Remembering Old Acquaintances On New Year's Eve

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

12.31.09/1.1.10     Remembering Old Acquaintances On New Year's Eve

Today, as the calendar turns from 2009 to 2010 and we prepare to sing the "Auld Lang Syne," it is only right that we spent time with (and remembered!) wonderful old acquaintances of mine!  Most of the day was spent with my friend Ergem, with whom I went to GWU – and we spent the entire evening (as well as a few of those early morning hours) with my old best friend Rob (who was two years ahead of me at GWU) and his husband, Ron.  It was an incredible day – and So.  Much.  Fun!  Thank you, Ergem, Rob, and Ron for spending time in Istanbul with Murray and me.

So.  This morning, after breakfast at our hotel, Ergem came and picked us up in her car.  Ergem and I went to GWU undergrad together – both of us were in the Elliott School of International Affairs there.  I also got to know Ergem through another Turkish friend of mine at GWU, Fulya (who now lives in Dubai), but Ergem and I only recently re-connected since graduating in 1999.  It was so great to see Ergem again, and spend the day catching up with all that she has been doing during the past few years (she has a beautiful 3-year-old daughter and now is busy working on some very interesting climate change initiatives in Turkey).

With Ergem as our illustrious tour guide, our first stop of the day was Topkapi Palace (Turkish: Topkapı Sarayı), which was the official and primary residence in Istanbul of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years of their 600-year reign, from 1465 to 1856.  [The name directly translates as “Cannon Gate Palace,” and was named after a nearby gate that no longer exists.]  The palace is a complex made up of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings – in all, there are hundreds of rooms and chambers inside the existing buildings.  At the height of its existence as a royal residence, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people, at one time containing mosques, a hospital, stables, bakeries, and a mint.  The palace served as the setting for numerous state occasions and royal entertainments by the Ottoman Sultans. 

Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance at the end of the 17th century, as the Sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces (plural!) along the Bosporus/Bosphorus.  In 1856, a sultan of the time decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in Istanbul.  However, many state functions were retained by Topkapi Palace, including the operations of the imperial treasury, the library, a mosque, and the mint.

After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, Topkapı Palace was transformed by government decree into a state museum, and remains so today (it still is run and maintained by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism).  The palace also is a current UNESCO World Heritage site, as it contains some of the most holy relics of the Muslim world.

It was another absolutely gorgeous day today in Istanbul – high 60s, sunny, with a light breeze.  As a result (of the weather – plus probably the holiday!), tons of people were out and about in the Sultanahmet, and Topkapi Palace was extremely busy!  It took Murray, Ergem, and I quite a while to tour through the palace’s main exhibits and the spectacular chambers of its Imperial Treasury, but we were duly impressed by what we saw (I was even more impressed during this visit than I was by my visit here ten years ago).  The various exhibition rooms contain large collections of porcelain; robes; weapons; shields; armor; Ottoman miniatures; Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals; ornate sultans’ thrones; and Ottoman treasure and jewelry (including the world’s fifth-largest diamond, the Spoonmaker’s Diamond/Kasikcinin Elmasi – an 86-carat rock surrounded by several smaller diamonds).  And, as I mentioned earlier, some of the most holy relics of the Muslim world exist in the Imperial Treasury – we saw the prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword; an imprint of his actual footprint; and remains of hairs from his beard! 

After viewing the magnificent collections, we stopped at the Topkapi Palace café for a short break.  The café overlooks the Bosphorus (which is in plain sight from many points of the palace), as the palace complex itself is located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara.   We enjoyed spectacular views while sipping our drinks together, and it was good to rest my feet for a few minutes – and great to sit and talk more with Ergem!

