Thursday, July 23, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey: A city that demands a return — Essay II

By Richard L. Weaver II

We concluded day one of our classical tour of Istanbul with a visit to the Grand Bazaar (Kapali arsi - or Covered Market) built in 1464. It is Turkey’s largest covered market with 250,000 to 400,000 visitors per day, and it is one of the biggest in the world with 64 streets and 22 gates taking up a full quarter or section of the city. The thousands of shops (close to 3,000) offer everything from glazed tiles and pottery, to copper and brassware, glassware, apparel made of leather, cotton, and wool, belly dancing costumes, alabaster bookends and ashtrays, sculptures, souvenirs, t-shirts, expensive jewelry and antiques, tea, coffee, and spices, and the biggest collection of Turkish carpets in the universe! Numerous restaurants and caf s are located throughout the market as well. In addition to providing a great shopping area for tourists, it is a vital source of goods for locals as well.

The main event of day two of our excursion was our visit to the Topkapi Palace located on the Seraglio Point a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara with the Bosporus in plain sight from many points of the Palace. The site is hilly, and it is one of the highest points close to the sea.

After the Ottoman conquest and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II, looking for a site for his great palace, chose this one — the site of the acropolis (high city) of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium — and ordered a new palace be built beginning in 1459. Originally called the New Palace, the name was changed to Topkapi in the 19th century. The palace was completed in 1465. It lost its importance in the 17th century as Sultans chose to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosporus.

From our tour, several features of the Topkapi Palace stood out. The first and most obvious is the Imperial Gate, also known as the Gate of the Sultan which is the entrance into the first courtyard. It is a massive gate dating from 1478 but is now covered in 19th century marble and was clearly constructed for defensive purposes.

Most of our time was spent in the first courtyard because just off this beautifully landscaped garden area were the kitchens, the armory, the mint, and the treasury. The second feature of the Topkapi Palace that stood out was discovered in the treasury. Among the attractively displayed emeralds and rubies was the Topkapi Diamond — the fifth largest diamond in the world. It was truly dazzling.

The third outstanding feature of the Palace — one that we did not see — was the Harem. Whether symbolically or in actuality, we were told by both Professor Martin Binder our ship lecturer, and our tour guide, that the Harem led to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire for it symbolized the shift from military power, which had brought the Ottoman Empire to its strength and dominance, to an enjoyment of the sensual pleasures.

The Harem was home to the sultan himself, his mother, wives, daughters, sons, brothers, and the high ranking female officials who managed the affairs of the household, hundreds of maidservants, and black eunuchs. The service sections of the harem included kitchen, food cellar, baths, laundry, sick room and dormitories for the maidservants and black eunuchs. As the population of the harem increased from the end of the 16th century onwards, mezzanines and additional buildings were constructed containing bedrooms for the serving woman and self-contained apartments for the wives of the sultan. As an institution in Ottoman society, the harem reflected the secluded privacy of family life.

We could not visit the Harem of the Topkapi Palace because it required an additional fee, a separate tour guide, and additional time that we were not given by our excursion tour guide.

Our tour ended with lunch at the Topkapi Palace Restaurant where we had the best lunch we have had on any excursion on this Mediterranean cruise. After a dramatic entrance down a flight of stairs along a solid rock wall, you enter the restaurant overlooking the water. Our lunch began with appetizers that included a range of Turkish delights, followed by a fresh salad, then a light, fluffy pastry, followed by a generous meal of lamb and chicken, potatoes, and peas. This was followed by a rice-custard dessert that tasted a little like vanilla pudding, tapioca, or coconut cream — all guesses by those at our table. No matter what it was, it pleased the palate of everyone.

There was just time enough for a quick visit back to the museum just off the first courtyard, then we returned to the ship through the narrow, heavily populated streets of the city. On our way, our tour guide told us there were 17 McDonald’s restaurants within the city. I then asked him if the citizens of Istanbul had a choice between having whatever meal they desired at McDonald’s and having a traditional Turkish dinner with all the trimmings, which would they choose? His answer was quick: it depends on whom you ask. Older citizens would prefer the traditional meal, younger people would probably prefer McDonald’s. In our own ways, we are slowly westernizing the rest of the world.

Each of the electric trolley cars we passed in route to the ship was jammed with passengers, and after a 6½ hour tour this day, plus a five-hour tour yesterday, we not only saw more of Istanbul than we expected, but we had a wonderful time and learned so much. This was one of the best tour guides we have had, and it really makes a difference on these excursions.

Istanbul is such an incredible city. Although this was the “Classical Istanbul” tour, we barely touched the surface. What we saw was clean, busy, and interesting. The port is active and vibrant. Although there is a lot of traffic, and the streets are narrow, there is so much history and so many wonderful places that surround you as you travel. The contrasts between the modern and the ancient are everywhere, and they continue to fascinate.

There are so many “local” stories that need investigating, quaint cobblestone streets that require exploration, and mosques and museums that demand our attention.. We passed a whole series of small, local shops on the way back to ship — that I could only enjoy from the windows of the bus. Istanbul will forever remain a destination with more to offer, more to see, and more to enjoy. We just have to return some day.
At Turkey, Istanbul, The Grand Bazaar, you get historical information about The Grand Bazaar as well as some photographs.

At, the essay there on The Grand Bazaar begins with this quotation: “Probably the best way to describe the Grand Bazaar is to quote Mark Twain – "We went to the grand Bazaar in Stamboul, of course, and I shall not describe it further than to say it is a monstrous hive of little shops – thousands, I should say – all under one roof, and cut up into innumerable little blocks by narrow streets which are arched overhead." That was over a century ago, and very little has changed.

At, there is an areal view of the city with Europe and Asia clearly marked as well as the Bosphorus Bridge. In --addition, there are over 20 icons there to help you plan a trip to Istanbul.

Copyright July, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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