It's true what they say. East really does meet west in Turkey. In the cultural crossroads that is Istanbul, the burka and the miniskirt collide. Stylish and modern young women in designer jeans and tight sweaters share the same busy streets with those traditionally veiled in black, their long billowing robes shrouding their bodies in secrecy, only a small triangle allowing their faces to peek through.
It was early morn when we stepped off the overnight train from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki onto the platform of Istanbul's modest, downtown train station. A 12-hour journey sleeping on comfortable couchettes was broken up briefly for the border crossing. In the chill of a November night we all disembarked in some strange and eerie no-mans-land to pay the Turkish authorities a sum based on our nationalities in order to gain entry into their country. Later, as the train picked up speed and we peered out the window into the darkness, men with machine guns stood sentry at the border, an ominous reminder that the Turks were not to be trifled with.
The touts latched onto us immediately, quick to recognize us as "fresh meat." They were experts at reading that awestruck and fascinated expression that said: "I have no idea where I'm going and I'm a little overwhelmed by this monster of a city. I have some money but I am not yet savvy to your sneaky and shamelessly aggressive sales tactics. I'm going to require food, accommodation and naturally a few souvenirs, perhaps a tour of the city and entry into all the major attractions."
They popped out of every shop front we passed, blocking our passage in an insistent attempt to sell us all manner of products. We were offered breakfast and colourfully painted ceramics, mint tea and richly embroidered carpets, city tours and knick-knacks of all description. Over time we would learn to master that bored and disinterested expression that declared: "I've seen it all before and I'm not interested. Don't even waste your breath!"
But before we were to become quite that savvy, we had to find Sultanahemet, the oldest part of the city and thus, the most heavily touristed. It was here that one could find all the "big ticket" sights. The Aya Sofia, the grand and cavernous old Byzantine church dating to around 500 AD was just next door to the elegant and stately Blue Mosque, about 1,000 years newer and still in use by worshippers today. Not to mention the Topkaki Palace housing all the priceless treasures, clothes and armoury once owned by the sultan and, of course, the madness and confusion of the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinthine shopping area thought to be the largest in the world. It was amid all this grandeur and craziness that we sought a place to stay.
Turkey may very well be the biggest culture shock within shouting distance of Europe. Istanbul straddles the mighty Bosphorus, the geographically important strait that provides access to the Black Sea and all the countries on her doorstep. And although Turkey has been a candidate for admission into the European Union for quite some time, the vast majority of the nation sits on the eastern side of this strait; the Asian side.
The modern Republic of Turkey rose from the ashes of the fallen Ottoman Empire. The country's founder, and revered national hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modernized the nation during his leadership following World War I, creating a culture that was perhaps more European than Middle Eastern. However, despite the religious freedoms that the Turks take for granted, freedoms that many Muslim countries do not enjoy, there is no mistaking that Turkey is, indeed, a Muslim nation. The population swap of the early 1920s ensured this.
Following World War I the Lausanne Treaty decreed that all Christian Turks be deported to Greece and all Muslim Greeks be relocated to Turkey. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people were forcefully removed from their homeland based on their religion. Today, five times a day the wailing and mournful sounding call to prayer bellows from the loudspeakers adorning the hundreds of mosques that are scattered throughout Istanbul, reminding worshippers to take a brief pause amid their daily tasks to praise the almighty Allah. As predictable as the crow of a rooster, every morning at daybreak this insistent call to prayer echoed through the city, waking us from our slumber in the cozy little guesthouse we had finally selected from the multitude vying for business in Sultanahmet.
Nowhere is Istanbul's collaboration of cultures more apparent than in the sprawling and chaotic labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar. An important trading centre since the 1400s, this vast, covered market houses close to 5,000 shops and purportedly sees up to 400,000 shoppers daily. Here, people of all cultures rub shoulders as they haggle over the price of any manner of products. There are no quick and simple transactions here. All sales involve an introduction, some playful banter, perhaps a heated argument and finally, if all goes well, a handshake.
When in good humour, the touts, whose sole mandate is to lure passers-by into their shops or restaurants, can be somewhat entertaining. A jovial retort to their ceaseless badgering can result in a comical verbal exchange that can be good fun. However, when in ill humour, their shamelessly aggressive sales tactics can quickly become tiresome, and even the most mild mannered individual will find their valiant efforts to be polite waning fast. It is, without a doubt, an entertaining and entirely exhausting way to shop!
Down on the docks where the mighty Bosphorus meets the pleasingly named Golden Horn, the ceaseless commerce continues. Ships of all description ply the strait, while on shore weathered old fishermen with hefty rods spend the day with their lines dangling in the choppy water. On wildly rocking boats tied to the docks, fishermen grill their fresh catch on board, selling fish sandwiches on enormous fluffy white buns. Customers dine at tiny low wooden tables adorned with large salt shakers and bottles of lemon juice. On shore, grilled corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts and the classic Turkish donair are being sold. Young boys ply the crowds with napkins for a nominal fee while vendors ceaselessly holler in unintelligible Turkish, noisily advertising their fare.
Bellies full, we made our way through the throngs of people and turned toward Sultanahmet. Swarthy Turkish husbands sat with their modestly clad wives and small children, out for an inexpensive family dinner on the docks. Vendors hollered and touts tried to cajole us out of our money. Studiously, we avoided eye contact with anyone who may have anything for sale as we bumped and jostled through the crowds. Presently, the nearby mosque began its ritual wailing, loudly reminding the masses that Allah is great, and adding to the general hullabaloo.