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    « Photo tour of Constantinople, I mean, Istanbul | Main | In the footsteps of the Byzantines »

    The Turkey has landed

    One of my fondest memories - in retrospect, not in the living of it - is of my arrival in Phnom Penh, 16 years ago. Now, mind you, Cambodia was only a year out of the dark days of Khmer Rouge rule, and had only just reopened its airport. The national airline had four brand-new prop planes and a single used but spotlessly refurbished DC-9, the pride of the fleet. Flying into this city of more than 2 million people at night, I only saw the lights I'd have expected from a city of maybe 50,000. The airport was a large quonset hut, in the midst of a vast empty space that had clearly once been a major airport. 

    The Cambodians recognized a job opportunity when they saw one, though. There were perhaps 40 people on the plane. There were at least that many customs officials ready to process us, all ranged in a line down a series of folding tables. One person's job was to take your passport, and hand it on to the next person. That person opened it up, and passed it on. And so on. The big bottleneck in the system was the poor sap who's job it was to write down all your passport information and the visa number in an enormous book, and then give that to the bigwig next to him, who looked very important as he signed and stamped the whole thing. Each of these people was, presumably, being paid.

    Entering Turkey was nothing like this. Atatürk Airport is modern, enormous, and efficient, and though they parked our plane on the tarmac, a late-model electric bus was waiting to whisk us to the terminal. Baggage claim was no worse than in any American airport, and considerably better than at La Guardia. The Customs guy just opened up my passport, read my e-visa off my iPhone screen, and thumped his stamp down on the page, and off I went. 

    The ride into the center of the city parallels the Sea of Marmara, where vast fleets of cargo ships wait to pass through the Bosphorus or offload containers at the city's port facilities. All along the waterfront are parks, which at mid-afternoon on a Saturday were full of families on picnics. Where in America there would be basketball courts with pickup games going on, there were here soccer fields (with the same kind of fences), also with pickup games going on. Every park had exercise equipment, well-used by older people, who were out walking with a vengeance. Barbeques on the beach, smoke drifting. People laughing. And right across the parkway on which my driver (a very polite and quiet middle-aged lady, driving a Mercedes van like a mild-mannered maniac) whisked me along, there were the ancient sea walls, pitted blocks of stone with bands of crumbling brick, with shops and houses built on top as if there was nothing unusual about such a foundation. The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

    I passed through one of the gates in the Walls of Theodosius. A wild moment. How many barbarians battered at those gates for more than a thousand years, without success? And I, more barbaric than any of them could imagine, passed through in mere moments, stopped only long enough to wait out a red light.

    Sultanhamet, the neighborhood where I'll be staying for the next week, is the heart of the Old City - cobblestoned streets, narrow alleys, monuments everywhere, and tourist traps doubly so. The windows of my hotel room overlook the Blue Mosque. The muezzin keeps long hours - his final call to prayer rang out, too loud to ignore, after 10pm, so melodic it was hard to imagine that such sounds could come from a human throat. He woke me again at 4:20ish in the morning. I hope he takes naps during the day.

    The forecast is for thunderstorms today, and from the size of the cumulonimbus I saw floating down from Bulgaria on the flight in, that seems entirely plausible. Seems like a good day for museum visits. Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built more than 1500 years ago by Justinian I on a site originally chosen by Constantine the Great, is at the top of the list.

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