The Blue Mosque
I wake up to the sound of this rhythmic thumping. It is so precise, so insistent and inoffensive that my sleepy mind thinks there is a tugboat alongside and he’s having engine problems. So you know your brain has adjusted to shipboard life: Your non-waking brain is rationalizing input in a nautical context and it almost makes sense.
Only I’m not sure anyone would dream of bringing a tugboat alongside the Equinox. They have stabilizing propeller equipment that emerges from the side of the vessel, so it can apparently travel on a 90-degree axis. Why would you need a tugboat for that?
So I go look out to the stateroom’s balcony to see, “Hey, Turkey.” It is a hazy day, but still so incredibly bright as to offend the eyes. The drumming is from a band, decked out in some type of red traditional apparel, welcoming you into the city from the ship. Not too long after I notice them they stop playing and climb onto a van to leave.
So we have breakfast and we leave. We go through the security control of customs, where a hulking man with a submachine gone is waving people through a metal detector even if they set the thing off. We climb onto a bus, where the local tourism official says “This is Istanbul’s busiest weekend of the year.”
Istanbul is a city of 17 million people.
“Formula One is in town this weekend. An international medical conference is taking place. There are several other conventions going on. What should be a 30 minute drive to the drop-off point could take up to 90 minutes.”
It did not take that long, but it was an adventurous drive. You think traffic is bad in Wherever, USA? Visit Istanbul. The roads are overtaxed, the drivers are full of derring do.
So they drop us off next to a jewelry store. Celebrity has partnered with several local, preferred merchants so you can be assured quality and premium mark ups. They drop you off at the jewelry store, tell you “The mosque and museum are is this way, the bazaar is that way. Have fun. Watch out for pickpockets.”
We get off the bus and head away from the bazaar. It has more than 4,000 shops and is packed and pushy. I’ve decided to limit my exposure to large crowds like that as much as possible in life, so I’m not missing anything there.
Instead we turn toward the museums. We walk through Gulhane Park, around Topkapi Palace, which was the home of the sultans. Nearby are the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art.
We found a bunny that would tell your future. We met a man who said he used to be a philosophy teacher, but who is now selling rugs and leather jackets. And won’t you buy a leather jacket? Pay no attention to it being in the 90s today. He showed us his store and a few nice rugs and tapestries, but he didn’t talk price so we didn’t talk money and excused ourselves to leave.
We headed up to visit the Blue Mosque, above, built in just seven years during the early 17th Century by Ahmed I. It sits on the site of the former Byzantine palace’s ruins. It is an imposing building, with a few more minarets than you normally see. We met a guy who offered to take us into the mosque, which is open for tourists when not in prayers.
Mustafa, our unofficial Istanbul guide.
Mustafa said his son was studying in the U.S., but everyone here says that as they try to build rapport with touring customers. “He is at Yellowstone, is that beautiful?”
Mustafa is not a tour guide, but he offered to walk us through the mosque if we’d only come see his store when we were done. This is a small price to pay, especially when considering the entire line of mosque visitors he skipped. He walked straight up to the door, “My cousin works here. We go right in.” He gives us baggies for our shoes and we go inside.
It is a little dark, but ornate and beautiful. Mustafa tells us about the construction, how the prayer schedule works in this mosque, where the sultan prayed, where the women prayed and about the recent renovations. He brags about some of the recent work and then clucks at other parts. He explains the color scheme. We learned a great deal.
He told us that he sometimes comes here to pray, but he also goes to other mosques. In Turkey, it seems, you don’t belong to a particular mosque. It can be an issue of convenience, or of who’s prayers start faster or run the longest. Some things are the same all over, I suppose.
The 20th Century was one of political, social and religious change in Turkey. During the mid-century reformation a lot of the religious practices were questioned or relaxed. Now, Mustafa says, practicing Muslims are only a percentage of the population. In the second half of the 20th Century there was another re-examination of religion in Turkey and there was a revival of religion within the culture.
Secularist and religious debate continues a very lively debate even today. What we do not talk about with Mustafa is how these movements are beginning to appear in Turkey’s international politics. It would seem … impolite.
The people of Turkey are renowned for their politeness. They are also all salesmen. You can’t walk down the street without being invited into a store to buy … something. After we hear all sorts of neat little trivia about the mosque and surrounding neighborhood — some which may be true and some which is surely just made up to be a good story — we do as promised and visit Mustafa’s store. He drops us off with his “cousin” and disappears, probably to find more Americans.
