Europe Meets Asia

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Monday, September 24, 2007

'Europe meets Asia' is a marketing tag and a traveller's cliche for Istanbul, so it was with considerable surprise that we have heard locals giving us directions referring to the "Asian side" or "Europe side" of the city. Maybe less of a cliche than first thought. Its geographically accurate and just plain useful as it turns out.
 
In the very earliest stages of planning our trip, Claude laid down Turkey as a mandatory, must-see, must-invest-a-month-destination, but with one caveat: we wouldn't necessarily spend much time in dirty tatty Istanbul.
 
Things have changed since her visit ten years ago. It still has the charm of the east but with a few years of Jeff Kennett running the show.
 
Istanbul, to my eyes, is more European than many European cities. More importantly, it has splendour and order and excitement in equal measure.

Order comes in the form of a brand new light rail system which cleaves its way through the still incomprehensible traffic - enabling us to quickly and cheaply explore the city. As a little detail, they even have integrated ticketing with the ferries that are the secondary arteries in keeping the city breathing. This integrated ticketing takes the form of the same little shiny $1.30 silver token being usable on all trams and ferries. I trust this brings misty eyes to the ranks of Sydney residents awaiting the same functionality 7 years late and nigh on $100m over budget. I feel I have just been given a free but salutary lesson in the merits of simplicity over technology.

Istanbul, like Sydney, is a city built around a central grand harbour. In this case, the harbour is not actually a harbour, but The Bosphorus (Strait) linking the Mediterranean/ Aegean with the Black Sea and access to the Ukraine and friends. Commuter ferries traverse it and we have popped our heads into some nice little suburbs on each side.
 
Excitement still comes in the form of the Grand Bazaar. While it has a heritage stretching back to Ottoman times, the bazaar is every inch a modern iteration. Those doubting this should note the plush LCD flat panel televisions in gold frames suspended every few metres and perhaps rethink what chance they have at securing a saving. A lot of fun though. Even the cats have very nicely upholstered pillows upon which they recline and observe at their leisure.
 
Pricing across the city is all over the place. Its not that Istanbul is either expensive or cheap, its that it is unpredictable. A cup of coffee costs the equivalent of 4 Magnum ice creams or 5 doner kebabs. It is hard to fathom why service A will be expensive and service B practically given away.
 
Istanbul is no longer the capital of Turkey, with Ataturk decreeing Ankara the new centre back in the 1920's. But there is no mistaking its heritage as the centre of the Ottoman empire, as the well earned grandeur and magnificence can't be erased by the odd 20th century stumble. All its best elements combine superbly at the Aya Sofya.
 
The Aya Sofya is a looming, dusty red monolith dominating its part of a park opposite the more modern Blue Mosque. Originally a church, it was astoundingly built by Emperor Justinian in AD537. This is not a structure that was originally a little shack and was then developed in later centuries: the core structure you see in the photos has stood there nearly 1500 years.
 
When the Islamic conquerors saw off the last of the Christians in the 1400s, the Aya Sofya became a mosque in very quick time. On first seeing the building it seems implausible it was ever a church, but sketches reveal the simple nips and tucks ordered by the new owners to completely transform it: it is striking how simple it is. Its now a museum, and the layers of plaster covering the original mosaics (Muslims don't go for portraits in religious buildings) are being removed to reveal the 9th and 10th century works. Its a nice blend showing all the roles its played over the years.
 
After the Ottoman's managed to profoundly back the wrong horse in WWI their already fragmenting empire got the death blow as the Allies carved up the defeated. Just when the humiliation reached a new low with the Greeks trying to carve off a bit more, their heroic general who fought off the Allies at Gallipoli and through the Dardanelles raises a new force to get rid of the Greeks eyeing their West coast real estate. He is duly successful, and rides the wave to power after getting rid of the last of the sultans who had presided over the empire's ruin so had little power left. This is Ataturk.
 
I had never really linked the fact that had the Dardanelles campaign be waged more effectively (i.e. to an Allied victory) there would have been no window for Ataturk to rise to power. I am left to guess that, had things gone differently, Turkey today would be much more like Morocco with clueless heredity being left to steer the ship.
 
Ataturk got the job done in many areas, doing things which in the modern era seem impossible. Sure, you can separate church and state. You can open universities. You can even turn a major mosque like Aya Sofya into a museum and restore the Christian art that had been plastered over (98% of your citizens being Islamic = no problem). But Ataturk even changed the alphabet. That, by any measure, is bold.
 
Ataturk saw a future for Turks following Western ideals, and like Sarajevo, we have encountered an Islamic culture so much more straightforward and restrained than those in Egypt and Morocco. In the latter countries, many of the men you encounter seem to spend all their hours sitting in cafes: here everyone seems to have somewhere to be and something to do. To a Turk the West's confusion with Islam is incomprehensible: I am left to wonder if they are aware just how different they are from other predominatly Muslim states.
 
We are visiting during Ramadan, something we had planned to avoid for logistical simplicity (closed restaurants etc). In practice, its a great time to be in Turkey as there is very much a party atmosphere come sundown with Iftar meal celebrations (the breaking of the fast through the daylight hours). Small things are noticable too: even outside the tourist area we see vendors quietly giving food to the (mentally disturbed) vagrants. I have heard too many times (in Morocco, Egypt etc) about the great charity of the Islamic faith and never seen it. In Istanbul I feel I have seen it enough times - and not been made to hear about it - to understand it better.
 
In terms of the view toward Europe, a major impression has been left with me courtesy of the availability of English language local newspapers. Affairs that I am fairly sure are not making news elsewhere are front and centre here. Item one: the new Euro coins for 2008. They notably don't include Candidate Turkey as part of their map of Europe design, but the coins do confusingly choose to feature Belarus and Russia. More aggravatingly for the Turks, the Europeans have also decided to move Cyprus 400km west so it sits nicely with Greece. Now that is cheating.
 
