Istanbul onwards ... the journey is rejoined

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Turkey  , Denizli,
Thursday, October 8, 2009

(For Raphaella, welcome to the world).....

"Where'a you frahm?

"Tchermany, Holland, Oshtraylia?"

The shiny silver suits speak. Boned black wingtip shoes. Starched white shirts casually open-necked, framing well-shaven jaws beneath neatly coiffured, side-combed fringes.

The little army of clone-uniform men stand, brood and maraud, gliding quietly up next to one, offering the faintest of hand gestures to attract any kind of attention.

Turn and look if you want to invite the question.

For visitors of the myriad antiquities, they are the face of Istanbul, Turkey's cultural paradise.

They carry themselves as guides to the mosques, palaces, museums, but give them five minutes and they will bring the subject around to carpets, and how they have just arrived from the east of Turkey with a special consignment of rare rugs, and how fortunate you are to bump into them on the very day they are opening their lot to the public, at special opening-day prices.

"Where'a you frahm?"

"I am from Pakistan," my six-inch beard now allows me to lie."We have beautiful carpets, thank you. Perhaps you could even buy from me."

Turn the question around. Go on the friendliest attack. It's a show stopper. Cue: Exit slithery silver suit.

In truth, these interactions are only one minute games scattered between a day of visual delights in a city that straddles the Bosphorus Strait, a strip of water that divides Europe from Asia, west and east; the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea (and beyond, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas), north and south

History seethes from the pavements, the shorelines; large cut granite block upon granite stone hundreds and thousands of years old hint at the tales and histories that line the Classical shelves of the world's libraries.

Founded in 667BC, and previously known as Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul has served as the capital for the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Sieges and wars have been fought back and forth, through and across the Dardenelles, the strait between the Marmara Sea and the Aegean - the Trojan wars, Alexander the Great, the disaster at Gallipoli.

It is a city of the senses.

Touch the marble Million stone, the starting point of an ornate highway to Rome, and also the "start of the world zero point" from which all distances were measured 2,000 years ago.

Stroke the stones that hold up Aya Sofia, one of the world’s great buildings, a Christian church for 916 years, a mosque for 477 years, and proclaimed a monument in 1935 by the 'father of modern Turkey’, Ataturk. The world's largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years.

Smell the kebaps, at every corner the enticing odours of beef and chicken drift off the vertical rotisseries. Barrows of roast corn on the cob hog street corners and park paths.

Taste the sticky sweet baklava, or thick, syrupy, nutty, fruity Turkish delight, harbouring hints of spice that tickle the nostrils, tantalise the tongue.

It is impossible not to hear the muezzins, calling, calling, calling, calling, calling the people to prayer five times a day.

How loud can the muezzin call? The answer mirrors the Philippine riddle of how many passengers can fit into a taxi. As loud as they can; one more.

How much can the eyes take? Sit on a European rooftop in downtown Sultanahmed, traveler hotel central. Look across the water at Asia. The ships, oil tankers, container vessels, navy ships, massive passenger liners line up to pass into Istanbul’s quays, or up through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. To where? Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia?

Swivel and take in the soaring minarets of the magnificent Blue Mosque that exudes peace, gentility and the spirit of multi-cultural man, the minarets of Aya Sofya, the edges of Topkapi palace, grandiloquent home to generations of sultans.

Non-believers are allowed into the Blue Mosque, eponimously named after the thousands of blue tiles that help decorate the lower levels.

My Muslim-like beard helps pave the way into Turkey's principal mosque. Glances from true-believers are cast, questioning, though I do not step on to the holiest of holy ground, lest I defile the sacred prayer spaces.

But I do sit, quietly in a semi-secluded corner – in awe. Gaze up to the ceiling, dome next to half dome next to quarter dome, pattern upon pattern, rings of windows filtering in coloured light from the setting sun.

Feet are washed outside, shoes are placed in plastic bags and nestled in long racks. There is no noise as worshippers and awe-struck first-timers drift across the red pile carpet.

There are no icons, no idols, no statues of Buddha, Christ, the crucifixion or the Virgin Mary.

No images of Mecca or its magnificent granite centerpiece, the Kaaba.

It seems to me, nurtured in Christian surrounds, having spent a decade in Buddhist Hong Kong, and a year in Muslim Jakarta, and being permitted some kind of comparison, that this mosque, if not all of them, carries a purity, an absence of distraction.

There is only a carpet, a window, and a direction, a symbol in the building that points to Mecca.

Prayer hands are held open, with which to catch, humbly, some holy spirit or guidance. Not closed. I question the closed palms of my upbringing.

Slowly more and more devotees enter, kneeling, bowing, silently, and the call begins. It echoes through the chamber, out, out and beyond the streets and squares into the suburbs.

A very eery, unexpected chill runs through me. It is a chill of calm, almost a fear at a strange soothing. I was engulfed with a feeling of goodness, peace and almost absolute tranquility.

