Istanbul. The city of 10,000 years of ghosts.
The plan of a round trip of the Black Sea was put on the back burner after examination of the ferry timetables of the Georgian & Ukrainian shipping companies. The idea of either spending two weeks in one place and one day at the next without even learning to say please and thankyou and in a variety of languages led to a longer term plan of completing the trip over a number of years, and decided that a trip around Turkey, taking in a few Black Sea ports and the ancient cities of the Anatolian plain would be an interesting start.
Turkey appealed as it was not only close to Europe, sharing some of our DNA through Greek and Roman invasion and the integration of peoples from the Balkans and whole other DNA from the continual invasions of the Turcic peoples from central asian plains. And Istanbul was the meeting point of these civilisations then and now.
The Munich to Istanbul flight, a sort of Lufthansa pared down service, is largely a Turkish affair with mainly the footsoldiers of Germanys economic miracle, and us
as virtually the only non Turkish passengers. Even the newspapers handed out were Turkish and not German.
The late august landscape was a light dun colour as we landed and the paint on the inside of the terminal was little different to the outside, more various shades of light brown.
There were huge queues for passport control and as we got closer realised that a couple of flights from Arabia and the Gulf had arrived before us and disgorged a number of women with veils and the full burqa .
I watched as the men stepped forward with the women’s passports and were very reluctant to allow passport control to view the womens faces, finally the veils were lifted and the women were photographed.
Having eaten Homers sweet lotus fruit many years before and having lived for 20 years in France, I momentarily forgot I was British and ignoring the Union Jack flag for the queue for non shengen countries, I joined the EU queue and so after a long wait behind the Arabians and arriving at the desk I was sent off to answer some questions and pay for a Turkish visa.
My friend who has a hotel in Pera had thankfully organised a driver to take us into the city.
One good tip for starting a conversation with Turkish men is to talk football. In Istanbul there is the same passion between the main three clubs as there is in London. Our driver, a Galatasary supporter, had a serious knowledge of most European teams over the last thirty years, and could to my amazement, reel off the managers and star players of Spurs, my team,from the 1950’s. So the conversation once started led to his thoughts on modern day Turkey and even gave a few detours to show us the fish Market and the site that would have held the Olympic stadium. ( Tokyo won the rights to stage the games some 3 weeks later).
Istanbul traffic is famous, so we had a thankfully slow arrival in Istanbul, passing the outer Justinian walls of the old Constantinople now unfortunately mainly crumbling down. Although Constantinople fell in 1453, or was conquered, according to where you come from, these walls were weakened enough in 1204 by a combination of the Pope in Rome, unhappy by the orthodoxy in Constantinople and a mercanary bunch of traders from Venice and Genoa who saw rich pickings,so that in 1453 the city was so weakened that Mehmet and the Turks found it much easier to capture.
The late afternoon sun was perfect addition to the stunning view as we rounded the corner and there was the classic view of Istanbul; the Golden Horn and the Bosphoros, Europe and Asia all in one blink
The rush hour traffic , cars heading for the many car ferries for the asian side, allowed us to take in this spectacular view.
It is not just East and West , Europe and Asia, in front of me was not only a site, probably continuously inhabited since neolithic times but also was one of the great geological wonders and controversies. Did the Mediterranean sea burst through here in say 6000 bc and turn a small freshwater lake into the Black sea?
The building of the tunnel between Istanbul and Asia (opened last month) led to the archealogical discovery that Istanbul area has been occupied since at least neoloithic times.So as we rounded the corner here was a sight that man has gazed out on for at least 10000 years.
With the Topkapi Palace to our left and the famous Galata bridge in front of us and the Golden Horn to the right, the what seemed to be hundreds mosques, the bustle of a big city that is alive, I felt the excitement that there was so much in front of us to explore coupled with the slight frisson of a new and unfamiliar place with recent history of social tension, and of course to be back in an Islamic country after 20 odd years.
We crossed the Galata bridge filled this time of day with hopeful fishermen, with the Genoese built Galata tower on the hill in Pera in front of us.
Our hotel was in Pera in Beyoglu and just down from Istiklal Caddesi ( Independence street) the Oxford street of Istanbul and the landmark French Lycee, where the riot police were prepared daily for fresh outbreaks of trouble.
Istanbul and Pera in particular appears to be the London of the Middle East and the sub-continent for those not only non-millionaire Arabians but many Hindus and Christians from that vast area to the east of Europe.
It had the atmoshere of the 1970’s or 80’s in Europe with lots of little shops and bars before corporate took over.
Now that writer’s block has been defeated the next few blogs will be about the city I returned to 3 times during my tour of Turkey and the Mosques,the Palaces, the old wooden houses,Bazaars and above all the ordinary people of this enigma of the city of Istanbul and the Istanbullus.