Adventures in Turkey
Exploring, shopping and ballooning in Istanbul and beyond.
The skyline of the city of Ankara
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The cry of the muezzin startles me. It is 4:30 in the morning and my mind is still heavy with jet lag. Within seconds other muezzins from minarets start their calls and I remember I am in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world. The prayers, propelled by big sets of speakers, echo strangely over the city and pull me from my bed.
I decide to go out for a walk and scout for photographs. Istanbul is a safe, hospitable city. My hotel is in the ancient neighborhood of Sultan Ahmed, where most foreigners stay. At 5 a.m. on this June day, the air is comfortable. Later, temperatures will climb to 100.
Visitors to Istanbul are struck by the abundance of cats in the city. At times it seems they outnumber people. Today is no different. Just outside my hotel I see a couple of kittens playing and then more cats appear. They seem to be everywhere! The taxi drivers outside the hotel have built a small shelter from an old cardboard box for the new kittens and are feeding them milk.
Just around the corner is the Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Now a museum, this former church was built in the sixth century by Justinian during the glory of Eastern Rome, later called the Byzantine Empire. The city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and a century later Sultan Ahmed 1 commissioned the construction of the Blue Mosque, in 1609. The mosque’s architect, Mehmed Aga, wanted to build a bigger dome than the Hagia Sophia’s but his attempts failed, so instead he made the mosque about the same size by adding half domes and half a dozen minarets. The morning light on the Blue Mosque is stunning.
I walk down to the banks of the Bosporus, gazing at ships of all sizes slowly navigating the passage to the Black Sea. This is the only way to the Black Sea, and every vessel small and large heading to distant ports in Russia and Romania passes by. Many years ago I sailed this strait as well, to Romania, and the view of this city from the water remains etched in my mind.
After my breakfast of yogurt, dried fruits, nuts and a strong double Turkish coffee at a rooftop restaurant, it is 10 o’clock and the museums are open. I return to the Hagia Sophia and enter amid a stream of other visitors from all corners of the globe. Around me, languages collide in a Tower of Babel moment. Standing on the upper balcony beneath the massive dome, I gaze at the restored frescoes on the basilica’s walls and try to imagine the history this building has withstood and the river of humanity that has flowed through these corridors over the millennia.
Very near the Hagia Sophia and about the same age is the Basilica Cistern, a cathedral-size underground water chamber. It is a remarkable sight, filled with columns, lit by soft, warm light and serenaded by Sufi music. James Bond fans may recall that part of the movie From Russia with Love was filmed here. Toward the northwest corner are two columns with huge medusa heads, one that is inverted. Historians still don’t know why they were placed here. The heads remind me of the carved faces on the Bayon temple in Cambodia.
In the 25 years since my last visit to Istanbul, the city has grown dramatically. But even with a population of 20 million, it has not lost its romance. The pudding shop across from the Blue Mosque is still around. This is where young travelers in the 1960s would meet, leave messages for each other and organize overland trips to India and Afghanistan.
Also, my grandfather’s favorite pastry shop is still around—Haci Bekir, with the wonderful lokum, or “Turkish delight.” I go in for a treat and when I tell the clerks that my grandfather shopped here in the 1920s, they start giving me sample after sample. By the time I make it out the door, I’ve eaten the equivalent of a box.
Image 2: Roof top restaurant in Istanbul with view of the Blue Mosque.