Just the name evokes the exotic, conjuring up images of skylines dominated by domes and minarets. Istanbul – literally straddling Europe and Asia, melting the two cultures into a tempting mix of east and west.
The moron in me still flashes images from those hilariously cheeky “Road” movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, resplendent with a veil-clad Dorothy Lamour and snakes rising out of baskets at the charmer’s will – am I the only one who remembers them? The other part of me is absolutely fascinated – for me, this is my gateway to the Middle East, an easing into the cultural assault I’m expecting out of Iran.
On my first morning, I wake to vaguely hear the sound of the call to prayer, the beautiful, haunting chant broadcast from the mosques, floating across the rooftops of this enormous city, then drift back to sleep.
The area of Sultanamet is the place to stay if it’s your first visit to Istanbul, right on the doorsteps of such breathtaking stunners as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, and a shortish walk to the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Markets and the Bosphorous Strait. I emerge finally from sleep and stumble off to the Blue Mosque (the mosques all look pretty much the same to the uninitiated, so identifying the right one to wander into took a little time).
The Blue Mosque is, quite simply, incredible. I arrive an hour before Friday noon prayer, the Muslim version of Sunday church when everyone is expected to turn up to pray and every mosque is closed to visitors.
We need to take our shoes off and place them in thin plastic bags supplied at the door before stepping onto the carpet of the Mosque. A sign states that women should wear headscarves. I pop mine on, but I can’t fail to notice that large tour groups have ignored the request altogether. Now, I’m as much in favour of women getting equal treatment as the next person, but this irks me: we are visitors here. I conclude that of course they must be none other than cruise ship snappers.
The interior of the mosque itself is broken into two areas – one, behind a wooden barrier, for visitors. The others for worshippers, with a large ornate marble decoration and enormous candles point the way to Mecca. Above everyone is a stunning display of architecture and intense decoration with arches and domes painted with gorgeous geometric designs and calligraphy, and beautiful stained glass windows. Ever wondered why such designs dominate Islamic art? Well, it’s because Islamic tradition forbids the portrayal of humans in places of worship, as it can distract from a focus on Allah.
After this, I wander into a park, perch on a bench next to a guy, hauling out my iPhone to take advantage of the free wireless internet. The guy (Fatih) asks me to take his photo and we start talking, he buys me lunch and then we head to Hagia Sophia together.
Hagia Sophia is one of the dominant mosques, and the most loved one, on the skyline. It started out life as a church (well, to be accurate, it was the equivalent of the Vatican for the Byzantine Empire when Istanbul was known as Constantinople, essentially built as an ego project for the Emperor at the time, Justinian I. Unfortunately, it was so extravagant that it pretty much emptied the church coffers, and was the last great structure to be built by the Byzantine empire in Istanbul. For 1,000 years it was used as a church, and for roughly the same time period it stood as the largest domed building in Europe (finally surpassed by Florence during the Renaissance). When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted into a mosque, the minarets erected, and now operates only as a museum.
After Hagia Sophia I returned to my room to call some friends on Skype, and my new friend decided to wait for me over a cup of tea: oh dear, if I wasn’t sure before, it’s starting to get confirmed how this is all going to end.
After we attempted to visit Topkapi Palace, only to find it closed, it was off to the sights and sounds of the Spice Market for stall after stall of piled up spices, towers of nougat and halvas, rugs and ornately painted dishes. My new friend tries to grab my hand. Uh oh. Over dinner, I suggest he ought to leave soon for his train home. He ponders me and asks “Do you want me to leave?” as he gives me one of those dead sexy dark-eyed come hither looks that practically melted my shoes off.
There it was. Cute. Tall. 27. Foreign. Well dressed. Hard to knock back but – yes folks – I managed it. Difficult to believe, but it’s true*.
