An American Abroad

Istanbul: Aksaray

As I walked through my residential neighborhood at 5:45 Friday morning, I heard the unexpected bleating of sheep waking up on one of their last days on earth. Eid is not a good time to be a sheep in Tunisia. Mr. Dahoud picked me up right on schedule and we drove north out of Sousse toward Tunis and the Carthage International Airport. As the sun rose over the sea to our east, I saw huge stork nests atop high tension towers by the roadside.

It was my first time leaving Tunisia and I was anxious. I’d heard stories about the government not allowing people to take money out of the country and about people being forced to pay a exit fee (or, as the government here calls it in true Orwellian style, to purchase a Solidarity Stamp). I had no such problems, however, and breezed through the exit queue.

I flew Turkish Airlines, a first for me, and was impressed. The plane was a new 737-800, the crew was gracious, the meal was good (and served with metal cutlery!), and the check-in clerk must have decided that since I was the tallest guy on the plane, I needed to be in the exit row seat with twice the usual legroom. After an easy two-hour flight over the eastern Mediterranean we touched down in Istanbul and taxied past jets of unfamiliar liveries: Solinair, MNG, Etihad, Air Moldova, Orunair, Aeroflot. We took our spot between Iraqi Airways and Air Serbia. Nearby was an Ilyushin Il-76, an ugly but tough old bird, done up in the colors of Turkmenistan Airlines. Turkey’s in an interesting neighborhood.

My hotel was in Aksaray, a commercial/residential neighborhood. Directly across from where I stayed was this convenience store.


Most of the little stores like this I saw in Istanbul were well-stocked, well-maintained, artfully merchandised, and actually pleasing to the eye. Here’s another example from nearby.


A short walk brought me to the trolley line was to be the central artery of my stay. I saw a number of sidewalk vendors selling the latest thing to hit Istanbul: a toy I knew in my youth as Spirograph.


There were also bootblacks whose equipment was the fanciest I’ve ever seen.


Note in the above pictures how well-dressed the men are. This is typical of what I saw. Even street vendors and working men often wear suit jackets. This was the first city I’ve visited where the men generally dress more stylishly than the women.

The streets were generally clean, perhaps owing in part to these cool underground public trash compactors.


In the last year, I’ve become interested in the world of late antiquity, so I wanted to see the city of Constantine, Justinian, and Theodosius. Time didn’t permit me to do much of that, unfortunately. There are, however, ruins scattered here and there. This is all that’s left of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius from the fourth century BCE. I thought the sperm-shaped design on the column was unusual, though I’m hardly well-versed enough to know that for sure.


Istanbul struck me as a mix of London cool, Paris style, and Chicago feel. As in Chicago, the main streets are broad and the buildings have a confident, muscular look to them.


Later, I reflected that for some students of antiquity, Istanbul was to Rome as Chicago was to New York: the Second City, the city of broad shoulders.


  1. Jim Manheim says:

    Always wanted to go there, especially after reading Orhan Pamuk’s book about the city. I’ve been trying to figure out why you never see anyone in Indonesia offering to shine your shoes. I thought it might be because of the general Muslim distate for the feet and for shoes. But that theory has just taken a hit. In Mexican cities you can’t walk two blocks without meeting a shoeshine boy.

    • Some of the more mobile bootblacks in Istanbul have a neat little trick. They carry their kits in a box that’s hung over their shoulder. As they approach you, they secretly release a little catch in the box; a panel opens and a brush drops out. Then, when you do the good-samaritan thing and point this out, they thank you profusely and offer you a “free” shine. And of course, by the end of the shine, they ask you for payment. I never fell for it, but it was tried on me three times.

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