“We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.” -Joseph Campbell
[Note to Reader: This article has three parts, feel free to jump ahead to either Part II or Part III. Also, I won’t be hurt if it’s too long for you to read – but I promise it’s worth it! Istanbul was amazing…]
I flew out of Sofia, Bulgaria on a 9:00 pm flight. I had arranged for a driver to take me from the airport in Istanbul to get me safely to my hostel. Although I’m all about adventure, I didn’t want to take on the risk of a late night cab ride as a single female in a city as vast and winding as Istanbul.
It was a Saturday night and although I wanted to go out on the town, I ended up talking with the hostel front desk guy until 3 in the morning.
The next day I took it easy. It was a Sunday and I was stuck in my European mindset of all things being closed. I walked circles around the neighborhood, doing what I love: making the unknown known. I walked all around the Taksim square and pedestrian walkway of Istiklal Avenue, taking in the sights and sounds.
Walking from the seaside to Taksim was an uphill battle. Istanbul is nothing but rolling hills (and narrow streets). When I turned the corner for Taksim, I was greeted by this sound. It was the sound of call to prayer and it made my heart leap.
The reason I liked Istanbul so much is because it felt nothing like home.
The day was pretty unspectacular but one thing was clear: this city I was in enticed me like no other city I visited before.
Istanbul is a city of more than 18 million people, yet I believe there’s double that amount in cats wandering the streets. They were hanging out everywhere, on street corners, in windows, on benches. There were dishes of food and water left out for all the feral felines (which I think was left by little old ladies with not much more to do).
My second full day in Istanbul was a bit more lively than my first. I took to the Sultanahmet square. I was determined to mark one off the bucket list: see the Blue Mosque.
I walked across the Bosphorus Straight, and criss-crossed through the streets on my way to the mosque. I walked through street markets and stumbled upon the Rustem Pasha Mosque. Here is where I sat and watched several men wash their feet as they prepared for prayer.
In no particular rush, I moseyed my way over to the square where the Blue Mosque stands. In the mists of the tourist chaos, I saw would I would later find out to be the German Fountain. It stood out with its neo-Byzantine style against the other rather Ottoman architecture styles. As I was admiring the building, a man approached me, introduced himself, and told me some of the history of the building. He proceeded to extend an invitation to get tea (which happened to be my second invite for tea from a stranger – the first being the night before while shopping when I was stopped by a Bulgarian man). After I declined, he offered me a business card and told me all about his carpet store.
Turkey and Istanbul are a completely different world. Even with the bombings that have happened continuously throughout the last year – I never felt threatened in Turkey.
Sure, travelling alone had it’s downsides in Istanbul. I was approached multiple times, cat-called, was told I was stuck-up for not acknowledging a man trying to flirt with me on the street, and was asked if I spoke English more than a hundred times – it happened so often I lost count! I attribute most of it to Turkish ways – salesmen need to sale things in order to make a living. And although yelling out at passers-by is obnoxious: it works. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it.
Although I didn’t feel threatened, I did feel most uncomfortable walking alone in the streets of Istanbul and was most thankful when I made friends and would wander around the city or markets with them.
After the German Fountain sighting, I walked to the Blue Mosque (which was only about 100 meters from the Fountain anyways).
When I laid my eyes on it up-close, my heart leaped. After walking inside the courtyard, I was overtaken with that feeling that sometimes grabs a hold of me and shakes my spirit up. It’s a feeling of utter happiness and bliss. It’s the feeling of all your dreams coming true in that moment.
To be honest, the first time I ever had this feeling was when I went to see Enrique Iglesias in concert (I know- it’s childish and corny, but true). I was 18, and it was the first time I had one of my greatest fantasies coming true.
To my dismay, the mosque was closed for prayer. It was to reopen to visitors in about an hour, so I decided to do some strolling again. I exited the Blue Mosque to face Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia is massive. It started out as a Greek Orthodox Catholic Cathedral, built in the early 6th century. Of course, like most long-standing pieces of architecture, it has gone through some changes. Earthquakes had damaged the dome several times, rendering repairs. Through the 13th century, the cathedral was taken over by Latin Catholics and converted to a Roman Catholic church. Finally, in the 15th century, it was converted to a mosque and stayed that way until 1935 when it was converted into a museum, which it remains today.
I walked around most of the square, was haggled by more salesmen, and finally the time came for the mosque to reopen.
One thing that throws most tourists off is the fact you must be in the proper attire (and these attire rules are much more strict for women). Christian churches across the world will allow anyone to enter in any way. I viewed Notre Dame while there was a Catholic service being performed (which I thought was mildly offensive to the attenders to have tourists running around them taking photos, but that’s another story for another time). Luckily, there are clothes available for borrowing for those who were ill-prepared to enter the mosque. These clothes include head scarves, long skirts, and an over-shirt for women. Men should be wearing longer pants (no shorts) and some kind of looser-fitting shirt (so try not to show up bare-skinned).
Per Islamic custom, shoes must be removed in order to enter the mosque. Although washing of the feet is not required for tourists, they do provide you with a little baggie to place your shoes in so you can carry your shoes around with you!
The mosque was outstanding. In Islam, the depiction of human figures was/is feared to be banned by the Koran due to it’s sense of idolatry, which is sinful. This is why mosques and places with Islamic influence have amazing mosaics and tile work. Most Islamic art displays amazing geometric and floral patterns. Mosques are typically covered with calligraphic verses from the Koran.
I spent a good amount of time just staring at the beauty that is the Blue Mosque. It actually gets it’s name from the blue tiles within the walls of the mosque.
After exiting the mosque and taking my shoes from their baggie, I returned to strolling. I walked towards what I later found out was the Topkapi Palace (there’s no sign telling you what it is – all I saw were fortress-like walls). Being who I am, I decided not to go into the fortress-like walls, but instead walked around them.
I ended up somehow near a highway, desperately seeking food and water (because I had yet to eat that day). I had managed to make an unnecessary 2 mile detour back to the square I was just at. But I did stumble upon a pretty amazing park that could be comparable to that of Central Park.
Famished, I rushed into the first restaurant I could find outside of the park, which ended up being a rather pleasant experience.
I finished up my day by touring Hagia Sophia.
The cathedral-mosque was more massive on the inside than it looked on the outside. It was absolutely spectacular. One half of the museum was under construction (probably because of another collapsing dome), which took away from the overall feeling of the building, but not enough to make me disappointed I went.
Oh, and just so you know – cats had overtaken the museum and were wandering around as if they belonged there and yet, no one paid any attention.
If you are wondering what kind of cultural shock I went through – it was probably my disbelief at all the cats.
With no time for rest, I dropped some of my things back off at the hostel and freshened up. I made plans to meet up with a friend of the guy I met in Vienna (hey, meeting people is what travelling is all about!). She had brought her boyfriend and another friend and after dinner and some drinks, I ended up staying out until around midnight.