Saturday, November 25, 2006

Scams in Istanbul

We were in Istanbul last week (Nov 14th - 20th), a holiday organised by Andante Travels with guide lecturer Professor Trevor Watkins. Trevor is a retired archaeologist from Edinburgh University.

We were pleased to see the usual sights: the AyaSofya Museum (Justinian's great 6th century Byzantine cathedral) and the Blue Mosque (pictured) as well as the great vaulted underground water reservoirs built by roman engineering.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed)
We also took the coach to see the Byzantine land walls constructed on the orders of Theodosius II in 413.

Clare at the Theodosius II land walls
The other great Mosque on the Istanbul skyline is the Sulaimaniya, built by the great 16th century architect Sinan. The interior is similar to that of the Blue Mosque, but feels rather 'warmer'.

The interior of the Sulaimaniya Mosque
The Topkapi palace is the other 'must see' in central Istanbul, and as the residence of the Sultan with his harem and Janissary elite troops, it was the centre of the Ottoman empire. Now you can walk around it freely. Here is a view from the palace looking across the Bosphorus to the Asia side.
The Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace
Our general feeling about Istanbul was of great classical architecture - beautiful and monumental - embedded within what is still a poor country. Most of the population live in crowded apartment blocks, there is a lot of rubbish in the streets (and feral cats) and the pavements are in poor repair.

Three feral cats around a fish cart
It seems that the whole population is out to fleece what they take to be wealthy western tourists: we were routinely overcharged in shops, harassed in bazaars by shopkeepers desperate to entice us, and subject to a shoe-shine scam. We did not find the 'retail experience' pleasant.

Still, we were informed that the country has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years.