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 istanbul

12 jul
Before dawn, at about 4:30 in the morning, I woke to an undulating male voice singing. High volume loudspeakers, one right outside my hotel window, echoed the call to prayer, reverberating through the narrow streets. The Blue Mosque, a graceful round structure between needle-like minarets, rises above the Sultanhamet neighborhood, and is still an active place of worship. Tourists are allowed inside only when it is not prayer time. We took off our shoes and stepped across a space wide enough to hold thousands of people over a carpet made of individual prayer rugs. The walls and ceiling are covered with predominantly blue tile decoration in ever higher semicircles.

Across a green park with flowering trees stands the ancient Hagia Sofia, now a museum. Originally built in the 300s, rebuilt in the 500s, it was used as both church and mosque through its history in this center of the world - capital of the Roman and Ottoman Empires, known as Byzantium for centuries, then Constantinople, and now the vibrant city of Istanbul. A cherry juice vendor in the park filled his plastic cups for us from a red hose attached to a shapely metal container strapped to his back while he welcomed us to his country.

A small boat ferried us down the Bosphorus River, a dividing line between Europe and Asia, with about a dozen international tourists from England, Romania, Pakistan and Thailand. Along the shore the mosques were too numerous to count, scattered over urban hillsides, amid shopping centers and street markets, fashionable new resorts and dilapidated old wooden buildings falling in on themselves from age and neglect. Two young Brits from Bengladeshi families, Mahmout and Hakim, here visiting religious sites, argued good-naturedly about whether to build their homes on the European or Asian side. We rode a bus through residential areas to the top of the Asian hills and made our way to a viewpoint on the west side, returning by cable car.

The Harem buildings at Topkapi Palace offered an exotic glimpse into the artful lifestyles of the ruling classes, including a dazzling display of jewels and silver; Beyoglu Palace was still elegantly carpeted and upholstered. I loved the mysterious atmosphere in the vast, eerie, underground Basilica Cistern, used for water storage since Roman days. At Cagaloglu Hamam, we shared an experience with the Sultans - a traditional Turkish bath. We got the works. Armed with a towel and a rough mitt for scrubbing, clacking along on wooden slippers, we separated into male and female rooms. In a grand marble steam room, bodies stretched out naked in a big circle, head to feet, each with our own personal masseuse. Nurdal, my 50ish attendant, caringly pampered me in a wet soapy massage, a second dry massage with oils, then shampoo as I slithered and slid around on the marble slab. Quiet, warm conversation over apple tea completed the indulgence.

Noticeable even at the airport, southern Europeans seem more friendly and outgoing than northern Europeans - laughing easily and more demonstrative of their emotions. Shaquille, an enthusiastic young man with spiky hair, greeted us at the hotel and helped us plan our travels around the city. We ran into friendly, knowledgeable Soner, our tour guide from the boat trip day, at other sites as we toured on our own. The city was draped in colorful election flags representing different parties and candidates, so I asked him his thoughts about the upcoming presidential race. "There are problems with all of the choices," he said sadly, hoping government would preserve a comfortable balance between religion, commerce, tradition and freedom.

Curry, saffron, scarves for the mosque, little handmade gifts filled the endless stalls at the wonderful outdoor Spice Market. The Grand Bazaar houses formal shops of carpets, textiles, copper pots and more in a labyrinthine maze of tiled archways - I yearned to go back to the informal Spice Market by the sea. Adam, my traveling companion, with his uncanny sense of direction, led me through steep streets of local shops, possibly most interesting of all, saying "We just need to keep going downhill." It reminded me of the seemingly infinite streets of the Sunday Chichicastenango market in Guatemala. Buying a rug is an experience not to be missed, however small a purchase you make. Stop to converse with a vendor and they will take you through winding streets, maybe up a narrow stairway, serve you apple tea and chat, as if you have no place else you'd rather be, with an attendant piling up rugs for you to feel and admire, teaching you about the craft and the history, and making you want nothing else but to take one home.

Lamb was served in succulent variations, kebabs in every restaurant - I ate more meat on this trip than I have for some time. Turkish coffee was thick and strong served in a shot glass sized cup. I was instructed not to put milk in it. I preferred the fragrant and flavorful apple tea and creamy, refreshing, cold yogurt drink, ayran. At dinner one night, we watched a Dervish dance, a strange trancelike spinning described as meditative, the dancers' white robe fluttering, his brown conehead hat reminiscent of a fez.

On our first night in Istanbul, Adam had dipped his feet in the Bosphorus, finding a few interesting rocks along the stoney coastline. For our last night, we went in the other direction and sat between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, both bathed in glowing night lights, as the call to prayer was sung at 10:30 pm, watching worshippers arrive from every direction for their evening devotion.

17/35

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