One day Istanbul tour guide Zeki Ciftci had a client from Texas who wanted to see the walls of Constantinople. Ciftci took him there.
“He touched the walls, sat a bit and cried,” recalls Ciftci.
“He said Zeki, you know what? The reason why they discovered America is these walls.”
How was that possible, the guide asked.
“This was a city where non-Muslims, Christian people, lived,” replied the man. “This was the centre of trade. The Silk Road started from here and went to China.”
True, the Byzantine-era walls were once used to protect the city from enemies. Then in 1453 the Ottomans captured Istanbul.
“The non-Muslim traders didn’t come to Istanbul anymore,” the tourist explained. “What did they do? They tried to go over the oceans to India and China. So, when they tried to find a way they discovered the United States. So that is why my history, my nationality, started from this point.”
It’s a perspective that was new to Ciftci, a tour guide I met in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district.
“The sultan wanted an original mosque and that is why he built Sultanahmet,” Ciftci says. “It’s called the blue mosque because of the heavy colour of its ceramic tiles.
“Severus, who was the king of Roman Empire, built a Hippodrome here. In Rome there is Circus Maximus, the biggest hippodrome in the world. The second biggest one was here. Can you imagine? The capacity of the hippodrome is like 100 000 people. They started chariot wars from this place.”
Nearby stands an obelisk brought from Egypt. “This is the oldest monument in Istanbul,” Ciftci says. “3,500 years old. When you look at it, it looks new.”
Passersby are laughing and relaxed, and it’s hard to imagine the place as anything but peaceful. Behind some trees and down some white steps there is a fountain.
“That is the German fountain,” Ciftci points, telling it was a gift from German Emperor Wilhelm II to commemorate his visit to Istanbul in 1898. But its more recent history is troubling, and a suicide bomber struck there in January 2016, killing close to a dozen people and injuring many others. The main casualties were German tourists and many stopped coming.
“After that, almost every two months, there were bombings,” Ciftci says. “ In Taksim, in Sultanahmet. In Beyazit – they have this kind of problems.” And there has been a knock-on effect on visits from across Europe and the Middle East.
“Nowadays we have problems with Germans,” he says. “Normally our number one tourists are Germans. But because of our political problems with Germany, they don’t come. And also Italians and French people don’t come so much.”
Tourism from Russia was also affected after the downing of a plane in November 2015 on the Syrian border.
“Last year the Russians didn’t come after that airplane situation. But this year 3.5 million Russians will come,” Ciftci predicts, ever the optimist.
Then there was also the failed military coup in July last year. A few days after the event, Ciftci met many people from countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia. “Can you imagine, two days later people come here? They aren’t afraid.”
Last year was the worst year for tourism here, he says. “If tourism didn’t finish in 2016, it will never finish. Because even with bombings and our troubles, people are coming, they don’t mind. They say it’s destiny.”
Since he began his work as a tour guide in 2008, Ciftci has had more than 2,000 clients. They include singles, couples and groups of larger sizes, and he has is licensed to conduct tours anywhere in Turkey.
He was born near Van, the largest lake in the country. When he was six, his family moved to Istanbul and there he learnt English in school. He later improved his fluency through encounters with tourists in the central Besiktas district of Istanbul where he worked in a tea garden.
Later, he decided to become a tour guide and studied to get a licence. That required study and passing an English test and spent 36 days crossing Turkey and visiting historic places with an official guide. When he’s travelled abroad, he’s also noted how foreign guides conducted and dress themselves.
His clients include the rich and famous, and often political figures and leaders from Middle Eastern and Gulf countries.
On one occasion, Ciftci got a call to do a tour for a famous person. For security reasons, he was not given the name, and Ciftci refused the opportunity. The next day a friend told Ciftci the identity of the man he had turned down.
“Morgan Freeman, the guy who made the advertisement for Turkish Airlines,” Ciftci says. “I made the biggest mistake.”
Sometimes, he doesn’t know the person he is giving a tour to is famous.
“Once I did a tour with a couple,” he says. “I saw all Pakistani people come around me and take pictures. Am I famous or these people? While I finished the tour of Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofia maybe more than 200 people had started to make pictures of me. Then I learnt that he is one of the famous writers in Pakistan.”
