When In Eastern Rome, Do As The Eastern Romans Do

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The following post was written in Istanbul Ataturk airport on the morning of Monday March 4th, but not uploaded until afternoon the next day.

Final hours in Istanbul. Writing this from the glorious, clean and attractive Ataturk airport. We didn’t quite get the full “Midnight Express” treatment, but security was certainly very strict. You get x-rayed when you enter the terminal. You get interviewed by security (a fairly thorough interview) before you check in. You check in. Another security guy then checks your check-in credentials. Then you go through passport control. Then the official security screening. And now we wait for our flight, before which, presumably, there will be another passport check. Do all travelers get this treatment? I suspect so. But I also suspect that travelers to the USA are particularly well scrutinized. (UPDATE: Yep, between the waiting room and getting on the plane, I went through FIVE more security screens over the course of 4 or 5 metres. I’m not exaggerating.)

I was drawn to Turkey, and in particular Istanbul, for its position at the navel of human history. The Hittites, Phrygians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, and Romans all claimed this place. It’s the birthplace of Orthodox Christianity and much of the heft of European and Near Eastern culture. It was marked by such historic champions, heroes, and anti-heroes as Alexander the Great, Constantine, Justinius, Mehmet, and Ataturk. It’s the setting for the Trojan War, the launching platform for the Crusades, and quite possibly the birthplace of human civilization itself, as recent archaeological discoveries suggest.

And modern Turkey and Istanbul are no less fascinating. Istanbul literally means “in the city”, a poor transliteration from the Greek. That historical accident hints at the richness of living Anatolia, that this is a place whose quality is defined by its people.

I can honestly say that amongst the great many places around the world to which I have travelled, Turkey has been my favourite. Let me list a few of the reasons:

  • The richness of her history bubbles up at every turn.
  • The people are genuinely friendly, and indeed quite funny.
  • The young women are smokin’ hot. (Though I suppose the ones I noticed could have been Russian tourists)
  • The food is fresh, delicious, and quite healthy.
  • The city of Istanbul is extremely clean.
  • How can you not like a place peppered with countless, clean public toilets?
  • The numerous stray cats and dogs are healthy, seemingly happy, friendly, well fed and, I’m told, quite loved by the city’s residents.

At no point did we feel insecure, hassled, or put upon. There was no “hard sell” by any of the shopkeepers (unlike, say, in Cairo, Delhi, or Marakesh). In fact, they were universally funny. When we were walking through the spice bazaar with our sunglasses on, one shopkeeper shouted to us, “Welcome back, Mr Anderson,” in reference to the Matrix movies. Not something you expect from an ancient Islamic souk.

The people have been quite forthcoming with their candid attitudes. A food vendor at 3:AM shared with me his various tastes in women. Apparently the Russians are most desirable. A nargilem (water pipe) attendant from Egypt let loose for quite some time about his dislike for Turkey.

Ironically, his reasons for disliking the place were precisely my reasons for loving it. He disliked the country’s secular form of Islam. He disliked Turkey’s inability to choose between Europe and Asia. He thought the Turkish women were beautiful but dumb. (I saw no evidence for them being “dumb”; quite the contrary, really.) And he called the country’s republican hero, Kemal Ataturk, “gay”, presumably for the latter’s desire to introduce social freedoms to the Turks.

It was a further joy to discover that an old friend, Saira, had been living in Istanbul for several months. Meeting up with her in the Taksim area offered us an oppotunity to visit some of the less touristy features of the place. She took us to a hidden Kurdish bar named “Tanya”, unlabelled and at the top of a darkened staircase in an assuming corner of Taksim.

The place was a slice out of time. It seemed Trotsky himelf was huddled in the corner, simultaneously ogling the girls and planning the revolution. And I landed upon another reason for liking Turkey so much. Throughout so many of my travels, the creep of Western (read: American) culture is unmistakable and tiresome. But in Turkey, the indigenous culture is strong enough that there is no room for external interpolations. Except for BBC World News and the occasional talk show, all the TV stations are in Turkish. No one is walking around dressed like an ill-fed gangsta rapper. When young people dance in the street or sing aloud, it is to traditional-sounding Turkish songs. The monoculture has not expressed global hegemonic dominance, I am pleased to report.

I was further intrigued by the diversity of people all about. I don’t know how many were tourists and how many locals. But the Central Asian motif was unmistakable. Uighurs, Turkmenistanis, Hungarians, Slavs, Croats, North Africans, and Arabs dominate, with only a smattering of Western Europeans. A fair number of Japanese and Korean tourists abound (not too surprising, considering the shared linguistic roots of both Turkish and Korean). our tour grou in Capadoccia was made up of multiracial Brazilians, Uruguayans, an Argintinean, Mexican exchange students, and two Austrians. Throughout our entire exploration, we only met two Americans.

No offence against my American friends, but it’s nice to not bump into them here. A strong American tourist presence tends to change a place, compelling its stores, restaurants and other services to cater to that fairly homogenous need. Lack of them has kept Istanbul both a tower of 21st century European culture, and a quilt of unapologetic multi-ethnic flavours.

On my last full day in Istanbul, I partook of an experience that is now cliche, but something that for me resounds with historic importance: the hamam, or Turkish bath.

I’ve been recording audio for an upcoming podcast, and my reflections on the hamam are a big part of it. So I won’t waste too much time reproducing those thoughts here. Instead, I want to point out that, for me, experiencing the hamam was a taste of ancient Rome. In the rush of Islamic cultural opulence, we tend to forget that Istanbul was also Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. I suspect that her traditions of public bathing evolve from the Roman traditions. The hamam that I tried is a popular tourist destination, but it was recommended to me by a Turkish friend, and was populated with mostly local bathers. So I assume my experience was, for lack of a better word, genuine.

Lying on the marble slab in the steamy hamam, looking up into the palatial, though decaying, centuries-old Roman ceiling, I could not help but be catapulted into the past. This was how men relaxed and socialized. This was where political and business decisions were made. This was one of the engines of true Roman society.

It was utterly fascinating. This was made more so by the knowledge of what stood outside this particular hamam: the Column of Constantine. The column is unlabelled, and appears to be yet another megolith in the touristy district of downtown Istanbul. Heck, it’s cross from a tram top and a movie theatre. But it is the very spot where Constantine the Great proclaimed the Eastern Roman Empire roughly 1700 years ago.

It is a marker of one of the most important developments in world history. Yet I wonder how many passers-by know it for what it is, given that it doesn’t turn up on any of the tourist maps that I consulted.

But that’s Istanbul. It’s a place so deep and rich with history, that with every step on her cobbled streets, one can be assured that one is treading in the footsteps of any of thousands of explorers of historic magnitude. For history geeks like me, it’s the ultimate destination.

Here are some videos:

A tour of Istanbul’s spice market –

Two videos showing the view from Galata tower:

Two videos with about 30 seconds each of street scenes in Istanbul:

Podcast forthcoming.