WARNING: PRETTY DANG LONG AND POTENTIALLY EDUCATIONAL. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. GET THE REAL STORY ON TURKSIH BATH HOUSES.
I want to write about my first two days in Istanbul. As you know, I arrived at 4:00 in the morning on Tuesday with the crazy cab ride through the back streets, all lost and stuff. OK…
I went to bed that night and awoke around 11:00am that morning. That was the first glimpse of Turkey I had in the daylight, and I soon found out just how beautiful Istanbul really is. From the window of my hostel room, I have a full view of the Aya Sophia, which is completely magnificent. I’ll get to that soon. I decided to dress and get started on my exploration.
The part of Istanbul I am in is called Sultan Ahmet. It’s basically tourist central. That’s where you got all the big attractions and most impressive structures. Sultan Ahmet is located in the Golden Horn section on the European side of Istanbul. If you were not aware, Istanbul straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. Separating the two sides is the Bosphorous River that is the only outlet from the Black Sea into the Sea of Mamara, which in turn is the only outlet into the Mediterranean, through the Dardinelle straights.
That makes Istanbul a very valuable city, since all traffic coming in and out of the Black Sea must pass through its center. That, of course, was the reason Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople on this site back in the 300s AD, later to become Istanbul when the Muslims took over in the 1400s. And that fact has been the reason for countless invasions, by the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Russians, Ottomans, and many others. Each culture has left its mark on this city. So there’s a bit of history for you.
I started my first day with the aim of just roaming around to get my bearings. As I walked out of the hostel, not more than one minute later, I was approached by an over-friendly Turk who tried very hard to strike up a conversation with me – “What’s your name? Where are you from? Why are you in Turkey?”
I was immediately suspicious and hesitant to speak to him. I kept walking, but he followed alongside me. I cautiously engaged him in light conversation, only to find a few moments later that he was really just interested in selling me a Turkish carpet. That seems to be the huge business here, and I think a lot of tourists are getting conned into buying overpriced rugs, even if they are nice looking. I informed him I was not interested, and I am not going to buy a carpet. He said, “That’s ok my friend, if you just come to my shop, I can tell you all about Turkish carpets. If you don’t want to buy, it’s ok. We will have a cup of tea and maybe we’ll become friends”. I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I just arrived, and I want to walk around. See ya.” I walked away.
As I approached the main section of Sultan Ahmet, I had to fight off the little kids trying to sell postcards and shoeshines. Clearly there is a thriving tourist industry here. I made my way through the crowds of tourist trappers, and behold before me was the magnificent Blue Mosque. I highly recommend looking it up to see some pictures of it. It is unbelievably beautiful. It has six towering Minarets with huge domes made from stone and silver. Five times a day, the call to prayer roars forth from these towers, which you can hear it across the city.
The structure is so immense that its presence completely overshadows everything else in the landscape. Muslims sure do know how to build their houses of worship. I took my shoes off, according to Muslim law, and went inside.The interior is equally as impressive. The floor is lined with hand-woven carpets, and the room is completely open and is the size of the structure itself. Bluish tiles cover the ceiling and walls, adorned with Arabic writing of passages from the Koran. After gazing upward in marvel for nearly half an hour, I put my shoes back on and went outside.
I sat down on the benches in the courtyard of the Mosque and was again approached to buy a carpet. I made it clear that I was not interested, but the guy seemed genuine, so I ended up speaking to him for about an hour. His name was Ali. We talked about life in Turkey. I asked him what it was like to be here during the big earthquake. “Very scary”, he said. It turns out that nearly 50,000 people died, far more than the press reported. I can’t imagine what it must have been like. Turkey seems very modern, although that was not the impression I had of this place before I came.
After I left Ali, I decided to go to the Aya Sophia. Again, this structure is immense; even bigger than the Blue Mosque and far older. It was first built back in the 300s, but had to be rebuilt a few times due to earthquakes. Look it up to see some pictures. The building has gone through many changes over the years, because of i’s conversion from a church to a mosque, but the interior is quite amazing. Inside, there is a dark feel and coldness in the air. The floor is made of ancient stone with large pillars supporting very high domes. It was in this building that each Byzantine Emperor was crowned. The ceiling is full of Christian mosaics, as well as Islamic art that was painted over many of the original mosaics. They have been working to restore much of the art that was painted over throughout the years. Many battles took place in and around the Aya Sophia. Enough of that.
Next, I decided to check out the Grand Bazaar. This is an immense network of narrow indoor streets with arched ceilings lined with store after store of clothing, bags, Turkish rugs, giant water pipes, hand drums, chess sets, swords, and different types of food and teas. Most of the stores sell exactly the same thing as all the others, which is a shame, because you can spend hours roaming the corridors, not really seeing anything unique. The shopkeepers are very zealous and constantly beckoning you to enter. “Good deal! Good deal, my friend! Come inside, please, come!” I actually did get lost and ended up on the other side, with no clue how to get back to the hostel. I asked for some directions with a lot of hand gestures and finger pointing, I made my way back.
That night I hung out at the hostel and ate dinner in the cafeteria. That’s when I met a few people. There are a wide variety of nationalities represented here – Australians, Americans, Dutch, Spanish, and French, to name a few. We all hung out and got drunk in the pub. I played some guitar with a Turkish fellow who also played. The beer went to my head, and I had to hit the hay around 11:00………
I awoke to a determination: I am in Turkey. I must have a Turkish bath.
Who has not heard about a Turkish bath? Everyone has, but like most people, I had no idea what it consisted of. I got a recommendation from the hostel on where to go for a good one. They pointed me towards a reasonably priced Haman, bathhouse, and I set out.
