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Istanbul or Constantinople?

En route to Ankara from Istanbul, 8:10 pm, 8/9/2009

Europe or Asia? Secular or Muslim? Istanbul, the city we spent the last 3 days in, is a cultural crossroads, a palimpsest that has
been written over many times by Christians, Muslims, historical forces both old and new. The best way I can make sense of the city is to describe it as a hybrid. The streets are dirtier than in Europe, but not as dirty as the cities of the far east (Mumbai, Beijing). The bazaars are crowded with tourists and locals, but not as choked as the markets in China or India. Cars are both new and old, and walking about the city one sees both miniskirst and Burkhas. There are many mosques, some quite old (The Aya Sofya was first a church, in Emperor Constantine’s time, and a mosque in the time of the Sultans), but also many a ‘Turkcell’ phone booth scattered throughout the city (these are glass bubbles with bright-eyed young men and women who will sell you a 3G card). Even the people themselves are a hybrid – olive skins, black hair with green or blue eyes, with the occasional red-head thrown in to add a spash of color to the mix. The food has changed, but not as dramatically as you might think – pita breads and grilled meats abound, white cheeses and baklava, olives – more of an eastern influence perhaps, but all items that we had seen before in the Balkans.

I’m not sure what I expected when I came to Istanbul – perhaps more of the exotic than what I saw. It is fascinating to see the extent that the society has adapted to the western world, and I’m curious to see how much more it will change in the years ahead. Will all be homogenized? How much of Islam will pervade this society in 10 years? 50? 100?

One establishment that hopefully will stand the test of time is the Turkish bath – a delight that we all indulged in Istanbul. The building we bathed in was ~500 years old, built in the late 16th century, and full of white marble. After being being separated by gender, we disrobed and were given a wrap to hide our privates. We were led to a hot room and sweated for a while, then mustachioed men came and exfoliated us with hot water and soap. I felt cleaner than I had been in a long time. After the bath portion, we had oil massages. The masseur looked me over, told me I had too much hair, then pounded me with his fists for half an hour as I lay down on a raised platform. PP told me that the masseurs collectively referred to me as the ‘Hindu sausage’ (?!) A quick shower finished the experience. Not cheap ($60 US), but definitely worth it if you are in Istanbul.

Tomorrow we will try and find out how to obtain Azeri and Turkmeni visas – supposedly there are embassies in Ankara. From there, we journey onwards to Cappadocia and central Turkey.

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