight out of Bulgari or Van Clef windows; luggage, the sort from which carpetbaggers took their name, made from Turkish rugs and tapestry fabrics; and copper and brass-ware, handbeaten pots, pans and containers for Turkish coffee. It's little wonder, then, that people come from every corner of the globe to shop for the incredible array of merchandise that is on offer here. I seem to never tire of standing and watching the passing vendors, customers, and service-people.
A short, wiry Turk goes past, carrying a dozen folded carpets balanced on his head. The weight of the load seems to be greater than that of the carrier. Women in purdah, only their eyes visible from behind their black yashmaks, admire a window chock-a-bloc with gold bangles and chains. A group of Germans walk past, cameras on shoulders and heads almost mechanically swiveling from side to side in an endeavor to miss nothing.
A Turkish boy carries a tray of apple tea in small glasses, almost running in his haste to deliver the tea hot. He holds aloft the metal knob from which four wires run down to the round tray below. If he had a pair of these and was blind-folded, he would look exactly like the figure of Lady Law holding the balancing scales of justice.
Gypsy beggar women hustle the European tourists, leaving the Turks alone in the knowledge that they are probably less likely donors. But these are not the gypsies you see in Europe ! They are Turkic/Indian -- of the same ancestry as the Romany gypsies of Europe who drifted there from the Indian sub-continent some centuries ago -- but not nearly as Europeanized.
I stroll through the Grand Bazaar, admiring a shop with lovely sterling silver jugs that are very temptingly priced, and recall a Turkish friend saying, "Bazaar prices are largely what the market will bear. Europeans are quoted prices thirty per cent higher than locals, and Japanese thirty per cent above that again. But most of that extra goes to the Japanese tour guides who make it clear that they will not bring the customers to the shop without a substantial kickback."
The Grand Bazaar, also known as the Covered Bazaar and (to locals) as the Kapali Karsi, is huge by any standard. It started with two warehouses that were converted into a market just after the Moslem rule of Istanbul was established in 1452. To ensure supplies for the shops and the warehouses, their owners established workshops in the surrounding alleys and as the market complex became more popular and grew rapidly, the whole market area developed.
Caravansaries giving lodging and shelter to merchants and traders bringing goods from as far away as China, India, and Europe were set up on the outskirts of the market. As the merchandise sold there became more and more valuable, the arcades were made permanent and roofed-over so that they could be locked up and surrounded by protective walls.
Every few decades there would be a major fire or earthquake that would destroy all or part of the market. It's reconstruction was always the excuse for substantial enlargement. By the 1880 census, the Grand Bazaar was found to have 4,399 shops, 12 storehouses, 492 stalls, and 2,198 workshops. In the mid-1970's, many of the early tiny stalls of antiquity had been combined into larger consolidated shops, and many new categories of merchandise had been added. Yet the traditional trades had survived, represented by 116 carpet shops, 131 tourist and souvenir establishments, 472 jewelers and 181 shoe-makers, to name just a few of the categories represented here.
The last serious fire, resulting in yet another slight modernization, was in 1954 when some of the arcades were modernized and glass shopfronts added to many of the stalls.
Don't miss the carpet and rug dealers. Turkish carpets are among the finest in the world, led by the Herekes, a fine, double-knotted, silk on silk carpet that will become a wonderful family heirloom if properly treated. But shop around! Assume that the carpet dealer will assess you within 30 seconds of starting up a conversation and will base his prices on what he thinks you can pay.
If you come from a country where rugs and carpets are expensive -- Germany, USA, Britain, or Japan -- you'll be asked for much more then if you hail from Albania or China. So when the carpet shop owner or salesman asks you where you are from, go to great lengths to explain that you live in a rented apartment, lost your job two weeks ago, have to support your mother-in-law, wife, mistress, and eight children by each, and are looking for a cheap rug to cover that hole in the floor that you can't afford to repair.
