10 October 2009


I spent a week in Istanbul, my first overseas journey in eight years. Entirely too long.

People asked me if I was going for business or pleasure. Are those the only two choices?

It was a pilgrimage. Not officially of course, like the Camino del Santiago or St. Patrick's Purgatory or the month of annual pilgrimage to Mecca. And truthfully, Christian Constantinople was a religious destination for centuries, with the largest church in the world before St. Peter's in Rome. Even after it became a Muslim country it drew pilgrims to see Islamic holy things as well.

When I say it was a pilgrimage I mean that it was an intentional journey of the spirit as well as the body, one that I made in order to venture inwardly as well as outwardly. Vacations are about vacating, getting away from it all. Pilgrimages are about getting deeply into something.

Istanbul is the place where everything meets. Ancient and modern, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, western and eastern. It is a city as chic and modern as Paris. and as sprawling and shabby as Mumbai. In the old city center ancient Roman and Greek life is under foot on every street, and the Byzantine and Ottoman eras are visible on every block.

And yet trucks fill the old streets and students choke the sidewalks and everyone is talking on cellphones. Young girls in tight jeans laugh and walk arm in arm on the main street, the Ordu Caddesi, near the University. Young men in untucked shirts smoke and laugh in groups as well, as this is the crossroads of their world. Stores on the street are bright and white, eateries are full of people visible through large glass windows. I could be in LA or New York.

But then I see old beggar women with leather faces and few teeth and hair scarves who lean on canes and hold out their empty hands, or sit on small boxes to feed the birds and sell you crumbs to do the same. And along side the avenue with its modern light rail tramway are broken columns from an ancient Byzantine arch, too big to remove and so the city simply goes around them.

Every few hours each mosque, and there is a mosque every four or five blocks , broadcasts the call the prayer - each with their own muezzin and each at their own time so that a random choir of loudspeakers with undulating and ululating male voices rises up like a flock of birds in the ear, all at once but not in formation.

Ships fill the harbor, more than I have ever seen before in one place - the freighters anchored in long lines like a parking lot waiting for the appointment to traverse the Bosporus, the fishing boats wafting lazily between them, innumerable ferries scooting headlong about, like the cars in the streets, oblivious to physics and law. Gulls circle above the pigeons, the air is moist and smells of salt and men and diesel and charcoal.

I arrived at supper time on a Tuesday, having left 12 hours before at 1030pm from Chicago. Eight time zones and twelve hours at once. Serious jet lag. Crossing the border, getting a visa and having the passport stamped is momentous. My old passport expired two years ago so this one has gone unstamped until now.

Driven in by the hotel car, I enjoy my first traffic jam, the sight of palm trees along the roadside, the harbor coming into view, and my first sight of Asia, which lies on the other side of the straight. In the fog of a long flight and little sleep I am hyper-aware and also unable to take it all in. My room is small, clean, and at the end of the hall. The place came highly recommended and so far it has been just what I expected. My body wants to lie down, but I know it is best to stick it out until bed time, and so make my first foray into the streets which I just summarized for you. Seven days lie ahead.

This post is now officially too long. Perhaps tomorrow I can write more, and figure out how to upload a few photos as well. I did it before, but somehow it is not working this evening. They truly are worth a thousand words.

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