So we sit in the show room of a traditional Turkish rug store. The walls are covered with hanging rugs. There are benches surrounding the walls, with the big empty space in the middle where the show takes place. A salt-and-pepper gentleman with an easy smile sits down and offers us a beverage. This is the show of Turkish hospitality, the offering of tea or coffee, and to turn them down is an insult. So we accept a tea.
He asks where we are from, asks if country music still exists. He says he likes country music. He is the most polished foreigner I’ve ever seen when it comes to relating to and imitating Americans. I suspect he was educated on the east coast. He later said he had family in the Carolinas and Virginia.
He promises a no-hassle presentation and he delivers. Two of his employees beginning rolling out rugs. They are beautiful work, done in various wools and up to silk. They are hand-made, we learn. Usually by a woman. “Because men usually don’t have the patience for this.” And always by one person because the tying of knots is key to the symmetry of design and if two people tugged differently at the material it would ruin the appearance.
We learn it takes up to 18 months to make one rug. He shows us the famous flying rugs of Turkey. This one started out blue with red and white accents. He picks up a silk rug the size of your coffee table and flips it in the air with one smooth motion. When it lands it has rotated 180 degrees and is now white with blue and red accents. I could watch him do that all day.
The handmade, silk rugs that change color and are the size of your coffee table, he says, contain one million knots per inch. That’s what he said.
Who counts those? I ask.
“We do,” he says.
That same rug starts at $6,000. That includes customs, taxes and shipping. You buy it, it will show up at your door at home.
Now, nothing in Turkey costs what they say it does. We’ve been told that you can typically get everything down to about half the asking price. Even still, we can’t buy a $3,000 rug.
But they were beautiful.
The lower end of the wool rugs start around $600. They are very handsome, but after you’ve seen the silk ones you aren’t really interested in the wool anymore.
We learn more about the rugs. The art is dying, he says. It sounds like the industrial revolution. The rural women who make the rugs are being replaced by younger women who’d rather be in the cities and not making one rug for more than a year “for peanuts.” Which was the only part of the polished presentation that was in error. As soon as he says she makes nothing and you tell me the price I begin to think of the mark-ups.
So after we visit for a while we thank them for the show and the tea (something like a warm apple cider which actually works on a hot summer day) and leave, without having purchased a rug.
We make our way back to the jewelry store which is the cruise ship’s pick up point and decide to look at jewelry. Only this is a real jewelry store and not some place that sells a few pieces among the art and kitsch. The Yankee is picking out several things of interest and the jewelry store people are very happy with her. She has no idea of the price. And then she says “I like sapphires.”
So we go to the sapphire room.
On the way a guy that worked there asked me if I was from Birmingham.
How did you know?
I was wearing an interlocking AU shirt.
“You have on a UA, University of Alabama.”
Close, I said, explaining the AU and UA difference.
“Oh, Auburn. Go Tigers!”
I’m counting it as our third Auburn experience during the trip. (In addition to meeting a lady in Rome, someone on our ship has an old co-worker who graduated in the 1940s who “talks about Auburn all the time.”) That guy should watch less Sportscenter.
Meanwhile, the person who thinks she’s about to make her next four car payments on whatever she’s selling to The Yankee finally starts talking about price. These things aren’t in our budget, but bless ‘em, they tried to find something she could buy.
Kentucky Fried in Turkey
On our way back to the ship in the bus we almost lost our lives a minimum of three times. We almost rear-ended a cab at speed and played chicken with three other taxis. We almost ran over an elderly couple. We passed many people selling their wares in the road at red lights. People would be arrested in the U.S. for doing things we’ve done here today. How people don’t die on these roads every day is a mystery.
In Rome, traffic signs and lights are a suggestion. In Turkey these things are decoration.
But we made it back safely, somehow. We had dinner. The ship is staying overnight in Istanbul, so we went up to the top deck of the ship and made nighttime pictures of the skyline. You can find the pictures from the day here and the nighttime photographs are in the growing cruise ship collection.
To see Rome look here, here and here. Also, be sure to check out Santorini and Mykonos. We still have more days on the high seas, another day of Istanbul and Athens to go!