In no particular order, here are my thoughts and observations about Istanbul, the former capital of three ancient empires: Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.
The name of the city alone conjures up romantic images from the past. If I think of Istanbul, I think of sultans and harems, belly dancers and minarets and the Orient Express.
Constantinople, to me, means grand, solid churches and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantium is synonymous with mosaics depicting religious icons created with minuscule tiles.
On leaving the arrivals area at Atatürk Airport, we were greeted by Lionel Messi’s smiley face. The Argentinean international striker is Turkish Airlines celebrity ambassador.
Our taxi driver asked where we were from and when I said Argentina, he smiled and said “Messi!” a vendor at the Grand Bazaar said something along the lines of “my people don’t know much about [international] politics but we do know about football.” It was nice to see that people knew about my country even if it’s because of a famous footballer. Sport does bring down all kinds of barriers.
Although the majority of the population is Muslim, Turkish is a secular country. However, the influence of Islam on everyday life is pervasive. The call to prayer sounds five times a day from the minarets and it bounces off every surface and reverberates all over the city.
After a while, I learned to tell the time by them. Some women wear the hijab, some wear a burka and some wear Western clothes and don’t cover their heads exercising their freedom to choose. Pork products, of course, are nowhere to be found.
Istanbul is forever straddling between two different worlds. Asia and Europe. The Ottoman culture versus the modernization and Europeanization brought about by Atatürk in the early 20th century. A first-class city with traces of Third World problems.
Each city has its own particular smell that sets it apart. My nose tells me there are three distinct smells in Istanbul: cat, fish and perfume. There are quite a few stray cats and wherever they congregate, there will be a strong smell (for instance, the walk up to Topkapi Palace.)
The Galata Bridge, where fishermen cast their lines and sell the day’s catch, smells like fish.
And you can smell perfume anywhere. Turks seem to like wearing fragrance, which wafts in their wake. I wonder if this has any connection whatsoever with the fact that Islam requires the faithful to wash five times a day before prayers. It’s a very good habit that everyone should adopt, if you ask me. (I’m looking at you, Western tourist.)
The streets are a hive of activity: people coming and going, vendors touting their wares (and accosting tourists while they are at it), constant car horns, the cries of seagulls and the calls to prayer. What bothered me a bit was the lack of sense of personal space.
It is normal to see two men or two women walking arm in arm as a sign of friendship but kissing and hugging by couples is seriously frowned upon.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a restaurant, or rather, a tourist trap. We went in knowingly; we were aware of this but we decided to go ahead a book a table anyway. The restaurant is located in an 800 hundred-year-old underground cistern and artistic numbers were included. We saw a belly dancer, who was a bit disappointing, then a folk dance group, which was fun, and then the icing on the cake: a male belly dancer. I didn’t know that men’s hips are capable of such movement. He was absolutely fantastic! Apparently Abdullah from Lebanon is very famous and is even on TV.