It has already been over two weeks since a trio of suicide bombers shot up Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport (IST), killing at least 44 people and injuring 150 others before detonating their explosive devices and thereby taking their own lives.
The scourge known colloquially as ISIS has once again taken credit for the attack, as if that is something to boast about. Ataturk Airport is Europe’s third-busiest airport, based in Europe’s largest city, and it handled 62 million passengers in 2015. So if there is a silver lining to the attack, it is merely that the body count could easily have been much higher.
During the time it took me to gather my thoughts about this latest attack – one of too, too many in recent years – the Mediterranean city of Nice, France was attacked as well, during a joyous Bastille Day celebration, at that. Merde.
This is getting old.
Turkey, that great East-meets-West melting pot of the old world, has suffered from no fewer than 20 terror attacks over the past two years. The country has a strong military and a tolerant, secular government, but its proximity to Syria and Iraq have made it an unfortunate victim of sectarian violence and border skirmishes, especially in Kurdish corners of the country. Additionally, thousands – millions, even – of undocumented migrants have poured into Turkey from Iraq and Syria both. While the vast majority – surely more than 99 percent, I would say – are refugees, a very discontented few almost certainly have evil on the mind.
How can overburdened border police possibly separate the good from the bad? Is it their moral duty to let in everyone in? Syria is mired in a hopeless civil war and Iraq isn’t much better. Should Turkey turn their immigrants away for fear that one out of every 100 may have militant tendencies? Who can say? I wouldn’t want to be Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who, at press time, may be facing an attempted coup – for all the whiskey in Ireland.
I am working on a future post that will be entitled, The Top Ten Big Cities in Europe. Spoiler alert: Istanbul cracks the top five.
My first visit to a majority-Muslim country was when I visited Turkey in 2006. I spent five glorious days in Istanbul, and fell in love with the city almost instantly. Simply put, Istanbul is alive. From its covered spice market, where lokum and Turkish Viagra are given out free for tourists to sample, to the steep streets of Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu, many of them leading downhill to the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a feast for the eyes. From the carpet shop hawkers, preying on jet-lagged travelers with pricy, but otherwise harmless, calls of “my friend, my friend,” to the five-times-daily calls to prayer, impossible not to hear, Istanbul is an auditory delight. From the aroma of kebabs cooking on street-side grills to the smell of fish caught by fishermen young and old along Galata Bridge, Istanbul is an aromatic assault on your nasal passages as well. And I mean this in the best possible way.
Is there any other city in the world where a simple ferry ride deposits you on another continent? Where getting a massage on a steamy slab of marble from a hairy Turkish male is the perfect – albeit non-sexual – reward to a long day of sightseeing? Where a cup of steaming hot apple tea on an equally hot summer day nonetheless hits the spot? Where you can visit a harem, a garden, and a mosque – and all three places are part of the same attraction? (That would be the astonishing Topkapi Palace, easily one of Europe’s top ten wonders.) Where a Byzantine church-turned-mosque-turned-museum (the Hagia Sophia) is a harmonious gathering place for Muslims and Christians alike? Where a fire engine-red streetcar slowly makes its way through hordes of well-dressed shoppers as it traverses pedestrian Îstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue – regrettably, another recent site of terror)? Where so much history has taken place that the city has literally had three different names? Where, somehow, an underground cistern is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions?
Despite (or because of) these seeming contrasts, Istanbul makes sense. The food was good, the traffic was orderly, the people were kind, and the weather was sublime. I never felt threatened while walking around the city – not even late at night. I had never stepped inside a mosque until visiting Istanbul, but my impression after visiting several in Turkey was that Islam is a religion of peace. How can any place as beautiful – as serene – as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque be anything but peaceful?
Afoot and Afield
Of course, there is much more to Turkey than just its largest city. The nation’s capital, Ankara, is home to another 4.6 million people and seemingly another 4.6 million museums. Tiny Göreme, in the shadow of Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame) is the charming base for adventurous travelers to Cappadocia, where you can hike through Anatolian valleys, sleep in cave hotels, ride hot air balloons above patchwork farmland, explore Byzantine caves hidden inside volcanic fairy chimneys, and trek through underground cities.
Coastal Turkey, south of Istanbul, is lined with the ruins of ancient cities (Troy), with WWI battlefields (Gallipoli), and with Biblical wonders such as Ephesus, where St. Paul once ministered. Just two hours inland from Ephesus, the travertine terraces and mineral pools of Pamukkale make for a spa destination like no other. Further south and a stone’s throw from the Aegean Sea, two of the original Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus – built during the heyday of the Persian Empire – lay in ruins, barely recognizable but silently marking the centuries.
The frightening number of attacks in Istanbul, Ankara, and elsewhere in Turkey since my first visit ten years ago risks threatening my outlook on the subject, but let us remember that we don’t always know what goes on inside a person’s head. Strangely, the planners and attackers in the latest incident weren’t even from Istanbul, nor from Turkey at all for that matter. The moral of the story: don’t judge a book by its cover.