I arrive in Turkey for the IFOAM conference late on a Saturday, nearly on the other side of the world. I have landed in the ancient city of Istanbul, once Constantinople as named by the great ruler Constantine. The formidable walls that protected the city for 1,000 years are now crumbling. They tumble into the Sea of Marmara, along with restaurants and homes. Groups of men huddle around fires beneath the ancient stones for warmth and camaraderie. It is exotic and beautiful. My driver takes an abrupt turn off the main road and suddenly we negotiate small winding cobblestone streets, never intended for vehicles. As we twist and turn through the maze of ageless buildings, I wonder how I will ever find my way in this labyrinth. The hotel at last and I finally go to sleep after a full twenty-four hours of travel.
No need to set an alarm as I am wakened by the sound of morning prayers issuing forth from the Blue Mosque the following morning. Prayers five times per day from the many mosques in the city will keep me mindful of the great Islamic belief that guides the culture and people here. Although it is a city of many faiths, it is also a hedonistic mixture of philosophies and histories. I rise to explore it all on my free day before the IFOAM World Congress.
The smell of breakfast calls me from the rooftop terrace with a great panorama. As the morning mists rise I can see centuries of obelisks, palaces, mosques and ruins. The Hagias Sophia church, built in the 5th century for the early Christians and later converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, embodies the cultural mélange of this city. Beyond is the Bosporus River, which is the divide between Europa and Asia. This passage between the great continents is the reason so many have conquered and invaded this golden horn. Great riches and empires have been gained, and won and lost here.
Breakfast pulls me away from my historic ruminations. The hotel Nena has outdone itself! Three tables overflow with abundant platters of feta cheeses, stuffed peppers and smoky eggplant. The scrambled eggs are bright orange and gently tremble between mounds of walnut-pepper spread and Kalamata tapenade. Soft white flaky brioche and rustic flat breads are strewn beside dried Turkish apricots, calmyrna figs and dates bursting with pistachios. Nutella to spread, ruby tomatoes to garnish and fresh fruit all take me hostage. The Halva is exquisite! I savor each flavor and wash it down with strong Turkish coffee. I am ready to explore now.
I meet my guide in the patio downstairs after checking my email. Mezut Ozgen is a native of Istanbul and a fountain of knowledge about the history of the surrounding neighborhood and its ancient wonders. His english is impeccable. With him I explore centuries of architecture that embodies the Egyptian, Great Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires. The site of an ancient early Christian Basilica became a great underground water storage cistern by the Roman emperor Justinian in AD 52. Being the great recycler he utilized old Grecian columns to hold up the arched ceilings underground. With Medusa heads and intricate carvings he filled the entire place with acres of water! Today, it is mostly empty of water and is one of most cherished attractions of the old city.
Next we visit the Topkapi Palace with its five courtyards and harems where some thousands of royal wives and concubines were once protected and lived in great splendor. The Blue Mosque with its six minarets, and eight secondary domes, built somewhat recently (in 1616) to establish Ottoman rule, is too busy with tourists. We decide to visit the Egyptian spice market instead and then have lunch!
For the second time today, I am served fine Turkish cuisine: spinach and eggplant with chicken kebabs, spanakopita, and garbanzos simmers in rich tomato sauce with black olives. I am satiated and stimulated and tired. My jet lag catches up with me and my belly is brimming. It is off to bed and tomorrow is the World Organic Congress. Visions of Turkish organic producers fill my slumbers. Prayers will awaken me from my slumber again tomorrow.