Our Cairo-Istanbul flight lasted two hours and connected two great, populous Islamic cities whose countries have most of the eastern Mediterranean coastline. Within the first few hours of our arrival in Turkey there were clear differences. In Istanbul, there were fewer head scarves and burkhas and more tight jeans and high heels. We saw virtually none of the forehead bruises that shouted “look how devout I am” and not once had we seen men rolling out prayer mats in the middle of the street to pray. The streets were cleaner and prices higher: In downtown Cairo dinner for four costs us US$9.00 at Al-Tabeh restaurant but it took a lot of effort to find a lunch in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet section for less US$50.00. Despite the surface similarities of the two countries, we felt very clearly that we’d left Egypt behind.
Many of the differences are because of one man: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In the wake of the Ottoman Empire collapsing during World War I, he embarked upon modernizing reforms to make Turkey a secular nation. In 1922 the Sultanate was abolished and in 1923 the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara. In 1924 the Caliphate was abolished, Islamic law was abolished and a constitution was adopted. That same year the fez was outlawed and women were discouraged from wearing veils. In 1925 the Islamic calendar was dropped in favor of the Western Gregorian calendar and in the following year European-type laws were adopted. The new laws ended Islamic polygamy and the common practice of divorce by renunciation. In 1928 a new Turkish alphabet, basically a modified form of Latin, was introduced and replaced Arabic. In 1933 to the Islamic call to worship was required by law to be in Turkish rather than Arabic. Within a ten year period, Ataturk had successfully instituted these reforms that made Turkey much more western and much less Arabic.
If these things weren’t enough to let us know that we’d left Egypt behind, our experience at the Gedikpasa Turkish bath left no doubt. We walked into the dark, dank and domed reception area and were given a changing room and a towel. My son and I entered the men’s area and started with a sauna, then waited on the large, heated marble slab for our Turkish masseurs. Mehmet came for my son and brought him over to the washing area and Yacush did the same for me. The bath area’s floors and walls were made of white marble which held up a large stucco dome pierced with ventilation holes. Water ran swiftly through cut-marble conduits, steam hissed from the sauna and water droplets fell at irregular intervals creating a Turkish symphony of water. Yacush started by sloshing me with a bucket of warm water, then lathered me up with soap and started to work me over with his black loofa mitt. I leaned my head back, enjoying being cleaned thoroughly and looked over and saw my son doing the same. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and my reverie was interrupted by Yacush exclaiming something in Turkish. He said it again and motioned for me to look down at my arm. There I saw long, black worm-sized strings running across my arm. At first I thought that his black loofa mitt was falling apart, but when I looked again I recognized that what I was looking at was my own dirty skin being rubbed off my body. Five weeks of travelling through desert oasises, dusty archaeological sites and dirty downtown Cairo had accumulated on me and was now being released. I heard the same exclamation from my son’s masseur and I knew he was just as dirty as I was. Afterward, my wife and daughter related similar experiences. The Gedikpasa Turkish bath was built in 1475 and we wondered how many pounds of skin and dirt have been flushed away through its beautiful, marble water canals.
It was at that moment that we knew that we’d left Egypt behind.