When my hastily arranged plan for India failed I booked a flight on Malaysia Airlines for Turkey instead. It’s an 11 hour redeye flight from KL, leaving at 12:30 am. The KL airport is probably 50 miles from downtown but is connected by high speed rail. Going that fast on a train is a new experience.
We passed over India, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Syria on the route to Turkey. The plane, a Boeing 777, landed in Istanbul at 5:30 am local time. The weather is below freezing and it is snowing in near-blizzard conditions, a shock after equatorial Kuala Lumpur. I dug to the bottom of my bag for the down vest and parka I last used in China, and wished I had boots – I gave away the Australian torture devices in Hoi An. (No wonder those blighters need their feet massages). The money changes won’t handle either Vietnamese or Malaysian currency, so I trade in one of my last American $20 bills for what feels like too few Turkish lira.
I wanted to avoid taxis so spent some time figuring out the light rail system and rode, with one line transfer, to the Sultanahmet station, where Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and my hotel are located. My fellow riders are a grim and tired lot, bundled against the cold in big functional coats, scarves and knit hats. We exchange blank morning looks. At the station – really just a roadside stop – I found a café with fresh pastry and had a couple of Americanos for breakfast. The view of the Blue Mosque from the second floor of the café is spectacular.
This section of town is old and has a European feel. Other than the McDonalds, which I have now seen in every country I have visited, there are no chain stores or restaurants, but lots of rug stores, antiquarian booksellers, and restaurants with professional wait staffs. Despite the grey slush it is pretty. The hotel is very old and quaint; my room is tiny and just off the lobby. The Turkish Basil Fawlty runs the place, and has his Manuel to ineffectually boss around. He actually hit a bell sharply and barked to summon housekeeping when I said the room needed towels, but nobody responded and Manuel brought the towels hours later. The room overlooks the street and a light rail line; Hagia Sophia is within throwing distance. Perfect. Oddly, the hotel is a part of the Best Western chain.
After a short nap I spent the afternoon at Hagia Sophia which I remembered from a college Christian art history class that DJ helped me through. For over 1000 years it stood as the largest cathedral in the world. Many of the mosaics were destroyed or covered over due to Islam’s disapproval of religious representation, but a few have been partially restored. Although the structure remains deeply impressive, the sense of loss of what must have been breathtaking Christian art because of religious dogma is palpable, as with the illuminated manuscripts and statuary destroyed in England by edict of its libertine King and by Cromwell. Photographs of the St. Sophia’s cavernous interior don’t do it justice, particularly on a dark gray winter day when the light is faint.
I had to kick myself later for letting a rug seller waste my time. I was roped into his shop by his nephew, who wanted to practice English, let me get you my card, blah blah. After this fish was hooked they brought in the Uncle to haul me into the boat. He gives the appearance of listening to your answers to his rote questions but he is not listening; he is planning a fish dinner in his head. I came to dislike him intensely, he is like several small businessmen I’ve met, self-satisfied, pigheadedly opinionated and greedy. He blames “the media” for creating the impression that Turkey is run as an Islamic theocracy although, as I try to tell him, every report I’ve read carefully notes that Turkey has a secular government. He isn’t listening; having delivered his opinion, he’s done with the topic. This rug seller warns me to be wary of taxi drivers; I should use his driver instead, he will pick me up at the hotel tomorrow at 9 am, OK? He is also transparently awful in his appeals to friendship and for some reason felt the fact that he is from Eastern Turkey demonstrated his inherent rectitude, as opposed to those awful Westerners amongst whom he has chosen to live, work and pray. Would it be worthwhile to visit the East, and Ankara in central Turkey? Nah, he says dismissively.
And I hate being sized up at a glance, particularly when it is done accurately. “You are from America” says another rug tout by way of introduction, more a statement than a question. How did he know this? He shrugs, like it is obvious, despite all my efforts to appear as a generic can of tourist. I prefer it when they’re wrong, as also happened yesterday: “You were in the military, you look like soldier.” “Yes, stay away or I will shoot you.”
This morning I was awake for the 5:15 adhān, or call to prayer, that I think originated from the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a/k/a the Blue Mosque. It is half sung and half recited by a muezzin over powerful loudspeakers hung from the minarets and sounds otherworldly, beautiful and strange, particularly at that hour of the morning when Istanbul is near silent.