So, what are Turkish people like?
It's probably best to begin this section with carpet stores. Turkish carpets, make from wool, cotton, and/or silk, are famous worldwide for their design and quality. And Istanbul gets enough tourists that the carpet sellers speak pretty good English and are disarmingly friendly. Some are pretty flaky and even hostile if you don't play your cards right, and I had one particularly unpleasant experience. But it was at one of these carpet sellers that I met Sona, the nephew of one carpet store owner. For one full day and one afternoon he and I hung out in Istanbul, and he showed me many of the sites listed in the previous Architecture section -- the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, the city walls and St. Stephens.
Why on earth would Sona do this? He seems to have had a number of motivations. First of all he was an undergraduate at Istanbul University majoring in (Turkish) history, and wanted to be a tour guide when he graduated. This was a way for him to practice for his future profession, not to mention his English. Second, he wanted to hear about my experiences in Japan -- Sona has a Turkish-speaking Japanese girlfriend and had spent two months in Japan. Thirdly, I suppose, it was probably good business -- if I did want to buy a carpet, he could bring me to his place. Best of all, he showed me around for free (although I of course paid for the taxis and meals). So for all of Saturday and the afternoon on Sunday I had a free guide showing me around the city, and he very patiently took me to all the sights. Having a native guide was great. Sona showed me all the big sites and, as a history major, he was able to give a great explanation of the "big picture."
Here is a picture of Sona at I at Topkapi Palace, overlooking the Bosphorus. Technically speaking, we're standing in Europe, and the Asian continent is in the background, across the strait.
The Istanbul Ghetto
Remember St. Stephen of the Bulgars? This was the church I wrote about in the Architecture section that was built entirely of cast-iron plates from Vienna. This was within the city walls in the northwestern part of the city. After Sona showed me the church we continued on to the edge of the city walls through the poorer distric -- not a ghetto in the ethnic sense of the word, but the poor part of town. And it was here that I saw a very different Turkey from what I had seen around the rest of town.
Before I go any further, let me explain that most of the people you see in Istanbul are pretty cosmopolitan. By and large half the women wear headscarves and the other go without. Headscarves are banned in public buildings, including schools, courts, etc. But there is nothing particularly Islamic or fundamentalist about a headscarf. We're not talking about Burkhas here -- look at this picture I took near the Blue Mosque.
Headscarves are just a comfortable and modest fashion statement, with no blatant religious significance.
The area between St. Stephen and the city walls was quite different. Many woman covered every inch of their body from head to toe. I didn't feel worried or scared, but it was a strange sight to see, especially after the cosmopolitan downtown.
Although Friday is the Muslim Holy Day, Sunday has been Turkey's national holiday of the week since Ataturk turned the country into a secular republic, and everything was closed on Sunday save a few outside stalls. Here is a man selling flags at one of the open bazaars on Sunday.
Click on the menu to continue or click here to continue onwards to the second half of my journey to the heart of Central Asia.