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Merhaba, from Istanbul, Turkey!
Straddling the European and Asian continents, Istanbul shines brightly from its extremely rich history, culture, and spirit of generosity. We enthusiastically report that our visit to Istanbul and the rest of Turkey has been - hands down - the most exotic and culturally enriching experiences of our lives.

JENNI: For me, Turkey is a country of superlatives and extremes. It has the most interesting history from hammams (Turkish baths) to harems. It has our favorite place to stand in the whole world: on a sidewalk between the most famous mosque (the Blue Mosque) and the oldest Christian cathedral (Hagia Sofia - behind us in the left picture). Turkey offers the best souvenir shopping in Europe. It is populated by the kindest, most inquisitive people we've ever met. We also think the most relentless salesmen in the world live here. The best sidewalk snacks. Prettiest headscarves. Slowest Internet cafes. Turkey is where I learned some of the nuances of Islam from the gracious people who believe in this most gentle of religions. And it will always be the country in which I learned of the most horrible event ever to happen back home.

JOE: Istanbul's cityscape jumped out at us just as we drove over a big hill during our taxi ride approach from Bulgaria. It is a glorious sight to see the city glistening over the Bosphorus strait. Jenni was doubled over sick in the back seat, but I was bouncing off the walls, smiling with delight! This was one of those magic traveling moments when our years of dreaming had come true! A moment that I realized we were seeing something absolutely magnificent. Istanbul's cityscape looks so different than any other city in Europe because its population is 98% Muslim. So it is crowded with mosques and their telltale slim towers, called minarets, from which the daily calls to prayers are belted out five times a day with the help of loudspeakers. The towers were so beautifully unique to anything I'd ever seen. Thrilled to be here, I knew it was going to be a fun ride. But I had no idea just how grand our Turkish adventure would turn out to be.

JENNI: A little background on Turkey...It's said that Turkey is an eastern country that looks to the West. Muslim by culture, it is a secular nation by practice, a fact that sets it apart from most other Islamic countries that see no separation between church and state. The fierce determination to maintain its secularism shows up in funny ways at times. For example, the headscarves that many Muslim women wear, and in fact feel naked without, are against the law on university campuses. In protest, some of the more inventive believers took to wearing obviously fake wigs over their headscarves when they ventured onto campus.

Unfortunately, the economic advisers for this country are no Alan Greenspan. The value of the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically over the last 8-12 months, leaving many people bankrupt or drawing only one-third of their salaries. The lucky ones just have to squeeze tighter than ever and try to make ends meet. We're told that just seven months before we arrived, the exchange rate was about 600,000 TL to the dollar…when we arrived, it had dropped to 1.5 million TL to the dollar, and dropped even further in the five weeks we were there. The strong dollar meant an inexpensive jaunt through Turkey for us, but I would gladly have paid twice more for everything if it meant their economy was back on track. Part of the problem is related to taxes - most of the population do not pay taxes because they are too high. But they are high because so few people pay them. It's a Catch-22 that catches some tourists off-guard when they expect a receipt for a purchase and are told "no" by shop owners, because they don't want to leave a paper trail for the government.

Turkey also has one of the biggest armies in the world thanks to the draft. All men must serve 18 months in the army, with few exceptions. (The most notable exception of late is the superstar singer, Tarkan, who avoided his service by forcing a showdown of sorts with the Turkish government while he was on a tourist visa in the US. It resulted in the government allowing some men to buy their way out of service. We're told that the fee is now about $20,000 US, a sum way out of reach for the vast majority of Turkish families with young sons.) The brutal fact is, a lot of these young soldiers turn out to be victims of terrorism. The army is a favorite target for the Kurdish terrorist group, PKK. More than 30,000 Turkish citizens, both civilian and military, have died at the hands of terrorist attacks over the last 20 years. And Turkey's harsh retaliation against the terrorist groups has meant a slow acceptance into the European Union. Apparently some of the Western European countries feel that more than a few human rights have been violated and they want Turkey to pursue other options to combat terrorism. Turkey has angrily proclaimed it's just fighting back against criminal terrorist activity and still hopes to join the European Union in 2003.

