The Islamic world is so rarely appreciated for its contrasts, this is doubly difficult for us as Americans, our stigmatized, polarized, oversimplified views are more often shaped by our media instead of by the actual realities and vast complexities that make up Islam today. Modern, innovative, cosmopolitan, Istanbul, Turkey is perhaps the best example of this- a crucible of all that Islam is, was, and will be in the future. A city with an ancient past, the historic crossroad between the Asian and European continents; Istanbul is still a city balanced between two worlds, often struggling to rid itself of its collective angst, while forging ahead into a prosperous future. A metropolis of fifteen million inhabitants, Istanbul has three thousand mosques, in a country where the national drink, "rocket" is a forty-five proof alcoholic beverage.
Istanbul has a long lived reputation as an exotic place
Walking the streets of Istanbul, one could be in any large, modern, European city. The streets are lined with stylish shops and busy cafes serving fashionably dressed young professionals. Despite its modern appearance, Istanbul has a long lived reputation as an exotic place; capturing the imaginations of travelers, artists, and writers from the west for centuries. With this being said, it's probably the most famous, yet least understood Muslim city on the planet, with a surprisingly tolerant attitude. At our hotel, women sunbathe topless by the pool, while the calls for mid-day prayers can be heard emanating from the mosques. And like Marrakech, there is also a large Jewish community here, who, along with a smaller Christian community, has lived peacefully together for a millennia.
The Bosporus, the strait that connects the Black Sea, with the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately the Mediterranean, is a waterway that has been repeatedly defended, conquered, and fought over for thousands of years due to its vital strategic importance. It divides the European continent from the Anatolian peninsula of western Asia, and it runs right through the middle of Istanbul, making this city the only one in the world that spans two continents. We took an evening cruise yesterday, the Bosporus is at the center of social life and social status here. Surprisingly unpolluted, blue, and beautiful, The shores are crowded with palaces both old and new- from the ones built by the Sultans of the past, to exclusive mansions built by the modern moguls of capitalism. These sit side by side along with magnificent Mosques, restaurants, hotels, and fishing piers lined with recreational anglers. The strait itself is a bustling highway of large scale commercial shipping, a fleet of cruise ships, sleek yachts, and small fishing boats.
The food here is wonderful- the mix of east and west creates a style and flavors that are like nothing Art and I have ever experienced. The dishes are prepared with meticulous care and served with an equal amount of fanfare. Every meal was an adventure and a delight. We stayed in a hotel that was once a palace of the Sultans. It was burnt in 1909, and sat as an empty shell for several decades until it was renovated into the Kempinsky Hotel. They're just finishing up a Four Seasons hotel next door- that building was once a notorious prison. The irony is inescapable- just like the prison used to be. We spent our first afternoon shopping the famous Grand Bazaar, once the oldest market of its kind, now it caters mostly to the tourist trade brought in by the cruise ships, but there are still many wonderful and fascinating things to be seen and purchased there. The next day was spent touring the city and its famous Mosques, every bit as impressive and beautiful as the cathedrals of Europe, we were never asked to wear head scarfs, but Art did have to wear a long skirt to cover his legs as he was wearing shorts. No problem- he looks great in a skirt! Like so much of this journey, Istanbul held many pleasant surprises, we were put at ease from the start, and had a great time exploring this part of the world- definitely worth a return visit.
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