Turkey Looks to the Future
by Laura Byrne Paquet
The author visited Turkey in September 1999.
A friend and I were staring at a carpet in the window of a shop on Istiklal Caddesi, one of Istanbul's major shopping streets, when a clerk emerged and smiled at us. We braced ourselves for another aggressive sales pitch -- shopkeepers had been assiduously trying to separate us from our money since we arrived in Istanbul four days previously.
But Nadim's opening line was a surprise.
"You have shared our destiny this afternoon," he said.
A Sobering Reminder
We understood immediately. Two hours earlier, an aftershock measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale had ripped through Izmit, 70 miles east of the city. While not nearly as severe as the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 15,000 people on August 17, it had rattled windows -- and confidence -- in Istanbul.
When the quake hit, I was sitting on a bus traveling down a bumpy street and didn't even feel the tremor. My first clue that something was amiss came when four men fled out of a nearby shop; my first thought was that I was witnessing a robbery in progress. But within seconds, the surrounding streets were clogged. I've never seen so many people emerge from so many buildings so fast. Shaken, crying, and feverishly making calls on their cell phones, they gazed nervously at surrounding buildings.
But central Istanbul had once again survived largely unscathed.
History Lives On
The great buildings that have drawn pilgrims and pillagers, supplicants and sultans to the city at the mouth of the Bosphorus for hundreds of years are still standing. Even the massive August quake, which took such a tragic toll in Istanbul's far eastern suburbs, barely touched monuments such as the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya and the Topkapi Palace. Indeed, during five days in the central city in mid-September, the only definite evidence of the quake I saw was a cracked ceiling in the Dolmabahce Palace.
Most visitors to Istanbul would come away with the same impression I did: the city is back on its feet and open for business.
"Istanbul passed the test," said Feyza Sueruecue, deputy general director of the Turkish ministry of tourism, the evening after the aftershock.
As a result, visitors to Istanbul still enjoy one of the world's greatest sensory feasts, from the aromas of basil, curry and mint that permeate the Spice Bazaar to the vivid ceramic tiles that enliven the walls of grand mosques and humble restaurants.
Most visitors focus on the Sultanahmet district, home to many of the city's most famous sights. Fresh off the plane, we headed straight to the Grand Bazaar, an overwhelming octopus of corridors sprawling away in all directions.
The world's largest covered marketplace, it is home to some 4,000 tiny shops and stalls. Shoppers can choose from silver teakettles or gold chains, leather belts or embroidered vests, carpets or kilims. Anyone who can't find at least one appealing item and five bits of truly amazing kitsch in this maze just isn't looking hard enough.
In my case, there was no shortage of clerks eager to help me browse.
"You are going the wrong way!" a young salesman cried as I strolled by him.
Startled, I turned to look. "This is the right way for you!" he crowed, pointing the way back to his silver shop.
Yes, the bazaar is touristy, but it's also an experience not to be missed. Jet lag alone probably saved me from an expensive shopping experience.
Another day, when we had more energy, we tackled enormous Topkapi Palace (famous sites in Istanbul appear to come in one size only-large). The Palace, home to generations of sultans from the 15th century to the 19th century, is a vast collection of interlocking buildings and courtyards.
Visitors should reserve at least half a day to explore its gently decaying gardens and passageways. The harem is a highlight; its Imperial Hall, richly tiled and painted in hues of Turkey red and royal blue, is almost overwhelmingly opulent.
Near the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya was once the largest church in Christendom; parts of the current building date to 537 A.D. After Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city in 1453, the enormous building became a mosque.
Political events once again touched the Aya Sofya in 1935, when the government of Kemal Atatuerk converted it to a museum as part of its efforts to make Turkey a more secular society. The shadowy interior, with its unusual mixture of Christian and Islamic elements, still inspires awe.
A short walk brought us to the Blue Mosque, built between 1606 and 1616. Named for the blue and white ceramic tiles that brighten its walls, it is still an active religious site. Visitors should arrive before or after one of the five times of prayer each day; we foolishly showed up around 5 P.M. and were able to catch only a hasty glimpse of the interior before being politely but firmly shown the door.
Istanbul holds many other fascinating treats for the visitor, including the Victorian Dolmabahce Palace and the 16th-century Sueleymaniye Mosque. But travelers should also take the time to tour other parts of the country.
Many cruise lines stop at Kusadasi on the Aegean coast. The town is a chaotic collection of tourist traps and beachfront hotels, but it is also a great base for exploring Ephesus, one of the Mediterranean's best-preserved classical cities.
The excavated ruins of this Greco-Roman metropolis --whose library, harbor, shops and population of almost 250,000 made it a rival to Rome -- emerge eerily from the surrounding cotton fields. On a major road outside Kusadasi [LP1], I caught a glimpse of Ephesus' enormous theatre rising up a hillside behind a small municipal airport.
In that theatre, almost 2,000 years ago, St. Paul sparked a riot with his efforts to convert the local population to Christianity. Ephesus was famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and local merchants started the riot because they were afraid Christianity would destroy the market for Artemis souvenirs.
The new religion eventually spread and the temple was later destroyed by invading Goths, but the retailers of Ephesus have had the last laugh: in the huddle of stalls near each entrance to the site, merchants today sell replicas of statues of Artemis and other ancient gods.
Sign of the Times
Retailers are also laughing these days in Antalya. A sleepy Mediterranean town until the 1960s, Antalya has recently boomed into a modern resort city of one million people. As well as great stores, the city is awash in hotels. Near the award-winning archaeological museum on its western outskirts are several five-star properties, including the Falez Hotel and a Sheraton Voyager. Outside the city, beachfront resorts have recently sprung up to serve a growing market of sun-seeking Europeans and Russians.
But the most atmospheric part of Antalya is the old walled section, Kaleici. There, narrow streets are crowded with countless inns, many featuring a tiny pool in a shady courtyard. Shops tempt visitors with ceramics, rugs and silver. Adventurous travelers can even drop into an authentic Turkish bath, such as the one where a friend and I endured an hour of vigorous scrubbing and pummeling by a beefy masseuse.
In the evenings, countless cafes on the cliffs overlooking the small yacht harbor beckon. In most of these restaurants, visitors can feast on spicy kebabs, flaky baklava and frosty Efes beer for the princely sum of about $10 each. Not a bad way to end the day -- or a trip to Turkey.
The stone walls that flank the harbor date back to the era of the Roman Empire. Like the resilient Turks, they have withstood much: natural disasters, wars, reversals of fortune, and much more. And, like the Aya Sofya, Ephesus and so many other Turkish sites, they provide a glimpse into the long history of a fascinating and dynamic nation.
Travelers should pack sunscreen and a good guidebook; women should bring scarves to cover their heads when visiting mosques. Shorts are only common in major resorts and tourist sites, such as Ephesus and Antalya. While people in tourist areas often speak at least a little English, a phrase book comes in very handy. Don't drink tap water anywhere in Turkey; stick to bottled water or use water purification tablets.
Turkish Airlines offers non-stop service between the U.S. (New York and Chicago) and Istanbul. Call 800-874-TURK or check the Turkish Airlines website: www.turkishairlines.com
For more information on Turkey, contact the Turkish Tourist Office: Phone: 202-429-9844; Fax: 202-429-5649; E-mail:TOURISMDC@aol.com;
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Turkey."