03.03.2012 - 03.03.2012
Touchdown in Istanbul at 9:30 a.m. after a grueling night. We’d been awake for more than 24 hours (less the 2 hours of sketchy sleep on the plane). Eleven of the 16 folks we were with in Kenya left us to go home; only five of us stayed on in Istanbul. Besides the two of us, there were three of the women who shared our van in Kenya. Our guide met us in the airport. His name is “Jimmy” (actually Mehmet) and he is a retired professor who was educated for several years in the U.S. He herded us into a van and took us to our hotel in the center of the city. After helping us check in, he told us to eat, rest, and he would be back at 2:00 p.m. to give us a short riding tour of the city. The real sightseeing would begin tomorrow.
After a welcome shower and a short nap, we ate lunch in the hotel restaurant and then met Jimmy in the lobby. We hurried through the cold rain (mid-30 degrees… much different from Kenya) to the van. Our bus tour was about an hour and a half of learning about the city and getting familiar with the layout.
Istanbul is an ancient city, it’s existence going back to biblical times, and has a unique geography and a great history. It is the only city in the world to sit on two continents: Europe and Asia. It has three areas: the old city, which sits on the European side and is surrounded by ancient walls built by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago; the new city, which is the rest of the city on the European side; and the Asian city, which lies across the Bosporus (the waterway that separates the two continents). The population is over 20 million people. Although Turkey is considered a Muslim nation, it is secular— no state religion. And in Istanbul, the Muslims, Christians, and Jews have—and continue to—live in relative peace. Before Islam existed, this city was the center of the Greek Orthodox Church, the eastern equivalent to the Roman Catholic Church in the west. When the Muslim Ottoman Empire expanded through Asia Minor, Istanbul became the capitol city and remained so for hundreds of years. And during the Middle Ages, Spain expelled all of the Jews from inside its borders and while many of the went to Morocco, boat loads of them left for the northern Mediterranean but were not allowed to land anywhere. When they arrived off the coast of Istanbul, the sultan welcomed them into the city.
This tolerance for other cultures and religions has continued through to the present. There are currently 28 buildings that are shared by all three religions to this day: on Fridays, they are mosques; on Saturdays, they are synagogues, and on Sundays, they are churches.
This is a very modern city. There are many stores and shops that sell state-of-the-art electronics, contemporary clothing, and everything else you would see in New York or Chicago. At the same time, you may walk by a shop that has hand-woven wool rugs laid on the sidewalk or vendors selling fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, roasted ears of corn, or dates and chestnuts.
Our short city tour made one stop along the Bosporus to see the first bridge that was built to connect Europe to Asia, and we ended at the Grand Bazaar...a covered market area with more than 5000 shops. (The Mall of America ain’t nothin’ compared to this!)
From there, we said good night to Jimmy and walked back to our hotel for a quick dinner and 11 hours of sleep.