BOB BONE'S TravelPieces


Istanbul After the Quake



 The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

ISTANBUL – A faint light was beginning to invade the darkness when the calls to Moslem morning prayer could be heard in our cabin across the harbor.

The brightening sky soon raised the curtain on a reassuring scene of ships, mosques, bridges, and the chaotic traffic that make up the character of the ancient city. This is the same familiar Istanbul, which physically as well as culturally spans the Straits of the Bosporus, one foot in Europe but the bulk of its body in Asia.

We were on the ship currently known as the largest cruise ship on the Seven Seas, and it was still less than two weeks since Turkey suffered its devastating earthquake. Passengers coming aboard the Grand Princess the previous day spoke of others who had cancelled their scheduled voyage out of fear or sympathy in the wake of the tragedy.

They need not have worried. There was no disease and no damage to be seen in the normal course of events in Istanbul. The misery so apparent in wreckage in the industrial suburbs and in the collapse of apparently substandard housing in other cities did not affect the ancient monuments that have solidly attracted visitors for hundreds of years. Hotels and other tourism industries also remained undamaged, although some said business was down.

“Nadya,” our guide on a tour of the city’s well known monuments – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the  fragile-looking Obelisk of Theodosius on the Hippodrome and the Topkapi Palace – thought hard about our questions concerning the earthquake.

“There was one nineteenth-century palace that received some damage,” she said. “I believe two large vases were broken.”

Buildings in the center of Istanbul, many of them centuries old and often of decidedly rickety appearance, had withstood yet another Turkish earthquake with no more signs of damage than an occasional broken window.

The suburban buildings that collapsed were constructed within the past few decades, and accusations were made against rapacious contractors said to have been saving money by using substandard materials. This was something unheard of when Emperor Constantine and other movers and shakers of the ancient world commissioned the architectural masterpieces in the center of Istanbul.

“The situation for tourists in Turkey has not changed,” said Sadettin Bulbul, the port agent for some foreign cruise ships that call in Istanbul. “The areas hit by the earthquake are not tourist areas.

“In fact the city of Istanbul was not really hit by the earthquake,” Bulbul said, going on to explain that some of the heavy damage was felt in the province of Istanbul, which is named after the city.

“Istanbul is a very big city,” he said. “And the damage did not come closer than 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the city.”

Tours by passengers from the ship bore out Bulbul’s claims. We saw scaffolding and various repairs under way at the Hagia Sophia and at the Topkapi Museum, which turned out to be uninterrupted restoration projectsIstanbul street scene begun earlier in the year.

Bulbul was present on the ship to take part in the ceremonial presentation of a large check to representatives of the Red Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of the Red Cross. Dozens of reporters and photographers from the Turkish press covered the event.

He explained that on August 17, the date of the earthquake, travelers were just getting ready to board the ship in Barcelona when they learned of the tragedy in the city they were to reach at the end of their voyage. On embarkation, the 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crewmembers immediately took up a collection for earthquake relief in Turkey.

They raised a total of $33,629, a figure Princess Cruises augmented with an additional $50,000, to make up a check totaling $83,629.