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    Entries in Istanbul (3)


    Istanbul, farewell

    My last day in Istanbul. A city of deep history, bewildering diversity, a multi-layered heritage going back to ancient times, and a vigorous embrace of modernity. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here that it feels like much more than a week has passed. I’ve learned what the city can still teach about the life and surroundings of its inhabitants thirteen centuries ago – an effort of imagination, given the vast accumulation of relics from later times that stand atop the city the Byzantines would have known. Long before the population explosion and resulting relentless development of the past twenty years, Istanbul was never especially sentimental about its pre-Ottoman history. Yet enough remains to enable an imaginative historian – or writer – to assemble a mosaic of what early Byzantine Constantiople would have looked like. I’ve filled two notebooks and taken hundreds of pictures. I have what I came for.

    As a traveler, Istanbul astounds. In the Old City, from Sultanahmet to Eminönü, you can hear dozens of languages spoken. At any restaurant in the main tourist areas, you will find waiters who are fluent in half a dozen tongues in addition to their own. Alongside families from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia with women in burkas and children in strollers, you will see burly Aussie men in sleeveless tank tops, Frenchwomen in halter tops and short-shorts, backpackers loaded front and back with their essentials who haven’t showered for days, and modernity-craving young Turks in spray-on jeans and t-shirts with logos from Old Navy and Victoria’s Secret. You can’t walk a step without being approached by a would-be “tour guide” or carpet seller or the owner of a shop selling the famous Iznik ceramics, who will follow you trying guess where you’re from, in several languages if you don’t immediately respond to their first approach. It’s impossible to avoid walking through someone’s snapshot of their family against the backdrop of the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, still staring each other down across the plaza after all these centuries.

    I suppose it’s possible to find bad food in Istanbul. So far, however, I haven’t. I could live on the desserts alone, quite happily. Even the ice cream is sprinkled with ground pistachios. You can stand a spoon in the coffee – the key is to know when to stop, before you ingest the mud at the bottom. Avoid the Nescafe. But you knew that.

    Heaven must be something like sitting on a rooftop terrace at sundown, white tablecloths under a plate of meze, eating olives cured with herbs and munching baklava after your meal, while watching the lights come on across the city and the tankers sailing majestically through the blue, blue waters of the Bosphorus. Even a non-believer can be transported by the haunting calls to prayer ululating from the muezzin’s loudspeakers, a call and response that echoes back and forth across the entire city five times a day. The prayer schedule can be inconvenient for those who like to sleep in or go to bed early. But you certainly know you are in a place that stands poised between continents, self-consciously aware of its unique place in the world. Neither Europe nor Asia, neither Middle East nor Mediterranean, but a mélange of all the above. It’s a heady mixture.

    While I’ve been here, I’ve walked virtually the entire length of the ancient Theodosian Walls, from the Marmara to the south to the Golden Horn in the north. I’ve walked along the Golden Horn itself from Blachernae to Topkapı, and around to Sultanahmet again. I’ve visited with archaeologists at the Bathonea Project west of the city, who were incredibly kind and generous with their time and their knowledge, showing me a site that could easily be at the beginning stages of a hundred-year dig on the scale of Troy and Ephesus, if only budget issues and pressures from developers spare their 700,000-year relics that lie under corn fields and thick underbrush.

    I’ve had the rare privilege of visiting the well-hidden work area, buried in an industrial wasteland near the international ferry terminal, where archaeologists and conservationists and maritime experts try to piece together the enormous treasure trove discovered when the Marmara Tunnel project uncovered a vast array of perfectly preserved ships and their cargoes from the 5th to the 8th centuries. I touched the planking of a 1500-year-old ship. I met the young archaeologists working feverishly to catalog and preserve thousands of artifacts, from fragments of ship’s hulls to pottery shards to jars of peaches and olives that sank into the harbor mud in Roman and early Byzantine times. I sat with a nautical reconstruction specialist at his computer and saw how the team has used precise digital measurement and advanced 3D modeling to recreate the exact dimensions and construction methods of one of the few intact Byzantine dromon ever found.

    The enthusiasm and generosity of these young archaeologists and academics was humbling. Their willingness to share their work and talk about their findings with a random American historical novelist left me feeling honored. It also gave me a profound sense of obligation to tell the story, not only of the work these incredible people are doing but of the lives and times they are piecing together, bit by bit, out of the soil and mud beneath a rapidly growing city voracious for land to build on.

    Profound thanks to Haldun Aydingün and the team of the Istanbul Prehistoric Research Project; Namik Kiliç, Evren Türkmenoğlu, and the team of the Istanbul University Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project; and Inci Türkoğlu, PhD, who was gracious enough to arrange for me to visit these precious sites and the dedicated people who are working to uncover their secrets. My thanks too to the wonderful staff of the Blue House Hotel, who have been as welcoming and helpful as any visitor 10,000 miles from home could wish.

    Tomorrow I will fly to Antalya. There, I hope to visit the ruins of many of the most prosperous cities of Roman and Byzantine times along the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor. Thus will begin the more free-roaming stage of my journey, as I attempt to retrace the paths and places that might be crucial to my story. I’ll also need to start working hard on my Turkish. Once I leave Antalya, I’ll be traveling to areas that are not quite so accustomed to tourists. At a bare minimum, I hope to learn how to ask how to find the bathroom.


    Photo tour of Constantinople, I mean, Istanbul

    For your viewing pleasure, I've uploaded some of the more interesting pictures I've taken along the way as I've walked all over Istanbul, searching for sites that would have existed in the early 8th century. I've only managed to write descriptions of about a third of them thus far. I'll keep plugging away at that in between rambles. Hopefully my processing ability will keep pace with my picture production, though really, who are we kidding?

    Go to the Gallery here.


    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.