Istanbul (was Constantinople)




Hi -- Sorry for the long delay in posting. Really I shouldn't even be writing now, I have a ton of deadlines to deal with this weekend, including two today! Also, sorry the pictures aren't great -- it was cold every day we were there until the last one, so we didn't spend much time on the roof terrace of our hotel. We took these just minutes before we left & we were looking into the sunshine so it was hard to see what was going on!

So quickly -- the four ways Istanbul is even better than Vienna:

  1. ambient music in restaurants, parks etc. is local, not old US/UK English stuff.
  2. much less smoking, even though it seems to be legal.
  3. honey is much yummier than chocolate, and in Turkey it is the main part of any dessert.
  4. The cuisine includes vegetables at all times of the year (not just asparagus & pumpkin seasons).
I don't know if you all realize that there is a huge controversy about whether Turkey should be in the EU. They are already in NATO. Will and I were really struck on the one hand that it seemed more safe, modern & organized than several existing EU countries. On the other hand, there were a couple things that made it obvious even in the Western cities that this was not Europe, e.g.
  1. YouTube was blocked. Apparently because the Turks didn't like the allegations against Atatürk that the Greeks were putting on YouTube. Atatürk is kind of like Washington & Jefferson combined, but he worked at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the end of the Ottoman Empire. As a general, he drove the Greeks further West, keeping Istanbul in Turkey (the Greeks had hoped to return it to Christendom as Constantinople. Apparently the city was known by both names until Atatürk ordered the post offices not to deliver mail addressed to Constantinople.) Then as a leader he more or less secularized it. Actually, some of the sultans had already started this process 50 years earlier (for example, by banning turbans), but he banned fezes & head scarfs, moved the weekend to be the same as Europe's instead of the rest of the Muslim world's, and changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin (imagine if we had that change in reverse overnight one weekend!) So he is a really big deal, but so why are they threatened by some vidoes? And what about the pro Atatürk videos and every other useful thing on there?
  2. While we were there, they were arresting people who opposed the government, including professors. Imagine if Bush had thrown professors in jail who supported the Democrats and said publicly that it was wrong to torture or suspend aspects of the constitution. Or if Obama threw Stephen Colbert (from about about one minute in until about three minutes in) or Tedd Rall in jail for pointing out that as a professor of constitutional law, Obama shouldn't be supporting the suspension of habeas corpus in Bagram.
This doesn't even mention that there are religions & languages which are being repressed, which we didn't see anything about since as usual we just walked around some major cities & didn't drive around the countryside & villages. But the villages & relics do sound spectacular. There have been civilizations there a LONG time.

The best stuff we saw (in my opinion anyway) were:
  1. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
  2. The Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
  3. The Istanbul Archeology Museum
  4. The Blue Mosque (pictured above)
I guess while I'm at it I'll mention that the two most disappointing things we saw were also the two most expensive, the Sultan's palace & the Hagia Sophia, which to be fair was also having its dome renovated so there was scaffolding. The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in 700 & when the Muslims took Istanbul they just plastered over the mosaics there, so they wound up preserving some cool Byzantine art. Now it is a museum -- again, the wisdom of Atatürk that all the contested buildings are just museums, not churches or mosques. So the mosaics are cool, but we had heard the space was generally even more amazing than the Blue Mosque's, but in fact it just didn't have the same feel. Will's friend Constanze was right about this -- she said it was just depressing because you can see how brutally people have treated each other's culture there. She had warned us but we went anyway.

We went to the Blue Mosque during the early evening prayer one day. In general, I really liked the calls to prayer, Istanbul has done a decent job of getting the volume & speaker quality to such a state that you could imagine it is not much more intrusive than the acoustic calls were before all the traffic & modern city noise. I mean, it's meant to be intrusive, but not ugly. Anyway, in the mosque we sat towards the back of the vast space under the dome with the other tourists, and admired the great space & listened to the prayers. The prayers reminded me also of the Russian Orthodox ceremony I'd been to, but with less silly running around behind screens by the officients. The imam is right in the front -- and all the men are kneeling right around him. At some point I wondered where the woman were and started looking around for their area, but I didn't see them until we left -- they were stuck behind even the guests! Most seemed to just be tolerantly sitting there waiting for their husbands, but one young woman was really praying and petitioning and even crying and reaching her arms out towards the imam, and I got really angry at how ludicrous it was that she was stuck in the back like that. Not that as an atheist I think she'd be any closer to God in the front of the mosque, but at least she'd be closer to people with the power to help her.

On the other hand, it was really striking how clean, friendly and safe the city was, even in the poorer areas. Will & I walked about 5 kilometers across the Golden Horn -- through the bazaar, through the most conservative quarter (which was also having a huge market), through some poor areas where there are still a couple Greek Orthodox churches and even some synagogues. When the Christians were driving Jews out of Europe during the Inquisition, the Sultans invited them to Istanbul. But that was a long time ago, and like Vienna everything went wrong for them in the 20th century, and very few are left now. I really worry about all the communities that have been abandoned for Israel, since I really worry about Israel. I don't think theocracy is a good idea. They can't keep pulling back their borders to try to keep their own religion running their country "democratically" forever. Though of course Israel has more religious tolerance than any other state in that region. Turkey is officially secular now, but apparently they repress all versions of Islam except for Sunni. There is actually this cool version of Islam called Alevi in the East of Turkey, which incorporates some of the older animism. The mainstream criticizes them heavily for having men and women worship together so "anything could happen." I wish I could be a student forever. I was so amazed by some of the artifacts in the Civilization museum, I would love to try to understand the older animist world view.

But anyway, I have no doubt that all this is part of the reason the cities are so friendly. It must also be said that the city is unbelievably beautiful in its natural setting. We went fairly up north along the Bosphorus to visit Metin Sezgin, one of my friends from MIT, who just took a position at Koç a few months ago. He chose a really beautiful harbour to meet up in, and we saw much more of the town in the taxi ride on the way there. Koç is one of the two leading private universities in Turkey, the other being Bilkent in Ankara, which we visited (see below). They are both campus universities set pretty far out from the cities fairly recently. One of the interesting things about Istanbul is that the landscape is all gentle rolling hills around the water, and on every hill there is a gigantic Turkish flag. Huge flags ripple in this very cool and surreally slow-motionish way. Maybe you just don't realize how really big they are so it makes the ripples look like they are going too slow. I've only seen flags like that before in the USA.

We took the night train to & from Ankara to visit some German friends of Will's from Nottingham -- thus saving a lot of money on two nights in hotels, even though we went "first class" :-) The night train was fun but the beds weren't quite wide enough to both sleep on one bunk. Also, since there are no smoking cars anymore, people sneak smoking in the "non smoking" cars, so that's a bit annoying. But overall it was fun & we slept well. And it was great to see Ankara & Will's friends & we saw the most awesome museum there.

We also saw Atatürk's tomb. It is amazing. These people know there have been three empires in Turkey that have each lasted about a thousand years. They are taking the very long view. I wish the rest of us built with the next millennium in mind.

We've been back since Monday night -- well, Will left Tuesday so I've been in Vienna on my own, trying to catch up. I've got a ton of things on as usual. I am very aware that my sabbatical is coming to an end so am trying to both get a bunch of grants and research lined up so I can keep doing great science, and get the stuff I've already done published, and finish up exciting & timely projects I don't want to wait until I have funding / postdocs to finish.
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