Once he did a tour for an American
who wanted to see the Asian side of Istanbul. “I said ‘okay but what are you going to see there?’ He said ‘I want to see Asian people.’ I said ‘Europe, Asia all is Turkish. They are not Asian people.’ He said ‘Really?’”
Among the popular places to visit are holy relics inside Topkapi Palace. They include the mantle and sword belonging to the Prophet Mohammad, (PBUH) as well as hair from his beard.
“It is interesting for Christian people as well. Can you imagine you can see the stick of Moosa (Moses) in Topkapi Palace, and hand of Yahya (John the Baptist) also is there.”
Once he led a tour for a big group from Malaysia and took them to see the holy relics. Afterwards everybody started to cry. “I told them stories. They liked it. They felt very emotional. Men, women, all crying.”
Ciftci has some very emotional people on his tours. He tells me about Usman, a doctor who had come from the UK. “I took him to Topkapi Palace, and when I get out from [showing] the holy relics, he was crying.”
Another increasingly popular place is the Yerebatan Sarnici, the Byzantine era underground cistern.
“Especially after the movie Inferno, the last movie of Tom Hanks,” Ciftci says. “Dan Brown wrote the book about this, and then they made the movie of the book. They shot it in Aya Sofia in the cistern.”
Istanbul is an important city for visitors travelling on connecting flights. Ciftci talks about a new airport under construction in Istanbul, expected to be Europe’s largest airport. “Airplanes will come here more, and people will not go to Frankfurt, Germany, or they will not go to Holland. They will come here.”
Visitors from Russia, Arabic-speaking countries and Iran are the top tourists now, according to Ciftci. “Number four right now is English,” he says. Tourists from Balkan countries are also significant, and these countries were once part of the Ottoman empire.
“Before we were ruling Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary,” he recounts. “We also went to Vienna two times but because of the weather conditions, you know here is summer. But when you make the army ready, and the army walks there, it’s then winter. Weather in Vienna in winter is very cold. So that is why they couldn’t conquer Vienna a second time. Otherwise, if they managed to conquer Vienna, today Europe would be a different story.”
In addition to Turkish, English and German, Ciftci also speaks Kurdish.
“My mother doesn’t speak Turkish,” he says. “She can understand but she doesn’t speak. So I always practise with her. We speak Kurdish at home Kurdish. When we are out, education everything is in Turkish, so I learn Turkish.”
He has had Kurdish speaking clients from Iran and Iraq. “I always improve my Kurdish and I didn’t forget it. My nephews don’t speak it because they don’t learn it.” He also does some work as a translator of Kurdish to Turkish. “I never thought I would make money one day from Kurdish language.”
With German visitors down, the importance of learning Arabic has increased, and Ciftci plans to spend three months during the winter learning the language.
Does he do tours for his family?
“My mother, she is over 75, my father is also same. I say ‘you are always at home, you are not coming outside. Look I have customers who are 80 years old. One of the guys I did tour for was 96 years old. And I say why you don’t?’”
He has many nephews. Once a year he does a tour for them. “I have a big family. We are four brothers, three sisters, Seven in total. I bring them to Eyup Sultan. Boys when they have circumcision ceremony, sunnat, I bring them to visit these places.”
Many of his nephews tell Zeki they want to improve their English and be a guide like him.
“I say ‘one guide is enough in the family. You should be doctor, you should be lawyer’.”
During Ramadan, his family visits the square.
“We bring foods, drinks, from home and leave until suhoor. After suhoor, we go home. It’s very nice.” Many locals stay till the morning prayers. “Everywhere there are carpets. People sit on the carpet, they bring food and eat here. When there are tourists they invite them to come and join.”
When business was down, Ciftci went to serve in the military for six months. Previously he had postponed compulsory service because he was studying at university.
“Finally, with no way to run, I said okay I am going to make it. So I went to army.”
He spent six months there. “It’s hard but it’s honour,” he says. Ciftci was sent to the border with Iran. “I was lucky they sent me to a good part because I told them I am English-speaking and also a German teacher.”
After he came back to Istanbul there were more security problems and bombings. He describes 2016 as the “worst” time of tourism.
According to the latest figures, tourism has started to revive again in Istanbul, with some of the visitors from countries suffering from terrorism themselves.
“They say ‘we get used to this happening everyday in our place.’ Yes that is what they say to me. I believe myself that tourism will never really finish in Istanbul. As long as they don’t close the airport, we have customers.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.