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Three Days to Play in Istanbul

Wednesday:
Staying in the Elite World Hotel, lovely in every detail, Sehit Muhtar Street on top of a small hill about four blocks from Taksim Square (in the opposite side of the square from major corporate hotels including Hyatt, Intercontinental, and Ritz-Carlton). Facing the opposite direction, my room on the 10th floor (of 11) has a sweeping panoramic view and is far taller than everything around it in this direction and almost everything visible.

I walked to Taksim, a bustling place with a metro station, a Guatemala-style outdoor bus terminal, and an enormous plaza (I think it might even be bigger than Mexico City's Zocalo). Crossing the square, I walked down Sira Selviler, past the Belgian and Romanian Consulates and then circled around through a pedestrian mall shopping district. I turned back toward Taksim when I hit unpleasantly busy Istiklal and quickly doubled back to a parallel side street.

Later, I walked past the big corporate hotels and downhill to the Bosphorus/Straight of Istanbul waterfront, facing Asia. I turned left on Dolmabahçe and all the way through Besiktas to the bridge to Asia, past at least three mosques, several palaces including the headquarters of the Black Sea Federation (heavily guarded by soldiers), finally reaching a very hip neighborhood of cafes, jewelry shops, art galleries, and restaurants. After this roughly three-mile walk, I took the bus back, for 1.75 Turkish lire (a bit over a dollar).

Thursday:
Every trip like this seems to have a Day of the Rug, and today was it. A friend from the conference and I went to explore Sultanahmet, home to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the ancient public cistern. And, of course, the most touristed part of Istanbul is a magnet for the shills drumming up rug business.

In Istanbul (pronounced by the locals Ihs-TAHN-buhl), the practice seems to be to come up to you as you're entering an attraction, engage in some conversation, give you some useful information about the attraction (or about another one he—it always seems to be a he—thinks is more suitable to you—and then be waiting as you exit to guide you to his cousin/uncle/brother's shop, conveniently located just around the corner.

First we rode the tram across the Golden Horn, passing many beautiful buildings and intimidating stone fortifications from assorted periods in history. Personally, I don't know what characteristics make something Byzantine vs. Ottoman, but I do know that we saw quite a few astonishing old buildings, in a range of styles. I was told that the round tower that dominates the skyline looking north from the Golden Horn was built by Genoans who used it to control a massive defensive chain across the channel, blocking enemy warships (and likely extorting tolls from the freight traffic).

Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis of 17 million (on the ground, it feels smaller, maybe because most buildings are only a few stories high—but flying above it as I departed on a clear day, I became aware of just how vast the city is).

The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I, is the second-largest of the 3700 in this city. It feels enormous and elegant. Stained glass on multiple levels, a series of small and large domes, a latticework of lamps, and lots of people either touring or praying. Admission is free, and the main job of the staff seems to be making sure that you take off your shoes before you reach the official boundary, and that you don't put them back on until you've crossed out again (which is a few steps past where it seems to be, thus providing constant work for those staffers on exit duty).

Leaving the mosque, we were steered into the first and least pleasant of the three rug shops we visited that afternoon. I find that when sales pressure increases, so does my sales resistance, and both were so high that I threw out this merchant's card at the first trash can I came to after leaving.

The second shop was one of our own choosing, because his carpets were so beautiful we decided to step on in. That one was low-pressure and fairly quick.

We thought our next stop would be Topkapi Place, but a helpful local told us at 3:50 p.m. that the harem closed at 4 and the entire complex closed at 5. So instead, at his suggestion, we went through the underground cistern, a miraculous cave-like complex of paths, columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and out-of-category), light reflected in the pool, at least two kinds of fish (one of them quite large—much bigger than the carp that shared their home). At about the half-way mark, two of the columns bear likenesses of Medusa—one upside down, one sideways, and both at the bottom of their respective column, so she can't turn anyone to stone.

When we emerged, there, of course, was our helpful local (a retired high school grammar teacher), ready to bring us to his cousin's shop. Although by then we'd already been to two rug shops, he told us that he fully understood we weren't looking to buy rugs, and that we would get a presentation on the culture and history of rug-making as well as a chance to see a weaver at work.

