Say What You Will. . . .

Say what you will about Turkey and its current issues.  I would have to say that Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Set between two seas, with a history going back four millennium, Istanbul is chock full of “must see” sites.  And our trip with the CTU visit to Istanbul covered the big ones — and some of the lesser ones. 

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) was to me the most dramatic.  Built between 1609 and 1616, the structure still functions as a mosque to the faithful.  My question — how in the Dickens do they hold up the roof and dome?  Mercy!   On arrival, Donna and the ladies needed to don head scarves to enter the mosque.  And many of the women put on wrap-around skirts to cover their legs.  And men with shorts?  They did too. 

The Hagia Sophia runs a close second.  This orthodox basilica (later a mosque) now stands as a museum and point – counterpoint with the Blue Mosque on the landscape of Istanbul.  The Hagia Sophia is a thousand years older than the Blue Mosque – with construction begun in 561 A.D.  I’d love to meet the architects. . . . .

Topkapi Palace?  Wow!   From the time of its construction in the 1450’s, Topkapi was home to Ottoman Sultans until 1856.  Topkapi holds some of the holiest relics of Islam including Mohammed’s cloak and his sword.  While many of the rooms of the Palace are open to the public, a great many are closed.  The Palace is guarded heavily by police and the Turkish military. 

A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the main shopping bazaar, the spice bazaar (Donna and I got lost), the beautiful Chora Church (amazing mosaics) and a boat ride on the Bosphorus.  Would I go again?  You betcha.    

Turkey Turns. . . .

The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, constitutionial republic which broke from the Ottoman Empire after World War I and declared itself independent.   The nation was born in October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal named as the first President.  Because of Kemal’s immense popularity (due mainly to his efforts to transform this Muslim country into a secular state), Turkey’s Parliament in 1934 bestowed upon Kemal the honorific name “Ataturk” (which means “father of Turks”).

The current Prime Minister of Turkey – Recep Erdogan – has been in power since 2003.   While Erdogan has been praised for his accomplishments and steady hand during the last decade, he has recently been moving in directions which have caused unease.  Turkey is 99% Muslim (Hanafite Sunni) and Erdogan (a member of the Islamist Party) has begun to accept direction from some of the more fundamental members of Turkey’s religious right.   

A few weeks ago, the government decided to demolish Gezi Park — a small green space in the sea of concrete that is Istanbul.  The object?  Build a shopping center.   It was this move to ravage the park that caused the eruption of thousands of demonstrators on the very night we arrived in Istanbul — May 31st.  But it is the Islamic leanings of Mr. Erdogan which has sustained the ongoing demonstrations.  Criticism of Mr. Erdogan has increased given his stifling of criticism, personal liberty and freedom of the press.  And given his capitulation to Islamic fundamentalists on a variety of religious issues, this secular state seems to be threatened.  In the protests, thousands have been detained, hundreds injured and four killed.  Given Turkey’s desire to enter into the European Union, with the EU’s insistence on human liberties among its members, one wonders which fork in the road the country and its leader will take.      

Taksim Square

We arrived in Istanbul and drove in the direction of our hotel — the Crystal (No. 7, Taksim) a little after 9:00 pm on Friday night, May 31st.   The activity going on around us was disconcerting.  Hundreds of people on the streets wearing masks and balaclavas and carrying signs and banners.   All heading to the thousands already gathered in Taksim Square.  Our bus could not make it up the narrow street to Taksim No. 7 so we had to get off the bus and carry or pull our luggage the last block and a half.   The street had barricades a la Le Mis.   It was about halfway up the street that the tear gas hit us.  At first, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes and I began blinking.  Rapidly.  Then squinting.  And I realized — tear gas.   I squinted as hard as I could keeping just enough vision to sherpa my way up the street.  I looked around.  Donna followed in my wake.  Head down.  “Let’s go” I said (quite unnecessarily).   

We mercifully got to the hotel.  One of our number was in distress and being attended.  The lobby was jammed.  People.  Luggage.  The faint whiff of tear gas.  And sweat (the day had been warm).   Our hotel was at near-capacity filled with Libyans (some with medical conditions from the revolution).  And Iranians.  After what seemed an age, we got our room keys and went up to our room.    In our first room, the toilet was flooding.  And the flush mechanism fell into the toilet.   I went down to the lobby.  Got another room and I went up to check it out.  I went in.  And quickly went out.  The room was full of tear gas thanks to wide open windows.  Brilliant. . . .  We got a third room.  Seemed to work.  No tear gas or toilet leaks.  We drank some water and looked at each other.  Welcome to Istanbul.  And we went to bed. 

The next few days were perfection.  We were able to travel around unhindered.   The Blue Mosque.   Hagia Sophia.  Topkapi Palace.  Mass in one of the old Christian churches.  Wow!  But the evenings that weekend made the stay interesting as the crowds gathered in protest. . . .