It’s one of those word puzzles.
Istanbul: where East meets West.
Okay, maybe not, but I smell a new hashtag in the air! #eastistanbulwest … Oh, wait. Twitter is banned in Turkey.
It was already dark and getting late by the time we arrived in Turkey on Tuesday last week, and so my first experience with the sights of Istanbul was a quick “orientation walk” (after dropping our luggage at our hotel) to purchase the essentials: namely water and ice cream, obviously. Good thing we were staying across the street (literally) from the Hagia Sophia, or some of us may not have found our way back.
My first experience with the sounds of Istanbul, on the other hand, occurred at approximately 5:25 a.m. the next morning. There are mosques everywhere, and the muezzin’s first call to prayer began at that time, drawing me out of a deep sleep. At first, in that stupor that follows REM cycle interruption, I thought it was just some drunk guys coming home late from the bar, but then I woke up a little more and realized where I was and what I was listening to. The chant was haunting and beautiful at the same time, and the various other calls to prayer I could hear coming from other nearby mosques only heightened the experience for me.
People really do say that Istanbul is a city where East meets West, and after spending a few days there, I can understand why. For someone who’s spent a lot of time in Europe, the city feels familiar, but there are also women wearing burqas on the streets and minarets all along the skyline, which was something new for me. The Hagia Sophia (also known as the Ayasofya) was a highlight because it has been a church, a mosque, and is now a museum. Religious symbols from Christianity and Islam inhabit the same space, and it’s really cool that it’s been preserved that way.
Our tour guide, Elif, took us to several of the most famous sites: the Hippodrome, the Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known as the Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, the Archeology museum, Süleymaniye Mosque (my favorite of the mosques we visited), Chora Church, the Spice Market, a boat ride on the Bosphorus Strait, and a Turkish carpet store. We also explored other places on our own: the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, Çemberlitaş Hamami (a Turkish bath), the grounds of Topkopi Palace, the old city walls/fortifications, a little bit of downtown, and countless restaurants (including one where we heard live traditional music and saw a Whirling Dervish whirl).
I used to think I’d remember every detail of my travels, but after about the 7th church I went into in Italy on my first trip to Europe in 2005, I realized that was not possible. It’s sad (and there’s probably some sort of deeper life lesson here), but I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t write some things down, I’ll forget if I lived it or just read about it somewhere. So I’ve already written a bit in my journal about the trip, and I hope to record more stories here about the specifics (like the Turkish version of rice and beans!), but in case I don’t, at least there’s this sort of laundry list reminder of what we did in Istanbul.