We had a full week of sightseeing planned in Istanbul -- the Blue Mosque, Turkish Baths, Aga Sofia, the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace, the Bosporus, the Grand Bazaar – and the first day we set out for the Topkapi Palace. With me leading the way, we jumped on the Sultanahmet tram line, got off at the Topkapi stop and bought some yummy sesame bread rings from a street vendor. We checked the guidebook and asked a few people where the palace was and successfully determined where we were. Our plan to tour the famous Topkapi Palace that morning had only one hitch: the Topkapi tram stop was nowhere near the Topkapi palace.
The Topkapi tram stop is where the old Ottoman city walls protected the Sultanahmet section of Istanbul and the old, rough, brown stone blocks rise up to form imposing city walls. Unfortunately, the fortified walls are about 10 kilometers from the palace itself. From where we exited the tram the walls spread out across the grey horizon and to the south we saw the heads of several people lined up on top of the wall. My wife, benevolently ignoring my inept navigation that morning, suggested we do the Topkapi Palace another day and see what was happening at the old city walls.
As we got closer we saw a few people milling about the area with plastic bags and they intermittently stopped to clean mud off their shoes. There were no tourists or westerners and all the people appeared to be working class Turks wearing their somber, dark-colored clothing. One man was twirling a rag near a small stream and at first I thought he was cleaning his clothes in it. It turned out he too was wiping mud off his shoes with a wet rag. People were coming down from the wall and now we were close enough to tell that this was a local market. We walked through some puddles then climbed up through a muddy spiral passageway at the base of a rampart and climbed to the walkway on top of the wall.
At the top of the wall were hundreds of Turks milling about in an informal market looking at and buying used merchandise. The market was on a 25-foot wide walkway between the 50-foot high back wall and the 20-foot high front wall. From the top of the front wall Ottoman sentries had many times shot arrows or poured boiling oil on infidel invaders. There was mud everywhere on the walkway and many people wore plastic shopping bags around their shoes to keep them clean. This was clearly an illegal market for local Turks: goods were laid on blankets, ready for the merchants to grab each of the four corners and bundle and run if the local authorities came by. Against the high back wall a merchant watched over piles of used clothing and also displayed a plastic pitcher with a cheerful flower design as well as a green wall clock. A man sat on a wood chest smoking a cigarette and selling a dozen used, muddy pairs of shoes. To his right, another merchant had a hodgepodge of second-hand goods: a striped umbrella, a hair dryer, an ice pick, a trowel, a wall lamp, a calculator, a children’s Snoopy cartoon book and the item that caught my son’s eye -- an iPod wall charger. There was mud everywhere and in many places there was a layer of smashed garbage – cardboard, plastic bags, paper, socks, rags – all mixed together in a mud stew. We looked around for another 20 minutes but none of the items caught our fancy. As the others before us did, we descended and cleaned the mud off our shoes at the base of the wall.
We went to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar two days later and it was a completely different scene. Well-heeled tourists strolled everywhere in what’s known as the world’s oldest shopping mall, while smiling merchants tried to lure them into their shops. Wares were clean and polished and with a little bit of haggling could be yours. We visited the Grand Bazaar three or four times and my wife, son and daughter bought their share of goods there. While the informal market at the Topkapi city wall was authentic and something that foreigners rarely see, there was nothing we wanted to buy there. We were enticed by the merchandise at the Grand Bazaar and we enjoyed the added benefit of not having to wipe any mud off our shoes.