Thursday, February 14, 2008

Istanbul in One Day, Sort of

I am now flying back home to Chicago from snow to snow, actually. The morning I left Istanbul, it had started to snow....

Upon reflection, what that means, really, is that I appreciate the art in the ad.

I am now flying back home to Chicago, from snow to snow, actually. The morning I left Istanbul (Wed, Feb 13) it had started to snow. And Chicago, well, Chicago is having one of the snowiest and coldest winters in a long, long time. It is now 9 degrees Farenheit in Chicago. That's much colder than Istanbul. So I will not complain about how in my short visit to this old and bustling city of 20 million the weather was cold, wet and gray.

It just was.

I went to Istanbul to do a two day training sponsored by Oracle Corporation for 53 developers, including some hard-core members of my "fan club" (you know, the sort of programmer who takes his or her job very seriously, reads my books before going to sleep at night, that sort of thing. Hey, Husnu, get a life! :-) ). Everyone was very pleased with the turnout, and the facilities at Sun Plaza were fantastic. Many thanks to Issin and Gokhan of Oracle Turkey!

The reason the title of this blog entry is "Istanbul in One Day" is that while I was in the city for three full days, I only had Sunday to be a full-fledged tourist. I arrived Saturday night at the Sheraton in Maslak (business center 10 KM from the center of Istanbul). At 8 PM I heard a loud clanging sound outside my 14th floor window. I pull open the blinds and see that right next to the hotel is a big construction site for a new building, already towering above me. And yes they were working. I call reception and find out that they work till 11 PM each night. Including Saturdays and Sundays. Uh oh.

I really didn't want to pack up and move to a different room. Instead, I went online and found I paid $2.99 for a 68 minute MP3 file titled "by the sea". Wonderful, soothing sounds of the surf. Covered up the clanging and allowed me to easily and enjoyably drift off to sleep. I recommend it highly and you sure can't beat the price.

So I got to sleep, but imagine my dismay when I woke up at 8 AM on Sunday to pouring rain. Not a hint on sunlight. And none too warm, either. Ugh. Well, there was nothing for it, but to get out there and do what you do when you come to Istanbul for the first time:

1. Visit Hagi Sofia (actually spelled and pronounced Ayasofia in Istanbul itself), a very old and massive church with famous mosaics. I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by Ayasofia. I think the problem was that it was a very dark day and the building does not have lots of electrical illumination. Plus it is not really all that well kept up (which I can understand, given its size). So it was dark, dank and cold inside, and I was expecting pristine, glowing, well-maintained structure. Check out my photos.

2. Visit Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque, a very old and massive and beautiful mosque. This is the largest mosque in Istanbul, which is saying a lot, because Istanbul was full of mosques, many of them very big (Turkey is 95% Muslim, but its government and military have been resolutely secular for decades. The dominant party at the moment, however, is PPP, the Muslim party, and tensions are growing in the country). Check out my photos.

3. Descend into the Basilica Cistern, an underground water reserve built in the 6th century (the water was collected from the Belgrad forest 19KM from the city). Consists of 336 large marble columns (two of which have Medusa heads at their base for unknown reasons). Marvelous, mysterious, very soothing. Check out my photos.

4. Walk up to the Galata Tower: built in the 15th century (or maybe earlier?), it looks out over the city (though I must admit I did not climb up to the top of the tower). Check out my photos.

5. Stroll down Istiklal (Independence) Street to Taksim: this is "Main Street" Istanbul. Very crowded, very busy, cosmopolitan, full of cafes, restaurants, Starbucks, the occasional church or mosque, the oldest high school in the city, a car that had just been on fire and was covered with ash. You name it, I saw it - and here are the photos to prove it.

6. Visit a carpet store (more or less against my intention, if not against my will): ah, yes. Turkish carpets. I had no plans to visit a carpet store. For one thing, several years ago we bought two beautiful, fair trade carpets from Ten Thousand Villages, so we were all carpeted-out. Second of all, with plans to relocate to Puerto Rico in a few years, we are focusing on getting rid of belongings, lightening the load, not acquiring more stuff. But here's what happened: I had just left the Cistern and was circling back to take a picture by the entrance so I could record the date and basic facts of this water store, and this friendly guy struck up a conversation, assured me he was not a guide trying to pick up a fee, and then said: "I have a shop down the street; let me give you my card." OK. Well, turns out all his cards were in his shop, so in we went, and it was full of carpets. And his family had been in the business for seven generations. What a surprise! I immediately told him that I was not going to be buying any carpets. "No problem! Please, sit down, have some tea. Turkish hospitality." So I did that and soon his brother, more the carpet expert than the "pull in the guy off the street" guy, took over. He showed me a carpet and asked me what I thought.

At that point, I decided, well, they dragged me in here. I could either just leave or I could engage and perhaps have an interesting conversation. So once again I told him that I wasn't going to buy a carpet. He dismissed that. I then told him I was not very impressed with the carpet. It was an uninteresting repetition of a dull pattern. Have you heard of Christopher Alexander? I asked. Yes! he said excitedly. Of course!

Alexander is a very interesting guy. An architect by profession, he developed a powerful and deep critique of modern architecture, and in the process came up with a "pattern language" to describe how to create meaningful, high quality structures. His ideas on patterns were taken up by software architects (the so-called Gang of Four) who established a whole movement in software called Design Patterns. Alexander also collected and studied very old carpets to try to understand what them so remarkable and powerful and moving, compared to the sort of things that are for the most part done today. He published a book about it, which I bought and read (most of). It is a beautiful book and his theories about the carpet designs really struck home with me. the carpet fellow must have been very excited. They pull some American off the street and he actually knows something about our carpets! So he immediately gestured to his assistant to pull out certain carpets and...yes...there they were, the kinds of carpets that Alexander found so powerful (they generally feature a central "medallion" or shape that seems to have life to it, plus complex interlocking "centers"). So we talked about them, compared several, and he soon realized which of them was my favorite.

