We really had a nice holiday this week in Istanbul. I had wanted to visit the city for a long time because of the Ottoman Empire’s long domination of Belgrade. It was interesting to see what the Serbs took from the Turks that can still be seen today. There are many Turkish words that were adopted by the Serbs and customs as well. Istanbul is also one of the world cities that everyone should visit and the Turks are the classic, East meets West regarding its history and culture. I am fascinated with contrasting the liberal, European-type aspects of the city with the conservative, Islamic side of the society. The contrast could be seen in the dress of the people in the streets, with head scarves on some women and tight mini-skirts and flowing hair on others. There also seemed to be a lot of tourism from both European countries and Middle Eastern nations. For example, we met three people from Saudi Arabia on the ferry and there were lots of “ninjas” as the expats call them in the Arabian Gulf region, or women wearing full, black covering seen in the city.
We saw the secular side of the city in talking with the manager of the Asitane Restaurant. He was complaining about the high taxes the conservative Islamic government puts on wine, making it very expensive and hard for vineyards to make a living. I highly recommend the restaurant, by the way! It specializes in old Ottoman recipes. His team was testing wines to put on the menu. We also met our former colleague Alison, who teaches at Robert College, for lunch, and she told us some stories that illustrated both sides of Turkey. The Turkish faculty working at the school are very secular, with few going to mosque on Fridays. Robert College is one of the oldest and largest American International schools in the world. However, she also said that Islam was put on her children’s birth certificates automatically. Another example is the many beer advertisements, bars, and transvestites in Taksim, the neighborhood where we stayed, while hearing the call to prayer several times per day. The call to prayer is a reminder to all muslims of the main tenets of Islam. It sounds so foreign and exotic to me, and you really get the sense of being someplace different. I don’t know about the 5:44 AM call to prayer that we heard in the mornings. I am sure a mosque in a Christian country would not do this as they would receive complaints from the neighbors.
I wanted to reflect on the final few days here. On Thursday the weather cooperated and we took advantage of the blue skies and took the ferry to the nearby Andalar (Prince’s Islands) in the Sea of Marmara. The kids were thrilled to feed the seagulls that followed the boat the entire journey. We rented bikes and rode around and stopped at a beautiful park. The beaches off season were not maintained, but we also collected some shells. There are no cars on the island, but plenty of horse-drawn carriages, which were fascinating to the kids. It was a lovely day and I see why the islands are a popular day trip from the city.
There is so much history to the city! We visited the Basilica Cisterns, which the Byzantines constructed 1,500 years ago. Oliver and Ocean turned temporarily to stone after seeing Medusa’s head, which was used as a base of one of the pillars to hold up a column. We also enjoyed the Spice Bazaar and learned all about Iranian saffron. I was joking with the shop attendants about the Turks’ obsession with tea. One said 99% of Turks drink tea and probably about a billion cups are drank on a daily basis. I would estimate it would be more like 50 million per day, if one assumes 3 cups per day for most inhabitants.
We finished our shopping with another carpet. Nadia loves Turkish carpets and I like the stories behind them. They will look great in our apartment. The shop owner said the Prime Minister urged Turkish women to have 3-5 children and I was faithful to his wishes. The shop was owned by Kurds, and we got to know them quite well. One brother married a Bosnian from Mostar and the other a French woman who was shopping for carpets at one of their stores. The younger brother is moving to Houston later this month, because their father died a couple of months ago and he wanted his son to continue their business in the US. They have great sales of Turkish carpets there. I can see why people get into carpets, it is a lot like art collecting.
We head back to Belgrade today. As I write this, I am sitting in Starbucks…Thanks Istanbul for a relaxing and fascinating visit!