Thursday, June 14, 2007

from Istanbul: spice of life

The day begins and ends at a table, just at the edge of the water, with exotic juices and foods placed in succession on it. One table (breakfast) is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the other (dinner) is in Europe.



Ah, but in between those two events – what riches!

We take a ferry to European Istanbul – to the heart of the ancient city. The approach is dramatic. You point, you look, you stare in wonder.



It’s hard to take in the huge span of time over which layers have been added to this city. Empire building adds riches for the tourist years later. (Though what a lesson in how quickly sweet success can disappear! The empire falls, the global eyes turn elsewhere. Until this century when Istanbul is given serious consideration once more.)

Still, the center of town – the Sultanahmet horn that juts into the sea – has it all, compressed into a maze of streets which defy maps and tourists and me.

You could just make one stop here – at the Haga Sophia, and there you’d feel it all: the vastness of time, the infinite wealth of those who are at the helm.

A Byzantine splendor. For hundreds and hundreds of years, the largest building on earth. Once a center of Christian faith, then of Islamic belief, more recently – a museum.



How do you even look at a mosaic from the 11th century? Can you put yourself in the shoes of Empress Zoe, who would insist that the mosaic with her in it would contain also the face of her husband? Changed to her second spouse when the first died? And then her third?


Most of the visitors here are Turkish: families, school groups, probably from outside Istanbul. It’s a mixed up world, here at Hagia Sophia. Women in black veils are in the minority, but women wrapped in colorful scarves and clothed in long coats are the norm. Then you have us – the tourists, the urban presence, the young (well, not in my case). We pass through as visitors, admirers. We stare, take photos, and we leave.

Out in the hot sun again, the reality of everyday sets in. In our case – it is thirst for water. In the case of so many around us – it is hunger for a good life.

A stunningly handsome man comes up to me and says: you have such a beautiful daughter! May I marry her?
I smile and say no. She nudges me to watch my purse.
He responds, equally earnestly: will you at least visit my carpet store?
She stifles a laugh. I decline his invitation and a hundred other similar ones.

But these men that want you to come look, come buy, they are not offensive to me. They are part of Istanbul. They are the sellers and in Istanbul, buying is a fulltime, daylong sport.

Before wandering into the alleys and passages of the hub of Sultanahmet, we turn toward the Blue Mosque.


Here the distinctions between visitor and faithful are sharply obvious. We, the tourists, enter at the side. We wrap ourselves in covers – knees, arms concealed and we tip toe barefooted across carpets.

Inside, the vastness is beautifully ornamental (thousands of decorative tiles, blue in tone) rather than numbingly grand.


A handful of men engage in the stand-bend-kneel-touch-ground-with-forehead prayer ritual (women pray elsewhere, to the side), but mostly, the central spaces (cut off for visitors) are empty. The communal prayer, announced by the male chanting voice, loudly, from each mosque (in much the same way bells call to prayer in western religions) will bring in hordes. But that prayer not for gawkers. Non-Muslims will be asked to leave. They (we) are a distraction, a loud presence, annoying in the way we clumsily adhere to the rules, but not really.

Again we watch the Muslim families come to inspect this gorgeous interior. Little boys are sometimes dressed in Sultan robes. Grandmothers, mothers take pictures of them. Tourists take pictures of them as well. Little heroes already. Future kings and leaders. At the very least, carpet sellers.

Outside, our water bottles are empty. A reminder that it’s time to sit down and refresh.

Endless choices here. I’m ready for a salad, my daughter is ready for a baklava. We pick a sidewalk eatery and are at once hovered over by a waiter who loves, loves to practice his very few English words. Americans? Wow. From Texas maybe? No? Washington? No? He’s sorry, he doesn’t know any other American places.

We eat and people watch and waiter watch. The thirst gradually diminishes. The muscles relax.


A good thing, because the market is before us. I cannot describe the Grand Bazaar and the streets and alleys leading up to it. Miles and miles of shops: carpets, lamps, clothing, ceramics, most everything.


We stroll, overwhelmed from the very first step.

And it gets better. As we approach the water, we enter the Spice Bazaar: candies, nuts and barrels of spices, so colorful, so aromatic that the only way you can bear to leave is to promise yourself at least two more returns. So forgive future photographic forays here. I am at this point dazed, over the top. Still, my finger is good for a few squeezes on the shutter release, just for a taste now:



And now we move again toward the waters of the Bosphorus, first along the small fish market, then, further up, to a restaurant specializing in a fusion of sorts – of the past and present. Traditional flavors: fish in earthen pots, skewered meats, but done with such perfect regard to the fresh ingredient that you have to believe that this is science and history, for once not in conflict with each other.


Shoreline colors turn from gold to orange to pale pink and suddenly the day is done.


Over the bridge and to our room in Asia. Still and peaceful. So that the senses can recover.