Published October 27. 2013 4:00AM
The vast space of Turkey sprawls athwart the crossroad of Europe and Asia like a multiple-choice test. Turkey is:
a) The home of the proto-civilizations of the Hittites and Lydians, the people who invented coinage and the basics of governance.
b) The home of the early Christians, many of the Apostles, the first key churches and the Council of Nicaea, where The Bible was codified.
c) The center of the Byzantine Empire, where the Romans moved, created Constantinople and became Christian.
d) The heart of the vast Islamic Ottoman Empire, the sophisticated empire which stretched from Hungary across the Levant, through Egypt and across North Africa.
e) The first modernized nation in the Middle East, ensuring secularism and women's equality.
You guessed it - the answer is "All of the above." But more to the point, Turkey today is as appealing a tourist spot as you can find, rich with historic sites, a varied and exciting landscape, ancient traditions and modern seaside resorts, peopled by a warm and courteous citizenry.
My long-simmering urge to visit Turkey took shape last winter when I saw a flier from the College Art Association advertising an art tour of Turkey. I contacted the tour company - Tutku Tours - and via email we set up a two-week ramble for the start of October. The low prices in Turkey were part of the appeal, but looking back now, the enduring appeal is the people.
The Turks I met were uniformly open and friendly, willing to take time for a stranger. Of the 30-odd people I importuned on street corners to ask directions, many of whom did not speak English, only one was brusque. It is a culture, it seems, where men prove their strength and pride through hospitality and generosity. A shopkeeper in Kusadasi said, "If you lose your keys and your money and your passport, we will still open the door for you."
Our Tutku tour took us from Istanbul to ancient Cappadocia on the high, windy Anatolian steppe to the Aegean cities of Izmir and Kusadasi, where Roman ruins and modern resorts mingle, then back for two more days in Istanbul.
We learned this much about Turkey: It is a land of stone, not wood. Walls, sidewalks, floors and stairways gleam in marble and white stone. It is a place to buy fine leather, dazzling ceramics and unique woolen and cotton textiles at a fraction of U.S. prices. The "silk leather," made of lamb skin, is light and soft, and the Turks produce most of the finished jackets for Gucci and other major Italian houses.
"Here you pay for the leather. There you pay for the name," one dealer said.
This is clearly a Moslem country. The minarets of mosques punctuate the skyline, as steeples do in New London, and the call to prayers ring out from the PA systems throughout the day. Most women in the bazaars shop wear head scarves, though it's hard to tell if this is driven by religion, tradition or convenience. Few men wear long beards and kufi skullcaps. Barbershop culture must be strong, since almost all the men sport sharp, fresh-trimmed haircuts. We felt no hostility toward Americans - quite the opposite.
The rolling farmland along the Aegean coast, with orchards of figs, peaches, persimmon, pomegranate, mandarin oranges and olives, testify to the best dining choices. The simplest foods were the best. The basics of bread (of every shape and texture), fruit, cheese and yogurt couldn't be better, and along the Aegean, the sea bass and sea bream is fresh and fine. The fresh figs are a true treat, as are the many varieties of yogurt, the unique, sticky Turkish ice cream and the local lunch staple of boreg: filo dough lightly boiled to swell it like pasta, then layered with cheese or spinach and baked. This was a wholly satisfying diet: Figs and yogurt for breakfast, then salads, cheeses, breads and wine for the rest of the day. When feeling carnivorous, lamb shish worked just fine.
TURKEY AS 'MOSAIC'
In Istanbul, we stayed at a boutique hotel named Arcadia Blue in the Sultanahmet area, the most historic section of the city where the Ottoman palace grounds of Topkapi butt up against Haghia Sophia, the 6th-century cathedral-turned-mosque with its dome soaring 180 feet overhead, a miracle of construction that has withstood 15 centuries of earthquakes. Our energetic Tutku guide Zümrüt Tokay oriented us to the city - we really just needed to locate the Grand Bazaar for starters - and on our return, we negotiated it just fine. The city has a modern, quiet and efficient tram system.
The pre-dawn call to prayers from the minarets woke us, along with the gulls crying over the Blue Mosque as the procession of large ships silently passed from the Bosporus to the Sea of Marmara. In the evenings, so many ships ride at anchor there that is hard to tell where the lights of Istanbul end and the lights of the city at sea begin.
