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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

London, Paris, New York, Istanbul
March 8, 2000

Why don't you come with Monica and me, away from the thin, cobbled streets of old Istanbul. We'll head across the Golden Horn for a shopping adventure. Our goal, of course, is something small. No Turkish rugs. No tea sets. Whatever we buy, we have to carry across the entire continent of Asia in our backpacks, which are already chock full of electronic equipment and dirty socks. What I really need is a new pair of gloves-but we plan to do some window shopping too. Come on!

Galata Bridge, across the bay called the Golden Horn, takes us to a part of Istanbul where the streets are wider, the buildings taller, and the shops more fashionable. But the tall hotels and offices aren't shiny new. They are left over from the Ottoman Empire. The iron window gratings, fancy carvings, and painted exteriors remind me of old European cities, like Barcelona. Quite a difference from the ornate, medieval mosques and palaces of Old Istanbul, where we're staying, isn't it?

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Golden Horn
Let's walk under the busy street through an underground passage full of stores. On the other side, we can enter the Tunel, a stylish old subway that only has two stops-"Galata" and "Pera," A and B, "here" and "there." Not exactly like London's Tube or New York's subway, but what it doesn't have in usefulness, it makes up for in style! Look! The stations are decorated with beautiful tile-work, not graffiti or advertisements. I've read that this old underground railway was built in 1875 by French engineers, so that the merchants from all over Europe who lived in the fancy suburb of Pera could get home from work, here at the bottom of the hill by the busy Golden Horn port. Come on, I'll buy your ticket!

It's like being transferred back in time to an age where the port was strong and thriving and the rest of the huge Ottoman Empire was breaking apart at the seams. Once, the empire spread from Vienna, Austria in the north to Yemen in the South; it also stretched from the border of Morocco in the West to Mesopotamia in the East. By the time this subway was built, nationalism was sweeping across Europe, marked by a desire of many ethnic and religious groups to have their own state. The merchants on this subway may have been kissing up to the Ottoman sultan, but their governments were planning, in secret, how they would carve up the old empire once it fell apart. They called it "the sick man of Europe." But hey, the empire was over 400 years old, what do you expect?

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monica tube
Now, we are at the top of the hill, and at one end of the most hip shopping strips in all of Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi ( Independence Avenue). I can see that you're impressed by the tall, beautiful, European buildings that surround us. Look out! Here comes a red trolley car that was built at the same time as the Tunel to take people up and down this grand avenue. I wonder how it gets through the crowds of hip young folks that line this street day and night?

Just for a moment, let's ignore the music blasting from the shops. Yes, I like "La Vida Loca," too, but you can hear it later. Take the music stores, the Bennetton, the McDonalds, and all the fancy shops, and imagine what they must have been like back in the late 1800's, when they were owned by wealthy merchants from all over Europe. This street was called the Grande Rue de Pera, and it was the heart of the foreign community, where all the embassies and fancy hotels were located. Check out all the old buildings, the brick street, the fancy ironwork street lamps, and the little red tramway that runs up and down the street. It must have been as hip then as it is now.

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Hey, you look cold! I'm chilled, too. Let's sit down in one of these cute little cafés and have a cup of Turkish tea or coffee before we go looking for gloves. I'm addicted to these strong, tiny cups of Turkish coffee. It started back in Egypt, and continued through our time in Israel and Palestine. Those areas were once part of the Ottoman Empire, too, you know. They left some cool mosques and palaces behind, but it is the coffee that I appreciate the most!

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larger view
Of course, the fact that the Muslim Ottomans controlled all the religious sites of Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem gave the European countries a good excuse to plot its overthrow. The kingdom of Greece had already won its independence from the Turks in 1832, and revolution was brewing in much of the empire. The uprisings were aided by those greedy European countries like France and Britain, who were hungrily eyeing some of the tastier bits of the weak empire. This café, itself, may have been a hotbed of political intrigue!

But, as you know, because you've been following our website, it was WWI that finally brought the Ottoman Empire to its end. By the time the war broke out, the sultan was a puppet to some young, reform-minded Turks, who decided to side with Germany in the war. Whoops! But then again, with the Allies all carving up the Ottoman Empire on their drawing boards before the war even started, they didn't have a lot of choice.

The Allies made all kinds of promises that they had no intention of keeping- like promising Palestine to both the Arabs and the Jews, when they really planned to keep it for themselves. But, as they say, "all's fair in love and war." The Turks lost big time and their empire, as well as Anatolia itself, was set to be taken apart and divided between the Allies. (Kinda like we can split up one of those yummy pastries if you're buying. I promise not to hog it all!)! To make matters worse, Greece was preparing to attack the city of Smyrna (modern day Izmir) in hopes of recreating the ancient Byzantine empire.


ornate - highly decorated
nationalism - loyalty and devotion to a country by wanting to promote its culture and interests
embassies - a place for ambassadors to live and work
overthrow - to cause the downfall of, especially a leader or government
intrigue - secret scheming

Well, if you're not going to buy me a pastry, let's just go get some gloves and see what the CD selection is like here in Turkey. I bet we can find a lot of cool "World Beat" music that you don't have at home!

What? You want to know what happened, eh? Did the empire get torn to pieces? Well, obviously not entirely, or all the signs would be in French or Greek instead of Turkish. I'm glad to see you're paying attention to my story, and not just to that cutie waiter! But, the rest of the story will have to wait for another time. Sorry! I'll give you one hint: Ataturk.


p.s. - Please e-maill me at


Recommended Links:
Photos of Izmir
Photos of Istanbul
Map of Turkey from space

Monica - Mevlana Rumi: Divine Love Throughout all Things
Brian - For His Eyes Only: The Adventures of Secret Agent 006.5
Kavitha - Whirling, Whirling As Fast As You Can!
Monica - Father of the Nation, Builder of the Capital
Jasmine - Black History Month Continues...Dare to Dream!

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