JOE: I feel sorry for the tour guides and history students here. They have to learn more than 3300 years of details! By contrast, in Texas, our tour guides only have about 160 years to worry about (that's if they follow tradition and ignore the Native American history.)

A brief history of Istanbul: (Thanks to our tour guides and books, especially "Let's Go Turkey"):

13th century BC: The area was sparsely settled by Mycenaeans. 7th century BC: A Greek land speculator named "Byzanta" founded the city of "Byzantium" after allegedly being led here by the Oracle at Delphi (a famous Greek fortune-telling racket.) Byzantium was later incorporated into the Roman Empire.

305 AD: The last Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity, then decided to make Byzantium the "New Rome." He renamed the city "Constantinople" after himself. At this time, Constantinople was populated by ethnic Greeks and other European Christians. The Byzantine Empire went on to last for more than 1100 years.

1453: Ethnic Turks (Ottomans) originally from Central Asia conquered Constantinople and changed the name to Istanbul. The Islamic Ottomans transformed the city from a Christian city to a very important Muslim center. One of the largest empires in history, the Ottoman Empire went on to conquer as much as one-third of all the known lands in the world, including most of Northern Africa and half of Southern Europe. The Ottoman Empire waned in the 19th century and died after its defeat in World War I.

1923: President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took power, ushering Turkey out of the Ottoman age and into modern society. He instituted many reforms, including transforming the government from a monarchy to a democracy, changing the alphabet from Arabic to Latin and allowing women to hold jobs. There are pictures, paintings and statues ALL OVER Turkey of Ataturk and his is the only face on ALL of the currency. Obviously, he is still a hero in Turkey, and, in fact, it is illegal to say anything disparaging about him. (We're thinking of naming our first-born child Ataturk just because that's illegal here too.)

2001: Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis with a population of 20 million - the largest in Europe. It's a giant city that combines a Cosmopolitan face with a hospitable village attitude.

JENNI: It's interesting to me that the story of the Turks' "conquering" of Constantinople in 1453 is taught as the "fall of Constantinople" in our history books. In our books, the conquerors are portrayed as ruthless and barbaric, while the crusaders are considered "gentlemen." The truth is the Ottomans were far more culturally and technologically advanced than the Western world all the way up until the Industrial Age. And remember how we learned about the "noble" Crusades and the "religiously enlightened" Crusaders? Nothing but a ragtag gang of thugs who pillaged and stole countless expensive artifacts and treasures, all in the name of religion (from the Turkish point of view). There is a church in Paris that really impressed me back in July - the Saint Chapelle. It's beautiful, and was built to house the Crown of Thorns. Turns out the crown was likely stolen from Constantinople/Istanbul during one of the Crusades!

This distinction between historical perspectives was gently made clear by a man who turned out to be much more than our guide of Istanbul: we feel like he is family and we know his wife and children will be our lifelong friends. We met Ahmet Yilmaz on the first full day of our stay in Istanbul. He is an old friend of my college friend Joanna's mother. They met when he was an exchange student in 1965 to Plainview High School in Plainview, Texas.Ahmet is half of a husband-wife tour team that makes their living giving personalized tours to visitors of Istanbul. Via e-mail, we had arranged to meet Ahmet for what we thought was going to be lunch or a cup of tea. Instead, he showed up, flashed a big smile, and said, "let's go!" and we were off on a wonderful whirlwind tour of the city. We absolutely did not expect a tour from him and - in fact - are still pleasantly surprised he and his wife, Gonul, ended up spending so much of their valuable time giving us the red carpet treatment! They are fortunate…their business was built slowly, on word of mouth, and they can afford the luxury of turning down tours if they so desire. It means that they only give tours to people who come recommended from previous guests, and it also means that Joe and I feel very honored and somewhat guilty, for we knew this was one of Ahmet's few days off here during the height of tourist season. Still, he took the time to shuttle us around on a custom tour. And he is a true delight. Overflowing with personality and a bright gleam in his eye, Ahmet is a beautiful storyteller. We are forever indebted to Barbara Lambert for putting us in contact with Ahmet, and we can never repay Ahmet and his wife, Gonul, for showering us with what we would later come to understand as the Turkish Generosity.

