December 24, 2004: Headlines: COS - Turkey: Writing - Turkey: Travel: Travel Intelligence: The Rebirth of Istanbul by Turkey RPCV Tom Brosnahan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkey: Peace Corps Turkey : The Peace Corps in Turkey: December 24, 2004: Headlines: COS - Turkey: Writing - Turkey: Travel: Travel Intelligence: Tom Brosnahan's travels began when he joined the US Peace Corps in 1967. He went to Turkey to teach English and ended up writing his first guidebook, Frommer's 'Turkey on $5 a Day'. : December 24, 2004: Headlines: COS - Turkey: Writing - Turkey: Travel: Travel Intelligence: The Rebirth of Istanbul by Turkey RPCV Tom Brosnahan

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The Rebirth of Istanbul by Turkey RPCV Tom Brosnahan

The Rebirth of Istanbul by Turkey RPCV Tom Brosnahan

The Rebirth of Istanbul by Turkey RPCV Tom Brosnahan

The Rebirth of Istanbul
by Tom Brosnahan

Today Istanbul is still the place where everything and everyone comes together. Walk through the Byzantine Hippodrome, now a grassy park, and the city's past and present surround you in invigorating disarray.

Above a horizon of jumbled buildings loom the bulbous domes and slender minarets of the great Ottoman Turkish imperial mosques. Beneath the horizon lies a terrain of low hills cut by great swaths of open water. This is Istanbul. Once capital of the western world, then the beating heart of an empire stretching from Gibraltar to the Indian Ocean, it is now the brawny, muscular commercial giant of the eastern Mediterranean.

Why Istanbul? Geography is a good enough reason. Where the chilly waters of the Black Sea flow toward the warm waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean, there stands Istanbul. Where the Roman roads and then the expressways of Europe jump eastward across the Bosphorus into Asia, there's Istanbul. In the days of the Ottoman Empire its streets and bazaars echoed with a babble of Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bulgarian, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Ladino Spanish, Maltese, Rumanian, Russian and Serbo-Croatian. Today in the hotel districts of Laleli and Aksaray you can hear most of these languages again.

Istanbul's renewed importance comes as no surprise to its citizens, who never doubted the city's eternal greatness. Kemal Atatürk, founding father of the Turkish Republic, shunned the city in favor of modern Ankara for years, and Europeans rushed past Istanbul on their way to Athens, Beirut and Tel Aviv. But the true Istanbullu knew, like the New Yorker and the Parisian, that his city was second to none. It had been great for almost two thousand years, and would remain so for another two thousand at least.

For most Turks Istanbul has always been the center of the world. Largest city, most active port, center of commerce, industry, media and the arts, it has never been rivalled even by Ankara, its closest rival. Turks feel pride for Ankara, the modern capital of the Turkish Republic, but for Istanbul their feeling is love. Hearty, wistful, passionate, unrequited perhaps, but always love.

Throughout the eastern Mediterranean there is still a recognition that Istanbul is the city. Here was the seat of the basileus and of the patriarch, and later of the sultan who was also the Caliph, primate of Islam. Even after the Greek revolution, many prosperous Greeks chose to stay in the sophisticated Ottoman capital rather than move to provincial Athens. The Khedive (King) of Egypt spent summers in his villa on the Bosphorus, and King Abdullah of Jordan lived out his exile here as well. When a young man from Palestine named David Ben-Gurion wanted higher education, he found it here, attending Istanbul Technical University.

Signs of the city's greatness are everywhere. Disembark at the modern airport, whizz toward the city along a wide expressway, and you are met with the towering stone defensive walls built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, walls breached by conquerors only twice in a thousand years. Walk out of your luxury hotel, turn a corner, and you find yourself in a maze of cobbled streets which lead, eventually, to Dolmabahçe, the sultan's sumptuous palace that's almost a quarter of a mile long. Istanbul's greatness is very much of the present, and very much of the past.

The present is exciting here. The "rediscovery" of Istanbul by Europeans and Americans has brought boom times and millions of visitors. In the 1980s, city officials and private organizations worked feverishly to improve infrastructure and services to meet the demand. Modern hotels and office buildings rose above the historic skyline, and new bridges spanned both the wide Bosphorus and the narrow Golden Horn. As construction cranes loomed above the minarets, neglected Ottoman mansions, palaces and parks were being restored and beautified. Telecommunications were brought up to European standards, and steps were taken to deal with pollution in the air and in the sea.

