It all began with a Christmas present gifted on a cold and snowy morning in Indiana, a promise from my son Tyler that he’d pay for an airline ticket for me anywhere in the world on a trip for the two of us.
For months afterward we’d talk nearly weekly about where we’d like to go. South America? Not to Tyler’s liking. Spain? It was a possibility but somehow didn’t capture the imagination of either of us. Scotland? Maybe, but we agreed it wasn’t exotic enough.
As the spring stretched into the summer we realized that air prices were rising and time was getting short. Turkey had been atop both of our lists since the beginning – it had a glamorous allure that appealed to both of us.
The sight of its dazzling architecture and ancient ruins. The smell of exotic spice. The sound of Islamic prayer sung from the tops of colorful mosques. And, of course, the greatest draw of all – the taste of those most delectable of sweets — Turkish Delights.
We knew it to be a country that straddled both Asia and Europe. And its mighty capital of Istanbul has the distinction of being the largest urban area in Europe with over 15 million residents. They reflect the diverse cultures that have lived here — Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans, Greeks … on and on.
The country’s landscape is just as diverse. On the southern side, the azure water of the Mediterranean laps against the sand, creating a playground for beach-lovers. On the north, the Black Sea is lined with small towns and relatively unpopulated beaches. The interior boasts a wide variety of terrains from the magical rock towers and folded mountain ranges of Cappadocia to the rolling hills and agricultural area that borders Syria.
So we booked our reservations and at the appointed time, boarded the plane for the long, long flight to Istanbul where our journey would begin. After exhaustedly falling into bed the night we arrived in the Airbnb we had rented just outside the city center, we rose the next morning to the beautiful strains of Islamic prayer being broadcast from mosques throughout the city.
Stepping outside our apartment, the first thing we noticed were the cats. Cats everywhere. Perched on cars. Sleeping under cars. Snugged in small beds created especially for them along the buildings’ feet. Eating tidbits from the scores of bowls set outside houses.
As we came to discover stray cats and dogs are an integral part of life in Turkey. Cats, in particular, have been worshipped for millennia and today’s residents still care for them, putting out dishes of food and water and constructing shelters to keep them out of the weather.
City residents care for the stray dogs as well. Restaurants often dump leftovers in bowls for the dogs to greedily lap up. Humane organizations periodically round them up to neuter and vaccinate, their status heralded by plastic ear tags.
In fact, animals were recently given certain rights by the Turkish government, offering them a modicum of protection, especially in the urban areas. Life for animals in the rural areas, however, is less humane and people are often oblivious to their suffering.
After petting each cat near our small accommodation, we headed toward the city center and the ancient heart of Istanbul.
As we crossed the Golden Horn, a section of the Bosporus that separated our residential section of Istanbul from the historic city center, we noticed that the number of people – both visitors and locals – quickly increased. Millions of people visit Istanbul each year from around the world. Those tourists add to the diversity of the city. It’s a wonderful swirl of cultures.
The streetscapes reflected the sophistication and Westernization that has enveloped Turkey since the election of Mustafa Ataturk as Turkey’s first and most transformative president in 1923. As the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk is sometimes referred to as the country’s Abraham Lincoln. Pictures of him still hang throughout the city in restaurants, hotels, and shops.
We soon realized how much there was to see and that we’d never get to tour what we’d hoped. The city was founded in the 7th Century B.C. and named Byzantium by the Greek settlers. Romans renamed it Augusta Antonia, Secunda Roman, and Nova Roma at various times. In 330 A.D., Emperor Constantinople made it his imperial capital and renamed it Constantinople. The Ottomans may have finally renamed it Istanbul. As the decades crept by, it became one of the major stops along the Silk Road and remains one of the most important cities in the world.
Needless to say, the city is steeped in history.
We decided to tour the city’s two largest markets as well its most famous mosques and a spectacular underground reservoirs, Basilica Cistern. The cistern was one of several columned artificial lakes dug beneath the city to store the water flowing into Istanbul from the mountains through the many aqueducts. When it was opened to tourism, the levels of the water were diminished and various sculptures and lights were placed in the cavernous space. We found the massive underground structure, built in the 5th Century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Above ground, we visited two of the city’s most famous mosques – the Blue Mosque, an Ottoman-era building, and the Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque was being renovated so many of its more spectacular features were covered with scaffolding. But, the Hagia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old religious site that is noted as the most important historic building in Istanbul, was stunning.
Sadly our time in Istanbul was short. We were forced to forgo Topkapi and all the other imperial palaces, luxurious and fanciful enclaves where sultans took up residence. We also had to skip museums of all kinds and other incredible sites. Seems another trip in the future – and more time in this fantastic city – might be in order.
We toured the largest city market and walked streets paved in cobblestone. We ate skewers of chicken and lamb, and reveled in the cacophony of languages around us.
But it was the Misir Carsisi, the largest spice bazaar in the city, that mesmerized us. Here spices of all hues are mounded in bins, spreading their intoxicating scent through the narrow passages. Teas, pickled food, sweets (including lovely Turkish Delights), honeys, cheeses, dried fruits, and nuts all enticed people into the myriad of small shops. The tantalizing scents were overwhelming and the colors intense.
The domed and tiled ceiling loomed over some 85 shops and was built in the 1600s, making it one of the oldest markets in Istanbul. It was constructed to display the products brought to the city via both the sea and the Silk Road. Today, it still serves as a major marketplace. On each side of the corridors, merchants measure products into bags for residents and tourists alike.
After several days touring the city – and sampling numerous Turkish Delights – we prepared to leave its famous streets. Next were the equally historic streets of another of the country’s notable destinations – the ruins of the ancient port city of Ephesus.