Ahmet is as handsome today as he was in his high school yearbook picture. He recently gave up cigarettes (a big feat since ALL Turkish men smoke) but not desserts. He says if he passes up sweets at his favorite dessert store, he has nightmares about it for weeks!

Ahmet explained many things to us. He answered our simple questions regarding the Islamic faith, what it was like to live in Turkey, what happened to the harem ladies when they got old…and he also explained why we kept seeing small boys dressed as miniature kings, complete with cape, hat, and scepter. Turns out that the little boys are celebrating the week of their circumcision, which is a major event in their lives. Boys (like the one here on the left) are circumcised typically at ages 3, 5, or 7 and it is a big event - their passage into responsibility and manhood. The week preceding the event is marked with special meals, visits with family, pilgrimage-like visits to religious sites (we saw them everywhere at Eyup, a highly meaningful mosque) and culminated in the event itself, which is attended by many family members and sometimes photographed. Each time we saw a little princely king, poor guy, we knew he was going to get his later that week…

I am also grateful to Ahmet for showing us the ingenuity of restaurant owners near mosques. Alcohol is served at many restaurants, but never in close proximity to any mosque - so owners are obliged to develop unique non-alcoholic drinks that keep customers coming back for more. Ahmet introduced us to a fruit juice with more than 41 spices in it, and a plum juice full of smoky flavors. I'm quite sure we never would have found such delights on our own.

JOE: Of all the tremendous sights in Istanbul, Ahmet, Gonul and their family were our biggest highlight. Their hospitality and care still have us glowing. Frankly, we felt quite spoiled by all the trouble they went through to make sure we had a good impression of their hometown and country. Gonul, by the way, is an accomplished artist who specializes in impressionistic paintings. She's actually the owner of the tour company. Ahmet went to work for his wife a few years ago (after a career in education) recognizing the value of the increased traffic in tourism in Turkey. Gonul is a generous, strong woman who - we've decided - is our surrogate mother while we're traveling in Turkey. My favorite thing about Ahmet is his superb talent of telling a good story. Especially when he's recounting fond memories of his time in Texas as a teenage exchange student in Plainview. He still has the cowboy hat he was presented before a Friday night football game, some 36 years ago. He still recalls his first time playing football (mistakenly thinking he was agreeing to play soccer). And, my favorite story is about the time he pulled a prank on a Texas newspaper photographer who was doing a feature story on the exchange student. Ahmet was taking a bite out of a watermelon when he looked up and informed the photographer that there are no watermelons back in Turkey. So you'd better get a picture of this. The next day the Plainview newspaper ran the photo on the front page with a caption dutifully reported the smiling Turk's first ever bite of watermelon. Oops! The newspaper should have checked its facts. It turns out, not only are watermelons abundant in Turkey, but Ahmet's dad OWNED A WATERMELON FARM back home! Ahmet's ability to spin a yarn came in quite handy as we toured the sights around Istanbul.

THE SIGHTS

 

The glorious Hagia Sofya is a giant Christian cathedral built in 537 AD. The huge pink-orange monument was once the center of the Christian world, back when Istanbul was known as Constantinople. After the conquest, it was turned into a Mosque (thus the minarets) and is now a museum. Just across a grand avenue is the Blue Mosque - also known as Sultanahmet Mosque, named for its thousands of blue-colored tiles inside that line the walls and ceilings. We could see the minarets outside our hotel window, and could quite easily and distincly hear the morning call to prayer, bright and early before sunrise.

Topkapi Palace was the famous, compound-like home of the Sultans for 400 years. This is the throne of the Sultan, who would sit cross-legged on it surrounded by cushions and receive his humbled guests.

