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Cruising about in Istanbul

The Baltimore Sun

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- At 5:30 a.m., Istanbul awakens to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer. As the monophonic tones blare over loudspeakers throughout this city of minarets and mosques, they draw the many faithful to worship.

Though we are not Muslim, we stir to the sounds. We are here, in this ancient land on the Bosporus, in a hotel, on a one-day stay before embarking on a Mediterranean cruise.

The rhythm and pitch of the muezzin's call is exotic and alien to our Western ears and serve as potent reminder that Istanbul is a strange land rich in religion and history and, for a Westerner, even in mystery.

A visitor cannot walk this city's winding streets without stumbling on the past, and that makes Istanbul a prerequisite for an illuminating pre- or post-cruise stay. Many ships sojourn here during eastern Mediterranean cruises, often staying overnight to let passengers savor the city's treasures.

Greeks founded Istanbul (then called Byzantium) long before Christ's birth; Roman Emperor Constantine converted Byzantium to Christianity in A.D. 325 and renamed it Constantinople five years later; the Turks converted the land to Islam in 1453 and made it the seat of the great Ottoman Empire. In 1930, the city's name was officially changed to Istanbul.

Near the Old City's center (Sultanahmet) is the Hippodrome, a huge amphitheater now in ruins that was the site of popular chariot races, circuses and public executions.

Among Istanbul's many other imposing structures of historic significance is Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), a 6th-century church converted to a mosque in the 15th century and now a museum. Many buildings dating from the time of the Ottoman Empire, including the mosques of Bayazid II and Suleyman I, reflect the stylistic Byzantine influences of Hagia Sophia, but are uniquely Turkish with tall, slim minarets on their exteriors and extensive surface ornamentation inside.

The streets here bustle with human traffic - men wearing red felt fezzes, some sporting dusty suits and white shirts, many with cigarettes dangling from parted lips. Eerily, they don't smile or nod back when we greet them, and the women keep their faces covered and their eyes downcast.

Our traveler's angst slowly dissipates as we poke our noses into nearby shops heaped with discards that we find a treasure trove of Eastern culture. Incense burners in arabesque shapes are big here. So are tea urns, water pipes, sultanlike shoes with curled-up toes, shiny brass plates and decorated ceramics.

At the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsisi), near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, a cavernous labyrinth of shops is tucked into every conceivable space. Everyone assiduously bargains over everything. Swept up in the commercial frenzy, we purchase a beautiful watch fashioned after a Piaget. (We pay 12 bucks for it and, on the 12th day, the watch stops, never to tick again.)

But it's the food in Istanbul more than the merchandise that entices us. We want to take home a piece of this place, even if it's only in our stomachs. Food vendors on the street offer an amazing assortment of grilled meats accompanied by colorful vegetables. The food is mostly eaten with your fingers and, often, we're not certain what that meat is we've just swallowed. But it's all delicious.

Concerned about sanitary conditions, however, we're more tempted by the rows of restaurants that bookend the bazaar. One eatery has an open kitchen, and we watch women prepare dough for a variety of thin breads.

Another, across from the Blue Mosque, seems more like a cafeteria; it serves dozens of ethnic dishes from steaming stainless-steel chafing dishes.

Near the waterfront of the Bosporus not far from the Suleyman Mosque, vendors sell fresh-caught fish grilled on coal braziers. Here fishing fleets return with holds teeming with the ocean's bounty.

Another lure is the spice market across the historic Galata Bridge that spans Istanbul's Golden Horn. Here, we sit in an open courtyard sipping tea and people-watching. The fragrance of thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon infuse the air. Linger here long enough and, we realize, we'd smell like someone's evening meal.

By day's end, when the muezzin calls again, we are sated - visually, spiritually and emotionally. Even a brief visit to Istanbul convinces us it is like no other place on earth.

Arline and Sam Bleecker wrote this story for the Chicago Tribune.

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