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Eastward to Istanbul, where Europe ends and Asia begins

Updated: Mar 2

A hectic day of travel and a long, stressful night retrieving a lost suitcase had me in a fitful sleep. My mind raced from one thought to the next, none stronger than the caffeine and adrenaline still working its way out of my system. I looked up at the slightly open hotel window and heard something I'd never heard before, though I recognized it instantly.

The Adhan is the Muslim call to prayer, sung five times each day from minarets around the world. I was hearing the call for Salat al-fajr - the prayer at dawn. The words were Arabic. The delivery, over loudspeakers, was slightly operatic, with a strong tenor voice and a religious sense of urgency. I found it soothing, and fell asleep, if only for a few hours.

Every American who fancies themself a world traveler just because they've been to several European countries – I sheepishly count myself in this group – must visit Istanbul, the largest city in Europe with more than 15 million residents.

It was our first visit to a Muslim city, a fact that was driven home when the hotel concierge showed us to our room and concluded with: “We are a dry hotel.” Drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam. Most hotels and restaurants serve it, for travelers and non-Muslims. But our hotel, which also restricts the use of the spa to women in the first half of the day, men in the second, did not. I’m somewhat relieved to say that neither Mary nor I found this disappointing after three weeks in France, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy. Perhaps the universe was suggesting we’d had juuuuust enough wine (and Guinness) for now.

Not that we were completely dry for our entire stay here. We tried Turkish wine at one restaurant - my glass of cabernet seemed much better than the chardonnay Mary sampled. I even ordered a cocktail before dinner at another spot, which was a mistake. Turkey, like most European countries, is stingy with ice. My Moscow Mule, topped with soggy mint, had none. I took two sips to be polite – people here are very polite – then ordered a beer.

Speaking of the people, the overall personality of the Turks we encountered was a departure after two weeks of highly expressive Italians and Portuguese – not to mention the Irish and French before that. The locals in Istanbul seemed more stern. It didn’t help that neither of us speaks Turkish and fewer of them spoke English than in other countries we’d been to. But in direct conversation, a polite friendliness emerged.

An example: We’d successfully avoided acquiring too many things on this trip, but we were in the market for a small rug for just inside our front door. Turkey seemed like the place to get it, but it’s also one of the many places where buyers are expected to haggle, and we were nervous. We found a rug in one store, and I asked: “How much?”

Before quoting a price of 1,500 Lira – about 80 bucks – he told me it was a “beautiful antique” and a “good choice.” The rug seemed to have some age, but I took this to be part of the haggling, and came back with 1,200. He looked at a hand-written tag on the rug, then consulted a worn-out spiral notebook. He was either checking the price he paid for it, or pretending to check the price he paid for it. I expected a counter-offer.

“Yes,” he replied curtly. “I can do that.”

Then a man who appeared to be a co-propietor of the shop asked: “Would you like some tea?”

I have no idea whether I overpaid. But at about $60, we felt fine about the purchase, and said yes to the tea. Meanwhile, the man we’d bargained with took took the rug down from the wall and examined it closely.

“One moment,” he said, holding a finger up.

He walked over to a chair, sat down, and began to repair – by hand, with a needle and thread - a minor flaw we hadn’t noticed. The tea emerged and, we sat for 15 minutes, talking about Turkish rugs, and the region where ours came from, while a few more knots were fixed. Then he folded it neatly, placed it in a bag, and we said good bye.

Don't even get me started on the very friendly Turkish barman who taught us how to smoke a hookah pipe.

Our hotel was in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, the oldest in the city. Its narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets reminded us of the Alfama in Lisbon. There were fewer sidewalk cafes, but most restaurants blended between inside and out.

It is also home to two very important buildings – the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque – officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – is the larger and more beautiful of the two. But we chose to visit the Hagia Sophia for its historic significance.

Originally built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian Cathedral, it became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1483. It was turned into a museum in 1934. In 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan annulled its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site and turned it back into a mosque. You can still visit, but tourists are shuttled out during prayers, women must wear head scarves, and everyone must remove their shoes. We also waited in quite a long line, presumably because of security concerns over a recent terrorist attack in another part of the city.

The first thing you notice about the Hagia Sophia is that is something of an architectural hodgepodge. This is because it was expanded over the years, in particular when it was converted to a mosque and four minarets were added.

Inside it has all the grandeur of the great Christian cathedrals, with one major exception – there are almost no pictures or statues. Some Christian frescos that predate 1493 remain, but you can see curtains that allow them to be covered up. Most people know that depictions of the prophet Mohammad are strictly prohibited in Islam. What I didn’t know until my visit was that all pictures and statues of people are also forbidden, to fight the tendency to worship idols.

Not that there isn’t beautiful artwork. It simply exists in the form of detailed ornamentation, both on walls and brilliant stained-glass windows, as well as Arabic calligraphy.

It’s easy to start to compare this to other religious buildings, especially the cathedrals we'd just visited. But it’s also easy to leave that to the theologians and the art historians. Having just struggled for months to build a wooden shed, I stood in awe that such a grand building was constructed 1,500 years ago.

The hills of Istanbul also make for some powerful views of the Bosphorus, the waterway boundary between Europe and Asia, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and the world beyond. At first I thought the dozens of cargo ships anchored near the entrance to the strait might be a consequence of the war in Ukraine, where vital grain shipments have been held up. But our waiter explained that it was a normal day in the “parking lot,” as ships waited their turn to enter the strait one at a time. Sure enough, when I had breakfast the next day, I noticed that the ships closest to the shore were not the same as the day before.

We enjoyed several excellent Turkish meals, all of them featuring fresh tomato, green peppers, and red onion, often paired with grilled lamb, beef, or fresh fish. The highlight meal of this stay, however, was Azerbaijani cuisine at Zeferan, in our hotel. The Ajwa Sultanahmet is owned by a businessman from Azerbaijan, and it features the restaurant, as well as beautiful Azerbaijani art.

Our meal started with Piti, a soup made with lamb meat, lamb fat, chestnuts, chickpeas, dried plums and saffron. Simply put, it was the best soup I’ve ever tasted – rich broth, and a perfect blend of salty and sweet.

Our entrée was a Shah Pilaff, which resembles a layer cake made of baked dough. The dish, which serves two, was cut and opened tableside, revealing a filling of lamb, dried apricot, prunes, raisins, chestnuts, and rice seasoned with saffron and butter. We couldn’t eat it all, but it was delicious, and probably would have been even better as leftovers, if we could have taken it home.

It would have been nice to spend more time in Istanbul, and there were more places I would have liked to see, especially the inside of the Blue Mosque. But this was a brief stopover on the way to the “destination” of this journey – India and the wedding of our friend’s daughter.

On to Mumbai!

Check out our other travel stories here.



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