The City of Seven Hills

I arrived in Istanbul yesterday and today I think I know where some of the big roads lead. One, Istiklal Cad., winds its way from Taksim Square down to the Galata Bridge and I, like millions before me, have decided to dwell here on the border between continents before it becomes impossibly busy.

Istiklal is crisscrossed by small café lined streets full of smoking Turks reading their newspapers. Handsome cats poke out from rooftops tending to their affairs.

Last night’s phosphorus bars look impossibly tired in the morning sun, their signs wedged beneath the architecture.

I begin my day much as everyone else in this city who has leisure time: a cigarette, newspaper and tea. That doesn’t sound remarkably different from the rest of the world, but it is when you see the Turks doing it. Less formal than Europeans, but thoroughly modern, the shopkeepers and windows washers in this side-street greet one another and thumb their tools for the day.

As a New Yorker, the striking difference is that their activity does not define them. Maybe it's because I'm new here, or rarely awake this early, but it is easier to see the person behind the job. The waitors are barely there, more concerned about their friends' gossip than bring them food. They perform the odd jobs of the city with a certain distance from their work.

You can tell it is just a job, something to do between tea and football and family.

Of course this isn’t true for everyone. Shoe shiners, garbage haulers, taxi drivers all seem more burdened by their work and of course there are more of them than waiters.

The people that inhabit these streets look as tired, as stylish, as Mediterranean as ever.  I can still tell this is a city of fish, of prayer, of conspiring nights and mornings full of hauling… even though most of the stalls in the fish market sell plumbing tools; the newspaper is eaten up by dignitaries and currency rates; and I have yet to work up the courage to enter one of the smaller mosques that isn’t in my guidebook.

Despite all that, the honking stops with the call to prayer and the cafes (most of them anyway) turn down their music.

Truth be told, I bet Istanbul was even more itself not that long ago. But at least you can still tell.

Tourist friendly as it is (or has become?), the sheer variety of the foreigners eases my embarrassment over visiting – and having to ask for things - without a word of Turkish. Not that there is any reason to act so meek… Tourists seem very welcome here, although I have noticed on more than one occasion a hint of over-compensating friendliness when I mention I am American.

“From New York? Really? We love New York,” one waiter said, “No Americans here for a long time,” he said, pointing inside, “but I love New York!” As though it were another Mediterranean city-state, which I suppose it well might be.

There are pockets of hostels throughout Istanbul full of back-packing, bag rolling and bagless everyones: dreadlocked, wide-eyed wanderers, shy and not so shy Brits, Australian girls with French men, Russians flanked by their apprehensive children, a pair of Brazilian sisters, even a pack of Koreans occupying an entire tram car, their guide looking as tired as a mother cat.

Of course the majority of visitors probably stay in more accommodating accommodations. These hotels are usually conveniently located beside travel agencies that seem far more obsessed with the twirling dervishes than any Turk I’ve spoke to.

There are people here on business - even a glance at the crossfire shipping in Bosporus strait will explain why. This is a city of import and export and that makes for fertile imperial soil. Hotels that look like banks sit heavy as giant trees beside the major arteries of trade.

A river of money flows through here and it’s likely as old as any named body of water. Today - like a day hundreds of years ago -there are people standing outside these centers of power, smoking foreign cigarettes with other well-dressed, well-groomed, well-connected professionals.

Still the majority of people I see are laughing Turks, earnest Russians, and a scattering of visitors from smaller European nations that produce tall and often blond travelers.

As I make my way down the hill toward the water and cross into the Old City, the winding streets and tiny stores give way to ancient edifices surrounded by parks with free wifi.

Of course it is hard to keep count of any cross-section in Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, where the hundred (thousand?) year old attractions hold court.

No description of the Istanbul is sufficient without a mention of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia Museum. The later started its life as a magnificent church and when the City fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque.

It is telling that the new owners did not destroy the beautiful mosaics. I always knew that Muslims considered Jesus a prophet too, but my friend told me told that they believe he went to purgatory before the crucification and was replaced by an angel on the cross.

The Hagia Sophia was declared a museum at the founding of the Turkish Republic and now hosts an endless stream of tourists brandishing cameras and children and behaving like, well, tourists.

The Blue Mosque, another extraordinary structure, is spared this indignity by serving its purpose as a place of worship. Tourists are not allowed in during prayers and while worshipers have a dedicated entrance at any time, shutterbugs must wait in a queue to keep the atmosphere inside sacred. A much more enjoyable experience for all involved, I think. Besides, it's quite a beautiful view while you wait...

Rarified as the stone-cooled air may be inside the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar seemed the most ancient of all to me, packed as it was with cell phones, jeans, bling, spices, pickles, olives, real bling, sunglasses, knickknacks, spinning onion-domed toys, carpets, scarves, veils, robes, drums, pipes, basins, and carpets again.

A mini-city covered from the sun, the bazaar generates its own climate, the result of air rising from the slow roasting lamb and hitting a spice front.

The market provides the perfect stage for the modern descendents of those great booming voices that must has once commanded deckhands throughout the Aegean. I have no idea what they are yelling, but it certainly gets my attention.

I enjoy the sound of Turkish. To my ear, it sounds like human speech, pedestrian and bursting with words for the simplest moment. For what it takes an animal one piercing cry, it can take a man three sentences, two shrugs, and some backtracking. Then again, animals don’t sell carpets and carpet dealers don’t climb ancient walls.

The bustle of the city has been steadily building. It is almost time for lunch and I’ve decided to sit at another café and listen to more Turkish.

Four large, older men sit around a small table talking. The words - with their tsh’s, and ksh’s, and tz’s - originate in the gut but are then commandeered in the mouth and smacked around by the tongue like a baker mixing his dough.

Of course I can parse it about as well as I can comprehend a tree full of birds.