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10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge tourist favorite globally, but Americans are just beginning to discover its riches.

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What's faith? What's choice? What's oppression? These questions and others went through our heads again and again. Unfortunately, we had no opportunity to talk to the women themselves about their lives. Western-looking Turkish women spoke English and worked in Istanbul’s tourist areas (although nowhere near in proportion to the men), but more traditional Muslim women pretty much did not. When men spoke for the women, they inevitably—and apparently sincerely—portrayed going covered as a choice that Muslim girls make freely.  Given the relative lack of employment for women (they make up only 27.9% of the Turkish workforce), the absence of women in the country’s government (only 1 of 26 ministers is female), and the country’s ongoing and serious degree of violence against women, particularly covered women, these assertions are impossible to take at face value.

Traveling to far-flung locales inevitably challenges values and stimulates thought about differences. We came away knowing from experience that Islam can form the core of a deep and compassionate morality, but also with a deepened feeling for how it can justify oppression and injustice. Which on the one hand is obvious—all religions have that potential—but which nevertheless felt like a continual eye-opener.

7. A century of change.

The past century in Turkey is in large part the story of how Turks have tried to balance their Islamic faith and their desire for a place in a modern, Westernized world. These efforts have led to a continuing heady brew of Islamic and Western culture and values in Istanbul’s daily life.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who shepherded Turkey's transition from Islamic sultanate to Western secular society in the 1920s, is often described as the country's George Washington. But he's really more like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton rolled into one. A war hero and revolutionary leader, he moved the country into a parliamentary democracy, oversaw the creation of a new constitution, curbed the power of religion, transformed the legal system, advocated for women’s rights, expanded public education for boys and girls, even created a new Turkish alphabet that was credited with improving public literacy from 10% to 70% in just two years. Quite a guy, and many Turks—particularly Westernized women—revere him to this day. 

But time passed and Turkish politics stagnated, to say the least. Enter Recep Tayip Erdogan, first elected prime minister in 2003, who's vying to rival Ataturk's place in history. Erdogan is an exceptionally adroit politician, by anyone’s standards. Re-elected by an impressive majority to his third term as prime minister last June, he inspires admiration from those who have profited from the country's increased stability, rapid economic growth, and expansion of international influence. But some fear his ambitions as well, accusing him of courting conservatives by reverting to his Islamist roots and retreating from earlier commitments to civil rights and free speech in order to boost his popularity and ensure his rule.

8. Raki, rocket and tomatoes to die for.

Turkey is a major eating and drinking culture, and no matter the level of hotel, a boffo breakfast—a veritable feast of bread and cheese and tomatoes and fruit and other good things—comes with the tab. Turks tend to overwhelm with their food—in restaurants, an order for one is usually enough for two. Our guide in Istanbul claimed that Turkey had the third-best cuisine in the world—a debatable assertion, but it is really tasty, and the selection goes far beyond humus and yogurt.

We traveled in August, and we were again and again astounded by the fresh and tasty produce we were offered. Turkish salads are staples and as good as they come. A simple rocket (arugula) salad with tomatoes was a meal in itself—everything was just that fresh and delicious. (For the first time in his life, Don acknowledged a rival to the New Jersey tomatoes of his youth.) Peaches, nectarines and figs had the kind of vivid color and intense flavor we thought only existed in books.

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