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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul » Sultanahmet
May 26th 2012
Published: May 27th 2012
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Nine years ago while paging through my art history textbook, I came across a photo of the interior of the Hagia Sophia. That image and the desire to see that building in person stayed with me and fueled my desire to find the right time to visit Istanbul. At last that time came! As I imagined Istanbul, the vibrancy of Morocco with the call to prayer and bustling markets came to mind. As I buckled down to do some research, that image shifted as I incorporated a more western feel into what I anticipated. As we set off from the hostel our first night to find some dinner, Winnie and I both remarked on how quiet and calm the city felt- no honking horns, loud people, or blaring music.The sense of calm crept into us in and we started what turned out to be a much more relaxing trip than we projected.

From our hostel in Sultanamet, we were within a three minute walk of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkopi Palace, but we did not know this until we made our way up a street for dinner and found ourselves with the Hagia Sophia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other! We climbed up to our first rooftop terrace to enjoy a delicious Turkish meal. Turkey’s climate allows for production of all of their food, so says our tour book. I do not know if or what they import, but the food that we ate tasted very fresh and in season. Truly, the tomatoes and potatoes inspired us to rave! When we returned to our street, lined with restaurants, bars, and hotels, and therefore exclusively catering to tourists, the dated American music and loud reveling tourists competed for air space with the call to prayer.

Over breakfast the next day, we enjoyed the parade of people passing. Some women in full burkas, some in just head scarves, some not covered, and some tourists very UNcovered presented quite a spectrum. We headed out on a walking tour of our part of the old town. We began with the Basilica Cistern built in 532 CE to provide fresh water to the city. It was then forgotten about until a Frenchman learned that residents pulled water up from wells in their homes. The engineering of the space is impressive, all the more so when I thought how long the structure has lasted.

Then came the Hagia Sophia! I braced myself for disappointment and tried to keep my expectations low, but there was no need! The building is incredible! In spite of the immensity of it, somehow there is a sense of lightness. Dating back to 537 CE one cannot help but be awed that the structure is still standing. The Turks converted the church into a mosque when they conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE. Now a museum, evidence of both religions such as gorgeous golden mosaics depicting Mary and elegant medallions with Arabic calligraphy share the massive space. The visit was in no way a let down and allowed me some time to send a thank you to my art history teacher for the inspiration to take part in various cultures of the world through art.

As we left the Hagia Sophia our tummies rumbled in harmony with thunder, so we ducked into a nearby restaurant where we made our choices from a buffet. The stuffed eggplant and white beans tasted amazing! We must have eaten eggplant 10 different ways over the course of our stay- no complaints here!

With a lightening sky and only a slight drizzle, we dashed over to the Blue Mosque. In Morocco, we had not been allowed to enter any mosques, so we were really anxious to take advantage of the opportunity. We took off our shoes and covered our hair and found ourselves in a carpeted and enormous space reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia. The intricate tiles and stained glass left no surface unadorned. After soaking up the visual splendor, we sat down to read a pamphlet on Islam. It was time for me to meditate, so I asked Winnie if she wanted to return to the hostel or if she was comfortable just sitting there. She opted for the latter. As I was coming out of meditation, Winnie said that she thought we needed to leave as the call to prayer was about to start. While gathering our things to leave, a guard motioned that we could stay, so long as we remained seated. Winnie and I looked at one another in wonder and excitement as the other tourists filed out and the call to prayer began.

We watched men trickle in from outside and place their shoes on shelves and begin their personal prayers. A father guided his son through the movements while others checked in with friends or contemplated alone. Some even took photos on their camera phone reminding me of visitors to Notre Dame. Eventually, the imam returned from doing the call to prayer and the men condensed themselves into even lines, shoulder to shoulder. As the imam spoke, said a prayer?, all of the men moved in unison. It was beautiful. My experiences in yoga and dance have afforded me an understanding of the wisdom of our body, and I appreciated what a physical act praying is. Winnie and I both struggled though as we sat there behind the men but in front of the women who were praying in a screened space behind us. Women are not encouraged to pray in the mosque, but in private, so when they choose to pray in the mosque, they must pray behind a screen in the back of the mosque. This was hard for us to understand.

From this peaceful place, we returned to the bustle of our street to regroup and enjoy our rooftop view of the Maramara Sea. The men responsible for seating guests in their restaurants and bars were very vocal to two passing ladies say the least. This of course grew tiresome quickly. We decided to make our way to a new part of town for dinner and found that such aggressive behavior did not happen outside of our tourist strip.

