CHASS Dean Jeff Braden is traveling in Turkey as part of a delegation from North Carolina’s Divan Center, a nonprofit committed to promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Turkey. He is sharing his experiences and perspectives through a series of blog posts.
Heathrow, 8:20 am GMT, 28 June. Courtesy of the Divan Center, a North Carolina nonprofit committed to promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Turkey, I am headed to Turkey. I’m excited; having been twice before to Istanbul during my Fulbright (which was based at the University of Athens in Greece), I’m looking forward to this return trip. My wife Jill and I are headed to Istanbul, the financial capital of Turkey and the only city on the planet to serve as the seat of three distinct empires (Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman). It’s been an uneventful (if somewhat uncomfortable) flight from Raleigh to London, Heathrow—made more exciting by the presence of a number of NC State faculty (e.g., Larry Nielsen, Maxine Atkinson, Chandra Cox, Harold Freeman) and students heading out to study abroad. We have North Carolina roots, we truly have global reach! As I wait for them to call our flight to Istanbul, I already feel tired. I hope I can keep up my energy!
Istanbul, 9:45pm +2GMT, 28 June. Jill and I have just returned from a wonderful traditional Turkish meal with Ali Ozturk and his lovely wife. Ali worked with us in CHASS for many years before returning to Turkey to be a professor. It was great to see him—and to walk across the bridge over the Golden Horn. We saw people using big fishing poles to catch small, sardine-sized fish right from the bridge. (I must confess, when I saw the small fish on the end of the hooks, I thought they were bait, not catch.) There are brightly colored boats at the base of the bridge near the New Mosque that fry up the fish whole—and incredibly fresh! By the time Jill and I climbed the hill back to our hotel, we were exhausted. It was a lovely evening out, lots of people laughing and talking and selling things along the way—but we were tired!
Istanbul, 10:30 pm 29 June. It was a busy, incredibly interesting day. We were on our own until early afternoon, and we used the time to our advantage. Jill browsed shops and cafes with friends (including Dr. Jeff Leiter, Professor of Sociology, and his
wife Carrie) nearby our historic hotel situated just above the Golden Horn on the modern (northern and European) end of Istanbul. I decided to walk the length of the very modern, ultra-wide pedestrian mall that started right next to our hotel—and ended in Taksim Square. Yep, that Taksim Square. I was not the only tourist out taking pictures and checking out the site of the recent demonstrations. Although things have settled down quite a bit, there was a peaceful protest planned for later this evening. Indeed, I saw firsthand some of the evidence of police preparations to prevent demonstrators from coming to Taksim Square along the same route I’d taken (a very popular route, by the way). I was relieved to hear later that, although there was a protest, it did not elicit violence, either from the police or the protesters.
When we joined up with our group, we immediately went on a sightseeing boat trip around the Bosporus. It was incredibly scenic; we pulled out of the Golden Horn and headed north toward the Black Sea. The many cruise,
cargo, and pleasure craft weaving around the straits reminded me of the highly congested highway traffic. We completed our trip by turning south and heading down the Asia side before heading back to port. Although we saw many sights that were amazingly scenic (including ships, immense bridges, and the Istanbul skyline, which is a mix of ultra-modern and Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman architecture), my favorite memory was of the people. When one of our group remarked on a large, round wafer one of the Turkish passengers had purchased from a vendor walking through the ship, the passenger turned to her and offered her a taste. It was a spontaneous, genuine act of friendship and hospitality that turned into a wonderful (if, thanks to our virtually nonexistent Turkish and her much better, but still limited, English) conversation. We learned she was traveling with her uncle, aunt, and cousins. When I took her photo with Toni (who teaches at Meredith College in Raleigh), I offered her my card and promised to send her a copy of the picture. All in all, it was a rich and wonderful reminder of the amazing hospitality and friendliness of the Turkish people.
Istanbul, 8:10 pm, 30 June. We were up early and pounding the pavement with a visit to Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. Not only is the structure impressively situated on the southern ridge that overlooks both the Bosporus and the Golden Horn; it contains collections of clothing, weapons, jewels, and more accrued during the reign of the empire. Most famous are the “Two Spoons Diamond” (so-called because it is said the poor man who found it traded it to a street merchant for two spoons) and the Topkapi Dagger. Still, we barely had time to take in these marvels before heading to Aghia Sophia, which was the largest church in the world for nearly a millennium (and still ranks as fourth). When Mehmet the Second finally conquered Istanbul in the mid-1400s, he converted the amazing structure into a mosque. The fact that the Ottomans left the original mosaics, paintings, and relics largely untouched (although they did cover the images of human faces so that they could use the building as a place of worship) attests to the history of tolerance of religions among Muslims. In fact, most of the items that were looted or destroyed were done by the Crusaders, who viewed the structure as a mosque and therefore sacrilegious. We still didn’t stop; after a quick lunch, we descended into the Cistern (site of many movie scenes and one of the key reasons why Istanbul has stubbornly resisted invaders for hundreds of years), and emerged to see the last item on our historic itinerary—the Blue Mosque. Although it was my second visit, I was amazed once again at its massive size and yet utterly graceful and inspiring architecture. We emerged from the mosque tired but happy, and were grateful the traffic was fairly light as we were carried back to our rather impressive quarters in the northern part of town.
So… I would continue this blog, but we are scheduled to leave for the airport tomorrow at 4:00 am (no, that is not a typo!). Sigh… too bad, as I have one of the most impressive views I’ve ever had from any room where I’ve stayed. I’ll close this blog with a shot of it, and hope to continue the narrative tomorrow!
Signing off for now…