Inside, the palace is a skeleton of its former self, but still quite a vivid reminder of times past. With Gonul's careful guidance, we could just imagine what life was like in the harem for a sultan.

   
Inside Topkapi Palace is the Treasury, filled with gold, emeralds, pearls, silver, basically anything deemed precious, and the world's 7th largest diamond. The items are priceless in value. We weren't allowed to take pictures, but we did sneak this one when the guard wasn't looking...it's a silver arm, which is said to encase the bones of St. John the Baptist. (Eeeww!)Dolmabahce Palace replaced Topkapi Palace as the official residence in the 1800's...it is far more sumptuous than than Topkapi, albeit smaller. This chandelier, one of the largest in the world, tops the staircase known as the Glass Staircase. Note the banister...We also visited the Hippodrome - the ruins of an ancient Roman stadium which was the site of chariot races and public executions. It was later the venue of choice for huge riots during the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It's said that the bones of more than 20,000 soldiers can be found if you dig a little beneath the surface.
   

Among the many other sites we took in are the Archaeology Museum, Taksim Square, and the famous hotel where Agatha Christie wrote several of her most famous books, including "Murder on the Orient Express."

But perhaps the most bizarre site: the Grand Bazaar. The largest covered shopping area in the world with more than 4-thousand individual shops, it is filled with hard-sell salesmen who trip over themselves to get you to buy their shiny valuables and especially their carpets!

The Suleymanya Mosque is one of the more famous mosques, because of who it is named after. Under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire doubled in size, and he built a whole lot of stuff. Despite the very high ceilings in this mosque, there are no cobwebs to be seen. Why? It's thanks to ostrich eggs dangling from the light rings. Apparently they are said to keep spiders away, and they have been there ever since it was built in the early 1500's.

JENNI: Istanbul, and in fact all of Turkey, is renowned for its carpets…and therefore, also for its carpet salesmen. Man, are these guys slick. They'll do the usual, calling and beckoning from the storefronts, but they'll also send unassuming cute men into crowds who say they want to "practice their English." After you agree to chat with them, they invite you back to their store for a simple cup of cay and a really good sales pitch. I fell for it once…the second time I told a Cute One that he could practice his English on me … but only if he walked with me to find Joe. He left as soon as we saw him (he said Joe looked "big and strong.") And THAT was the trick, I discovered. Have a man with me, a big man that I must "ask permission from" to make a purchase, and I was less susceptible to sales pitches. They just didn't approach as often as if I were alone, or with another woman. It's true! My experience in the Grand Bazaar proves it. Joe, Mary (a Canadian woman we met at the hotel) and I were browsing and wandering in the early hours the Bazaar was open. Salesmen were calling out to us, trying to draw our attention to one thing or another, but they were not obnoxious by any means. That is, until Joe got bored and left Maryand me alone to shop. Suddenly we were defenseless. Not thirty seconds after he left, the pitches stepped up in intensity and frequency. The Obnoxious Line would have been crossed, if they all hadn't been attractive men - not a saleswoman to be seen anywhere - and I had to give credit to the more creative of pitches, like the Cute One who said, "Miss! Miss! You dropped something!" and when I turned to see what I'd dropped, he was holding a leather coat: "Your coat, madam," he said.

JOE: Jenni loves the Turkish men.

JENNI: Joe and I finally broke down and decided we wanted to buy a carpet, but I was intimidated and wary of any shop I would walk into by myself. The guidebooks had succeeded in making me think all carpet shops would grossly overcharge me and then gleefully count the proceeds when I walked away. So I took comfort in the fact that Ahmet and Gonul said they'd take us to a carpet wholesaler outside the Grand Bazaar. We ventured in, shook hands with the cute salesman, and more than fifty carpets later and almost as many cups of cay, we decided on this one (design on the left) for about $600. Much more than we wanted to spend, but what the hell? For what it's worth they say the carpet it would go for twice that amount inside the Grand Bazaar if I had just walked in on my own.

