The Galata Bridge is cluttered with fishermen as the smell of apple tobacco from local nargile cafes mingles with the day’s fresh catch and the sun melts into the mighty Bosphorous until the skyline blushes. It’s easy to see why Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and one of the fastest growing metropolitan economic centers in the world, is often considered one of the most beautiful.
The allure of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque (and my husband’s great love of the döner kebap) had placed Istanbul high on our list of must-see travel destinations. However, we had no idea just how enamored of the country, its people, its architecture, and its traditions we would become during our six-day stay.
I will pause here to offer brief praise of our Istanbul hostel. Bahaus Hostel is one of the friendliest, cleanest, most enjoyable places we have rested our heads in all of our travels. The staff takes a genuine interest in each person that walks through the hostel door and they truly make an effort to ensure that everyone feels welcomed and included in all activities. The staff is informative and generous – available without being pushy.
Upon arriving, we were immediately invited to join the free hostel walking tour which would begin the following morning. During the tour, we were delightfully whirled about the city; we visited the Süleymaniye Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, hopped a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul, and were even taken through a nargile and lamp factory to a rooftop that not only offered spectacular views of the city, but also happened to be the place the opening scene to Skyfall was filmed, which of course, we had to attempt to recreate.
After an exciting first day, we took to the Istanbul streets armed with my trusty Lonely Planet Istanbul guidebook and this song in my head. The minarets standing sentinel over the city and daily imam prayer calls were reminders that Istanbul was unlike any place we had ever been. Admittedly, I was unsure what to expect as an American Christian woman experiencing a Muslim country for the first time. I brought a scarf to cover my head and slipped off my shoes before entering mosques. It was a strange feeling, but not the one I had anticipated. It seems that in America and many other European cultures, there is a war over women’s bodies; we fight for the right to clothe our bodies the way we see fit and then we fight against the attention we receive when we do so. In Istanbul, low-cut shirts were shocking instead of the norm and skirts mostly went to the floor on everyone but tourists. I didn’t see men ogling Turkish women and most women seemed to be quite happy holding hands with their husbands or boyfriends or laughing with groups of their friends. It’s something to think about.
At any rate, never having visited a mosque before, the mosques in Istanbul were grand introductions to this incredible domed architecture iced in bright tiles and glittering mosaics. The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque, so nicknamed for the blue tiles covering its interior walls and ceiling, was commissioned in the early seventeenth century by Sultan Ahmed I. It is still an active mosque and therefore closes during traditional prayer times.
One of the greatest preserved examples of Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia had consistently crept up the ‘ole bucket list since I first studied the building in my high school AP Art History class (Thanks, Ms. Nixon!). The current structure of the church-turned mosque-turned museum was first constructed in the year 532 by Isidore of Milet and Anthemius of Tralles under the orders of Emperor Justinian I, who wanted to erect a structure more magnificent than those of his predecessors. Almost a thousand years later, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque following Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s conquest of Istanbul in 1453. It functioned as such until 1935 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, ordered it be named a museum.
Entering through the narthex and into the great belly of the dome, I was overwhelmed. My eyes did not know where to fixate: the beautiful golden calligraphy, the murals and mosaics tucked around the ceiling, or the gilded dome itself that floated above our heads as delicately as a cloud. The room swallowed me. Though people amassed throughout the interior, there was a weighty reverence lacing itself through us all. Even the cat, who couldn’t be bothered to wait in line for a ticket (and whom we lovingly named Sophia Justinian) knew the Hagia Sophia was a treasure.
Though the Hagia Sophia is what first drew my attention to Istanbul, the Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi in Turkish) may have won my heart. Nestled on the outskirts of town (just a quick 20-minute bus ride away on the 38E and many others) in the Edirnekapı neighborhood, the Chora Church is encrusted from floor to ceiling with the most intricate and well-preserved mosaics I have ever seen. Though the church is approximately a mere 2,436 ft² (742.5 m²), Sam and I spent hours taking in each mosaic and fresco we encountered, attempting to memorize and capture some beauty to take with us. Scenes depicted were such as the genealogy of Christ and Mary, God rescuing Adam and Eve from Hell, Theodore Metochites offering the city to Christ, and many biblical anecdotes.
As already evident, religious overtones blanket the city. As religious influence seems to be in each stone and tile of Istanbul, it is no wonder that it would be evident in its people. The Mevlevi Order, or more colloquially referred to as whirling dervishes, is a sufi order founded by followers of poet and theologian Rumi. The formal Sema (which means hearing or listening) ceremony is a ceremony representing the mystical journey of an individual’s becoming one with God. During the Sema, members of the order wear a white gown (tennure) to symbolize death, a wide black cloak (hırka) to symbolize the grave, and a tall brown hat (kûlah orsikke) to symbolize the tombstone. The ceremony is divided into four parts: Naat-i Sherif and Taksim, Devr-i Veledi, the Four Selams, and the Concluding Prayer. The Four Selams, the portion of the ceremony during which the dervishes whirl, are arguably the most moving part of the ceremony and signify the dervish’s recognition of God’s power and his own servanthood, recognition of the unity and love available through God, the ecstasy he experiences as he becomes one with God, and finally the feeling of peace that comes with divine unity.
Hearing from many that the most authentic experience was located at the Galata Mevlevi House Museum (Galata Mevlevîhânesi Müzesi in Turkish) on Sunday evenings, we purchased our tickets that morning and returned near dusk for the ceremony. Albeit strange to someone who has never experienced anything quite like the Sema, I recalled being a child and flinging myself in circles around the backyard on summer afternoons – how peaceful it felt whirling about. When I did that, I began to understand how this ceremony must feel for the dervishes as they focus their energy on their Creator while they spin.
Whether we were enjoying a fresh grilled fish sandwich or simit on the Galata Bridge, haggling and drinking tea in the Grand Bazaar, absorbing history at the Topkapi Palace and Istanbul Archaeology Museum, strolling through gardens of tulips, descending into the depths of the Basilica Cistern, or relaxing with a cup of Turkish coffee and baklava at a local cafe, Istanbul gave us something new to discover each day. I was constantly amazed by the kindness of Turkish people, the cleanliness of the streets, and the positive energy around each corner.
As the wind whispered away the last bit of day and the imam sounded for the last time during our stay in Istanbul, I found it harder to say goodbye than I had on many other trips this year. Turkey, the farthest from home I have yet been is now so near to my heart. Reflecting on this, I notice that I have continued to feel the world shrinking with each stamp placed on my passport. It is not because I am finally crossing places off of some 1000 Places to See Before I Die master list, but rather because I change a bit each time I see how other people live. Despite the baklava, Turkish delights, and evil eye jewelry I packed into my bag, the greatest souvenir I brought back from Turkey was perspective – something I am learning to have a bit more of each day. We are all just people living the best we know how with what we are given wherever in the world we were plopped. That’s a souvenir I plan never to let collect dust.