Stout & Large Do...Istanbul - Days Three & Four

I’m running these two days into each other as diary entries such as ‘had long, leisurely breakfast’ or ‘read book on terrace overlooking Bospherous’ do not for exciting reading make, even if the book is the new Neal Stephenson novel ‘Anathem’ and a perplexing, wrist-snappingly heavy delight...So, here’s how to experience time-space compression and have a great and fabulous day in Istanbul.

Morning – The Grand Bazaar. Less of the lawless frontier of the shopping experience that it perhaps likes to bill itself as (that honour has to go to the souq in Marrakesh) , and more of a well-behaved mall with a few more carpets than usual, nevertheless it’s a good place to nose around and get lost in. With something like 4000 shops and 30,000 people working in the place, it’s a network of alleyways and streets that has accreted since the 17th century and had a roof thrown over it to keep the elements out and the shoppers in. It’s divided into districts, so one area is full of goldsmiths and jewellers, another of carpets, another of musical instruments, another (by the looks of it) full of knock-off Prada handbags and so on and so forth. Shoppers and goods and tourists and locals all intermingle under its roof and the only thing it’s really missing – from our point of view – was a camel or two.

We didn’t buy much but got plenty of enjoyment out of the bargaining process. One guy said that he was offering us as a special price as it was his birthday, we said that we’d still only pay him x lira, but we’d sing Happy Birthday to him afterwards. All good fun.

Lunch – In a word, Gozleme. It’s pretty much the Turkish version of a pasty, thought without the industrial quantities of gristle, turnip and various other un-named substances floating around in a brown gravy gloop which has made Cornwall’s finest both revered and feared (by sober people) throughout the land. Wikipedia defines golzeme as ‘a savoury traditional Turkish hand made and hand rolled pastry. Fresh pastry is rolled out, filled and sealed, then cooked over a griddle. Traditionally, this is done on a saç’. What that doesn’t get across is how moorish the whole thing is (and yes, that was a joke – apologies), nor how thin, light and generally delicious it is too. Add in a glass or two of the wonderfully sweet apple tea, add in a bit of traditional Turkish folk music, top it off with some freshly made baklava at the end, and you have a meal fit for a sultan (or at least the residents of his harem).

Afternoon – Hamam. Apparently recovering from a slipped disc means that lying on a slab of marble while a fat Turkish bloke beats you up legitimately, folds you in half, half-drowns you and then pointedly asks for a tip afterwards isn’t good for you, so Kate went off to do no doubt decorous things while I went for a Turkish Bath.

It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had and it was a bit of a tourist trap too, but even a so-so hamam is a rather fine experience. You change in your own private cubicle, don a towel around yourself, and head to the hot room where you lie on a large, heated marble slab with a load of other people, think of a large steam room but without too there were about a dozen men flopped out on the marble looking up at the dome above them while hot water cascaded out of the taps and into basins all round the outside of the room. You just lie there for a bit, occasionally dousing yourself with warm water, until a masseur comes over, taps you on the foot, then starts soaping you up and squeezing the blood to the end of your limbs/gouging your muscles depending on what mood he’s in. Then he folds you in half like a moustachioed, half-naked and crazed chiropractic while the others around you lounging on the marble chortle at your discomfort, jumps on top of you, cracks your spine, slaps you a bit, holds your head down as he slooshes you with bucket after bucket of warm water, hands you some hot towels, whacks you on the arse and you’re out of there.

Amazingly enough, after all that you feel great...

Evening – Whirling Dervishes. As far as slightly unusual experiences go, attending a concert in the old entrance hall of a train station where the Orient Express used to arrive after its 1700 mile long odyssey across Europe is a bit on the unique side. Add in the fact that it’s a performance of the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi Mevlevi order, and you’re beyond unique and into something memorable.

The Dervishes are everywhere in Istanbul, their whirling form – long white robe, high brown felt hat, arms outstretched with the right hand pointing up towards heaven and the left down towards humanity – is on fridge magnets, book covers, tea towels and – inevitably – woven into the odd carpet or two as well. All of which is a bit ironic given that Ataturk banned them and the Sufi orders outright when he came to power in the 1920s, with the dervishes primarily tolerated as a form of tourist-friendly folk entertainment for most of the years since.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and the whirling ceremony – where the dervishes seek to attain a trancelike, meditative state that brings them closer to the divine – is suitably mystical too. After a 20 minute or so musical introduction (which largely serves as a lesson in teaching the several hundred perched on plastic chairs present to turn the flash off on their cameras) five dervishes come out and with infinite slowness shuffle and nod and bow into the start of their dance.

It takes four acts, which represent the dervish growing through love, deserting the ego, finding the truth and finally arriving at the divine and the perfect. In each they start whirling in circles, arms stretching out as the speed increases; fast circles around their own axis, much slower ones around each other, the weighted hem of their robes forming standing waves that flow around them as they spin and spin on their journey to God. There’s a grace to the dance that, together with the music, transcends the environment you’re in and, as some of them whirl faster and faster and the music gets more and more insistent, you find yourself treading some of the same path as their flashing, pirouetting feet whatever your own personal beliefs. At the end the music stops apart from the mournful notes coming from a single stringed instrument, and all there is in the entire world is the sound of that and the slap of the dervishes’ feet on the tiles as they slowly spin down from their excited state and become all too human once more, as do the rest of us.

And that’s it, that’s your day in Istanbul – starting with a bit of light shopping and finishing in the company of an 800 year old mystical sect, with no doubt a bit of a Feeding of the Stray Cats and drinking of Turkish beer (not bad) or wine (not good) to top it all off at the end. Now all I’ve got to do after the end of six years of OU study is try and find a hobby. Hmmm...Then and again they do do these short three month courses on things like Introducing Astronomy or Play Writing or the Geological History of the British Isles which could be fun. I mean, I can give up the OU any time, it’s not like crack. I’ve just got a mild cold at the moment, that’s all...

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