Turkish carpet salesmen are the best in the world and usually have a sense of humor. Their tales of the carpets being made by six-year-old virgins locked up for twenty years to make the very carpet you are being offered, never having had a chance of changing their status because they were too busy making those tight little knots, will take a lot of matching by your story.
But do observe the unwritten rules. Never start to haggle over price unless you are really interested in buying, and don't make the carpet shop owner unfold a hundred carpets unless you are seriously in the market for at least one. It's not fair to him, and you wouldn't like it done to you if the position was reversed. Far better to say that you are not in the market, but would they mind you sitting quietly and watching carpets being shown to other customers as you feel you can learn something about the product by doing so.
Turks are marvelously friendly people and will appreciate your frankness, with a 99% chance of you being made very welcome indeed and coming out feeling that you at least know part of the Turkish carpet story. If you only have a small budget, look at the kilims: tribal rugs of exceptional beauty and wearability.
I particularly like the Sumaks, lovely tribal designs made in the area around Mt. Ararat and displaying figures of tiny animals. It is normally against Moslem beliefs to portray people or animals in paintings or carpets, but as these creatures are the ones that went into Noah's Ark, this design seems to have obtained an exemption from the rules.
The size and layout of this gigantic maze of stalls means that for those who give themselves a reasonable time to explore the Grand Bazaar (I suggest a minimum of two hours) there is an almost inevitable chance of getting hopelessly lost in its labyrinth. But that's no great problem providing you have asked about, and written down, the name of the gate at which you entered. Ask any stall holder and they will point you in the right direction.
And now it's time to go to Topkapi Palace, turned into a museum when Turkey became a republic, to see the lifestyle that was enjoyed in the Palace of the Ottomans.
The Topkapi Palace, Topkapi means "cannon gate," as this was the spot where the attacking Moslem breached the walls of the Byzantine defenders; is built overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the body of water that is joined to the Mediterranean on one side and the Black Sea on the other. I enjoy having coffee in the Konyali restaurant on the terrace at Topkapi. From here one looks down on to the waterway in exactly the same manner as members of the Turkish ruling family had done for over 500 years. Today, modern cruise ships pass through, heading for Yalta and Odessa, while rusty Russian freighters chug slowly through into the Mediterranean.
Coffeetime over, it's time to view the Ottoman collection of crown jewels. It should be compulsory for anyone coming here to first see the old movie classic "Topkapi." If your video shop has it, see this movie before heading for Turkey. And once there don't miss the 86 carat Spoonmaker's Diamond that is virtually priceless and the huge emerald that glistens and sparkles in the spotlight.
This jewelry collection never ceases to fascinate me. It seems grossly unfair that so much wealth should have been in the hands of so few people. But in daydreams I quite envy the thought of having been Sultan in Ottoman days. The idea of controlling Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, part of Iran, a lot of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Greece, Rumania, much of Hungary, some of Austria, Algeria, Bulgaria, and most of the Arabian Peninsula rather tickles my fancy. The taxes from all those possessions would allow even a spendthrift like myself to live rather well. And so did the Ottomans, as long as they were males. Everything was, for them, available in excess. And their love-lives were no exception. Great for the men, but not so good for the women, and even worse for the eunuchs who guarded them.
To get some idea of how they lived, head for the Harem. But your impressions will be distorted, because only a small handful of around 20 rooms out of the 300 in the complex are open to the public. The ones you see are undoubtedly the best and are beautifully tiled in exquisite designs. But the other rooms spread over six different levels are much smaller, except for the Sultan's private apartment. The Sultan would wander through, picking his playmates for the night, but the other 200 or so wives would miss out and lead frustrated, relatively lonely lives, especially if they were picked for political reasons to consummate alliances rather than romps on the mattress. It was politic for the Sultan to take a wife who was the daughter of the local ruler in his many fiefdoms. She had to convert to Islam and join the Harem, but if she was ugly, her lottery number would never come up.
