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Haghia SophiaOct. 13–19, 1998  Istanbul, Turkey

Thus far, Istanbul takes the award for the biggest small town that I have ever stepped a dusty foot into. The city’s borders bulge with almost 15 million residents, making Istanbul the fourth largest city in the world (twice the size of New York City).

A bath house at Topkapi PalaceUnlike some of the cities we've visited in Europe and Scandinavia, it is almost impossible to take a leisurely stroll from one end of the city to the other. This undertaking would instead take the better part of a an entire day, as the proper city of Istanbul sprawls for 100 square miles and stretches over two continents – both Europe and Asia.

Jem studded armor at the Topkapi PalaceIn 330 A.D. Constantine the Great declared the city the capital of the Roman Empire and named the city after himself. For the next 900 years of the Roman Empire, Constantinople was the capital. In the mid 15th century, a new era began as the city took the new name Istanbul as it became the capital of the great Ottoman Empire. For the next few hundred years, Istanbul regained its status as one of the strongest, largest, and most prosperous cities, and was the world’s envy.

Not exactly Marshall Field'sThese days, Istanbul is pure chaos. It is hustle. It is bustle. It is constant with activity. The sounds that fill the air are constant and nancesant honking (the Turkish LOVE their horns), a constant roar of conversation, the background buzz of engines and other mechanical things humming away, and of course, the five times a day muezzin calls (calls for prayer) over the loudspeakers from the minaret that seems to be right next to you (there are hundreds of mosques in the city).

The hustle and bustleYet despite its all of its craziness and immense size, we have found Istanbul to be as warm, open, and friendly as the rest of Turkey. There is no doubt, that what truly makes this city special, really special, is its people. The Turks are quite compassionate, and at times even openly affectionate towards one another.

Gates to the Grand BazaarAnd, given the chance, they simply follow their nature and treat their guests in much the same way. In fact, as I write this, I notice someone standing over my shoulder. I turn to find it is one of the waiters who is curious about my miniature laptop. I tell him that I am writing about Istanbul, and show him some of the other city pages I have put together. Although he seems to understand English much better than he speaks it (which is not very well), he nods and smiles, and nods and smiles.

Laura 'hanin with the localsI then tell him, the best I can with more motions than words, that Laura and I very much like the city and have decided to stay an extra few days. This, I’m sure he understands because he puts his arm around my shoulders and pats my arm with his hand while smiling and saying "thank you, thank you, thank you". Instantly, I feel like one of the family.

Shops, shops, everywhere!In Istanbul, like any other large city, there is commerce. Lots of it. Everywhere you look in the old city there is someone selling something, anything to somebody. Imagine a giant, winding maze of old walls with every nook, every cranny, indeed, every open space with enough traffic, on foot or in cars, busses, or vans, there is someone, selling something, to someone else. The largest concentration of these little camps of capitalism is the Grand Bazaar.

6,000 shops and five times as many peopleWith over 6,000 shops, it has got to be the largest shopping mall in the world. It is literally a maze of covered streets lined with tiny two story shops. With nearly all their wares displayed outside, the tradesman are hawking everything from fake Levi’s, counterfeit Hilfinger and Izod, hats, watches, belly dancer’s outfits, underwear, roasted chestnuts, postcards, and pomegranates.

Sensory overload in the Grand BazaarA shopper here is constantly barraged with "excuse me please", or "this way please", or better yet, the ever popular "where are you from?", or "are you American?" as they stroll by. Anything to grab the attention of the passerby and start a conversation that could possibly lead to a purchase. I was even told on numerous occasions that I "walk like an American, but look like a Turk" (my beard). Very amusing. With this said, the visitor to Turkey shouldn’t be offended by the constant badgering, but rather understand that these people’s livelihood depends on their ability to grab your attention through this sensory overload, lure you into their shops, and hopefully convince you to buy something.

"Special price, just for you!"I decided to have a little fun with a few of these folks. To their question of "Are you American?", I some times reply, and continue until they give up, with a diatribe in Pig Latin or just plain gibberish that sounds a little like French. "byea sombeeya coltrae myav ortayavee" It’s great fun. Other times, when they ask "Are you lost?". (this is a tried and true conversation opener with directions to their rug shop usually forthcoming). I reply with "No, we’re in Izmir, right?"

Trying not to 'get walked on' in a rug shopThey look at me with a very puzzled look and tell us that we aren’t in Izmir, but in Istanbul. At this point I begin thanking them profusely for helping us, explaining to them that we are no longer lost. At this point, they usually tilt their head slightly to the side as their face breaks into a huge smile. A big slap on the back is their way of telling me that they appreciate that I am on to their game and am having a little fun at their expense.

The Egyptian Spice MarketEveryone gets into the act. From small boys selling post cards, Turkish tops, and shoe shines, to ‘greeters’ outside of restaurants and rug shops (everyone in the city has at least one uncle who owns a rug shop) who are often paid a percentage of the night’s receipts for getting people in the door. One that note, a traveler’s tip you most likely won’t find in any guidebook: a trip to the sidewalk fish restaurants of Kumkapi is a MUST.

Laura enjoys tea in the Grand BazaarTo avoid being hounded while choosing a restaurant, chew on a toothpick as you stroll down the street. Tell each of the greeters as they approach you (there will be many) that you have already eaten. If you toss a few questions back their way and tease them a little bit, more than likely you’ll be asked to take a load off at one of their tables. In exchange for sitting there appearing to patronize their restaurant as to impress other passers-by, tea or coffee is on the house. This means free caffeine all night, the Turkish way, one restaurant at a time.

A peacefull moment by the Sea of MarmaraThe Turkish days are filled with sun, and when possible surf. Our last day in town was a Sunday.  We joined the locals at the shore to soak in the sun.   Half of the town must have been out fishing that day as rows of long, shiny poles reflected flashes from the sun as they danced back and forth with the amateur fisherman's casts.  I looked up into the sun as it warmed my face and thought to myself, life is good.  It seems I should learn to say that in Turkish.  Maybe I'll find a volunteer to teach me before we leave tomorrow.

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Last modified: August 19, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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