I’m on a long meander back to Kazakhstan… Calgary, Toronto, Istanbul, Almaty and finally two calendar days later, Aktau.
And so I found myself spending time in Istanbul, an ancient city I hadn’t yet explored but one which had always intrigued me. How could this great Byzantine city, long known as Constantinople, not be fascinating? Constantine the Great moved his empire here from Rome in 330 A.D.; the city was then already 1000 years old. Now it’s just good old Istanbul, meaning ‘to the city’, but I admit to a certain delightful bewilderment knowing I’m in the once Constantinople. It’s positioned along the Bosphorus river and has long conjured romantic images; of Sultans and their harems, of steamy Turkish hamams, of exotic spices and dazzling architecture.
Despite those temptations, as the plane touched down this morning after an over-night flight, it crossed my mind to just languish at the airport for the day. Along with being travel-weary it was rainy and cold, yet this great city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia beckoned; its marvels and mysteries calling to me as it has to travellers for the past 2000 years.
As the tram* rattled its way to Sultanahmet, the old city, I was delighted when the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia came into view, their minarets majestically piercing the brooding Turkish sky. I wouldn’t explore those iconic sights today, I’d leave them for our return here in seven weeks during a proper stay. For now, I found myself relishing vivid street scenes; a rainbow of colour from hand woven carpets, vibrant displays of teas and spices, glass lanterns, to endless mounds of baklava and Turkish Delight. Needing a respite from both airline food and the rain, I ducked into what looked to be a typical Turkish restaurant. Tiled walls, flat bread blistering on an open oven, carpets hanging splendidly and best of all, dolmas; delicious, delicate morsels wrapped in grape leaves. It all greeted me, as did the welcoming owner, ushering me to a seat with a view to the ‘bread maker’. How did you even consider staying at the airport? You wouldn’t be eating some of your favourite food right now, nor would you have anything to write about, what were you thinking, I chided myself.
“Madam must finish with Turkish tea,” the affable waiter informed me after I was more than sated. He positioned a delicate cup in front of me before I had a chance to reply.
“No charge, it’s from him,” he said, motioning with a tip of his head towards the friendly chef standing between his grill and a counter lavishly displayed with food.
“Sağ olun,” I countered with a smile and nod, pleased I had remembered the more informal thank you, as when someone has gone out of their way to do something for you. Besides, it’s far easier to pronounce than teşekkür ederim, that more proper thank you.
I soon found myself in that one place any traveler must experience if you want to breathe the history of this city. Simply, one must disappear into the Grand Bazaar. The building of the Kapali Carsi began in the winter of 1455, after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet. European travellers as far back as the 1600’s brought home news of the bazaar’s unrivalled abundance of goods and exotic atmosphere. Tales that often became the subject of romantic literature. Originally 67 roads wove the bazaar together, each bearing the name of the type of goods found there. The maze, where time seems to stand still, once housed squares, mosques, fountains and 18 gates that were locked in the evenings. However, this seemed superfluous as theft was unheard of, though an incident in 1591 rattled Istanbul to the core when a substantial quantity of gold disappeared in the bazaar. This prompted a closure for two weeks until the culprit, a young seller of musk, was found. Not, however, before a number of tortures had been carried out. Ironically the Sultan spared the theif from torture, but not execution. Other tales abound from those days as the social dictates didn’t allow women to frequent the bazaar, but perhaps a few disguised themselves and made their way in? Apparently one of the Sultans did just this, but as an excuse to eat his favourite pudding.
Nowadays, the Grand Bazaar houses more than 3,000 shops in its 62 lanes, employing some 26,000 people. Each dolap or stall is replete with a sense of history as it sells beautiful ceramics, carpets and cushions, resplendent fabrics, intricately wrought metal, delicate stained-glass lanterns, and of course tea.
