Exploring Istanbul, Turkey
By Candyce H. Stapen
It was the Turquoise Coast that drew us to Turkey, but we also became enamored of Istanbul, a city of imposing mosques and graceful minarets that’s home to the sprawling Grand Bazaar and the impressive Topkapi Palace.
The bazaar, once the center for local commerce, now caters almost exclusively to tourists. Spice stalls brim with bushels of saffron, cardamon and coriander and other shops sell kilims and rugs, cheap T-shirts, knock-offs of American jeans and thousands of other items.
My daughter Alissa, then 14-years-old, served as our designated rug-bargainer. She faced off against hard-driving merchants who swore tearfully that the deal they proffered was so low it would bankrupt their families. Alas, the store owners met their match in Alissa, whose combination of American teen stubbornness and young womanhood disarmed the dealers, so much so that the final prices came in at two-thirds the original asking price, a fee that’s probably close to what the rug should sell for.
However, the truth about bargaining for rugs is that unless you are a textile expert or well-versed in rug buying, there is almost no way of knowing the fair value of a piece. One shopkeeper inquired in serious tones if Alissa was “promised in marriage;” his family was interested because since she haggled so astutely, she would certainly make her husband rich.
At Topkapi Palace, we glimpsed another side of Turkish culture, that of the enormous wealth of the Ottoman rulers. We viewed diamonds as big as fists, rubies the size of pheasant eggs and other glittering jewels. The maze of closed-in, hard-to-reach harem rooms where even sunlight appeared only through latticed windows near the ceiling allowed us to sense how circumscribed were the lives of harem women and their children.
Outside in the soft light of the summer afternoon Alissa and I walked backed to our pension in Istanbul’s old city, near the outer walls of the palace grounds. We felt lucky to be able to stroll the streets without watchful guards and not to measure our worth by a man’s occasional visit.
On our trip through Turkey, the historians and tour guides focused primarily on the conquests of sultans, Alexander the Great and other famous men. But we also saw a succession of strong, unheralded women who over thousands of years have kept the eternal home fires burning.
While Alissa and I shared late afternoon coffee and hot chocolate in the rooftop terrace of our hotel, we heard the muezzin’s call to prayer and we added our own thoughts for all the anonymous women who for centuries have cooked meals and comforted children whether in marble palaces, stone dwellings or village houses.
Three great places to stay in the city are the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, a 65-room property created from a former prison that’s within walking distance of Topkapi Palace; the 170 guest room Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet with its large spa, and the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul also overlooking the Bosphorus.