Nov 3, 2013
Istanbul has more Mosques than Rome has Churches, or so it seems. Our plan today was to visit two of the most famous, the Blue and the Suleyman. But first a story from last night. We enjoyed a basic street cafe meal carved from those rotisserie gizmos. Quite good and filling. Not so filling that we did not need a dessert. The Turks love their sweets. The Pikes Market of patisseries is just a couple blocks from our hotel. We could no longer just pass on by.
The place was packed but they hustled up a table and some chairs before we could leave. Both of us got big slices of Turkish cheese cake. As we finished our apple and pomegranate tea our waiter was distressed that Peggy had some left. He insisted on a box for the remnant as he did not want to waste anything. He then revealed to us that he was from Syria. Remember the starving children tale from our youth?
Muhammed was a university student studying Chemistry. He has been in Turkey for a year and because his English is good he is able to find work in tourist businesses despite his limited Turkish. He asked us for a prayer for peace in Syria so he and his family could go home. His humility was embarrassing for us. Peggy him what he wanted in Syria and he was emphatic about wanting democracy. I resisted the opportunity of getting into the complexity of the issue from an American point of view. Many people see us as the omnipotent fairy who solve their problems. Did not want to disillusion him. I left a very generous tip and he tried to return the money saying that I had left too much. I told him that the extra was for him. The poor guy was bowing to us and Peggy was tearing up. I am sure we will return for some more cake tonight.
One more short tale before beginning. We are at a pretty cosmopolitan hotel. At breakfast there was a bald headed guy dressed in all black. He took off his overcoat so we could see his black leather vest. Right out of central casting for a part as a KGB assassin. What clinched it was his bringing back from the buffet six hard boiled eggs. He methodically peeled them and ate the whites neatly piling up the discarded yolks like so many expended rounds. Istanbul intrigue is getting to me .
We headed for the “Blue Mosque” which lies opposite Hagia Sophia looking out for the KGB guy. As we were approaching an affable gentleman approached us and asked where we were going. Thus began our morning adventure. He said he was a retired high school teacher of grammar and offered to take us into the Mosque. Given that Peggy was nervous despite there being hundreds of other tourists doing the same thing, we accepted. It worked out well. He explained that his in-laws had a carpet store and that he supplemented his meager retirement working in sales. I call him a Carpet Troller. They look for travelers with guidebooks who are not a tour and have no backpacks. Actually the visit went well and he read the inscriptions that I wanted translated. I held my own with the usual quiz on Turkish history and art. Of course I was praised for my comprehensive knowledge picked up from guidebooks and a little study. It is a fun game but not to be taken seriously.
The Blue Mosque was built in the 16 hundreds and utilizes the same structural elements as Hagia Sophia. Stylistically, it is an improvement but we need to remember that it evolves from the original Christian Basilica. It’s big brother, the Mosque of Suleyman is the afternoon effort.
The beauty of the interior is obvious. The carpets provide guidance for the worshippers. People know where to kneel and pray based upon the carpet design. Kind of like gym class. Of course we were in stocking feet while carrying our shoes in plastic bags provided at the front door. The mosque is a masterpiece of geometry. Since their is no figurative art to interpret or some might say to distract, the mosque is a place of prayer without the visual story telling in a Christian church of the same time. Of course the Koran is everywhere and the names of the Prophet and his key followers are inscribed instead of being depicted in mosaic or fresco. We finished our visit and headed for the carpet store.
We were led into the bowels of the store to meet the in-laws. Nice couch and some apple tea as is customary. The pitch begins with finding out how little you know. In this case not much so this part was according to script. Two young assistants enter and start throwing rugs in piles at an amazing rate. All wool, wool and cotton, silk, silk and cotton, Turkish double knots, Kurdish, etc. I told the guy that the traditional rugs looked so similar to my Costco rugs that my friends and relatives (with a couple of exceptions) would not be able to see the real one. I did like the Kurdish tribal patterns that I have never seen at Costco.
He mentioned that he was Kurdish and I had an opening to discuss Kurdish politics and the contemporary Turkish Islamist Premier. He ranted about the stupid and the uneducated being led down the path away from the secular Turkish state that makes it possible for the Turks to hope in joining the EU. I was in my element and away from carpets. Anyway, the Kurdish carpet I liked happened to be his favorite also. $1800 became $1250 in a few minutes. I had still not gotten into full bargaining mode but the reality was that neither of us could see the carpet in our house unless we changed some tile. We decided to end the game and left. Thus ends the carpet adventure. Almost. Later in the day another Carpet Troller saw us looking at a map and gave us some directions and an invite to buy a carpet. This would not be a double header day so we declined. You can only have so much fun.
Headed down to the Golden Horn waterside. Peggy took a picture with cats on their pedestal. The cats and the tagged street dogs do seem to own the place. Street vendors selling chestnuts, grilled corn on the cob and pigeon food are always fun. I have no idea how they make a living. Actually the same goes for the hundreds of luggage, watch, t-shirt and sneaker stands. We did buy one little treasure. Anyway, we made it to the waterfront and crossed the Golden Horn on the Galata Bridge. Fishermen by the thousand were catching 6 to 8 inch fingerlings. Everyone seemed to have a bunch. Peggy and I will probably not be eating little fishes while in Istanbul.
One more foray through the streets to the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. He was Sultan while Henry VIII was having marital issues. He had his own problems with a Ukrainian minx name Roxanne. He constructed the largest of the Istanbul mosques and I liked it the best. Clean and elegant and full of light. The pinkish ceiling was wonderful. No need for a warehouse of tile.
I did get Peggy to pose in front of the Women Only section. I don’t think this would work in western Christian churches.
One more mini-scam. As we were walking through a market, a shoe shiners brush fell in front of us. I picked it up and handed it to him. He insisted on a shoe shine. Perhaps a comp? Should have seen it coming. OK we get a brief shine and I pull out a couple of coins as a nice gesture. He starts insisting on 18 lira or $9. I said no and he kept insisting. Since I had no magic walking stick, I used the other magic word, Polis (Police). He took four lira and scrambled. Sure enough we had not walked a hundred yards when another brush hit the ground.
Do not get me wrong. The Turks are friendly and straight forward. Americans just need to remember that we have the same scams in San Francisco with slight variations. They leave me alone in SF because I am not wearing an Iowa Football jersey. In Istanbul we might as well be wearing a sign. No harm no foul. We end the day rug less and with shoes that look pretty good.