And, talking about ugly, brings me to the eunuchs. They were picked for their ugliness -- as well as for their strength -- so that the Harem wives would not be tempted. But even if they were, it didn't do them much good. To prove that the eunuch's natural equipment had been permanently removed, they had to wear (in their turbans) the little silver funnel that helped them go to the bathroom. If you think I'm kidding, check the Cadogan Guide to Turkey, page 76 -- you know you can always trust a Travel Writer!
I could go on and on about Topkapi: the kitchens that could serve a banquet for 5,000 people; the huge pots and other kitchen implements that were actually used by the Sultan's chefs; the library of Ahmet I with its magnificent ivory and tortoiseshell cupboards; the apartments of the princes, the younger brothers of each Sultan who were virtually kept under house arrest to ensure that they would not be able to scheme to overthrow the ruler of that day; the collection of illustrated Koranic manuscripts and other fine books; the Sultan's exquisite collection of Chinese Celadon pottery and Japanese Amari-ware; and the Ottoman costume collection. There is so much to see and to learn.
Not far from the Topkapi Museum is the Blue Mosque built in 1603 with the unusual total of six minarets, making this the only six-minaret Mosque (of top standard) in Turkey. Measuring 174 x 167 feet it is today arguably one of the most famous and most stunning Mosques in the world.
Two other sensational Mosques of this standard are the Blue Mosque and the Haggia Sofia: the Church of Divine Wisdom that took 7,000 builders around six years to build. Churches at that time were not the sort you are used to seeing in Western Europe, as the techniques for their type of buttress had not yet been developed. But the vast open area that was used for prayers on Holy days was best designed in the shape of a dome with further half-domes in the back both extending the area and acting as buttresses. Cast your mind back as you stand there and imagine that you are one of the two mathematicians from Asia Minor who were designing this building 1400 years ago with only the architectural knowledge, tools, materials and building methods available at that time in history. What geniuses these people must have been!
So now you have covered shopping, religion, and history, and you're hungry. There, too, Turkey should provide a pleasant surprise. Turkish food is absolutely marvelous if you are eating at the right places. For that special night out, try dinner at the Sark Sofrasi, a restaurant in the grounds of the splendid Swissotel. One day, wandering around Shepherd's Market in London, I stumbled on the original Sofra Turkish Restaurant in Shepherd Street, Mayfair, it was the introduction to my love affair with Turkish cuisine. I had known nothing about Turkish food at that time but we found ourselves liking the Sofra so much that we dined there four nights out of the seven in London, and it's the first reasonably-priced restaurant I head for when I visit there. The Sark Sofrasi is now a sister-restaurant under the same direction as the one in London. Try their "Healthy Dinner" or put yourself in the hands of the knowledgeable waiters for one of the best dinners imaginable.
Another of my favorites is the Agora Restaurant at the superb Grand Hyatt in Istanbul. For the timid and first-time-Turkish-food diners, this buffet-style restaurant will allow you to select Turkish dishes of which you can first have a tiny taste, then go back for the ones you like best. The Turks will tell you that good Turkish cuisine is one of the three greats in the world and ranks with that of France and China. Get to know it and you may, like myself, agree with the Turks.
The Hyatt in Istanbul is a sensationally good hotel in a city where all those with 5-stars are far better than most equivalents in other countries, and the Agora Restaurant gives you the true flavor of Turkey even if you are a Nervous Nelly about trying foreign foods. And around the corner from the Hyatt Hotel is the Military Museum. Those who are intrigued to know how or why the Ottoman Empire reached a stage of military might that made it feared by the whole Western World will find the answers here.
Another restaurant I can recommend is Beyti. If you meet Mr. Beyti or his son, ask if you can have a look at the pictures of the VIPs who have dined there. He has a gallery of photos upstairs which include just about every Head of State, from USA to China and Germany to you name it. This is a Turkish Grill restaurant which is the "in" place with Istanbul society, so don't wear your jeans and baseball caps.