Did I mention that all the Turkish men are attractive? None of them hold a candle to Joe, of course, but they are wonderful to look at. Wonderful flirts who can gaze with soulful dark eyes or watch with great interest…it's a wonderful country, Turkey!

JOE: Jenni loves the Turkish men. But she doesn't quite love their history concerning women. It all starts back in the Ottoman days when the sultans had harems with hundreds of concubines. Women were groomed to be harem girls ever since they were kidnapped from their families at a young age. The girls were basically kept as slaves in Topkapi Palace where they received an education as well as training on how to please the Sultan. They saw no men, ever, except for the Sultan and the eunuchs who guarded them. (Eunuchs were black slaves who would be castrated so they could serve the harem...as a result of the castration, their voices never deepened and their bodies grew quite large. )The Sultan's mother would actually choose which girls could visit her son. The Sultan would then walk down the hallway in shoes with silver on the bottoms so the women could hear him coming and hide. They were not allowed to informally bump into the Sultan in the hallways. The Sultan would choose from his mother's choices with which exact one he would sleep. If a harem girl ended up bearing him a child, she was elevated to a position of considerable authority, much like a "Queen Mother." That's why there were constantly intriguing situations of backstabbing and political wrestling matches among the women of the harem.

At first, the harem was merely a peripheral part of governing the country. Sons of the sultans were born in the harem, then raised by the concubines. But once they were teenagers, the crown princes were sent out into the real world. They would be given military commands where they could learn about diplomacy and war. Eventually, their fathers would die and they would become the new Sultan with strong practical experience on how to govern the empire. But, in the latter years of the empire, the entire system was devoured by the harems. Sultans started worrying about being murdered by their sons, so they took to keeping the crown princes as virtual prisoners inside the palace. Instead of leading troops into battle, the Sultan's sons were pampered and rarely let outside. The harem was the only world they knew. And the empire sufferedfrom their weakness once they grew up to be the Sultan. At first, things were also different for the harem girls. They were allowed to leave after serving 9 years. But eventually, it got to the point where they, too, were prisoners of the harem. A few women were set free, but only if they never ended up being chosen to spend a night with the Sultan. Otherwise, even if they only slept with him once, they were stuck inside the harem for life. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, harem girls were dumped out on the street. I think it would be fascinating to know whatever happened to them. But it's quite sad.

JENNI: Close to the end our stay in Istanbul, we spent another day with Ahmet and Gonul, wrapping up with dinner at a local restaurant in their neighborhood. We were meeting Ahmet there, and when we sat down, he whispered something in Gonul's ear that made her visibly worried. She quickly busied herself with her cell phone. Ahmet explained to us that there had been a suicide bomb in Taksim Square in a busy area of Istanbul, which killed two policemen and the suicide bomber and also injured 20 others, including a tourist. To make matters scarier, the bomb went off just an hour-and-a-half after we had left the square. Gonul was worried because their two sons frequent that area and they were both late meeting us for dinner. She tried, but couldn't reach them on their cell phones. Eventually, she found them, and was assured they were okay. We learned later through news reports that the suicide bomber was part of a terrorist group protesting prison conditions of their fellow terrorists.

JOE: After dinner, we called our parents to let them know we were okay, in case they saw the news on TV. Ahmet and Gonul invited us back to their home for dessert and drinks and to meet their sons (that's Tolga posing with Gonul on the left). We talked for hours. We probably overstayed our welcome, but were so wrapped up in the moment and feeling very safe and pampered like we were at home. When we said "goodnight" we felt like we were leaving our family's house after a holiday. We were stuffed full of food and buzzing from the excellent conversation. But that night we had a different, uneasy feeling. That night, we went to sleep haunted by the news of the bombing in Taksim Square. Why? Why did they have to hurt innocent people? That night we had a long talk about how thankful we were that we don't have problems like this back home. And that was the last night we had that thought. Because that night was September 10th, 2001.