The results of these efforts are immediately apparent to you when you arrive. You can stay in an Ottoman mansion fit for a pasha, or bed down in a delightful Art Nouveau villa of the Khedive of Egypt, furnished with every royal luxury. Kiosks in the palace park at Yildiz are now cozy restaurants where you can have lunch as you watch the parade of Soviet tankers, merchantmen and warships steaming down the Bosphorus. In the evening, have dinner in an underground Byzantine cistern-cum-diningroom right next door to Hagia Sophia.

The city's modernization in the 1980s was impressive, but big projects are nothing new here. Sited at the crossroads of history and civilization, Istanbul was built by great leaders to be a leader among cities. Constantine the Great founded the city in 330 AD as the "New Rome," and it soon became a walled metropolis of labyrinthine palaces, exquisite churches and wide agoras. After Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD, Constantinople became the center and capital of the Roman Empire, continuing in that role for more than a thousand years. In 537, Emperor Justinian built Hagia Sophia, the grandest church in Christendom.

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottoman Turks in 1453, he saw himself as the next in this line of worthy emperors, and he ordered the building of mosques, hospitals, libraries, and fountains. Perhaps the greatest of Istanbul's patrons was Süleyman the Magnificent, who reigned from resplendent Topkapi Palace and who commissioned the breathtaking Süleymaniye, Turkey's largest mosque.

In the nineteenth century, even when the vast Ottoman Empire was crumbling, Istanbul was still the "Paris of the East," connected to Paris in the west by the fabled Orient Express. Attempting to catch up with the times, succeeding sultans built lavish European-style palaces with exotic Turkish names: Dolmabahçe, Yildiz, Çiragan, Beylerbeyi. Even Atatürk, who would not set foot in the old imperial capital after he left it to begin the War of Independence, returned years later, and was here when he died in 1938.

Today Istanbul is still the place where everything and everyone comes together. Walk through the Byzantine Hippodrome, now a grassy park, and the city's past and present surround you in invigorating disarray. On one side rises the Blue Mosque, a cascade of domes and semi-domes framed by a half-dozen minarets. On the other side, lawyers and judges bustle into the city's main courthouse, stopping to buy the latest edition from a newsboy. Peasants from Anatolian villages haggle with tourists over brightly colored carpets, and long-haired European youth park their minivans and pour into a workman's eatery for succulent charcoal-grilled lamb. A shiny bus filled with opera singers heading for rehearsal creeps toward the gates of Topkapi Palace, where Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" is performed each summer during the Istanbul International Festival.

The picture is very different in Taksim Square, the heart of newer Istanbul. Beneath the towering international hotels—Hilton, Hyatt, Inter-Continental—traffic swirls through the square as café-sitters sip drinks and wonder what the rush is all about. At five o'clock, clerks and accountants pour out of office buildings and jam the buses that will take them to apartments miles from the center.

Yet another picture of the cosmopolitan city is presented in Lâleli, near Istanbul University. The small tree-shaded streets of this once-quiet quarter are cluttered with signs in Russian, Polish and Serbo-Croat, and thronged with Eastern European merchants buying up truckloads of Turkish textiles and paying with fistfuls of US hundred dollar bills. The press of commerce is so intense that local residents admit to feeling like foreigners in their own neighborhood.

With its incredible depth and bewildering diversity, can one ever really know this city? I have tried for years. I've felt the exhilaration of an early morning's ferryboat ride along the Bosphorus, sitting on deck in the bracing air with a bright little tulip-shaped glass of fresh tea to warm me. I've sipped champagne in the Throne Room of Dolmabahçe Palace when the president of the republic gave a reception for visiting international business executives. I've wandered the bazaars and watched artisans craft exquisite objects in copper, alabaster, steel, leather, wood and mother-of-pearl while they listened to the latest European and American pop music.

Perhaps the first step to understanding is to think of Istanbul as the Islamic capital of Europe, energetic and modern in outlook and expectations, courtly and restrained in traditional matters. Istanbullus understand and delight in both East and West. Though they welcome and accept outsiders willingly, they remain convinced that the Istanbul way is best because Istanbul has seen everything and everybody, and absorbed it all.

One summer day I escaped from the bustle of the streets to the cool peacefulness of the Blue Mosque. As I sat on the soft carpets, watching sunlight turn the stained-glass windows to jewels, a friendly Turkish postman who had come to say his ritual prayers approached and attempted to convert me to Islam.

