Istanbul: Better Than I Expected

Our first morning in Istanbul, the waiter in our small hotel served us the traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, crusty bread and steaming tea. As we finished, he beckoned us up the stairs to the rooftop - we could see the F1 track, and were tempted to buy some Formula One Tickets.

We gasped at the view. To the south, the Sea of Marmara stretched to the horizon. To the north, the vast domes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia looked close enough to touch. And beside us, the Muslim waiter recited his favourite passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “The first commandment is love.”

Our trip to Turkey last spring was full of moments like this, with Turks reaching across divisions of culture, religion and language with questions and assistance. A country that straddles Europe and Asia, Turkey reflects the influence and history of both.

In the West, we hear about the growing influence of Islam in Turkish politics after decades of secularism and military dominance. In the lively city of 16 million people, we saw more blending than displacement. In Istanbul cafes, Muslim women wearing chic headscarves sip tea in front of TV monitors blaring sexy rock videos. Young Muslim men sip Ephes beer and raki, a powerful anise-flavored liquor, at outdoor cafes. One beer-drinking tour guide explained that he’ll repent when he makes the hajj to Mecca as an old man.

Even our waiter’s knowledge of the New Testament is not as strange as it might seem. Paul once preached in Ephesus, an ancient Roman town of amphitheatres and baths that the Turks are excavating a few hours south of Istanbul. Istanbul itself was Christian from 330 A.D., when Constantine made it the capital of his Holy Roman Empire, to 1453, when Muslims conquered the city and made it the centre of the Ottoman Empire.

After breakfast, we headed off to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque close up. Built as a Christian basilica in the seventh century, Hagia Sophia features soaring Byzantine domes and brilliant mosaics of saints. When the Ottomans took the city, they converted it to a mosque and installed enormous medallions in Arabic script, and a screened platform from which the sultan could watch unseen. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic converted the building to a museum, but the worn stone floors and slanting afternoon light still evoke centuries of religious devotion.

Outside Hagia Sophia, a gentle man named Adnan introduced himself and offered to show us the Blue Mosque nearby, then take us to his cousin Joseph’s carpet shop. Carpet sellers are everywhere in Turkey, hailing tourists from shops and bazaars. Maybe we suffered from an excess of Small-Town Nice, but when a fellow leads you to the mosque entrance, describes its history, then waits for 30 minutes while you visit, it’s hard to refuse a visit to his cousin.

Once we reached the shop, cousin Joseph took over with a patter that blended charm, politics and persistence. “Why don’t more Americans visit?” he asked as one assistant unfurled carpets and another fetched us tulip-shaped glasses of tea. Is it because of the Armenians who died after World War I? The pile of carpets grew taller. Perhaps you like a kilim. What color? What size? More tea?

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