Though the next day looked threatening, we decided that we had better hop on a ferry to see the Bosphorus River. En route to the ferry, we stocked up on some Turkish delights with the idea that we needed to do a little research on local cuisine. The boat ride took us up the European side of the river and down the Asian side. We scoped out some places that we wanted to return to and soaked up the skyline dotted with minarets instead of steeples. Sadly, our Turkish delights were not delightful but rancid, but that made for good timing as we hoped off the boat ready for lunch and right next to the famous fish sandwich boats by the Galata Bridge. A series of boats tied to shore cook up fresh fish that they slap into a serious hunk of bread and top with more than a few onions and pass over to the shore where mainly locals wait to pour lemon juice and salt on top.

We started across the Galata Bridge, which offered great views of the city, but the pushy men trying to fill their restaurants annoyed and the rain started again, so we turned around and visited the New Mosque instead. Quite similar to the Blue Mosque in many ways, in fact, with more blue tiles, the space was again inviting and peaceful. As the rain lightened, we crossed the square and appreciated our first bazaar experience in Turkey. The Spice Bazaar is relatively small and rather low key. Men in their stalls offered samples of Turkish delight- delicious when the pistachios are good!- local dried fruits and nuts, spices from near and far, and various teas. When we came to an intersection, we opted for a less busy turn off and found ourselves looking at stalls of gardening wares, wooden spoons, party supplies, and tools.

We could see the minaret of Suleymaniye Mosque which dominates the view from the river and decided we could handle seeing another mosque. Up some narrow streets we climbed searching for a place to use the bathroom on our way. As we had been walking for a bit, I noted that we were the only women out and that we had not seen anyone but locals for a while so my expectations for finding a bathroom were low. An older man in his restaurant made eye contact with us and waved us inside where we began a game of charades. He wanted us to have some kebob indicated by him pulling out a tray, we wanted to buy some tea from him, indicated by bringing an imaginary cup to our lips, and use the bathroom... indicated by Winnie searching the small room for any sort of door that might be a bathroom. He understood and grabbed a key and motioned for us to follow him. He called across the street to a man sitting outside of his shop and then led us up a side street. Winnie and I raised eyebrows at each other but read the situation as fine. He led us to a nearby building and showed us a bathroom. He then made it clear that we should come back to the restaurant. When we returned, we again made our motion for tea and he pointed to a table for us to sit and left the restaurant and quickly returned. Not long after, a man carrying a tray with tea came in and we sipped in silence marveling at this man who had to go outside of his restaurant twice to meet our needs. What a lovely counterbalance to the hawkers in the tourist areas.

By the time we made our way to the mosque, it was closed to visitors for prayer, so we enjoyed the view from the top of the hill and decided to venture deeper into that neighborhood. While walking along a busy road lined with shops, we both stopped up short at the sight of a wedding dress shop. The two mannequins in the front wore elaborate jewel encrusted gowns. The bodice of one dress was completely sheer with some strategically placed jewels while the other was more modest. We noted three women fully covered in black shopping for dresses. We wondered at how exposed these women might be on their wedding day when all of their others are spent so thoroughly covered.

A quick and easy tram and funicular ride took us over to Taksim Square. Here we found out where the hustle and bustle of the city is! Tables from restaurants spilled out into small alleys, bars blared live music from their windows, local women in more western dress made their way from one shop to the next, and ice cream vendors worked their ice cream like taffy and clanged on bells to entice customers. We dined in a recommended vegetarian restaurant with excellent ambiance and then walked the length of Istikal Caddesi, the road leading off from the Taksim Square where all the activity seems to happen.

Due to planning this trip so late, we had to leave our beloved hostel and drag our suitcases around the block to a new one that proved less than optimal, but satisfactory. As the sun beat down on us at breakfast, we decided to hit the high seas and head over to Princes’ Islands. Had we not gone on this jaunt, I would never have known just how enormous Istanbul is! The city climbed hills and spilled out down to the sea’s edge. The ferry ride offered time to relax and to take in the splendor, and even included some passing dolphins! We chose to visit the second largest island since we heard the biggest one could be overwhelmingly touristy. As we pulled up to the dock, I thought how similar water front towns are, but as we climbed the hills and made our way toward the center of the island away from the dock, it became clear that an injection of funds is greatly needed. Our little hike took us to a Greek Orthodox monastery with an incredible little chapel and stunning views of the surrounding islands. As we wandered around looking for some lunch, we met some students leaving school who practiced their English with us while guiding us to a restaurant. After the most incredible fish that I have eaten in my memory, we wandered the waterfront and decided to head back to Istanbul before an afternoon storm hit.

