Letter from Turkey

Juliet Krassenstein and her husband in front of Hagia Sophia
Juliet Krassenstein and her husband in front of Hagia Sophia
| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When I turned 50, I made a bucket list of places to go before I die. Morbid? Perhaps. But, I reasoned, I'm getting to the age where things start happening to people. If I want to see the Great Wall of China or Machu Picchu or New Zealand or the Greek Islands, I better get moving, because, hey, you never know.

This year, I picked Turkey. I'd wanted to visit Turkey since college, when I was an art history student learning about Hagia Sophia. The pictures in my “Art Through the Ages” book were mesmerizing — the sixth-century mosaics of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints and emperors; the minarets installed after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453; 1,000 years of Byzantium and another 500 of Islam, until the 20th century, when the new secular government converted the legendary site into a secular museum. There was a certain romance about Hagia Sophia that was calling me.

Later, when I was looking for a job in Pittsburgh back in the 1980s, I interviewed with a guy who had pictures on his wall of all the places he had been. Instead of talking shop, I studied the pictures. “Is that Constantinople?” I asked. “Istanbul,” he replied, “but, yeah. It was great.” The remainder of the interview consisted of us quizzing each other on where each of us had been and where we'd like to go. He hired me, even though our travel talk had nothing to do with the job.

But life has a way of intervening. It's not so easy to pick up and head to Turkey when you have jobs and children and houses and pets. But my husband and I finally reached a stage in life when half the kids are gone, the other half can fend for themselves, and the dog, sad to say, is dead.

So off we went, much to the chagrin of various family and friends, who equate Turkey, a peaceful Muslim country, with Afghanistan, where there's a war on. I reassured them that Turkey is safer than England (I read that somewhere but asserted it as a fact etched in stone) and that became my mantra as we boarded our flight to Istanbul.

Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, and its population exceeds that of Manhattan by a good 5 million people. With limited time to experience Istanbul's nearly limitless offerings, we kept it simple.

We walked across the Galata Bridge, where scores of men dropped fishing lines into the mighty Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. We visited the Blue Mosque, where I had to wear a veil over my head and my husband, the only man in Turkey wearing shorts, had to wrap a blue sheet around his lower half as a sign of respect. We descended into the Basilica Cistern, built to hold water in reserve for the entire city lest it come under siege (but now serving as a fantastical tourist attraction, complete with an upside-down Head of Medusa supporting one of the columns). We navigated the Grand Bazaar, teeming with humanity bargaining over everything from calligraphy to antiques, to clothing, to Turkish delight.

And, of course, we visited Hagia Sophia. We looked in wonder at the soaring dome, the glittering gold Byzantine mosaics, the gigantic circular emblems containing the Islamic characters for Allah and Mohammed. Even the scaffolding covering one side could not detract from the magnificence of the place.

As we exited Hagia Sophia, every minaret in Istanbul began the call to prayer, the voices of imams' chants echoing throughout the ancient city.

“You picked a good country to visit,” my husband said. “Yeah,” I replied, “looks like I did.”

Juliet Krassenstein lives in Bradford Woods.

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