And the first part of that turned out to be true. We met Daniel Baron of Elegance Rug Gallery, Yerabatan # 46-48, www.elegancecarpet.com, an extremely high-end carpet shop specializing in antique rugs of great beauty and quality. Over Turkish coffee and then Turkish tea, he discoursed for more than an hour about the different weaving techniques (single versus double knot), the characteristics of a great carpet (high thread count, natural dyes aged in the sun over a period of years, woven so finely that in a day, a skilled weaver completes only a single line), the demographics of Turkic migrations from Central Asia as it affected carpet-making around the continent-since rug-making was developed originally by these nomadic tribes to make their tents, saddle bags, and even clothing. He told us that he can converse with tribesmen in places like Uzbekistan, because even after thousands of years since the migration, the language is still closely related.

According to the Elegance website, www.elegancecarpets.com, the oldest double-knot Turkish carpet discovered so far dates to the 5th century BCE and was found in Siberia.

Why do Turkish carpets cost so much more? A few of the reasons:

  • Thread count that can go as high as millions of cocoon threads per square inch
  • Hand-knotted double-knots
  • Individual registration with and appraisal by the Turkish government—which collects taxes based on this appraisal and not on the actual selling price
  • Hand-spinning so that much of the lanolin is transferred from the wool to the spinner's hands
  • The way a naturally dyed carpet brightens rather than fades over several decades, is washable, and is healthier than carpets colored with chemical dyes that could release toxins into the home
  • Higher salaries for weavers as Turkey tries to meet EU membership standards

Because of the need to age the wool in the sun, some shepherds actually dye the wool while it is still on the sheep, and shear once it reaches the right length.

The weavers design their own patterns, often using Koranic themes such as the Tree of Life and the road to Paradise. Many rug makers also sign their work, although to Western eyes, the Arabic script may look like simply a part of the design (especially since written Turkish uses Roman letters, like English but with lots of diacritical marks).

For the best carpets, the older the rug, the brighter the colors; the government doesn't allow export sale of any carpet older than 100 years. And the rugs change their colors as they're rolled and rerolled; a coupe of quick shakes, twists, and flips, and they brighten visibly. Daniel turned off the lights, pulled the drapes, and placed a few carpets, one at a time, on a fluorescent light table, where they totally changed their colors and the patterns looked quite different.

Even a decade ago, he said, Turkish carpets were absurdly cheap—and a big part of his business is going to previous customers who paid a few hundred dollars and offering them several tens of thousands to buy back their rugs, which he then resells for far greater prices. Unfortunately for all of us, neither I nor my friend were in his customer demographic; he had some rugs priced more than the value of my house, and even his cheapest were thousands of dollars.

Still, even though the last half hour or so was a pretty intense effort to get a sale, I felt more edified than sold to, and wished I could have been his customer.

Friday:
Walking down to the docks, my friend and I took the ferry to Bostanci, on the Asian side, and walked around a quiet middle-class neighborhood, as well as the dock area which was crowded with Turkish tourist families (we saw no other foreign tourists) going on boat cruises. By luck, we spied an elementary school dance pageant, with the kids in traditional Central Asian costumes. I got a few photographs through the gate.

Then back over to the Europe side to do a few of the Grand Bazaar's 3000 shops; this indoor shopping mall opened in 1471. A short walk led us to a wonderful spice market that opened a few decades later (lots of samples of Turkish Delight, a nautical antiques store—and Isnik Art, www.iznik-art.com, a museum-quality tile shop with exquisite, unique, and expensive quartz ceramic pieces in the midst of all the mass-produced stuff, featuring restorations and replicas of 16th-century Ottoman pieces by celebrated ceramic artist Ismail Yigit). Both of these markets are considerably more antique than my 1743 house.

Walked many miles, including crossing one of the bridges across the Golden Horn, whose upper deck was crowded with fishermen and lower deck was crammed with tourist fish restaurants.

Istanbul is a place I want to revisit when I have more time. I want to see the palace, some of the 25 museums, and the Hagia Sofia Byzantine church (the local churches are architecturally quite similar to mosques, both generally large stone structures built around domes.)

And oh, my goodness, the food! Not one bad meal in the entire time in Turkey. It's a country that worships fresh food and great desserts—to the point where in Bostanci, in a quiet backwater supermarket where I'd expect food turnover to be ridiculously slow, I bought a bag of nuts that had been packed exactly one week before—Yum!

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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