Keeping with our relaxing theme of the day, we chose to not explore a museum, but instead to visit a hamam! After our time in one in Morocco, we knew that we would leave squeeky clean, but we were anxious to see what would differ in a Turkish hamam. Right off the bat the differences were clear. In Morocco, we had been the only tourists at the time we were there and here we were clearly in a place set up for tourists. We started in a sauna bonding with some German where we peered out through a small window onto a large stone slab where women were being scrubbed clean. When we were determined to be appropriately ready for that step, we lay down on this slab while a woman used an exfoliating glove to take off goodness knows how many layers of skin. As words seemed to fail the assistant, I knew it was time to turn over because of a quick slap. After pouring bowls of hot water over myself to rid myself of the skin, I lay down again for our soapsuds massage. As I poured water over my head, I watched other women jerk up during this process, making me hesitant about the upcoming massage... While laying on my stomach, I found myself trying to keep an eye out on my assistant, feeling a bit like prey about to be ravaged. Indeed, though the pressure was excellent, the location of the pressure proved rather unpleasant, but fortunately more comical than painful in the end. No bruises came of it at least! We then all floated around in a warm pool giggling about our “massages” but enjoying the camaraderie.

We picked our way through new streets to a restaurant in an area behind the mosque that appealed to us a few days before. Here we ate an incredible assortment of appetizers and sipped freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juice, a lovely end to a relaxing day.

After a night’s rest and some tasty sesame bread and fresh OJ, we followed the crowds to the Topkapi Palace. The palace sprawls along the waterfront behind the Hagia Sophia housing incredible tiles and jewels in addition to the harem! Winnie and I rented an audio guide and headed to the harem first. Harem means forbidden place while haram evidently means forbidden. As we sat in the first room taking in the elaborate tile work and listening to our audio guide, a small group with a guide came in and so we paused our automated guide to listen. What the guide wanted to communicate was that everything we have heard about the harem is false. He said that because it is against Islam, therefore haram, to commit adultery among the other acts that the harem is known for, it is clearly a romanticized lie. Winnie and I could hardly contain our questions- how do you explain the huge number of children that the sultan sired? How about the evidence about the sons of the sultan being isolated and then killed once one took the throne to prevent challenges to the bloodline? We returned to our audio guide which followed the line of our tour books explaining how many women lived here and how they occupied their time. After appreciating the tile work and sunny courtyards, we made our way past some holy relics and the Imperial Treasury filled with jewel encrusted swords and thrones.

An incredible thunderstorm and downpour lasted about an hour during which time I caught up on documenting and reflecting on our days while watching the men in restaurants scramble to keep their guests covered under drooping awnings and divert rivers of water from their patios down into the street. Fearing being caught in such a storm, we did not venture far for a drink and dinner. One of the joys of traveling only in a pair is that there is a chance to meet others. This evening we met a young Australian teacher who moved to Istanbul last fall after a vacation the year before. Her experiences and insights were fun to compare with our limited surface experiences. Then came a South African who has lived in eastern Turkey for nine years and speaks Turkish fluently. Hearing about the way of life in his town contrasted so starkly to liberal, western, Istanbul. Winnie and I thought that women praying behind a screen in the mosque was bad, but the lives that women lead in eastern Turkey were appalling to learn about. It is incredible to think of one government attempting to represent the needs of such opposing ways of life happening in different regions of Turkey.

The next morning, we followed everyone’s advice and walked over to the Grand Bazaar. While fueling up on sesame bread and pomegranate juice, we were interviewed by local school girls in English and gifted a treat of a fresh marshmallow by their mother. I have experienced this same process in Mexico a few times and I think it is wonderful. The girls were shy but also excited about their assignment and it was a treat for us to interact as well. Riding the sugar high from our treat, we spent hours with our noses pressed up against the glass of the jewelry shops. One jeweler who appeared gruff at first said that we should not trouble ourselves with buying jewels now since we are jewels ourselves, later we would need them, but not now. Feeling extra sparkly, we turned deeper into the bazaar and admired ceramic bowls, glass lights, handmade carpets, and beautiful scarves. Winnie became an expert bargainer after some missteps! Though the bazaar was large and dense, it was not overwhelming. Everyone moved slowly and no one was yelling or being overly aggressive. We had braced ourselves for more intensity, but were not disappointed by a leisurely day of admiring handiwork... and jewels.