Now it's time to just unwind and soak in the atmosphere of Istanbul, and there's no better way of doing this than to take a trip around Istanbul's magnificent waterways on a commuter ferry. A whole flotilla of these fan out from the ferry terminal opposite the Spice Market. See that first. It used to be filled from end to end with dealers in exotic spices. There are still a dozen or so of these marvelous fragrant stalls left, and they sell such tantalizing merchandise as Turkish Delight, dried fruit, oriental spices of every imaginable nuance, and an intriguing concoction called the Sultan's aphrodisiac which I'm sad to report does not work. Perhaps it's only for Sultans.
The rest of the shops are look alikes of those in the Grand Bazaar. But when you have looked over the Spice Market, cross the busy road and take a ride on any of the commuter ferries that use this marvelous waterway to duplicate the work of buses as public transport to waterfront suburbs. You always find someone who speaks English (or German or French) around the entrance of the ferry terminal. Just ask how long a round trip takes, get an outside seat, and be prepared to soak in the atmosphere of this wonderful city. You may see the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese around 1350 as the centerpiece of their enclave and subsequently shortened by 22 feet after the Moslem conquest. Since then it has been a prison, an observatory, and a look-out tower for fires and is now a superb viewing platform from which the visitor can see right across Istanbul.
In the 17th Century a Turk built the first predecessor of the hang-glider and managed to fly from the top of the tower to the other side of the Bosphorus. If the Tower looks interesting enough to visit it later (and it is) look on the top for the little plaque that commemorates this event. You will see marvelous waterside suburbs, some featuring Turkish houses known as Yali: waterfront summer palaces of the aristocracy with entrances both on to the street and, at the back on to the water. Some have been beautifully restored and have James-Bond-style yachts moored on the water-side. Others, unrestored, show their age, but cannot be demolished because they have been classified as monuments and must be restored or rebuilt exactly as they were when new a century ago.
From the water, the large Mosques take on a completely new dimension and their presence marks the site as surely as a printed title. The minarets always make me think of gracefully shaped intercontinental missiles. Fortunately, they are being put to a more peaceful use.
On the water you will see every imaginable kind and size of vessel, from small fishing boats to huge cruise ships. One particular and quite unforgettable memory is of the former. Near the ferries, fishing boats tie up and sell their freshly caught fish to the ferry commuters around peak traffic period each day.
On one particular day my wife had just completed a photo-shoot and we were soaking in the atmosphere and watching the fishermen. Two boats had tied up just alongside where we were standing, and doing a roaring trade in mackerel. One guy, balancing on the prow of the boat was calling out his offerings and prices in Turkish, and passing fish up to the eager buyers on the wharf as fast as he could hand these up. The other man was pulling fish out of the hold with the same rhythm and running forward to the man in front, carrying two fish at a time.
My wife, who perhaps is such a good photographer because she misses nothing, was musing aloud over the fact that all of the fish seem to be exactly the same size and weight. And then I saw her raise her telephoto lens, zoom in on a cardboard box on the back of the boat and started to laugh. When I asked her what it was about she handed me the camera and pointed to the box. I zoomed the telephoto lens till I could read the print on the carton. It said "Frozen mackerel, produce of Norway." I must say that even though it was conned, I could not miss seeing the funny side.
And not all shopping is "shonky." Far from it. Silver, rugs, carpets, leather, top-quality clothing and jewelry are fabulous buys in Turkey. You can buy splendid leather peaked-caps for around $4 at the market, and a Sterling silver waterjug that you can bargain down to around $300 would cost you $1,000 at a fine American store.
Upmarket shopping is also alive and well in Istanbul. It's no coincidence that the large Akmerkez shopping center in Istanbul was recently voted the best in Europe! No junk souvenirs there! Just pure class, though you'll need to bring your bottomless checkbook for some of the shopping.