I note the mix of nationalities and languages, musing that Sultan Mehmet would surely be pleased as he had urged the return of those who had fled the city during the siege of the Ottomans, wishing to resettle Muslims, Jews and Christians as one. All part of creating a cohesive, cosmopolitan society and the Grand Bazaar is enduring proof of this. Pausing to take a photo of a grouping of tea cups, I’m reminded I had seen çaycı or ‘tea runners’ out on the street, moving deftly through the crowds delivering the piping hot cups of sustenance to shop keepers, a scene unchanged through the centuries.
Admiring the glass lanterns surrounding the tray, I’m approached by the shopkeeper, his gentle tone a welcome change from the persistent urging that I’d experienced throughout the day. “Where are you from,” is how it always starts, a prelude to the inevitable question as to whether you wish to buy a carpet.
Falling into an easy conversation, the stall keeper introduces himself as Recep as I admire the lanterns and candle holders in his cozy dolap. Eyeing a small holder off in the corner, I envision it on my desk, its mosaic of deep turquoise glass encased in white instantly captivating me. Despite the brilliance of the glowing lanterns, I ruefully admit I can’t carry anything that large.
“Please stay, we’ll have tea,” Recep offers kindly. I’m taken aback yet delighted as I know tea is an integral aspect of Turkish culture and hospitality. After a quick phone call across the lane on a central phone, barely two minutes later, tea arrives. Delivered on a small tray with a triangular handle, the çaycı nods politely as he hands me the tiny cup and saucer, the same I had admired throughout the day in countless shop windows.
As we chat, Recep tells me about the business he’s built from the ground up and I comment that it must be difficult with so much competition, considering the endless shops in the maze surrounding us.
“No,” he assures me, “there’s enough for everyone if business is done well.” I believe at this point I ‘toast’ him with my delicate tulip shaped tea cup, so ubiquitous in Turkish life that it is often used as a measurement in recipes. And of the tea, apparently Turkey leads the world in per capita consumption of tea, it’s strong and delicious. Here it’s never served with milk and in the Eastern part of the country it’s common to place a sugar cube under the tongue before sipping the tea from the glass. I’ve declined the three cubes on my tiny saucer, but thankful that I didn’t refuse the kind gesture of being offered tea in the Grand Bazaar.
“Recep, I think I’d like that tiny holder in the corner,” I say standing up from the small stool, realizing it’s time to make my way back to the airport. “What is the price please?”
“There’s no price for you, my gift.” Sağ olun was again my heartfelt response. After a warm hand shake, I part from my new friend and navigate my way out into the brisk air. I hear, “Where are you from miss?” yet again and this time decide to just go with it. Turns out he’s selling those aforementioned treats… surely I should buy some. After all, who comes to Turkey and doesn’t submit to some delicious Turkish Delight?
By this time it’s rush hour and I join the commuters on the tram, at once appreciating their kindness. Some enquire if I need help, did I know the way? Others notice the city map in my hand and smile.
Beneath the exotic facades and arguably daunting perceptions that recent events have wrought here, a familiar fabric of life prevails. People make their way home relieved to reach the end of their working day, yet gladly offered their seats to the elderly. Sweethearts whisper in each other’s ears. Parents peck their children on the cheek as they hold them closely in the squash of people.
I’ve loved the Turkish people. I felt welcomed, I’ve felt at home.
This evening as my plane lifted off over the Bosphorus, onwards to Kazakhstan, I feel imbued with the mystery of what is still to be explored. I eagerly dig out two books I had acquired that day, already preparing for my visit in seven weeks. One of them is a gem, recommended by the bookseller. “You won’t be able to put it down,” he warned me, and I can’t.*
I so look forward to returning and we shall try to drop in to see Recep, that is if I can find that stall again out of the 3000 or so! Actually, its Takkeciler No. 7 Kapali Carsi -Beyazit…just in case you find yourself there and want a Turkish lantern (I know I still do) and maybe a spot of tea. Tell him Terry Anne sent you!
* Take the Metro from the airport to Zeytinburnu, switch here to the blue tram line and continue to Sultanahmet. Trip approximately one hour
*’Portrait of a Turkish Family’ by Irfan Orga