The crowded spice market in Istanbul

A lot of people will be asking that question with the revelation that New York tourist Sarai Sierra, a young mother of two boys from Staten Island, was found bludgeoned to death last week in Istanbul. The answer is yes but….

I recently (last October) spent a week in Istanbul so I have more than a passing interest in the story of Sierra, an amateur photographer who was visiting the Turkish city alone. I was there with my wife and stayed in the very tourist-driven section near The Blue Mosque whereas Sierra reportedly stayed in a basement apartment near a much wilder and native area. This reportedly was Sierra’s first trip overseas and her husband says she wanted to visit Istanbul because it was cheaper than other European cities and a photographer’s paradise. In that, she was right on both counts. Everywhere you turn in this Muslim city, there is an interesting shot to be had.

My first impression of Istanbul was that I had never seen a city that had so much street life, far more than even New York. It reminded me most of the street life in Bangkok, another city teeming with people. I was told that Istanbul has a population of around 15 million which is twice that of New York. No wonder it seemed crowded. In my opinion, that is a good thing. I think the more people on the street, the safer a city is. There are an awful lot of eyes who will see what is happening and prevent a lot of it. No thieves, criminals whatever, want witnesses.

Istanbul struck me as a Muslim version of New York — big, crowded, thriving with lots of pedestrians, trams and cars. But there is one big difference in my opinion — Turkish men never tire of approaching tourists no matter how many times they’re turned down. Every morning, I would enter that same square and see the same guys I had seen 2, 3, 5 days in a row and every time, they would approach me to sell me a map or some other trinket. Every time. That does not exist in New York City. People in my hometown keep to themselves. The only similar situation I’ve seen in New York are pedicab drivers who also never tire of approaching tourists asking if they want a ride.

But imagine if that was happening to you constantly. While I enjoyed Istanbul and found it a friendly, easy-to-traverse city with great food, I did find that kind of constant attention annoying. The trick, I found, was to smile, keep walking and not say a word. The one place that really freaked me out was The Grand Bazaar. It was crowded, hard to navigate and every step I took, I was approached by a merchant. I couldn’t get out of the place soon enough. The Spice Market was different — it was not as claustrophobic and actually kind of fun.

But back to Sarai Sierra. She was traveling alone and no doubt was approached constantly by men seeking to sell her a rug, a map, a glass of tea — whatever. Even with all of that, she should have been fine. Istanbul is like New York in many respects. New York is safer than it’s been in decades but bad things still happen. The same is true of Istanbul. It’s a big urban place and, while most people mean you no hard, some do. The trick is to avoid them if you can. Obviously, Sarai could not.

So yes Istanbul is safe for tourists and a lot of fun but don’t go against your natural instincts to protect yourself. Act like you would if you were visiting New York.

  1. Ginger Dreams says:

    I travelled alone to Istanbul two years ago, so am also following this story carefully. I also stayed at a very nice 4 star hotel in Sultanamet with a rooftop terrace in front of the Blue Mosque. Paid $50.00 per night. Was fabulous. This girl had no idea what she was doing or she was involved in criminal activity. She stayed in a hostel that cost her $75.00 per night in Beyoglu which is a slum!!!! Told the owner she was single. Went to take pictures with her phone and tablet??? No camera, but crazy about photography??? Spent $10,000 in five days??? Filed bankruptcy and was employed part-time and married to a bus driver?

    She flew directly to Istanbul (fare that week was an average of $500.00 round trip that week, commerical air from Istanbul to Amsterdam, about $300.00, airfare from Amsterdam to Munich about $200.00. You do the math! First of all, I travel A LOT! You can fly direct to Amsterdam and spend the day, and then fly out in the evening to Turkey. Why would she backtrack for ONE day, fly to Munich, and then go back to Istanbul? Makes NO SENSE!

    She shacked up with a Dutch National of Arabic descent, who lives in Amsterdam. Spent the night in a strange man’s apartment that she met online, banged a Turkish guy(which she met online) in the club against the bathroom wall, was seen walking away from Sultanhamet with four known criminals.

    She is Armenian and hooked up with all Arabic men…does she not know the history between Armenia and Turkey???? There is a civil war going on in Turkey, Syria, Armenian border. She was cremated in an Armenian church who helped get her body back to the U.S. ?????

    I am a member of a Police Department, and the day it happened I said, “Bull…t! There’s more to this story!”. I suspect she was a money mule for either drugs or weapons. Do I believe the husband and brother knew she was doing this…hell, yes! The husband contacted the Turkish guy she was hot for to help find his wife????? I also suspect this was a hit put out on her so she couldn’t talk afterwards. As for the homeless guy that they found his DNA on her…I think he was paid to kill her and fled.

    I will watch this closely as I am sure you will.

    Is Turkey safe for American travellers? Yes, if you know how to handle yourself in a foreign country and don’t do anything careless or stupid. Did the men latch onto me…YES!!! The Grand Bazaar is disgusting! I had to leave after about 20 minutes. Couldn’t stand the men grabbing my arm, etc. Spice market was wonderful. Would I go again, yes.

    Hope this is enlightening to all following this story.

  2. Paul LaRosa says:

    very interesting. i am amazed that she waited until the last day of a three week stay to see the most touristy area in Istanbul and, like you, i wonder why she did not have a camera. there is still more to this story than we know. ‘the homeless guy’ did it is too convenient but, then again, maybe we’ll never know. i also agree with you that it seems weird to take a sidetrip to two other countries and then return to Turkey.

  3. Philomena says:

    I am actually quite disturbed to read some of the comments about istanbul on here. My husband and I live in Scotland & have been to Istanbul on many vacations. The Grand Bazaar is not disgusting – the (thousands of years) history of this place is to try and get customers & to barter etc. Remember Turkey has a different culture than the USA & UK(have been to NY too) These people are making very little money & are competing with each other to get your business – is that a crime? i dont think so. As for being approached several times for bus tours etc – would you really expect them to remember your face in a sea of tourists? Many of these people make their (meagre) earnings on comission only and work for maybe 14 hours or more a day therefore if they dont sell tickets they dont get paid! When I have been in New York (and other big cities) I have been approached by people selling things as I obviously stood out as a tourist. Did this put me off going back – not in the slightest and really one cannot compare New York to Istanbul. It never ceases to amaze me when people travel and they expect everyone to act the way they do ‘back home’ Isnt the point of travelling to experience different cultures which includes the way people trade! As for safety -as in most major cities there is a problem in the very dense tourist areas with pickpockets however there is also a huge amount of police (not in uniform) who are in the crowds looking out for these people (I have witnessed them catching someone) and Turkish people would Always help you if no police are around. As in travelling to any other country – if you respect the local culture & thousands of years of traditions then you will have a great time. If theres something you dont like then avoid it but as i said previously trading traditions in Turkey (as annoying as they can be) are in a city where there are thousands of traders competing with each other and thats what puts food in their mouths & pays the bills. PS also worth saying that Taksim area ( modern bar & fashion area) is apparently where most of the pick-pockets used to be but over the last few years we have noticed a much larger police presence to counteract this!

  4. Paul LaRosa says:

    you completely misinterpreted what i said about Turkey. i liked it!! but can’t i have an opinion about what i saw or felt there? sheesh you are WAY too defensive. settle down! and i’m not one of those Americans who wants every place to look like Disneyland. far from it. i would definitely go back to Istanbul but what’s the point of writing about it if you can’t state your opinion. now you’ve stated yours…and you’re welcome to it. i just think you’re off base.

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