Constantinople? Istanbul? Depends Who You’re Talking To.

6 Dec

65 euro round-trip tickets?  Check.  Bags packed and ready to go?  Check.  Hotel reservations, breakfast included?  Check.  Any semblance of knowledge of Istanbul, other than hearing that it’s a cool place to see?  Ehh…not so much.  But we were excited, we were ready, we were enjoying our hour-long flight consisting of complimentary newspaper, hard candy for take-off, full meal, and cookies.  And then we were in Turkey.  Now what?

We really weren’t worried though.  Sarah and I were invited to travel to Istanbul with two Greek teachers from our school, and so one week before Thanksgiving weekend, we hastily booked our flight and hotel room and prepared to make our Turkish debut.  Nancy, one of the teachers, had done extensive research on the city, complete with websites, guidebooks, phone calls, etc.  So we weren’t worried; we were in good hands.  Unfortunately, they were flying through a different (much more expensive) company, and so there we were, sitting at the Istanbul airport waiting for their arrival.  And waiting.  And waiting.  And then there was a commotion.  Men started running back and forth.  Security was drawing closer.  We were terrified.  Of course we were aware that Istanbul is a safe city and we should have nothing to worry about, but when men start running around, yelling in a foreign language, and causing a scene in an airport, the inner “Oh my God we’re American in a foreign airport with a high Muslim population” attitude comes out in us.  We went into panic mode.  Would there be stray bullets flying in our direction?  Should we be high-tailing it out of the airport, hoping that we find our friends later?  Seeing as the yelling, running men were blocking the entrance, this was not an option.  So we high-tailed it to the next best place: the duty-free shop.  We hid out and waited and tried to figure out what the hell was going on without losing our lives in the process.  Turns out a construction worker had fallen from a ladder and needed to be taken to the hospital.  We were safe, we felt like idiots, and we smelled like perfume.

During the time we were taking cover amidst Estée Lauder blush and giant Toblerones, we missed our friends, who looked around quickly, didn’t see us, and got in a cab headed to the hotel.  So after waiting over an hour in the airport, we finally did the same.  We arrived at Richmond Hotel, located on bustling and historical Istiklal Street, and were heartily greeted and shown to our room.  Let me say, it was wonderful staying in a nice hotel, a respite from hostels and shabby HAEF fellow housing.

Spices at a small street bazaar

Istiklal Street is in the heart of Istanbul, a (mostly) pedestrian street filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, and the like.  At any given time you can find hundreds of people wandering Istiklal, a mix of new and old, traditional and modern.  Fashionably-clad teenage girls linking arms with modestly-covered young Muslim women, tourists grabbing ice cream, old men eating baklava, and young men cat-calling all on this one street.  On one of the nights, we went in search of a bar/club, 360°, and ended up walking into a broken-down apartment complex, only to be taken by what could only have been an elevator from the stone age up to a gorgeous, trendy, modern, and decadent club on the rooftop with a view of the entire city.  This, my friends, is Istanbul.

Throughout the weekend we visited the Hagia Sophia, a once Orthodox church turned Mosque and now the most visited museum in all of Turkey.

Hagia Sophia

Considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, it dates back to 532 AD and for one thousand years was the largest cathedral in the world.  It truly is a remarkable example of architecture and art, and a walk through the site is a striking lesson in the conversion from Christianity to Islam.

Old Orthodox pieces are covered in Allah’s name, and the entire church itself seems to be struggling for a religious identity to call its own.  It’s old, beautiful, and a metaphor for Istanbul.

We also visited Topkapi Palace and Museum, home to the Ottoman Sultans throughout their reign of the city.  It now contains some of the most holy relics in all the Muslim world, and by walking in and out of the many rooms of the palace, one can see a footprint of Muhammad,

robes of Sultans large and small, armory and jewelry, portraits of Sultans, and the 86 carat Kasikci Diamond, a gem discovered in a rubbish heap and sold for three wooden spoons, only to be valued for its true worth, fought over by jewelers, and eventually possessed by Sultan Mehmed IV and worn as a ring before being surrounded by 49 smaller cut diamonds and worn as part of a turban.

