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Traveling to Turkey

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, image
Photo caption
Hagia Sophia was built by the Emperor Justinian in A.D. 537.

When my wife and I told friends about our upcoming vacation, they reacted with the sort of stunned silence that normally accompanies a divorce announcement. What shocked them was our destination—Turkey.

At a time when Americans are skittish about flying, the notion of jetting off to a country where 98 percent of the population is Muslim can give even seasoned travelers pause. Of course, what many Americans know about Turkey they learned from Midnight Express, the 1978 film that cast Turks as brutal prison guards. But my wife and I had heard too many glowing accounts of Turkey to buy very much into that stereotype. Nonetheless, the timing of our trip couldn't have been scarier: The United States began bombing Taliban positions in Afghanistan two days before we flew out. Judging by our nearly empty flight to Istanbul, many travelers opted to stay home.

Sadly, those who canceled their trips made possibly the biggest vacation mistake of their lives. Prior to September 11, Turkey was a relatively safe and inexpensive country to visit, loaded with magnificent Greco-Roman ruins, Islamic architecture, and bazaars. Since September 11, Turkey is all those things and one more—a crucial reality check for Americans like myself who need a broader picture of the Muslim world than the one conveyed by the movies and the nightly news.

The truth is, my impressions about Turkey had little to do with what the country and its people are really like. Contrary to what I expected, veiled women aren't the norm. For every woman in Istanbul wearing a head scarf, many more women favor pants and high heels.

Far from being hostile, the Turks were unfailingly hospitable. Many times, shopkeepers shoved money into my hands when I unintentionally overpaid (at 1.65 million Turkish lira to the dollar, mistakes were easy to make). A cabdriver regaled us with the history of Istanbul landmarks—undaunted by the fact that neither of us could speak the other's language. No matter. His genuine warmth came through loud and clear.

The only place we felt a chill was in Istanbul's Fatih district, a fundamentalist Muslim enclave where the women wear black robes and scarves that leave only the center of the face exposed and the men sport knitted caps and beards. Here, even tourists should dress conservatively (long sleeves for women, no exposed knees). Despite our efforts to be inconspicuous, we caught a steady stream of unfriendly looks as we wandered the labyrinthine cobblestone streets. But we also found a friend. An 11-year-old boy named Fahid who spoke nearly flawless English noticed that we were lost and offered to be our guide. From the moment he led the way, the locals didn't give us a second glance.

Granted, many Turks who rolled out the red carpet then tried to sell it to us. Tourism is big business in Turkey, and with their economy reeling from steep currency devaluations, the Turks have a powerful incentive to keep Americans happy. But American visitors also have history on their side. Unusual among Muslim nations, Turkey is a secular democracy, and it has been a member of NATO for half a century. Its laws are based on those of Switzerland, not the Koran. In the 1920s, Turkey took extraordinary and drastic steps to wed itself to the West—everything from switching from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet to granting women the same rights and freedoms as men. Turks are fiercely proud that almost half their nation's doctors and lawyers are women.

True, not all Turks agree with U.S. foreign policy. At least one antiwar demonstration took place in Istanbul while we were there. But coming from Portland, Ore., where there's a public protest seemingly every week, I wasn't too fazed, especially since the local English-language newspaper put the number of demonstrators at about 2,000—hardly a groundswell in a city of 9 million.

The Muslim influence turned out to be the most moving part of the trip. We visited some of the greatest Islamic monuments ever built—starting with Istanbul's 400-year-old Blue Mosque, a multidomed masterpiece of such arabesque grandeur that it makes Notre Dame in Paris look like a Quaker meetinghouse. It wasn't until I experienced the mosque's serenity that I realized how grievously the terrorists had misused a great religion for their own violent ends.

Another seismic change in my mind-set came at 6 the next morning. I roused to the call to prayer blaring from the minaret near our hotel. Moments later, minarets in other parts of Istanbul echoed the same beautiful chant. I rolled out of bed and opened the window—letting in the music of Islam and letting out my preconceptions.

Photography courtesy of Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.