x0x Rising with sun casts light on Istanbul's pre-tourist charm
- The San Francisco Chronicle
Reprinted with Permission
x0x Rising with sun casts light on Istanbul's pre-tourist charm
Sunday, July 1, 2001
Copyright, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle
At 4:30 a.m., the muezzin's call to prayer is a maddeningly effective
alarm clock. But on this morning, you don't need it: You're already wide
thanks to jet lag. You lie in bed until it's fully light, then throw on
some clothes and set out on one of your favorite travel rituals: the first
morning's walk around a city.
Before 9 a.m., you've come to learn, cities belong to their residents.
After that, they belong to the tourists. Those quiet hours between dawn
and the closing of the breakfast buffets at the big hotels is when you see
old women in black puttering home from the bakery with loaves of
still-warm bread slung over their shoulders like Louisville Sluggers, when
markets full of exotic-smelling fruits and vegetables seem to appear
spontaneously in neighborhood parks, when you hear garbagemen singing
arias from the backs of their garbage trucks.
In a few days, when you've adjusted to the 10-time-zone difference between
San Francisco and Istanbul, it will be murder to drag yourself out of bed
before 7 a.m. But this morning, fresh off the plane, you're as awake and
alert as you'll ever be at this hour.
Outside your pension you walk a few steps to the street called Atmeydani
Sokak, and with a start you realize you're standing on the track where
Byzantine chariots once clattered around the Hippodrome, back when the
city was called Constantinople. In front of you is a naked-looking obelisk
of rough stone that was stripped of its bronze covering in the 13th
century by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, who mistakenly thought it
In a few hours the Hippodrome will be bustling with souvenir salesmen,
freelance "guides" and sleeve-tugging carpet-shop touts, but now there are
only a few taxi drivers sleeping in their cabs and the yawning Islamic
faithful returning to their homes and shops after morning prayers in the
You stroll over to the little park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia
Sophia and study these two magnificent buildings. Mustachioed men in baggy
pants and embroidered vests are sweeping the sidewalks with rough brooms,
and vendors are arriving with wheeled carts full of croissant-like
pastries. Soon this spot will be infested with Istanbul's most tenacious
but at 5:30 a.m. nobody bothers you.
From the park you can see how the Blue Mosque and every other major mosque
in Istanbul were attempts by the Ottoman Turks to copy and surpass the
Byzantines' crowning masterpiece, the Hagia Sophia. The greatest church in
Christendom and the largest enclosed space in the world for a thousand
years after it was completed in 537, the Hagia Sophia seems to glimmer
ethereally in the dawn light. The Ottomans may have equalled the beauty of
its exterior, but they could never match the genius and grace of its
interior structure, could never figure out how to support such a
gargantuan dome without clunky interior pillars. (The Byzantines, you
learn from your guidebook, did it with 40 enormous ribs made with hollow
bricks baked from special porous clay on the island of Rhodes .)
You turn down the street called Tava Hatun Sokak and stroll along the old
walls of the Topkapi Palace, from which various sultans once ruled the
mighty Ottoman Empire and lived a life straight out of "1001 Arabian
Nights." Amid eunuchs and dwarfs, the sultans frolicked with gaggles of
concubines in their harems and kept their princes locked in a gilded
prison, lest they attempt to succeed their fathers via the sword.
Soon you're in front of the Sirkeci railway station, and it takes your jet
lag-addled brain a moment to place this familiar name. Then the lightbulb
goes on: This was once the terminus of the Orient Express, where captains
of industry, opera singers, spies and the crowned heads of Europe - as
well as the fictional Hercule Poirot - once alighted from their grand
carriages and drank in the sights of the mysterious East.
As you pass by, well-dressed office workers with their briefcases and
folded newspapers spill out of commuter trains arriving from Istanbul's
A few steps further, you reach the Golden Horn, where fishermen are
selling shiny little fish from their bobbing boats. You gaze across this
history- soaked inlet and realize that you must be standing at the very
spot where the defenders of Constantinople stretched a massive chain
across its opening in 1453 to try to prevent Turkish ships from sailing in
and attacking their city. And just across the Golden Horn you can see the
low-lying hills of the Galata district, where the Turks transported their
ships on wooden rollers in the dark of night. You can only imagine how the
Byzantines felt when they awoke to find Mehmet the Conqueror's navy inside
You turn right and walk a couple of blocks to Seraglio Point, and realize
you've quite literally come to the end of Europe: Half a mile away, on the
other side of the Bosphorus, Asia begins. You turn slowly and take in the
360- degree view: the hills of Istanbul, glittering with the domes and
minarets of dozens of grand mosques; the freighters chugging through the
Bosphorus on their way from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean; the
palaces along the waterway's banks; the ferries crossing from the Asian
side of the city.
Istanbul is coming fully awake as you make your way back to Sirkeci
station and find an inviting little cafe. You order a glass of tea by
pointing and gesturing; the cafe owner speaks no English.
"Deutsche?" he asks. You shake your head no. "Anglische? Australian?
"American," you say, and he seems thrilled. He keeps saying "Baltimore!
Baltimore!" and you gather that he must have a brother or cousin living
there. You pull a fat wad of Turkish lira from your wallet, fan it out and
offer to let him take whatever he needs for the tea; you haven't yet
figured out the money. But the cafe owner waves it away. Your tea is on
"Baltimore!" he says, by way of explanation.
You find a window seat, pull your journal out of your backpack and try to
write all this down before it fades from your memory. At the end of a page
you put down your pen, take a sip of tea, gaze out the window at the
now-bustling streets of Istanbul and think: It's good to be back on the
Travel Editor John Flinn's column appears in this space the first Sunday
of the month.