Throughout this whole time, I am reminding him: I am not going to buy a carpet.

Finally, he starts to talk about prices. "I am not going to get into bargaining with you. I am going to offer you a very good price for this carpet. $3800." I was impressed. Given what I spent in Chicago, that was not a lot of money for the quality and beauty of carpet he was showing me. I said so, but reminded him "I am not going to buy a carpet."

So he talked lots more, he asked me why I am not buying. I explained in full detail. He talked more and then because he said he had not yet sold a carpet that day and very much wanted to sell this carpet to me, who could greatly appreciate it, that he would sell it to me for $1700. Now, that was a good price. But no, I sadly shook my head....and a few minutes later he was down to $1200. I really felt torn. At this point, I was sure that he was more or less giving it away, that this was a very good price, that he really did not want me to walk out the door empty-handed. And I did like it a lot. But I stuck to my principles and eventually walked away. I bet he was quite upset. But hey - I didn't come in there on my own volition. I didn't insist on being served multiple cups of tea.

Like I said to him: "Bad luck, man! Your brother actually finds somebody who has studied carpets, who can appreciate what you are selling....but he just wasn't going to buy a carpet. No matter what."

And that is my Turkish carpet story. I do feel some regret. I could probably have sold it locally for more than that. But I really am trying to get into the habit of not buying more stuff. So...I visited Istanbul and came back with nothing but a refrigerator magnet. And photos.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my trip was the evening I spent with fellow Oracle technologists, H. Tonguc Yilmaz. Tonguc, who had helped spread the word of my training and is well-known in the Turkish Oracle community, arranged an evening out to authentic places that local Turks visit, not the big (though remarkable) tourist spots. We had dinner at the Aga Restaurant, across the street from the Aga Mosque, right off Istiklal Street. It was Turkish "fast food". All the food is sitting in trays at the counter. You pick out what you want, they fill up your plate, you sit down and dig in. Delicious! Stuffed grape leaves, lamb (I don't usually eat it, but had to try it. They forced me. :-) ), all sorts of different stuff. Then we enjoyed a platter of various desserts, most honey-soaked and all quite wonderful.

From Aga, we walked down Istiklal, I bought my refrigerator magnet, and then we down a rather dark, almost empty side street (more like an alley) and stepped in through a non-descript doorway, went up an elevator and ended up in the Leb-i Derya bar, which offered a truly wonderful view over the city, from the Anatolia side (Asia) to the Eminou side (old city, palace, Ayasofia, etc. - Europe). After a drink and a soaking in of the view, they then took me to the Dolmabahçe Palace for a traditional cup of hot sahlep, right by the water.

That was a really nice evening. Thanks again, Tonguc, Husnu and Ozgur for taking the time out to help me enjoy a side of Istanbul I would otherwise never have seen.

Istanbul was probably the most security conscious place I have ever visited. Almost every building I entered (hotel, office building, historical site, mall), plus the metro, had metal detectors. No one enters the airport, much less gets on a plane without going through a metal detector. My friends felt that it was a bit much. The rationale for it is to protect against possible terror attacks by Kurdish groups, but so far as I know there haven't ever been any in these kinds of public places. So they felt that its purpose was more to keep people scared, on edge, and willing to accept a heavy military presence and role in society. Gee, sounds kind of familiar.

The metro was interesting. According to my friends, Istanbul had the second subway in the world, after the one installed in Paris. And it is still in operation! But it is very small. And besides that one, there is a new metro line build in the last ten years (which I took) but it is only 8 KM long and with six stops. Traffic is awful in Istanbul and there is a great need for public transport and an extensive subway network. But in a city as old as Istanbul, it is virtually impossible to dig anywhere and not run into architectural treasures that must be preserved.

On the flight from Istanbul to Heathrow, we flew right over the Alps. Beautiful, snow-covered mountains, photos here.

On the flight from Heathrow to Chicago, we of course flew over Greenland and then the northeastern corner of Canada, right near Ungava Bay, photos here.

Only 1500 miles to go!

See the rest of my Istanbul photos here.


Tonguç said...

Steven really wonderful pictures, thank you :)

Özgür Macit said...

Lovely post about Istanbul, Steven. Thanks. Though, I have some additions and corrections at some points :)
- Population of Istanbul usually claimed to be 20 million, though it is not correct. It is about 12 million at most including all people in the city boundaries.
- Hagia Sofia is called Ayasofya in Turkish and "aya" actually means "saint". So, it's a kind of translation :)
- There are a lot of cisterns in the old city part around Basilica Cistern. They were all used by Byzantine people. The reason why is the fact that there is not any (not a single one!) water sources in the old city.
- Galata Tower must have been built before 15th century because it is built by Genoese. Hey, I made my research and more information here:
And one thing more: Photos are very lovely too - I wonder how mine will be :)
See you again - in Istanbul. There are much more places I think you'll want to see and you can't even imagine :)

Yasin Baskan said...

Nice photos Steven. I could not be in your seminar, I hope I will be there next time.

That seller type is very typical here in Istanbul. They grab you out of the street and try to sell something. I have seen them selling stuff for one tenth of the original price.

Unknown said...

WOW, I have to visit this country. The architecture was OUTSTANDING. I just love to see stuff like what you got to view; here is where my envy pops out. I hope you got to enjoy the beautiful sites and sorry you didn't get the carpet it did sound like a GREAT price.