Crossroads Tour – Sleepless in the Sultanahmet…

As of May 2021, I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels where I am reissuing them as Director’s Cuts, with full text and previously unpublished photos. This is an excerpt from my first trip to Istanbul in 2011.

It was a sleepless night in the Sultanahmet. I was up until 1 AM tearing my room and my luggage apart, looking for my camera charger. Jackhammers pounded until well after midnight to demolish the building next door, and a steady stream of bricks was heaved into the dumpster below my window until about 2 AM. Morning calls to prayer wake me back up at 4:30 AM. I try to nap until 7:30 before giving up. I’m so sleep deprived and exhausted that I can barely function.  

It’s overcast outside, much like my mood. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, both from the lack of sleep having my ears filled with the harsh sounds of a language I cannot understand. I cannot get onto the WIFI and have no maps of the city. I should have bought a scarf yesterday so I could visit the mosques today. Maybe Istanbul is too great a challenge for me. Maybe I should buy a return plane ticket if I can ever get online…

It’s not even 9 AM.  Get a grip!  I pick up my guidebook and plan my day. The Cistern is just down the street from Hotel Han, and the Blue Mosque a little further down. That’s easy. I decide to leave my camera at home to conserve the battery for the remainder of the week.

The Cistern is very calm and cool, and there are fish in the water.  I am very excited to find books in the gift shop. BOOKS ! ! ! !

Further down the street is Sultanahmet Square, a lovely stretch of fountains and gardens that form a courtyard between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. As I am walking, an older Turkish gentleman matches my stride and strikes up a conversation. His English is very good. He tells me he’s a retired history teacher, and happy to see Americans here. He wants to show me his family rug shop after he has shown me the cathedral (The Blue Mosque). After some hesitation, I say OK… 

This is my first visit to a mosque and I am surprised at how light and airy the interior is, a radical departure from the dark churches in Florence. There are 260 windows; the stained glass ones over the eastern wall (facing Mecca) are copies of the originals. The interior boasts over 21,000 blue tiles made in the factories in Iznik. Verses from the Kor’an embellish the walls here, many of them from the hand of Seyyid kasim Gubari, who was regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time.

We exit and I follow him to his family’s rug shop. Having been through this process yesterday, I think I’m better prepared for this visit. Along the way, he points out the yellow building that is the police station, and the Million Mile marker from which the Roman Empire was measured. And then, unbelievably, we arrive at the carpet shop I was at yesterday! I refuse to go in.  “I bet you work for Mustafa, with whom I spoke yesterday.” And when he confirms it,  I say, “Thank you for the tour. And goodbye!”

I return to my hotel room for a rest, I crack open my laptop, and remember that it has a webcam. Oh yeah, a second camera… it’s harder to use but at least its something if I cannot find a new battery charger for my camera.  I pose on my bed, lining my head up with one of the motifs on the bedspread, which circles my head like a halo. Oh look, I’m a Turkish Bodhisattva : )

I head downstairs and meet a new concierge, a pleasant young man who asks me how things are going. I tell him things are OK. Well, except for the construction… and morning prayers… and I’m running on about two hours of sleep… and the battery charger… His English is pretty good and he has a very melodic and soothing voice.

He seats me at a table and pours me a cup of American style coffee. He asks me what my program is for today, and starts suggesting sites I should see. I am listening, but I am so tired…

I finish my coffee, and he pours me another cup. He asks for my netbook and fixes my WIFI connection. He asks for my map, and frowns before replacing it with one from his drawer. He sits down and starts circling sites on it, “my program for the day.”  His name is Baha, the hotel manager, he remembered handling my reservation. He will take me to the camera store after I finish my coffee.

We walk several blocks to a camera store that I would have never found on my own. He handles the transaction. There’s some banter about the price, and the charger has to come from a different store. Baha introduces me as one of his American guests.  An Iranian man gives me a big smile and reaches out to shake my hand. A salesmen pulls out a stool for me. Thinking that Baha’s work is done here, I expect him to leave, but he doesn’t. And so we wait…

Istanbul is starting to feel a little more welcoming. The charger finally arrives and we leave the store. I ask Baha about the Topkapi Palace and he takes me there. We walk past what I think is the palace, but which is actually the park surrounding it. Baha points and says ” You must see it. It is huge, like city.” He drops me off and takes my charger back to my room.  I am grateful for him going the extra mile.  It’s not a level of service I have encountered anywhere else thus far…

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