After the coffee break, we got entrance tickets to the magnificent Topkapi Palace Harem!  [Side note: a harem (Turkish, meaning forbidden place; sacred, sacrosanct, sanctum; a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family), of course, refers to the sphere of women in a (usually) polygamous household and their quarters, which is enclosed and forbidden to men.  Harems originated in the Near East and came to the Western world via the Ottoman Empire.  In modern colloquial (and humorous) English, “harem” may denote a number of female followers of a charismatic man.  For various reasons, however, I prefer the term “BROTHEL” over that of “harem,” even though the two terms mean slightly different things…]

The Imperial Harem of Topkapi Palace occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan, and contains more than 400 rooms.  The Harem was home to the sultan’s mother (the Valide Sultan); the concubines and wives of the sultan; the rest of his family, including his children; and the family’s servants.  The Imperial Harem consists of a series of buildings and structures, connected through hallways and courtyards.  Every hierarchical group residing in the Harem had their own living space clustered around a courtyard, and only a select few could trespass beyond its gates.

I really enjoyed touring the Imperial Harem again – we walked through and toured all of its interestingly-named places, such as the Hall of the Ablution Fountain; Courtyard of the Eunuchs; Passage of Concubines; Courtyard of the Sultan's Consorts and the Concubines; Apartments of the Queen Mother; Baths of the Sultan and the Queen Mother; Apartments of the Crown Prince; and Courtyard of the Favorites (yes, there were “favorites”).  The Ottoman art and architecture in the Harem is just incredible, especially the remaining stained glass windows and the original hand-painted tiling in watery green, white, and piercing blue.

It was late afternoon before we left Topkapi Palace.  Ergem then took us for a long ride along the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and it was really wonderful to relax in her car and enjoy the drive around the city (as well as benefit from her “private tour”!).  [The city center of Istanbul is divided among areas called the old (the Sultanahmet area, where we’re staying) and new cities.  The Golden Horn estuary separates the two areas, and it is located on the European side of the city, on the western part of the Bosphorus Straits.]

Eventually, Ergem took us across the Galata Bridge (where the Karakoy port area starts and runs uphill to the Galata Tower and the Beyoglu area) to Istila Caddesi, the very busy pedestrian thoroughfare that leads to Taksim Square, another “heart” of Istanbul.  Again, there were thousands of people out and about on this mild day, so it was fun to walk around the area for a while and enjoy the people, sights, and sounds.  We stopped at a local restaurant for a late lunch, sharing falafel and lahmucen mini pizzas before enjoying our mains (I had a large salad with chicken skewers, and Murray had a spiced chicken with rice). 

By the time we finished lunch, it was approaching 5pm and we had to say goodbye to Ergem.  Again, it was fantastic to reconnect with her – and Murray really enjoyed the time with her, too.  She was so generous with her time today – not to mention her wallet (paying for all of our entrance tickets, as well as paying for lunch behind our backs!) – and she made a wonderful Istanbul tour guide!  (Thanks again, Ergem – and keep in touch!)

After leaving Ergem, Murray and I got lattes and walked around Istila Caddesi a bit more, even stopping to see the Galata Tower.  We were pooped by the time we got back to our hotel room, and today, BOTH of us napped in preparation for tonight! 

Up again, after resting and showering, we left our hotel room a few minutes before 8pm, as we were supposed to meet Rob and Ron (who arrived from Chicago to Istanbul on a 4:30pm flight this afternoon) at the restaurant at 8pm.  However, when we stepped out of our hotel, there they were, walking by on the street – lost in the Sultanahmet!  It was great to give Rob a big hug again (we both are big huggers!).  It also was fantastic to see Ron.  While both Rob and Ron came to our wedding in DC in 2007 (both Murray and I were so appreciative of their attendance!), we barely got to spend any time with them (as happens when it’s your own wedding) – so I was really looking forward to tonight and catching up with both of them again after so many years.

