Istanbul – Crossroad of Continents, where East meets West

In October of 2000 I joined my colleague Tina and travelled to Istanbul to attend the Esri User Conference and conduct training classes. Dinner on board the Delta Airlines flight in Business Class was a delicious Asian beef dish served over basmati rice, followed by a tray of wonderful cheeses accompanied by a fantastic glass of Inniskillan Ice Wine from Canada. Upon arriving in Istanbul the next day I changed $40 USD and received 25 million Turkish Lira (over 625,000 Lira per dollar!). So when I ordered a glass of beer later, it “only” cost me 2,250,000 Lira – about $3.00. We were greeted at the airport by very fine weather and the staff from our local distributor office who whisked us away to the Park Hilton Hotel, which overlooks the Bosporus Straight that divides Europe and Asia. From my room I had a spectacular view of the Bosporus and the continent of Asia on the opposite shore.

Bosporus Straight
Bosporus Straight

As I sat on the balcony with a chilled glass of local Efes beer, I watched an incredible array of boat traffic constantly sailing by – scores of ferries of all sizes, huge freighters and tankers, and a various assortment of smaller craft! It was a fascinating scene and I had one of the best seats in the house. Later in the afternoon I walked down to the SwissHotel to look at the conference facilities, in preparation for the setup of our annual European and Middle Eastern User Conference. From there I made my way to Yildiz Technical University where Tina and I would conduct software training classes the next day. As we entered the centuries old building the staff showed us to the “Internet Café” where there were two large cages of birds in one corner, “squawking” loudly! Then one of the staff announced this would be the location for Tina’s class! (I could see Tina sink into a state of shock and disbelief) Fortunately her class had to be postponed for a day since the computers had not yet arrived. Over the course of the next few days Tina and I conducted our classes, with computers and without birds. Despite the fact that students always showed up over an hour late (traffic) we were treated with great hospitality, especially for the traditional lunch served in the faculty club located on the top floor, with an incredible panoramic view of the old city, the Bosporus, and Asia. At the end of the class each day Tina and I would meet up in the hotel’s rooftop bar for a couple of beers and sharing of our experiences during the day. One evening we became aware of the piano player in the corner of the bar, surrounded by a large group of elderly tourists who were singing along as he pounded out his rendition of Las Vegas lounge hits. (for a moment the vision of a “lounge lizard” flashed through my mind) Just then Tina caught his eye and it wasn’t long before she was “persuaded” to join him and sing along. (he dedicated the famous Frank Sinatra hit “New York, New York” to her, so every evening after that he played it as we entered the bar) About that time an old man seated around the piano latched on to her and gave her his business card, claiming he was a psychiatrist, but upon closer examination of his card it revealed he had a PHD in social sciences. And so ended our evening, as “sing along with Mitch” continued. Having the following day off we walked down to the old city and stopped at the “Sultan’s Pub” for a delicious lunch of traditional Shish Tawook. Meanwhile, we overheard a conversation at the next table as an American tourist kept asking his wife if she knew where the nearest McDonald’s was? (dude, you’re in Turkey – get with the program and enjoy it for the unique experience that it is!) This day also happened to be the world famous Istanbul Marathon Race across the bridge that connects Europe and Asia.

Bridge connecting Europe and Asia
Bridge connecting Europe and Asia

That afternoon we visited the Tokapi Palace, once the residence of Ottoman Sultans, and now an amazing historical museum. Within the enormous complex were housed some extremely rare and one of a kind ancient relics. Among them was a special exhibit with a tooth, strand of hair, and footprint of the Prophet Mohammed! In another room was part of the arm bone and piece of the skull from the body of John the Baptist. In the next room was a fragment of a door and rain gutter from the sacred Kabba in Mecca. Besides these ancient religious relics, was a large dagger with a solid emerald handle, among dozens of gem encrusted weapons belonging to the sultans during their reign in the Ottoman Empire.

4th Century Roman Aqueduct
4th Century Roman Aqueduct

The next day, before the start of the conference, I took some time to visit some of the most interesting, unique, and historical sites in Istanbul, and there are a lot of them in this city thousands of years old. I walked down to the old city and my first stop was the “Sirkeci Train Station” that opened in 1890 to serve as the final destination of the luxurious Orient Express. Today the station no longer receives the famous train and only functions as a domestic stop. But the charm and grandeur of the turn of the century remains well preserved in its beautiful Byzantine architecture. From the old station it was a short walk through a century’s old neighborhood to “Haghia Sophia”, a world heritage site known as the “Church of Holy Wisdom”, and it ranks among the greatest architectural achievements in the world.

Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia

Built over 1400 years ago in the 6th century when Constantinople was the capitol of the Byzantine Empire, it remains beautifully preserved. Although it was originally constructed as a Christian church, it was later converted into a Mosque by the Ottomans in the 15th century, and in the process, most of the Christian mosaics and paintings were covered over with Islamic art. In the last 100 years a restoration has been taking place to reveal some of the most beautiful and historically important Christian mosaics.

Byzantine Mosaic of Christ
Byzantine Mosaic of Christ

Exploring the church/mosque was a highlight of my time in Istanbul. Nearby was an equally famous site, the world renowned “Blue Mosque”, which takes its name from the brilliant blue “Iznik” tile that covers the entire interior of the massive building.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

It dates from the early 1600’s during the height of the Ottoman Empire, and has classic, tall, slender minarets surrounding several large domes that seem to be stacked one on top of another. This style of mosque architecture is typical of the Ottoman period. And if all this wasn’t enough, the marble floor of the vast space inside the main prayer room was covered with an enormous oriental carpet – an incredible sight to behold. Leaving the Blue Mosque I walked a few blocks to the “Spice Bazaar”, a cavernous L-shaped building built in the 17th century to provide the citizens of Istanbul with exotic spices from all corners of the world, made possible by the city’s location on the main trade route between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Walking through the crowded market was a mind blowing experience for all my senses, not just my nose! (fascinating to watch the people haggling over the prices) Nearby was the “Suleymaniye Mosque”, an enormous complex built in the 1500’s as a memorial to its founder, Suleyman the Magnificent.

Suleymaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque

In the center was the largest dome in the city, and beneath it was the Sultan’s tomb. By this time evening was approaching, so I headed for the historic old “Pera Palas Hotel”, world famous as the favorite destination of travelers arriving on the Orient Express. (some of the passengers would stop over here before continuing their train journey to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Cairo) Among the most famous guests of the hotel were Mata Hari, Greta Garbo, Jackie Onassis, Agatha Christie, and the father of modern Turkey, Ataturk! So as I sat in the classic old “Grand Orient Bar”, surrounded by old photos on the walls, I “soaked” up as much of the exotic and historic atmosphere as possible. It was by far the best way to finish the day before walking back to my hotel, as brilliant lights illuminated dozens of mosques in the dark night. The experiences of the day convinced me this city is one of the most beautiful, historic, and exotic cities in the world!

Ciragan Palace
Ciragan Palace

The following day was the opening of the conference, and afterwards we were invited to join the owner of our Belgian office for an amazing seven course dinner that featured five wines, three salads, spiced Asian samosa, herb crusted rack of lamb in a red wine and garlic marinade, and roasted potatoes with fennel. Dinner finished with crème broule served in a bitter orange sauce, followed by thick, strong, sweet Turkish coffee – superb! The Gala Party was designed as an “Ottoman Night” to celebrate the beautiful art and culture of ancient Turkey. It began with a lovely reception in the foyer that had been decorated with authentic replicas of old shops and stalls from a traditional bazaar. Then as dinner was announced, we all followed an Ottoman Army Band, dressed in their traditional uniforms from the 16th century, into an enormous banquet hall. Sitting in the middle of the hall was a large stage decorated as a Sultan’s throne, complete with the Sultan and his royal court, dressed in their finest Ottoman style and surrounded by huge satin pillows, small tents, and musicians. And of course there were a couple of belly dancers as well. We felt like we had just travelled back to the 16th century. The entertainment for the evening included a pair of dancers wearing large hats covering their heads and the faces of women painted on their belly. As they danced among the tables, they would “kiss” some people seated at a table by thrusting the “lips” painted on their belly against the person’s face – it was hilarious! Later on several folk dance groups from various regions of Turkey performed, dressed in their traditional native costumes. As the evening was about to wrap up, Tina said she wanted a photo with the Sultan, but then when he began to drag her up to his throne she started having second thoughts. But in the end she sat with the Sultan on a mound of pillows for the photo. It wasn’t long before a line formed to have photos taken with the Sultan. Following a fantastic dinner of delicious Turkish dishes, there was dancing to the latest hits, including some local Turkish pop music. As we left the party we all had to agree it was a tremendous success.

