By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We smelled it first, hours before we got there, a greasy burnt odor of smoke and spice and sewage. "Are we on fire?" Susan asked when she awoke, but we weren’t. We had sailed all night through the Sea of Marmara and were merely approaching the Istanbul harbor.
We docked across from the old town (I was never able to ascertain what part of Istanbul wasn’t old), where the Golden Horn joins the Bosporus, and were carried by bus to our hotel. The Ceylan Inter-Continental is a five-star hotel with a crystal staircase curving through the lobby (even the stair treads are glass) and enough heavy cloth in bedspreads and drapes in our room to uniform a regiment in floral damask. It was perhaps the most luxurious room I’ve ever slept in, an opulent retreat overlooking a city of unmoderated, unregulated bustle. It is a mark of the disparity between striving shanty Istanbul and its luxury hotels that the border between the two is guarded by a metal detector, through which you enter the lobby. Inside is London and Central Park West. Outside is the city of the Silk Road and the Orient Express, emperors and their legions, the sybarite sultan and his murderous janissaries, and Turks.
Istanbul is certainly commercial, nothing if not commercial. On the sidewalks, in the street, every sort of merchandise and service is offered. At the economy’s bottom are the waiflike children and tobacco-faced old men and Gypsy women who sell packets of Kleenex, arranged on top of cardboard-box pedestals, or wait beside bathroom scales to sell you your weight. From carts they sell pretzels, from woklike pans, roasted chestnuts. From round trivets suspended by silver chains and packed with shot glasses, couriers run apple tea. In front of the Sleymaniye mosque, the box pedestals hold evil-eye pendants and prayer beads. Across the Galata Bridge, Karaköy Square is lined with elaborate gilded shoeshine shrines, their polishes and creams encased under arrays of gilt-domed lids. In the malls of the pedestrian underpasses are heaps of telephones, radios, cameras, satellite dishes, in a profusion unknown to Radio Shack, piled on sidewalks beside squatting vendors. Muslim women in head scarves twist their heads in circles watching a small toy helicopter gyrate above them, next to a comprehensive exhibit of the world’s known lawnmowers.
The trade preys on visitors, of course, unscrupulously when possible. Outside the tourist meccas of the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofia, vendors hawk tours and carpets and post cards. The taxis insist on three times the metered rate, if they can get it. When I said we’d walk on, a cabby put his face in mine — it was getting dark and he knew that I was lost — and hissed, "Really, mister. And where are you going to walk?" Urchins carry shoeshine boxes and will set up willy-nilly in front of anyone susceptible who stops on the street even long enough for the light to change. One whom I had already rejected reached through the legs of another tourist to put a finger dab of black shoe cream on my loafer, which of course would require a shoeshine to remove. I refused to accommodate him, but he and a confederate plagued us through town until Susan paid the little brigands off.
But with all that, I minded the merchandising less than I had in the Greek islands we had just toured. It was only incidentally aimed at tourists, for Istanbul is a real city with a commercial existence unpredicated on outsiders, too rampant and headlong to be of much service to the uninitiated.
Not only do the Turks sell whatever they can get their hands on, they manufacture. We took to walking from the hotel to whatever appointed tourist round we had set ourselves — which is to say to whichever mosque or palace beckoned in the old town — down the Istiklal Caddesi. Istiklal has long been the city’s main commercial artery and a target of civic disgust. One historian said Istiklal Caddesi was "as narrow as the comprehension of its inhabitants, and as long as the tapeworm of their intrigues." Another anointed it "surely one of the nastiest streets of Europe." But we enjoyed it; it has recently been made a pedestrian thoroughfare, cobblestoned from doorstep to doorstep, with tracks in the center for a two-car trolley that little boys make a game of chasing, so that its stern is usually festooned with children hanging perilously onto every protuberance. The stores sell silks and suits and shoes and books and tapes and every other thing, in conservative storekeeper fashion. But off to each side are alleys, many covered, that are crowded bazaars filled with leather and jewelry and food, such an abundance of food. The Çiçek Pasaji is crammed with flowers and bar tables; nearby, the display stands of the Galasary Fish Bazaar, under dim yellow lamps, are glittering sequined silver cascades punctuated with shocking crimson crescents of gills, pulled open as a proof of freshness.