"You are an American and a Christian," he wondered out loud, "even though you speak Turkish? Well, Christianity is good, yes, and Judaism, too. Did you know that Moses and Jesus were prophets of Islam? But Islam is the best. Look, we have all your saints ...and hundreds more!"

If you let it, Istanbul will absorb you as it has absorbed many centuries and whole civilizations. For total absorption, for a glimpse at the soul of this great city, go to the markets. Turkey is one of only seven countries in the world that are self-sufficient in food, and all the agricultural riches of Anatolia make their way to Istanbul's picturesque food bazaars. My favorite is the Balik Pazari, right by the huge British Consulate off Istiklal Caddesi near Galatasaray, on the north side of the Golden Horn. Awnings shade narrow streets made narrower by the colorful profusion of fruits, vegetables, flowers, meats and fish pouring forth from every little shop along the way.

The first time I bought fish here, I went to a shop recommended by an Istanbul friend. "After all," my friend said, "one can't buy fish from just anybody." The shop was run by a Greek, with an Armenian assistant. I was new at buying fish, so I did all the right things. I inspected the eyes for clarity, the gills for bright color, the flesh for resilience and odor. The owner looked on wide-eyed, then sniffed, turned, and disappeared into his shop. Eventually I bought the fish from his assistant, and complimented him on its freshness. "Look," he whispered, glancing toward the shop, "the owner is very proud of his fish. If there's no absolutely fresh fish, he doesn't open the shop that day. Period."

A passage leads from the Balik Pazari to the courtyard of the nineteenth-century "Cité de Péra" building. The courtyard, actually a broad passageway out to the busy boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi, was once the haunt of flower-sellers, and is still called the Çiçek Pasaji, or Flower Passage. Today it's lined with little restaurants serving typical Istanbul food, especially fish. If you go here by yourself you can dine wherever you like, but if you go with a Turkish friend, as I did, you will be allowed to dine only at a place where your friend knows the owner personally.

One balmy summer evening I sat here with several other American writers and my Turkish friend Selçuk, a petroleum engineer turned tourism expert. Selçuk exchanged a few words with the owner of his favorite little restaurant, and the waiters went into high gear. Soon the table was paved with little white plates of meze, Turkish hors d'oeuvres. There was tangy white sheep's-milk cheese, fried mussels, creamy eggplant purée, golden potato fritters, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers glistening in fragrant olive oil, pickled peppers, white beans vinaigrette, puff pastries stuffed with cheese and parsley, grilled sardines, tender chunks of roasted lamb, sautéed lamb's liver, the best french fries I'd ever tasted, and at least a dozen other dishes. But the waiters kept up their pace and the plates kept coming. Soon the first layer of plates was buried by a second layer balanced on top. Above the mosaic of plates loomed a burgeoning forest of bottles: white wine, beer (light and dark), spring water, fizzy mineral water, and raki, the powerful anise-flavored brandy the Turks call "lion's milk."

A strolling duo of troubadors wandered through the passage, one playing passionate Istanbul love songs on his graceful saz, the Turkish "guitar," while the other sang and beat time with a tambourine. Following them was a man selling stuffed mussels from a tray, and following him was a man with a camera who would, for a small charge, immortalize our good times on film. The parade of characters continued, on and off, all evening.

The food disappeared somehow, as did the drink, as did the evening. When it was over and the bill was paid, we sauntered easily back to our hotels. Istanbul had done it, I realized. It was part of me, and I was part of it, and that would never change.

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

Changing of the Guard Date: December 15 2004 No: 330 Changing of the Guard
With Lloyd Pierson's departure, Marie Wheat has been named acting Chief of Staff and Chief of Operations responsible for the day-to-day management of the Peace Corps. Although Wheat is not an RPCV and has limited overseas experience, in her two years at the agency she has come to be respected as someone with good political skills who listens and delegates authority and we wish her the best in her new position.

December 18, 2004: This Week's Top Stories Date: December 18 2004 No: 334 December 18, 2004: This Week's Top Stories
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Vasquez sees resurgent interest in PC 14 Dec
Senator who wanted duel with RPCV joins Fox 14 Dec
NPCA planning National Day of Action for PC funding 13 Dec
RPCV "Harry" Chandler votes in Electoral College 13 Dec
Critic says Moyers delivered neo-Marxist propaganda 13 Dec
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PC "Survivor" Julie Berry headed for California 11 Dec
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Story Source: Travel Intelligence

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