The following morning I met with the owner of our Lisbon office to plan next year’s conference in Portugal. (meanwhile I had to plan my upcoming business trips to Rome, Athens, Sofia, Manila, and Seoul) Then I joined a small group for a boat tour of the Bosporus and a view of an ancient 13th century Crusader castle in the shadow of the modern day bridge connecting Europe and Asia. On our return trip we passed within less than 100 yards of a massive tanker! (just “inches” in the maritime world)

Tanker on the Bosporus
Tanker on the Bosporus

On Sunday I had arranged to join a tour to the ancient Greek ruins of Efesus (Efes in Turkish), but it was also the “national census day” when virtually the entire population of Turkey was required to stay home until the census was completed. (earlier in the week when I had booked the tour I was assured that the national census day would not affect the tour, as tourists were allowed to move freely) But as our van left the hotel for the airport, the streets were deserted since the curfew was from 5:00am to 7:00pm. As we arrived at the airport there was plenty of time to board the flight to Izmir where we would meet our guide for the tour. As we travelled on the new 6 lane freeway from Izmir we came to a toll booth that was not staffed, the gates having been raised, so our driver passed through at 120kph and then continued at 150kph along the superhighway, seeing not another vehicle in sight! (very eerie – like something out of a Sci-Fi film in which everyone else in the world had suddenly vanished) Eventually we arrived at the ruins of Efesus, and from the center of the ancient city we could see a massive 12th century Crusader fortress built on the summit of a steep mountain nearby. It had been previously occupied by the Greeks and Romans centuries earlier. Also nearby on the slopes of the mountain was an old stone house where it is believed that the Virgin Mary lived, following the crucifixion of Christ. He had entrusted her care to the disciple Paul, who later returned to Efesus to preach to the Ephesians. Our guide, a professor of Greek Studies at the University of Istanbul, lead our small group down the main street of the old city, past the foundations of many houses and shops that once lined the thoroughfare, which was paved with huge blocks of granite and marble.

Main street of Efesus
Main street of Efesus
Roman Colonnade in Efesus
Roman Colonnade in Efesus
Roman Colonnade
Roman Colonnade

Along the way he stopped often to tell us the amazing history of the ancient city that dates back to 1300 BC! There were also lighter moments, such as having us sit in the well preserved remains of the public latrine as he pointed out how people back then exchanged the news of the day as they sat side by side, engaged in their daily toilet ritual. Since each seat was nothing more than a hole carved in the 2 inch thick marble stone, there was no concept of privacy! And in the cold weather, the rich masters would send one of their slaves to “warm up” a seat for them! (meanwhile, some of the folks in our group began taking photos of each other seated on the latrine – thankfully modesty prevailed and no one actually made use of the facility)

Public Latrine
Public Latrine

The latrine was designed so that a continuous flow of water flushed the waste away from the city – quite a technological advancement for the time. Further on our guide pointed out the remains of a large Roman Bath which could accommodate up to 1000 people at a time, and on the second floor had been a brothel, so as to be conveniently located for its patrons. There were also dozens of fountains throughout the city, dedicated to the countless Greek and Roman gods. But the most impressive building by far was the library, a two story marble structure that once housed the second largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the world.

Library of Efesus
Library of Efesus

(the “Great Library of Alexandria” was the world’s largest, but it was destroyed by fire centuries later) As we walked down a side street we saw it had been paved with various mosaics in front of each shop – sort of like the “advertising” of its day. As we made our way back to the main street we came to a great “colonnade”, and on either side were the remains of an ancient sewer system, still in remarkable condition after thousands of years. Suddenly our guide stopped and pointed to an old carving in one of the marble steps leading to the ruins of an old house. There in the stone was the outline of a woman’s head, a left footprint, and a heart. Then he told us it was an ancient advertisement saying “I am a beautiful woman, if you walk down the street and turn left you will find me. I will be happy to share my heart with you”. Then he said, in today’s world the carving might say “I’m a beautiful woman who wants to meet you, but if your left foot is smaller than this, go to the library, otherwise turn left and I will share my heart with you. I accept credit cards”! Who knows if either “translation” is true, but they both make a great story, and a fitting conclusion to our tour of Efesus. After a wonderful dinner with the group and our guide, who told us more fascinating stories of Greek history, I retired to my hotel room for the night.

The next morning I flew back to Istanbul to connect with my return flight to Los Angeles, carrying with me a bag filled with wonderful memories of the people I had met and the places I had visited. Istanbul remains one of my cities in the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have visited it many times since.

As a postscript, during my time in Turkey I’ve been overwhelmed by the warmth and genuine hospitality of the people wherever I went. On top of that, the food has always been fantastic, delicious and unique – a wonderful fusion of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. I look forward to more adventures in Turkey!

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