The other dominant story here revolves around the possible passage by the new US Congress of a bill that makes it a crime to deny that a genocide took place in Armenia in 1915. This is pretty much a straight slap at the Turkish Government (and people) who vehemently disagree with this description of events. For all those who thought the changing of the guard in US politics would bring the advent of a new and enlightened group of leaders, guess again. A law like this has implications for trade but is basically designed as a way to lock in a domestic interest group to vote your way. Its pretty factually dubious as well, given that by their own admission the Armenians started the unrest. Certainly a lot of folks died, but so did a lot of people in a lot of wars... that genocide label is a big ugly step. 68m Turks not far from burning little Nancy Pelosi photos in the streets. Good work. This may seem like a peripheral thing to readers in Australia, but its big news here.
 
Our Iranian visas are still not ready, so we'll need to make a little circuit and will find ourselves back in Istanbul before too long. And I can't rule out it already being different by the time we get back. Keen to see more of the papers too, so a return visit is welcome for a nicely broad number of reasons.

* * *

Istanbul is nothing like it once was. 
 
I visited Turkey in 1998. (Yes, yes, I know I am going on about my `98 trip - "this one time at band camp").  Istanbul was a rustic city very different from anything I had ever seen before.  I wouldn`t quite say the city was primitive but it was definitely undeveloped and fairly unsophisticated.  Kilim, pottery and souvenir sellers would hound you from their doorways with innovative calls such as "I am here" and "look at me" alongside a handful of other meaningless English rambles they had picked up from tourists.  Pension touts would barricade you as you were trying to alight buses and trains with typo-ridden business cards thrust in your face as a method of encouraging you toward the belief that their hotel was superior.  All the city`s wheelings and dealings would take place with men who wore the strict Turkish uniform of dirty blue jeans teamed with a random T-shirt they had been wearing all week long.  General hissing, whistling and spitting took place around female tourists wearing less conservative attire and female Islamic fundamentalists waltzed by the main mosques clad in black burqas with only a tiny split for their eyes.  I enjoyed this Turkey - although to be honest, I didn`t really enjoy my first stay in Istanbul.
 
Now Istanbul is virtually a European city.  I say virtually as it still sells salted round bread and corn on the cob by the side of the road, there are still offers of apple tea to all and sundry, there are no supermarket or pharmacy chains which have penetrated the market and pide, kebabs, ayran, baklava and turkish delight are still the most abundantly available foodstuffs. 

However, the city has an efficient and modern (although incredibly overcrowded) above ground metro system linking parts of the city which were previously only available by dolmus (white minivans that would need to be hailed from the footpath and alighted mid-motion), the grand bazaar looks a bit more like a series of undercover upmarket shops than the crowded higgeldy piggeldy stalls which used to abound, the carpet shops are manned by men wearing slick, European suits (irrespective of the weather), the average cappucino price (yes, they now serve cappucinos) in town is about $6 (and up), English as a spoken language is incredibly common and the souvenir sellers even seem tired of calling out inane clap-trap to tourists. 
 
Furthermore, I am confused as to how Moroccans would need to bribe patrons with endless cups of tea to stay seated in their restaurant (implying dining popularity), while the Turkish now add up the bill and whack a 10% service charge on top as they push you out the door.  Where are we again?  How are these two countries so different?
 
We spoke to a pension owner (albeit outside of Istanbul) who told us that every guest present that night had found their pension through the internet.  She was commenting that her husband used to have to meet the buses and trains in the rain, hail or snow (to do the business card waving and screaming routine) and now people "just come of their own accord".  The world is changing.
 
I am not 100% sure if I am happy about this.  However, I can see some of the changes are improving the lives of both the pension owner and the tourists.
 
It is interesting because part of the reason that I didn`t enjoy my first visit to Istanbul is that I felt like I was constantly being scrutinised, judged and compared to every other white female that had travelled to Istanbul before me.  This feeling of being constantly watched made me very uncomfortable and the barrage of disapproving looks I received almost daily from both men and women as they sized me up (even when I was very conservatively dressed) was disappointing. 

Astoundingly, this doesn`t seem to happen anymore.  This may be partly due to the fact that the city is more progressive and has entertained years of tourists or the fact that I am now travelling as part of a male-female duo (when my last visit was with Leola - my sister).  (I have to stress that this was ONLY Istanbul).
 
Another thing that is different this time round is we have arrived slap bang in the middle of Ramazan.  Originally we both thought this would be a little bit awkward with shops closed early and services abridged.  As it turns out, this has been an amazing time of the year to visit.  We are staying a stone`s throw from the Hagia Sofya and the Blue Mosque in Sultanhamet so every evening as the fasting comes to an end the mosque forecourt and gardens come alive with the sounds, smells and tastes of a gigantic Turkish celebration.  
 
Before heading out to dinner one evening we sat in the park to watch the sun set behind the Blue Mosque.  All around us Turkish picnics were being set up.  The colourful assortment of dishes were laid out on rugs, cups and plates were handed around and the yoghurt was salted and stirred to make ayran drinks.  They stirred.  And stirred.  And stirred.  Obviously ravenous but waiting patiently and trying to keep busy while they were waiting.  The long anticipated bellow sounded from the mosque to make it official that the sun had set and it was time to eat.  I would have devoured my food, tasting nothing.  Amazingly, the Turkish families appeared to slowly savour every bite of this long awaited break in their fasting.
 
This time around Istanbul was a surprise.  I enjoyed it more than last time but I am a bit sad that it has lost some of the charm and guile that it once had.
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