The bathhouse I went to was over 300 years old. The building looked very ancient, and it was domed like much of the architecture here. I descended into the bathhouse and was greeted by a nice man named Habib who spoke very little English. I was taken up to a small room where I was told to get into my birthday suit and wrap a towel around my waist. He then led me downstairs through a wooden door into the main bath chamber. The air was very hot, like a sauna, and extremely humid. I could immediately feel water droplets condensing on my skin. The main bath chamber is a circular room, all made of grayish-blue marble – the walls, the floor, the ceiling, everything.
The walls were again adorned with Arabic writing and the perimeter of the room was lined with marble water basins with faucets for hot and cold. In the center of the room, there was a giant marble platform, hot to the touch. The floor had little trenches for water drainage. There were also some smaller rooms off the main room with the same sorts of water basins and hot marble. It was dark, but there were small circular windows in the ceiling to let some light in. A very Gothic mood. Picture Indiana Jones.
There were two other people there, getting the treatment, so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for. I sat on the marble platform for a while, just soaking it up, sweating profusely. After a while I began to wonder where the guy went. Finally he came back, and we got started. The first portion of the bath consists of a massage. Oh man, that hurt. These guys do not hold back. They literally kneed your flesh as if it were dough and pound your back with their fists, working every inch of your body. But, it felt pretty good when it was over.
Then, he broke out a sandpaper like scrub brush and began to sand every inch of my flesh, except a few important parts. I felt like a piece of wood getting smoothed down. The purpose, apparently, is to remove all your dead skin. Sorry if I am too graphic, but most of you will never have a Turkish bath, so read on. After the scrubbing, I laid on the marble platform, then he dumped large amounts of soapsuds on me, entirely covering me. I must have looked like one big sud to the onlooker.
Then, he began lathering me quite forcefully, really digging in, if you know what I mean. Every inch. Unfortunately, the soap got in my eyes, so they burned for a while and were red for the rest of the morning. When he was done with the suds, he took me over to one of the basins on the side and sat me down. Bucket after bucket of warm water was dumped on me to rinse off the suds. Then it was over. I was all wet and in a daze.
I felt cleaner than ever and ready for a nice nap. He left me lying on the marble to take my time. When I felt ready, I went out the wooden door and was toweled off and sent back up to my little room to get dressed. I found my way outside and stumbled back to the hostel where I subsequently collapsed on my bed, giggling to myself that I actually had a Turkish bath. The real thing. So, that’s about all I have to say about Turkish baths.
After resting up, I made my way outside again, wanting to see a few more of the standard sights. First, I went to the Underground Cistern. This is an underground, obviously, network or water channels used to bring water to the main palace.It was built by the Romans, way back when. Descending into the main chamber, I was greeted by soft classical music and cold, damp air. The cistern is actually a vast open room about the size of a football field, full of Roman columns and arched ceilings. About two feet of water covers the floor, and there are platforms on which you walk throughout the cistern, gazing at the columns and feeling the mood.
It was pretty cool, but got old quickly. The main attraction are two columns that have giant Medusa heads as their base. I actually got into a bit of an argument with a tour guide who was talking to her group near the Medusa columns. I was standing near her group as she was talking, just looking at the columns and minding my business. Then all the sudden she asks me to move away from them! As if I were some sort of security threat, or I was invading her group. I said, “Ma’am, I paid my 3 million Lira, and I am looking at these columns”, and she said, “Well, we were here before you, and you have to wait until we are finished. That’s how it works!” I said, “You don’t own these columns. You don’t even work here. You are just a tour guide. Who are you to tell me what to do?” But, in order to avoid a scene, I complied. Exit cistern.
This is getting pretty long already, so I will cut some details.
Next, I went to see the Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. I got see where all the sordid stuff went down. Those Sultans had lots of concubines, and they threw some massive “parties.” The palace is a very holy place to Muslims, because it contains many unique Islamic treasures, such as the tooth and hair of the Prophet Mohamed, as well as a letter he wrote, and some other stuff.
After the palace, I decided to walk until I could walk no more. I ended up going all the way down to the riverfront, walking along its edge, heading towards a bridge that crosses the river to Asia. Again, I had to fight off the little kids trying to sell me a shoeshine. A whole pack of them followed me for 15 minutes. “Shoeshine? Shoeshine? Good price Mister. Where you from?” I clicked my tongue at them, which is the Turkish sign for NO, but they kept insisting. Then, one of them ran in front of me and in a flash, wiped some shoe polish on my sneaks. That made me angry. I started yelling, and they ran away. Too bad … I would have liked to catch one…..
It was a long walk to the bridge across the river, but I finally arrived and made the dramatic crossing to Asia. From the bridge, there are some breathtaking views of the city. The bridge is lined with fishermen who will catch you one and fry it up on the spot for a few million Lira. After my dramatic crossing, I went back to the Grand Bazaar and roamed around there for a while. I ended up jamming with a Turk at one of the shops that sold the hand drums. Fun stuff.
Tonight, I am leaving on a package tour for 5 days around Turkey….I’ll give ya all the details as it happens.
OK, I am fried and I am sure the few of you who actually read this whole thing are fried too. I’ll let ya go. One thing: A lot of people have said to me, “Why do you spend so much time writing? Get out and explore!” Well, first of all, I only spend an hour a day, or so, writing, so it’s not that much. This writing is very important to me, because when my trip is over, I will have a very thorough journal of my travels. Second of all, when you are alone in a strange place, it’s comforting to communicate with your friends and family. But, don’t worry, I am spending plenty of time exploring. Internet cafes are everywhere, including in my hostel, so access is very easy.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy these things as much as I do. Sorry if there are any more funny looking ý thýngýes….çþöðü…