This city of 13 million is the crossroads of Europe and Asia, with a history and cosmopolitan texture that is unrivaled. It is a place where hotel clerks speak four languages. Our Tutku guide for several days in the Aegean area, a sagacious gentleman named Ercüment Özden, called Turkey not a "melting pot," but a "mosaic." That vivid image places the many colorful influences of cultures that surround them - Persia, the Turkmen to the north, Egypt, Greece, the Arabs to the south - into the matrix of Selchuk and Ottoman cultures. "Mosaic" defines the beauty of detail seen in art and architecture everywhere. Even small bazaar stalls are decorated with colorful tiles.
The bazaars are irresistible, part carnival, part shopping mall and part street theater. They are narrow warrens lined with small stall-shops, where only a hand cart can make deliveries. The owners sit out front and banter, and if you linger, the shopkeeper comes to your side. If the wares are bigger-ticket than a keychain trinket, you are offered tea in graceful tulip glasses, and the great sport of bartering begins.
My wife and I got pretty good at the good-cop, bad-cop technique … one admires while the other says, "Let's go. We got one of those yesterday." Early and late-day shopping are good ideas, since the first sale of the day is considered good luck, and late in the day prices go down just before closing. By the final day, I was able to get a big pashmina (cashmere/silk blend) scarf listed at 120 Turkish lira ($60) down to 35 TL ($17.50). Not bad for a rookie …
FROM METROPOLIS TO ROMAN RUINS
We flew to Cappadocia on Turkish Airlines (voted the best in Europe for several years running), where the landscape is a hallucinatory maze of ziggurat-shaped towers of stone, much like the hoodoos of the Southwest, many hollowed out into churches, monasteries and simple homes a millennium ago. The towns date back seemingly forever. We stayed in a cave hotel (they are legion) and hung out in the restaurant of the excellent and aptly named Museum Hotel next door. Cappadocia is famous for its balloon sightseeing, a slow drift over the unimaginable landscape of tuff (hardened volcanic ash), but the winds kept us grounded this time.
We flew to Izmir, a very modern city of 4 million on the Aegean, with a huge university population (everyone seemed 25 or younger) and friendly, well-fed feral dogs, waiting politely to cross the streets. Here we stayed in Swiss Mövenpick Hotel, with its rooftop lounge overlooking the vast arc of the harbor. From Izmir, we traveled to see the Roman ruins of Pergama, and then the crown jewel of Roman ruins in Asia Minor, Ephesus. This vast city once held 250,000, and it was to the early Christians here that Paul wrote his letter, now the New Testament's Epistle to the Ephesians
In Ephesus, you begin to understand Europe's years of yearning to return to the glory of Rome that endured until the Renaissance. The remnants of a city still contains the buried water pipes fed by four aqueducts, with sewers running out from the homes and public toilets, storm drains in the streets, steam bath - the trappings of the good life that fell away for 150 centuries.
We were driven down to Kusadasi, a resort city that could be on the Greek or Italian coast, where cruise ships came and went, and we swam in the Aegean. Here we stayed in Hotel Kismet, an old-style sprawling hotel, once a grand estate sited on a promontory that frames the harbor, with outdoor dining and bar and beautiful gardens of bougainvillea and pomegranate trees.
In a small souvenir shop in the heart of Kusadasi, an 18-year-old shopkeeper asks where I'm from and when told, he gleefully shouts "Obama!" The day is young, and he is chatty. He enthuses about Willie Nelson and says he wants very much to visit America, but he echoes a lament I hear again and again: It is nearly impossible for a young Turkish man to obtain a tourist visa to the United States now. (I obtained my Turkish visa online in three minutes.)
"They think all Middle Easterners are terrorists," the shopkeeper says with a smile and, seemingly, no rancor. I feel embarrassed.
We returned for two days on our own in Istanbul, once again storming the Grand Bazaar, going to the Museum of Modern Art, and taking the ferry up and down the Bosporus. At no time did we feel threatened, though this city, larger by half than New York, seems to go on forever.
A DELICATE BALANCE
Turkey has been a model for Western-style secular life in the Middle East since the 1930s, but the same polarizing forces of religious fundamentalism now gripping places as diverse as Egypt and Texas school boards are pushing the agenda for the next elections. The English-speakers there seemed worried that Turkey might fall back from modernism, but there were no signs of this to newcomers.
Tourism is the third largest sector of the Turkish economy, after industry (food processing, steel, auto parts, manufacturing in general) and agriculture. A tilt to fundamentalism would surely hurt that business. But for now, at least, it's hard to think of a more appealing vacation than in Turkey and a more exciting and vital city than Istanbul.