December 16
Back from the Mystery Trip

We were on the shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal when I handed Susie the tickets for her 'mystery birthday trip'. Most of you know that I'd decided to take her someplace special but didn't say where we were going. All she knew was that we'd be gone five days and it was 51 degrees there. What would you do if you had 750,000 frequent flier miles??

She opened the envelope with a smile and then began to look confused. "Frankfurt?? You're taking me to Germany?? Its not 50 degrees there..."

"Look at the rest of the ticket," I said. "We just change planes in Germany"

"Istanbul??? ISTANBUL! Are you CRAZY??" she laughed. "I thought you were taking me to San Diego!!"

Susie knew that I'd always wanted to visit Constantinople. Strategically straddling the Bosphorus, the ancient-now-modern city stood at the historic intersection of Europe and Asia. The Greeks passed through on their way to Troy. Alexander crossed here on his march to Persia. Emperor Constantine named the metropolis for himself as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire and the center of Byzantine culture. It was a thriving Christian city when the fourth Crusade arrived, but they sacked it anyway. Five hundred years later, the Turks took the city by dragging their warships overland to flank the city walls. It then became the capital of the Ottoman Empire that stretched from Hungary to Afghanistan and across Northern Africa. In 1933, the modern Turkish republic was formed.

Map of Turkey

But these are modern times with modern concerns. When I'd told friends in confidence that we were going to Muslim Turkey, some flinched. I reminded them that Turkey was a US ally, a member of NATO, had fought alongside us in Korea, and was applying for membership in the European Union. Besides, I said, our hotel is on the European side...

First Impression

One friend checked with the State Department and then called me back. "They say it is safe as long as you don't try to drive..."

Drive?? Moi?? We had first class tickets -- the kind with gourmet meals where the seats recline into beds. I'd scheduled a taxi to the hotel. And I had booked a premium ($400-a-night ) room at the Hilton with a view of the Straights. I'd warned them in advance that it was a birthday trip and an iced bottle of champagne was waiting by the bed.

All together, it cost me six months worth of travel miles and $68 in taxes. But that was before we went shopping...

Day One: The beauty of jet lag, if you can call it that, is waking early and getting the day started. We opted for a full-day city tour that included a guide, lunch, and entrance to all the museums. It was $70 each but turned out to be a pretty good value. Being off-season, no one else signed up so we had a private car and guide for the entire day!

Aya Sofya Aya Sofya Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya is one of the world's greatest examples of Byzantine architecture. It was built by the Emperor Justinian in AD 532, although I suspect the 10,000 workers employed had something to do with construction as well. It served as the Cathedral of Constantinople and had the largest dome in the world for over 1000 years. We're talking about a building that was the largest enclosed space on the face of the planet for over a millennia. Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside. In 1453, Mehmet the Conquer took the city for the Turks, threw up some minarets, covered the Christian mosaics, and "poof" the place was turned into a mosque. It now serves as a museum but Susie was intrigued by the religious flexibility of this stunning building.

The Blue Mosque The Blue Mosque The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, built in 1609 is just a block away. I asked our guide why two such impressive places of worship were so close. He explained that all Muslims are expected to pray in the city's main mosque at noon each Friday and that by the 17th century, one just wasn't large enough...

This is a functioning house of worship and we removed our shoes to enter. Ceiling tiles, stained glass, and the single large carpet with prayer stations woven in were spectacular. Long cables hung from the roof to support a matrix of light fixtures about eight feet above the ground.

Topkapi Saray Topkapi Saray Topkapi Saray

Topkapi Saray was the palace of the Sultans, the location of their harems, and seat of government for an empire lager than North America. It is now a museum with displays of clothing, porcelain, furniture and jewelry. Susie was taken with the rough emeralds the size of a goose egg. I thought the harem was interesting...

There are memories you carry from your journeys -- seeing the Great Wall for the first time, Notre Dame in the misty moonlight, standing at Agincourt, riding a camel in Dubai, or peering through the trees at Little Round Top. At Topkapi I had one of those moments.

In a glass case beyond the jewels, I found what appeared to be a golden glove. Part of the metal was peeled back to display a skeleton hand within. I was familiar with the European custom of collecting and displaying the fingers, toes, and skulls of their saints. But when I read that this was the arm of John the Baptist, I shuddered. Put aside for a moment the complexities of a Jewish guy standing in a Mosque looking at a pillar of Christianity. I was awed simply in terms of the history. Here, they were saying, was the hand that baptized Jesus.

Too Many Zeros

Grand Bazaar

Carpet Guy

Day Two: We are millionaires! Actually anyone in Turkey with $6.45 is a millionaire when you convert to lira. But that makes shopping a dizzying prospect. Taxis are $15 million. Dinner is $112 million. Jewelry is -- well, not being in government, I hate to think of money in the trillions...

But our second day was set aside for shopping so I spent some time trying to count whether the blue bill or the orange one had the most zeroes and off we went!

The Grand Bazaar is just that. First built in the 15th century and expanded each time it was destroyed by fire or earthquake, it now contains 61 covered streets and over 4000 shops. I'd brought Susie to the largest shopping mall in the world... Big trouble.

Capitalism is alive and well in Turkey and the biggest lie in the country is "I don't want to sell you anything - just come have some tea." Every two steps in the Bazaar, someone will reach out to you. "Where you from?" "Looking for carpets?" "Come in and rest!" "You spoke to him - now it is my turn!!" and my favorite -- "Oh yes, I once visited Neotsu!!".

I quickly concluded that there were really only five stores in this labyrinth - a carpet store, a ceramic store, a leather store, a jewelry store and a copper store. They just had lots of branches. But it was a fascinating and fun place, and I wanted a large copper pot for storing firewood near the stove so we waded in.

Susie hates negotiating. And me?? Let's just say it was nice to be the one trying to haggle prices down for once. "157 million! No way! I'll only pay 80!" "Let's go, Susie -- I'm sure we can find it for less around the corner!" "Is this your best price??" "What would your mother pay??" I finally got the price I wanted - one that was fair and fun for both of us.

The tension was over and the store owner invited us to sit, drink apple tea, and chat while he wrapped our new pot. Getting this home was going to be fun.

Day Three: Today we're going to Asia. It's only a quarter mile away but we're taking the long route -- a Bosphorus boat ride that zig-zags up the waterway for two hours. We get to see the bridges that link the continents, the fancy waterfront houses, palaces, mosques, and several well-preserved old castles. I like the castles. Susie likes the big houses.

From Europe to Asia Ottoman Castle

On the drive back, we stop in a popular neighborhood which the travel books say highlight how Christians, Muslims, and Jews all live comfortably together in Turkey. Our guide shows us a Mosque and Church side-by-side. I ask where the Synagogue is. He isn't sure but he knows there is one somewhere.

We take naps in the afternoon because we need to leave for the airport at 3:30 am. Then we join Turkish kite friends for dinner and a night of authentic Turkish dining. We finish with a stroll through the same neighborhood we'd visited earlier in the day. We walked to the water's edge to see the lights of the city. We drank a bottle of wine in a cafe. We asked everyone where the synagogue was and no one knew.

Turkish Pot -- Just 75 Million

Our flight home went to Frankfurt and then direct to San Francisco. We slept most of the 11 hours.

Actually Susie slept and I worried that she was getting too comfortable in first class. We'd had three perfect days in Turkey. The city was magnificent, the hotel superb, the people friendly, and the food scrumptious. I'd surprised my wife, which is a good thing from time to time.

Now all I had to worry about was what to tell US customs when they saw the big box wrapped in brown paper, labeled "POT".

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