A word to those who are nervous about the Islamic fundamentalists. The ones in Turkey are as different to the die-hard Iranians as chalk is to cheese. By and large, 95% of the fundamentalist voters do so because they want to keep their traditions intact in the way the Amish do in USA. Unlike their Iranian counterparts, they are still warm and friendly towards visitors and have no aspiration to reform the world in their mold. The Kurds are another matter. A tiny handful are prepared to occasionally create trouble in order to keep their claims in the world limelight. The chances of you being bothered by this are much smaller than being run over by an Istanbul taxi. And the Turkish government is addressing the problem, building huge dams and irrigation projects that they hope will raise the standard of living of the Kurds enough to settle them down. If that happens, the Kurdish problem will go awhey! (Pardon the pun.) Till then just don't travel to the very south-eastern area of Turkey that borders Iran.
Istanbul is a city for those who can still enjoy a sense of serendipity: a sense of discovery and a sense of wonder. It is, compared to other cities of its size, remarkably safe, the people are incredibly pleasant, courteous, friendly and refreshingly uncommercial. Go for it before the tourist flow becomes a flood.
Everyman Guides, published as Knopf Guides in USA and Dumont Reisefuhrer in Germany.
Hyatt Regency, Istanbul
Telephone (212) 225-7000
Fabulous hotel, great position, brilliant management. It's where the First Lady (Mrs. Clinton) stayed while we were in Turkey.
Istanbul Polat Renaissance
Telephone (212) 663-1700
A classy, new high-rise hotel near the Airport and the surrounding elegant suburbs. Impeccable service.
Ciragan Caddesi 84
Telephone (212) 258-3377
A splendid hotel right on the waterfront, operated by the German Kempinski chain and housed in a converted Palace. If cost is no object, this is the place for you.
Asker Ocagi Caddesi 1
Telephone (212) 231-2121
Just opened in the shell of the old but totally rebuilt Sheraton.
Telephone (212) 227-3000
Maintaining the high name of this excellent chain.
Bayildim Caddesi 2 Macka
Telephone (212) 259-0101
A touch of the quiet, efficient, topnotch service that the Swiss specialize in.
My three favorites for Turkish food in Istanbul are the Sark Sofrasi at the Swissotel, the Agora Restaurant at the Hyatt, and Beyti (Orman Sokak, 33, Florya, telephone 212/663-2990). Your concierge will give you the details. All the above hotels have excellent restaurants and there are too many good medium-class establishments to list here. Consult your concierge for ideas, but don't miss out on the three I've mentioned above. And to eat cheaply, try any hole-in-the-wall Turkish pizzeria. When the world discovers these, they'll give the Italian ones a run for their money with many people.
Best Time to Go
April, May, June, September, October. I try and avoid July and August when half of Germany, England, and Italy holiday here.
The shops I mention here are not necessarily the best but only some of the ones where I managed to haggle great prices for the items I wanted. Use these names only as a guideline, but check around and compare values before you buy.
Antiques and Souvenirs
Kapalicarsi Cevahir Bedesteni (Old Bazaar) Solda 1.Ada, No. 6-13, Istanbul.
Bags and Luggage made from Turkish carpets and tapestries
Keseciler Cad. No.82 - 90, Kapalicarsi, Istanbul.
Melda, Merkez, Kapalicarsi, Arabacioglu, Sokak No.7-9-11, Istanbul
Inexpensive Costume Jewelry
UC Yildiz, Cibali, Kalayci Sok, No.5 Unkapani, Istanbul
Carpets and Kilims
I avoid the shops in hotels. The best place to start looking are the shops in the Grand Bazaar, but get an idea of prices first. Take a notebook to write down the size and number of knots per square inch, where the carpet comes from, what design it is, and from what material it is made. Only compare the exact size, category, knot count, and carpet type when checking prices, and be acutely aware that Turkish carpet salesmen are so persuasive that they could talk Mother Teresa into posing for the Playboy centerfold.
Best Tour Operators
Abercrombie & Kent
Head Office, 1520 Kensington Road
Oak Brook, IL 60521-2141
Telephone (708) 954-2944
Fax (708) 954-2814
Savile Row Travel
39 Savile Road
London, W1X 1AG
Insight International Tours
745 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 720
Boston, MA 021111
Telephone (617) 421-6666
Fax (617) 482-0051
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.