Topkapi Palace

There was a religious room as well, where one could learn about the history of Islam and see relics from Muhammad in addition to a replica of the Dome of the Rock (something I have seen in person while in Jerusalem).  It was very interesting, to say the least, to read museum information that is supposedly objective and informational, having come from a Jewish background and knowing that these views, while not at all false, are simply religious beliefs and clearly one perspective.  Standing amongst women in burkas and tourists from all over the world in a room praising Allah and the importance of the Dome of the Rock in what should be Palestine, I felt an odd sense of pride and a sense of self, and wanted more than anything to speak up and state the other side of the argument.  But considering I felt nervous just having Hebrew stickers visible on my passport as I walked through the airport, I didn’t think yelling “Am Yisrael Chai” would be the best idea. Regardless of this room, which still housed many beautiful artifacts and displayed the beauty of the Muslim religion, the grounds were beautiful and featured gardens overlooking the city and the Bosphorus, perfect for a photo op.

The day before visiting these sights, we boarded a small boat and took a tour of the Bosphorus, seeing the sea-side sights of the city and taking a lunch break in the Asian part of the city.  Yes, I can now say I have been to Asia.  The tour of the Bosphorus was really the only thing for us to do on this day, as it was Eid al Adha, a Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and prove his obedience to God.  Everything was closed, and supposedly the big thing to do on this day is slaughter lambs.

Luckily, I didn’t see any slaughtering (I grew up on Lambchop and Shari Lewis and the idea that the song never ends, not that the song abruptly and violently ends with a sharp blade to the neck), but I did feel the effects of the dead city.  The Grand Bazaar, one of the main tourist attractions and something I had very much been looking forward to, was closed, and so I can only hope that someday I’ll return to Turkey to experience it.

Once everything was reopened (except, as I said, the Bazaar, which was closed the entire time we were there — clearly just my luck), we also visited the Church of St. George which, according to our Greek friends, is like the Vatican for the Greek Orthodox religion, the Basilica Cistern,

The Basilica Cistern

built in the 6th century and the largest of hundreds of cisterns underneath Istanbul, a few smaller Bazaars that proved to be perfect substitutes for the Grand Bazaar and where we found beautiful scarves, spices, jewelry, and souvenirs for family back home, and of course, the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque is a sight not to be missed.  With swarms of people everywhere, it can be difficult just to figure out where you’re supposed to enter.  Muslims and Turkish residents enter at one point, tourists enter at another.  It’s free to enter (thank goodness, I was running out of Turkish Lyra), but you must remove your shoes out of respect.  This was enough for our Greek travel-mates to decide against going in.  To be honest, I think the whole idea of Islam freaked them out a bit, as they looked disturbed by the amount of head coverings and what not.  Greeks have issues with Turkey, based on the long history of the two countries, and when talking to our friends, they constantly felt it necessary to bring up what was Greek first, what Turkey had stolen from them, and how Greece was all in all better.  At times it was hard to enjoy Istanbul (which many Greeks often still refer to as Constantinople) for its beauty and uniqueness with this constant cynicism in our ears, but we made do.

The Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque it was absolutely stunning.  Lights hung mystically from the ceiling, rays of sunshine pierced through the windows, little boys chased each other as their parents prayed (women in the back, men in the front…the gender divide was very prevalent throughout the city, and was made evident by the lack of women out and about on Istiklal Street).  The Blue Mosque was awe-inspiring, and removing one’s shoes is a price easily paid for getting to experience such an amazing site.

Traditional Turkish dancer

A few other highlights before ending this absurdly long post (sorry)?  We watched whirling dervishes, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they don’t get dizzy.  We enjoyed fresh fruit and wine atop the Galata Tower, at one time a prison and now the home of a restaurant and belly dancing/traditional Turkish dancing show.  We ate Baklava and Kebabs and fresh pomegranate juice and an array of other traditional Turkish dishes, all of which were absolutely delicious.  And we drank Apple Tea.  Lots of Apple Tea.  Considering everything I did in Istanbul, if there is one thing I would recommend about the city, it is the Apple Tea.  Don’t leave Istanbul without drinking a cup of Apple Tea.  Or two.  Or three.  Might as well just buy a bag to take back with you.  I bought two.


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