I stood up quietly and very slowly walked out. A chord had been touched; from where, why or what I have no idea.

The call rises in cadence and ends. Pure, loud, clean. So unlike the clanking call of Western bell towers.

Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges River, that conducts a puja (cleansing ritual) each morning and eve gives off a similar feeling. Of utter peace.

It is different. Thousands of adherents, hundreds of tiny tinkling bells, hundreds or thousands of tiny lighted candles set adrift down Mama Ganga. Two religions, two continents, twice a time of a small quiet tear.

Outside and down a few steps lies the Arasta Bazaar, selling Turkish ceramics and carpets, and paying a percentage towards the upkeep of its neighbouring house of faith.

A small restaurant presents two musicians, who take up their positions after prayer time.

One plays something akin to a small harp, lying flat above an echo chamber. The other a set of hand drums.

Ten fingers dance across the dozens of strings, flirting, stroking,
grasping, hammering in tandem to the drubba-da-dubba-da-dub of the
tabla-resque drums.

Rising and falling.

A dark shroud rises, a long dark cloak with a long pointed hat.

The whirling dervish gracefully drops the black cloak, his encumbrance to earth, exposing a flowing white shirt, and white ankle-length skirt-shroud.

Arms extend, one hand up, to catch, embrace holy benificence, the other hand down to bestow the gift to earth. Turning, turning, spinning, casting off the weight of the day, purifying.

Well-dressed, grizzled men sit back in chairs, sucking slowly on their nargileh (meter tall water pipes), soothing themselves on the soft sweetness of gentle tobacco, apple, melon, anis or a mixture thereof.

Hand-high tulip shaped glasses of mildly bitter, sweet tea adorn table clothes.

I dive in headlong. One long pull, two, three, and then stoked up, the burning embers release a fine chestful of the soothing smoke.

Chickety-chack clatter the dice against the wooden edges of the backgammon boards, slap, dunk, tunk, as the grizzled men peer through the haze doing battle at the ancient game, or chatter to each other over the state of play.

There is no alcohol here, in the shadow of the mighty mosque, there is no need. There is tea, smoke, music, bliss, peace.

Down the passage of the bazaar, lesser-dressed, round-shouldered men load up with piles of carpets, carpet mules. Three to one shoulder, three to the other, then brace up straight, balance, and take them from the paving back to the warehouses, in the rear, for the night.

Morning brings reality to the city declared European Cultural Capital 2010.

I visit a phonecall shop. I ask the attendant where he hails from.


What do you think of Istanbul?
”This is the UN, maaan.”

Two blocks down I need to make another call – where are you from?


What do you think …

“I am here,” is the enigmatic reply, each with a slow smile.

Sit on a park bench and listen. Italian, Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, odd unidentifiable Mid-European languages, Nordic tongues. Residents and tourists.

The overnight bus takes me south and east, to Pamukkale, translated as cotton castle.

A small village lies at the bottom of a brilliantine white cliffside, beneath azure skies.

Stroll up the path and wander into a cliff of ice white, calcium stalagmites, stalactites and travertines, thousands of years of mineral deposits from springs bubbling up from the deep and dripping down the cliffside.

The Romans had long identified the site as a spa town, and built the resort of Hierapolis atop the hill.

The saturnine white is overpowering, so clean, perpetually cleansed, and created, by bubbling, cascading calcium-strong water, leaving pools seemingly etched or scarred into the cliff.

It is quite surreal. I wished I could have a nibble on a Grace Slick.

Travel groups arrive, and thin out.

Park guards request all walkers up the hillside layers to remove their shoes. What a treat to be able to walk around barefoot without being gawked at.

The texture of the stone is strange, almost alien. Firm afoot, smooth, yet not slippery, slightly gritty. The kind of stone you might take to a bath for an exfoliation exercise, yet which would not leave any abrasion.

I am entranced by the cottonwool.

The old Roman ruins behind, the town being abandoned in the 14th century after a series of earthquakes, are in good condition. The 12,000-strong amphitheatre is pretty much intact, as is the thermally heated pool in the middle of the town. Swim around, over and under ancient sunken Roman pillars.

I stand at the crest, looking down over the shiny white-pink as the sun sets red over the far cliffs, the small town of Pamukkale far below.

The 7pm prayer call raises itself up to the heavens from the village, the surge of the sound running, echoing up the marbled cliffside.

Time stops.

Behind me lingers the past, the demise of the Roman
Empire. Beneath my feet lies the timelessness of earth’s bubbling spring. Down in the valley
is the sound of new-time, now-time. The muezzin signals ‘today’. And
beyond the horizon sets the sun.

Like a black hole, all the
dimensions seem sucked into one spot; the past, the present and future,
and the sun, water and rock – an infinity of time.

I cling tightly to my principle maxim – when the sun does not rise in the morning, I know I shall be in serious trouble.
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