Once the hugs were over, the four of us walked to Ocean’s 7 Cafe & Restaurant, another Turkish restaurant on the busy Akbiyik Caddesi in Sultanahmet (where Murray and I had made reservations).  We were hoping for a fun (and expecting it to be somewhat touristy) evening with good food, and this place had the best fixed price offering on the street, and at the best price.  The evening was just gorgeous; mild enough that we were able to sit at the outside tables with their plush loveseats (just awesome – how often have I been able to enjoy New Year’s Eve outside – and be comfortable?!).

Over wonderful conversation and delicious wine (with some beer and Raki mixed in; the evening was an all-you-can-drink one!), the four of us enjoyed a “slow food” dinner consisting of plates of Turkish mixed meze (appetizers plate) and special roll pastries (those delicious sigaros); mixed grilled kebab plates; and mixed dessert plates that included baklava, chocolate cake, ice cream, and poached dates and figs.  At various points throughout dinner, we heard live Turkish folk music and had a blast watching the restaurant’s hosts and waiters perform Anatolian folk dancing! 

[Note: not to offend the Turks with this comparison, but Raki is the Turkish equivalent of Greek Ouzo – a strong, anise seed-based drink that you mix with water before drinking (upon mixing, the drink looks like Alka Seltzer fizzing up – yum).  I first tried Raki back in college, compliments of my friend Fulya – but I can’t stand the stuff, which tastes like pure black licorice (it’s that anise seed, which I find revolting; even the smell of the stuff makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up).  For obvious reasons, I didn’t even take a taste of Raki tonight – but Murray tried it, and Rob and Ron seemed to enjoy it quite a bit!  Haha.]

Around 11pm, the very voluptuous belly dancer showed up – and that’s where the night got really wild.  Ron was the first one to be pulled to his feet by the belly dancer, and for several minutes, he performed right alongside her, dancing for the entire restaurant plus the crowds of people who had gathered on the street to watch!  The belly dancer even pulled out Ron’s shirt (which was tucked into his pants) and used a scarf to tie it “Daisy Duke-style” into a bikini top – so that he could truly “belly dance” for everyone.  It was hilarious – and Murray, Rob, and I were on the floor, we were laughing so hard!  (Out of respect for Ron – who threatened at least ROB’s life if Rob ever posted these belly shots of him on Facebook – I will refrain from including “the worst” (but BEST!) pictures of Ron’s belly with this journal entry.  Grin.)

Later, after we had finally recovered from Ron’s turn with the belly dancer, she showed up again and this time, it was Rob who got pulled to his feet for more dancing!  Rob tore it up with the belly dancer, even managing to shimmy with one or two of the other diners (and avoiding the same fate as Ron – having his own shirt pulled into a bikini top!).  It was really, really fun.

At a few minutes before midnight, the restaurant’s hosts and waiters pulled all the guests out into the middle of the street, and that’s where the fireworks began – set off not only by our restaurant, but by all the restaurants up and down the street!  Wearing our hats, masks, and other party favors provided by the restaurant, we all counted down to midnight and then more partying began!  After rounds of kisses between the four of us, the music was pumped up and we all began dancing in the middle of the street – linking arms with waiters, hosts, other diners, and even random passers-by (Turks and tourists alike)!  It was a total blast.

Eventually, tired out from all the dancing (especially me, the huffin’, puffin’ one!), the four of us returned to our table, where we spent the next few hours drinking and enjoying more conversation and fun together.  We didn’t leave the restaurant until well after 2am – and this momma-to-be was TIRED by then!   

Today, spent touring more of the beautiful Istanbul and reconnecting with Ergem, was relaxing and incredibly fun!  Tonight was full of great food, wonderful conversation, fantastic celebrations, awesome partying, and renewed friendships with Rob and Ron!  Murray and I later remarked to one another that it was the best New Year’s Eve/Day that we’ve spent in many, many years – and definitely the best we’ve ever shared together.  What a brilliant way to start 2010.  Happy New Year, everyone!

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Matty on

Such great pics of all of you... great to see you, Ergem, Rob & Ron! New Years looked like so much fun!!!!

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