Thursday, January 12, 2006


As I write this now we have been in Cairo for five days now and have celebrated Eid yesterday.

The universal truth about both Istanbul and Cairo at this time of year is that it is very cold and full of stray cats – two things which I am allergic to. True, not as cold as in London but the homes and apartments in these countries don’t have any central heating systems, insulated lofts or sealed glazing so the nights feel particularly cold. For those that know me, you know that is not what I hoped for but thankfully the worst of the cold seems to be over and we’ve got our bawab (porter cum guard cum apartment caretaker and odd job man) to get some more heaters.

One good thing about the time of year was that there is a distinct lack of tourists around the main Sultanahmet tourist area of Istanbul. I have been fortunate to see many examples of Islamic architecture but I don’t think I have seen anything as ornate and beautiful as the Sultan Ahmet or Blue mosque. The domes, minarets, mosaic tiling, carpets, calligraphy and stained glass windows were first rate. And it’s not just that mosque, the Ottamans left hundreds if not thousands of these types of mosques. As soon as you head towards one, another comes into your eye line. Quite fantastic. And to bring them into the modern age, most of these mosques have been updated with under floor heating!

The famous Topkapi palace, the residence of the Ottoman Caliphs was also a reminder of the splendour and also decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its focus as the centre of the Islamic Empire over many centuries was evidenced by the many artefacts on display including many keys to the Ka’ba (the House of Allah in Mecca) here and in the Ibrahim Pasha House which now houses Turkey’s Islamic Art and Artefacts collections. I didn’t go to the harem section of the Topkapi palace but this had by far the longest tourist queue and reinforces the orientalist preoccupation with the exotic eastern ‘other’.

Other than Turkish delights, Turkey is also famous for its Turkish baths. Now this is normally something I would not necessarily indulge in mainly because of worries about ensuring haya or modesty. Muslim men are supposed to cover the area between the knees and navel at all times (don’t get me started on school dressing rooms). So I took my trusted lungi along (a sort of sarong from the sub-continent as modelled by fishermen and rickshaw drivers). The whole thing was quite traumatising. As soon as you enter, you are ushered to changing rooms then the sauna. There was a line of menacing looking moustachioed Svengalis that you had to pass. As it was the slow season there were very few clients and loads of them waiting ready to pounce on their next victim.

The hamam in itself, like all things Ottaman, was a beautiful marble clad steam room where I was made to sweat for about twenty minutes before Tahir, my stout and very strong masseuse stepped in. After showing me how dirty I was and scrubbing me till my skin was raw, he proceeded to ‘massage’ by back, neck, arms and stomach. I swear I thought I was going to pass out at one stage. When it was over, I pointed to my right shoulder which had been giving me some problems and he promptly went back to work kneading, pulling, stretching and scrunching and in general inducing more pain than I had ever experienced before. I think the tactic was to cause more physical distress so that the original problem pales into insignificance. If you ever wondered where the CIA, KGB and Saddam Hussein recruited the men for their torture chambers, Turkish baths may not be a bad place to start. At the end of it all and after stepping back into the real world I did feel strangely invigorated and refreshed.

Apart from that we fitted quite a bit in to our short stay including a trip to the Fatih district, a round trip around the Bosphorous straights (with breathtaking sunset views of Istanbul) and grand bazaar trip where Mrs C bought two fake leather handbags.

PS. I was going to post some pictures but it takes for ever on dial-up.


Blogger fudgebumpkin said...

I see you must have had some kind of discussion on the purchase of the bags, so significant a place they have in your account!

3:59 pm  
Anonymous Ide said...

With your detailed account of the agonies in the Turkish baths, you will have your excuses ready for our next squash match.

9:31 pm  
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1:19 pm  

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