The following day, I made a second attempt at visiting Topkapi Palace and, just as I entered the outer courtyard, and am searching in my guidebook, I am greeted by another stranger. “Do you need some help?” – a common greeting in Istanbul by people looking to sell you something, or to whisk you off for sex. But this one seemed different – he was with a woman, for one thing. And when we got talking he turned out to live in the US. Originally from Istanbul, he has a family in Florida and is at Topkapi Palace taking photos of some architecture for a property development he is doing. We get chatting, and he is bringing his family to Australia later this year, so I give him my email address and invite him to ask what he wants about where to go. We then get onto the subject of rugs (which I bring up, revealing an experience I had the day before in the Spice Markets with a rug seller) and he starts to give me advice, announcing that he is a wholesale rug merchant, and would I like to go to his warehouse and get taught some basics of what to look for in rugs? A few minutes later, his cousin is escorting me to his offices where (with no sign on the door saying rugs) his employees start taking me through it. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this was a set up. But I must say I really don’t think it was. They were all lovely guys and, well, I’ll confess it: I bought some gorgeous pieces for my mother and I, at what were some seriously good prices (yeah yeah, but it’s true, really it is!)**.
We all sat and had some lunch, and we all resolved to remain friends and get in touch when we were in each others’ countries. The rug guy invited me out for dinner, which I must say was an experience in itself, which I’ll get to later.
Before that, though, I finally made it to the Archaeological Museum and to Topkapi Palace (the former palace of the sultans), including the facsinating Harem area where the Sultan, his mum (who was really the one in charge), his wives, “favourites” (ie girlfriends selected by his wives), concubines and Black Eunuchs lived. An intriguing social order. The Palace itself was a multi-layered sensation, from the kitchens to the Treasury where an 86 carat diamond hung out, amongs other spectacular jewels. The palace also houses some of Islam’s most important pieces, including Mohammed’s footprint, Moses’ staff and David’s sword – seriously!
I met Rejep at 7.30pm and we jumped in his car to head off for some “real” Turkish food. Now, before you think I’m a lunatic, I had already assessed that Rejep was harmless and really very sweet. However, in the car, I managed to discover another side to him, and I confess it threw me a little (although I did my best to remain witty and un-freaked-out). Rejep kicks off the conversation by narrating his various sexual conquests. Like the time he first discovered what a threesome was. And of course, being an entrepeneur, he promptly went out and ensured he had – naturally enough – a foursome. Awesome.
Rejep is unshakingly convinced he is irresistible to women (and even some men, with one anecdote involving a customer’s hands making their way to his “privates”). Naturally, it’s not long before the conversation turns to yours truly and I am doing my best to fudge answers to questions that would have curled your hair. One more innocuous one was, of course, whether I found Rejep “hot”. Jokingly I said “Of course, how could any woman resist you?” but I think the irony was lost as the answer conformed precisely with Rejep’s view of the world. Happily, he is married, providing the perfect foil for me to dismiss any involvement. Oddly, the Polyanna in me thinks that even he respects his marital status, meaning his inquiries are purely for statistical purposes only.
After we park the car (Rejep reverses into a spot), he asks “How did you like my parking?” I respond as expected: “Brilliant”.
When, over dinner, I was asked whether I wanted him I retorted with “I’m not going to answer that question because no matter what I say, it will get me in trouble”. In mid-air between us, those words translated in his ears into “Give me your hot love, baby”, since he seemed suitably satisfied with this response, mentioning that if he was single he’d be thinking about it.
A friend of his phoned and invited us for a drink. Well, it turned out the friend was a (umm…very, very gorgeous) member of the UN police, on a break from a 12 month stint where he is on a Peace Keeping Mission in Sudan (think Darfur): their job is to stand in between three warring groups fighting over one of the richest sources of oil on the globe. He showed us photos of their base – in 2 days he leaves for another 4 months of living in a depressing, dangerous, dusty, windy desert praying for survival while I am off to – gulp – the Caribbean.
Five minutes after we leave, Rejep’s phone rings. After he hangs up, Rejep reports that his gorgeous UN cop friend has called to inquire as to whether Rejep and I are having some “fun” tonight because it was obvious that I want Rejep. I laugh, and just for a stir I inform Rejep that his friend is extremely attractive (seriously, girls, what’s NOT sexy about him, even from my brief description).
Naturally, Rejep offers to call back his friend and “arrange” things for me; he wants me to meet a nice man. Once again, I politely decline*** (I am, you will no doubt agree, nothing if not very polite).
* Yes, I am incredulous that I made this decision as well. Naturally, if the umpire’s decision had gone the other way, I would hardly say so here.
*** See * above.