The mysterious remains of ancient civilizations beckon travelers equally as the lure of modern Istanbul and cashmere pashminas
Our struggle to get to sleep — even after an 11-hour flight — was our first impression of Istanbul, Turkey. The rap music was so loud and pulsating that we called the hotel’s front desk only to be told it was coming from the club across the street not the room next door. Then, at 6 a.m. we were woken by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayers.
And that sums up this wonderful country and why you’ll want to stay awake for all of it. It is a delightfully mysterious blend of ancient history, religion and tradition knocking up against the modern world that provides surprising twists and turns with every step. Whether it be the glass skyscrapers next to a centuries-old mosque with decorative minarets from which the calls to prayer are sung, or a fast food franchise selling cheeseburgers next to its Turkish counterpart where shawarma is sliced on a rotating spit in the window, the old and the new complement each other. It’s a crazy mix — and somehow, it all makes sense.
For instance, for every two women wearing a burqa or niqab covering all but their eyes and walking behind their husbands, we would see another similarly dressed woman walking beside her husband and holding hands. Mostly we saw Turkish women dressed fashionably, with many wearing coordinating hijabs that took the style up a notch while respecting traditional values.
Let’s first start with Istanbul — a city brimming with food, shopping, cobblestone streets, beautiful buildings, museums and chaos. Traffic is everywhere and it’s every driver and pedestrian out for himself or herself. Travelgirl tip: When crossing the street, watch out for motorcycles that seemingly come racing out of nowhere.
Split by the Bosphorus Strait, one side of the city is in Europe, the other in Asia. With a population of more than 15 million, Istanbul is similar to many metropolises with a variety of neighborhoods, each with its own personality and points of interest. It’s easy to get scattered so choose what you absolutely want to do and stick to it.
Our hotel was ideally suited, meaning it was about a block away from one of the city’s main drags — the Istiklal Caddesi Avenue. Think of it as the Champs-Élysées, Fifth Avenue and Grafton Street all rolled up in one. Specialty boutiques selling artisan perfumes, silk scarves and baglama, a folk instrument that is sort of a mix of a guitar and mandolin, line this almost mile-long street. Add to that a variety of mid-size clothing, shoe, souvenir and jewelry shops, along with restaurants and outdoor vendors, and you’ll feel like you are in the midst of a shopping and outdoor festival with every step.
And, the food. Oh my goodness. Small cafes, maybe 10 tables inside and four outside, dot the streets. In some you order off the menu, but most have the menu already prepared and presented in the window. Just point and order.
The street combines two of our favorite things — eating and shopping.
These stores have everything: teas, coffees, fruits, nuts, and desserts including an incredible number of baklava options. Travelgirl tip: Buy or taste only one or two items per store so you can sample as many as possible as you walk!
We were literally a kid in a candy store (well, not literally, but we felt like one) as we would pop in and get dried apricots, pistachios, chocolates and candy. Akide and Lokum (AKA Turkish delight) are the most popular sweets.
Akide is made by boiling honey to almost a caramel consistency, rolled out on marble slats, flavored with mint, cinnamon, pistachios or cloves, and then sliced into hard bite-size pieces. My Sicilian grandmother made something similar but with sesame seeds and almonds. Both were worth risking chipping a tooth. The other, Turkish Delight, is akin to gummy bears with powdered sugar.
Speaking of shopping, no trip would be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar where you could buy everything from — well, let’s just say everything! Started in the 15th century, the bazaar has about 4,000 stalls, selling jewelry, textiles, metalware, coffee sets and lanterns — again everything. It was overwhelming and it’s best to have a buying game plan otherwise you can get lost or confused. We were on the hunt for a black cashmere pashmina and within 100 feet of entering there were half a dozen booths selling them. All the merchandise looked the same so it’s pretty much just choose a store and start bargaining. We found the perfect pashmina for about $70.
After shopping, it was time for a visit to some of the country’s most well-known and revered religious and historical buildings — St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) both steps from each other and breathtaking.
The Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616, is currently undergoing a renovation. Hagia Sophia (or St. Sophia) was a Greek Orthodox church built in 537 AD, became a mosque when the Ottoman Empire took over in 1453, and stayed that way until 1935 when it became a museum. This Byzantine wonder is now a mosque again. Its cavernous nave reaches up to 182 feet with stone floors dating back to the 6th century. Mind boggling! Travelgirl tip: Bring a hat and socks. Most religious buildings and museums require women to cover their heads; everyone must remove their shoes.
Although we wanted much more time in Istanbul, we decided to learn more about the country and ventured out on the UNESCO World Heritage Route, which brought us to lesser known cities, ancient ruins and digs, and an integral part of the Cradle of Civilization.
Elazig is located in the Eastern Anatolia region (about 750 miles from Istanbul) and was founded as an Ottoman military garrison and trading center. Up on a hill is Harput Castle, built by the Urartu Kingdom in the 8th century and now (thankfully) being restored. Other must-dos are a visit to the Seflik Gul House for a glimpse of life in earlier times and dinner at Eskibaglar Vineyard for lamb and really great wine.
Melid, also known as Arslantepe, was an agricultural center in the Fertile Crescent nearly 6,000 years ago, and home of Arslantepe, near Malatya. Malatya, founded in 1838, is overflowing with things to see and do including an Archeology Museum, Photo Camera Museum, Coffee Museum, Textile Museum and the Malatya Cultural House.
The Arslantepe Mound (or Lion Mound) was probably first inhabited during the Copper Age around 8,000 years ago, and was the oldest government complex in the Middle East. If you look closely, you can even see partial murals. At the entrance are copies of stone carvings of lionmen, a Hittite lion from around 1180-700 BC, and the god Tarhunzas. Copper smelting reportedly was invented here, and the first swords were made here.
Our final stop was at Adiyaman and a visit to the Perre Ancient City, which was already inhabited in Paleolithic times (Old Stone Age —2.5 million to 100,00 BC) as a stop for travelers crossing the Taurus Mountains. Currently undergoing an excavation, the site is open for all to walk around, peer into catacombs, admire the tile floors and let your imagination take you way back in time.
Going to Turkey was like a Magical Mystery Tour. Each day brought new insights — both into the modern world and the ancient — that were unfamiliar and intoxicating. The ancient traditions, not only religious, but also rug making, cooking, music, and sweating in hammams, are still a vital part of the culture and mesh well with everything today’s world offers.
There is so much to take in, explore and understand that you won’t want to miss a minute of it. Now, it’s nap time.