A new day dawns, blissfully, with a thin layer of clouds overhead. Perhaps they will put a damper on the day's temperature. Given time I'm certain that my body would adapt to the climate, but right now I am still perspiring buckets of sweat every time I step out our front door. I will gladly take some cool clouds.
Today we are off to do a little shopping: a visit to Kapalicarsi (the Grand Bazaar). The Grand Bazaar is a monstrous edifice located about a mile east of our flat. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world, housing more than 6,000 shops. Sixty streets wind beneath the vaulted roofs. A labyrinth, a maze of merchandise, unwitting visitors have wandered in and never found their way back out. I intend to take a long piece of kite string and unwind it behind me.
We walked up the hill, between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Crowds packed the sidewalks and overflowed into the cobbled streets. I was amazed by the dress of some of the women. I had donned the lightest clothing in my suitcase – shorts and a thin cotton shirt – yet I still oozed sweat like an artesian well. Nevertheless, the women we passed were dressed in head scarves and thick overcoats, as if the temperature was barely above freezing with snow flurries imminent. How did they stand it? They appeared so cheerful as if, perhaps, they were quite comfortable.
It may come as no great surprise to you, dutiful reader, that the Grand Bazaar is not the sort of place in which I would long want to linger. It is crowded with great swarms of people, the lair of aggressive merchants hawking carpets, nargiles, glassware, and other treasures from the East. Not for me. We made a team decision to split up – the serious shoppers (Mary and the girls) going one way, and I, the other.
The Grand Bazaar is probably the world's first shopping mall (construction began in 1455). Like shopping malls the world over, it seems to have a fundamental lack of variety in its offerings. The stores fall into five or six basic themes — rugs, purses, lamps, herbs and spices — and within a theme, everyone seems to be selling much the same thing. Moreover, since identical merchandise can be found all over Istanbul (at least in our district) it is difficult to see why anyone would want to go to the Grand Bazaar more than once.
In my case, after no more than 15 minutes, I'd had enough. I decided to circumnavigate the Grand Bazaar to see if there was anything interesting outside its walls. Eventually I found the book bazaar, which offered a pleasant relief from the rug dealers. While I'm on the topic of rug merchants, I can't believe that there is great profit (or joy) to be had in this line of work. There are simply too many rug shops in Istanbul. Every street, each alley, seems to have a dozen rug shops. The owners stand in front of their shops all day trying to engage passers in witty conversation that might lead to a purchase. It seems like it would be a life of continuous rejection and dejection, seasoned with a semi-annual rug sale.
While I was browsing among the titles in the book bazaar, I saw a man with a large, two boiler tea dispenser on his back, walking through the streets hawking his hot beverage. Just the thing for a frigid morning! Nevertheless, he wasn't having any problems finding buyers. To fill his orders, he held a plastic cup under a large pipe that ran over his shoulder. Then he made a bow forward from his waist, which sent tea streaming through the hose into the cup. Most ingenious.
Leaving the safety of the book bazaar, I soon discovered that many of the streets in this neighborhood have cunning twists that lead back into the Grand Bazaar. I wandered haplessly, looking for something more interesting than a rug shop. I didn't succeed.
I paused for a moment to snap a photo of the stone arches outside the Grand Bazaar when a rug merchant tugged on my sleeve. “Why don't you take a picture of my rugs?” he said. How could I refuse. I snapped a picture. “Our shop is quite famous. It was on the cover of Time magazine last month.”
I replied with something non-committal and began to edge away. Sensing that he was losing me, the young man summoned his uncle to tell me all about the Time magazine shoot. The uncle was not entirely happy because Time had airbrushed the name of the store out of the picture. Did I want to see a copy of the magazine. Well no, not really. Perhaps I would like to see their famous fountain then, maybe take a picture of it?
There is only one way to escape and that is to walk quickly away. But who wouldn't want a picture of a famous fountain? His rugs were arranged around the remains of a stone gate that had once been part of a wall around the nearby mosque. I followed the uncle through a door, inside the gate. As promised, the interior contained a fountain in which worshipers had cleansed themselves before entering the mosque. I took a picture of the historic fountain.
“My main office," explained the Uncle, “is built inside a Roman cistern. We had to remodel it of course, but maybe you would like to have some pictures of that as well. It's nearby. Come with me.”
What are you going to do? I thought I might as well add to my collection of rug-related photographs. Off we went to the main office. It was about two blocks away from the fountain in the market and, as advertised, was located within a renovated roman cistern (although the pillars had been encased in sheet rock). A woman sat at a loom weaving a rug for future American patrons. My host gestured toward a comfortable couch. “You take a seat. We will get you some tea and I will give you a free lecture about Turkish rugs.”
“That's fine,” I said, “but I am not going to buy a rug and I can only stay for a couple of minutes. I have to meet my wife.”
“No problem,” he replied. “You buy, you not buy, sometimes a chance to talk about rugs is just as good as a chance to sell rugs.”
I resigned myself to a long sales pitch. Clearly there was to be no escape. But then, a miracle. The nephew (who'd first snagged me at the stall) hurried in and whispered something in the uncle's ear. The uncle pulled a card out of his wallet. “Here is my card. Since you have little time today, maybe you come back with your wife and I will tell you more about my rugs” Then he hurried off. Had the nephew told him that there was a more likely mark at the stall? A rich Texan with a bulging wallet? Whatever the case, I made like smoke and dissipated into thin air.
“I don't think you are an American,” said Jesus, the owner of the restaurant just up the street from our hotel.
“Why not,” I asked?
“You're not carrying a Turkish rug...”
After a post-lunch nap, I do the unthinkable and pull trousers over my sweaty legs. The time has come to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Blue Mosque. Mary and the girls also don trousers and cover their bare shoulders. We reach the mosque just as the prayers are ending, and the crowds are thinning out. A very helpful man shows us to the entrance and then latches onto our party and begins to tell us all about the mosque. We have fallen into the hands of a freelance tour guide. Do we tell him that we are self-guided, or do we submit to his services? Mary and I decide to let him show us around and pray that it won't end up being too expensive.
The Blue Mosque is 400 years old and the only mosque in the world with six minarets (the towers that look like missiles at each corner of the building). Most mosques have one minaret; ostentatious mosques have four. The Blue Mosque's six came as a result of the architect misunderstanding the sultan. The sultan wanted “gold” minarets, and the architect thought he'd said “six” minarets. Evidently, gold and six sound alike in Turkish.
The mosque gets its name from the blue tiles that line its interior. A plush red rug covers the floor and feels good beneath our feet (we removed our shoes at the door and carried them around in plastic bags). Great circular chandeliers hang at little more than head height from the vaulted ceiling. They are low because they once supported oil lamps that did not give as much light as the current electric bulbs.
It is a marvelous place and, after factoring in the services of our self-selected guide (25 lira), cost less than our tour of the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, although hot, continues to enchant us. It is going to be difficult to move on.