We didn’t really get very far on Thursday. We walked really far. The bus dropped us off at Taksim Square, and Nate assured us that the hotel was only 500 meters away, and ‘probably in that direction.’ So we started walking. I bought a simit , a circular-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds, which I soon discovered was ubiquitous all over the city. We had not checked any baggage, so Nate and I carried our stuff over our shoulders and Ryan wheeled his suitcase behind him down the sidewalk.
Entrance to the Grand Bazaar
Two hours later, we found the hotel. We had gone kind of in the right direction, but rather circuitously, passing by a football stadium and going up and down several hills, which quickly frustrated Nate (this would become a common theme), and took turns asking directions. We stumbled into a 5th Avenue-like area with fancy perfume shops and expensive places selling watches (which we’d later return to that first evening looking for a place to eat and drink, to no avail. We went instead to a local-looking cafeteria and got our first of many Turkish coffees – kahve – and ate the first of only three actual meals we’d have in the next three days). I think it was Nate who finally did spot the Crowne Plaza on Dolapdere street, and it was down the hill this time. I stood on the sidewalk while the guys took my backpack and checked us in.
The Blue Mosque, one of the most famous in the world, and definitely the most famous in the city, is active, and it is free to enter to anyone if it’s not a prayer time (which, remember, happens five times per day, so it’s a big ‘if’). I bought some roasted chestnuts from another street vendor when we got off the tram in the big square out front. A dog out for a walk had jumped into the fountain for a quick swim, his owner fighting to get him out. A man followed us around trying to sell us a rug. He was persistent enough to follow us into the mosque’s courtyard, and after spending fifteen minutes with us talking about Istanbul’s Islamic history (and trying to sell us rugs) I told him we’d appreciate his company of course but that we weren’t going to buy any rugs or even visit his rug shop. He left us alone then.
The mosque was in fact closed for prayer when we arrived, but a couple of young girls were outside handing out leaflets for a free talk on Islam that was going to take place in an adjacent building by one of their professors, so we went to that. They gave us coffee and snacks and we listened to more things I didn’t know about, in an ancient building that used to be used as a sort of elementary school.
For example: I didn’t know that the Koran (or Qu’ran, as our lecturer spelled it) has only one version, and every Arabic edition is precisely the same as every other one. Translations, though used, are considered flawed. I didn’t know that Muslims of means are required to give 2 ½ % of their wealth each year to the poor (and are encouraged to do so not through charities but directly, and usually around the Ramadan holidays). I didn’t know that Islam does not have any official pastors or clerics, and that an imam is merely a prayer leader. I didn’t know that the call to prayer is exactly the same Arabic recitation made five times daily the world over (with one added line during the 5am call, which basically says ‘prayer is better then sleep, so get up’). I didn't know that Muslims wash their hands and arms to the elbows, their feet and their faces before entering a mosque, and that they did so at ancient-looking spigots outside, seated on marble benches. I didn’t know a lot of things.
The Blue Mosque – really the Sultanahmet Mosque, for Sultan Ahmet who had it built a rather long time ago (something else I didn’t know) – is freaking enormous. Six minarets surround the ground, to kind of indicate that this was an imperial mosque (most have only one, some of the bigger ons two – none besides the Blue Mosque have six). The ‘sultan’ entrance on the one side had chains hanging from the archway. Why? So that anybody arriving on horseback would be forced to bow as a sign of respect before entering, whether they really wanted to or not.
Inside, it’s carpeted, and we were expected to remove our shoes before entering, also a sign of respect. There is no furniture, just red carpet adorned with blue floral patterns similar to that which adorns the walls and ceilings, in intricate detail, throughout (hence the nickname). There are no pews, no altar. There is a narrow staircase leading to a small landing where announcements are made. There is also a narrow cutout in the wall facing Mecca, from which the imam leads the people in prayer. He also faces Mecca, not the folks praying (in fact, on this very plane right now, every few minutes the direction and distance to Mecca flashes on the overhead screen).
The Grand Bazaar just kind of appeared out of the sidewalk. We picked an arbitrary direction to walk after leaving the mosque and wandered through several alleyways and streets, passing cafes and coffee vendors and people selling corn on the cob out of little carts on the sidewalk (like the bread, available everywhere in the city, at least where we went). People are selling stuff everywhere. And mostly the same kind of stuff, at mostly the same kind of prices. Initially I couldn’t imagine how so many people could make a living selling so much stuff. But there is a lot of people in this city.
It’s impossible to describe actually. In a place like New York, you notice the crowds. People get annoyed with one another. There are lines for things, lots of waiting. Not in Istanbul. There are a lot of people in this city. And everywhere . Not just one block or one area. All over, everywhere we went was thronged with crowds. Yet it flowed. We never once waited in line for anything, even the bars on Saturday night, there was no pushing or yelling and it just worked. The subways were standing-room only, but we never missed a train and never waited more than five minutes for one. We always got seats in the cafes and restaurants, even during a big soccer game on Sunday, and the service, though pushy and very salesman-like, was generally excellent. In America, I think, people seem to require an arms-length of personal space, and get funny when anyone invades it. In Turkey, that space is reduced to a few centimeters, out of necessity really. But it works.
But everyone is trying to sell you something, from the corn on the cob guys on the street to little girls sitting on the subway trying to sell tissues. And some of them are very persuasive. Friendly, but really persuasive. We wound up in a fish restaurant underneath the Galata Bridge and overlooking the water thanks to a guy standing outside and persuading us to go in. This was only one of half a dozen seemingly identical places on the small stretch of waterfront, but he got us in the door. And everything can be bargained for, and is bargained for. Even that fish dinner. Don’t like the price? Just offer something lower or ask for a couple free beers (it works). And they expect it. Don’t have two hundred euros to spend on a rug? Well, how much you got then?
Anyway, the bazaar. Once we entered – the shops and stalls sell everything from cheap jewelry to Persian rugs (“Do they fly?” I asked some of the more persistent salesman. “How much money do you have?” he replied, playing right along. I decline anyway, and he made fun of my shoes. “Yeah, well yours are stupid too,” I joked) – it quickly became apparent that there was no way we’d ever find our way out the same way we came in. The place is a maze, setup beneath an ancient painted roof and marble floor. I later read that there are over 2,000 vendors in the bazaar, and in two days exploring it I think we only saw a handful.
We found the Spice Bazaar by accident trying to find our way out of the neighborhood where the Grand Bazaar was. The area was mostly outside on the streets this time, hidden down back alleyways, but the vendors sold all sorts of exotic foods. Coffee and spices of course, but also fish, soap, incredible displays of walnuts, dates, figs, pistachios and figs with walnuts inside them. Plus baklava and Turkish delight and freaking anything else you could think of. And everyone is yelling about buying their stuff, which is exactly the same as the guy next door yelling about buying his stuff at the same prices. I have no idea how anyone makes a living (this concept was not limited to the more touristy areas around the Bazaars in Old Istanbul. On the Asian side it’s almost worse – or better, depending on your perspective. The markets around Kadikoy, where we got off the boat, were somehow more authentic, livlier. Looking for the hamam – Turkish bath – we accidentally walked through a narrow alley lined with clothing and shoes on both sides and people absolutely everywhere. One guy pushed a blue pair of Adidas in my face).