We had the good fortune of a dinner date with a local Turkish woman who Winnie was connected to through a few friends. After dinner, she invited us to her apartment deep in the new side of Istanbul where she served us tea and dessert. Her hospitality and responses to our many questions offered a wonderful insight deeper into the culture. Our time with her highlighted the differences between western and eastern Turkey. She had studied abroad in Maine for a year in high school, and she marveled at how everything in America is labeled as “Greek” when in fact many products are the same in Turkey. Indeed, the similarities in cuisine were numerous. A long taxi ride back to our hostel highlighted just how expansive Istanbul is.

A rainy day greeted us in the morning, but we persevered and made our way to Ortakoy, a waterfront town that we had eyed from our ferry ride. We perused their Sunday market and took part in the delicacies for which they are famous: stuffed baked potato and stuffed waffles, which we enjoyed on the water’s edge under the Bosphorus Bridge. To round out our day, we made a return visit to the Spice Bazaar to stock up on pistachios grown in Istanbul and a slow walk home on new streets. The evening was spent chatting with the South African who lives in eastern Turkey who left with a tour group of Americans for his region the next day, a Turkish man who works in Istanbul but was raised in eastern Turkey, and a traveling Australian. The conversation danced around and continued to illuminate parts of Turkish culture and life that we might have missed had we not been fortunate enough to meet locals and transplants.

Our final full day in Istanbul began with a more substantial breakfast than my beloved sesame bread and then led to wandering the city. We found ourselves back at the Galata Bridge which we walked across taking in the views of the city that unfolded as we crossed. The bridge has two levels and fishermen are set up on the top level. We decided to enjoy the sunset at a cafe on the lower level and every now and again, a string of flailing fish would pass our view. We marveled at the speeding ferry boats and the talent of the drivers who manage not to crash in spite of the apparent chaos. On the lower deck of the bridge on the other side, fish restaurants serve fresh catches overlooking the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Bosphorus Bridge- the ideal setting for our final supper!

The morning sun beat down on us as we ate our standard sesame bread and juice gazing at the blue sky and the Hagia Sophia. Our time in Istanbul offered a fantastic variety of opportunities and experiences. The mixture of familiar and foreign, western and eastern, clothed and bare, friendly and obnoxious, and so on made for a unique adventure. I enjoy monitoring my process of learning and understanding as I grapple with questions like why the call to prayer does not annoy my secular ears or how I can live in a world where women’s experiences are so deplorable or why when traveling it is so easy to make connections with people that take so much more time and effort to make at home? I feel so fortunate to have had another experience to learn more about myself and a new culture with an exceptional friend at my side. I look forward to seeing how this trip influences me as I return to life and teaching.


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27th May 2012
Boys on their circumcision day

Great Shot!
This is a great shot!
27th May 2012

Can't wait to see where you go next ....
This blog post made me want to check the next flight to Istanbul. What a great tour that you had and wonderful time. Thanks for sharing! Can't wait to see where you go next ...
2nd June 2012
Sweet apple tea!

Love your blog!
Hi Katie! I just came across TravelBlog and found your blog! I am thinking of going to Turkey with a friend. I was wondering how safe and comfortable you felt traveling as a woman in Turkey? I feel like it would be fine but I'm just curious! Thanks for your blog and I love looking at all the photos! That architecture is stunning (mostly why I want to go there! haha). Happy Travels! Sarah
3rd June 2012
Sweet apple tea!

Hi Sarah!
Thank you for reading my blog! I am really excited for you to go to Istanbul! My friend and I had a really nice comfortable time. The only time we were heckled was when we were in the tourist areas- and then it was just a lot of "hello princess" "oh my angel" sort of stuff. Not fun, but usually ignoring or a "no" in Turkish did the job. We only had 9 days, so we stayed in Istanbul. I hear that western Turkey you should feel very safe traveling as two women. That is not what I hear about eastern Turkey though so if you want to go there, I would suggest hooking up with a tour. Safe travels, and please let me know if I can make any recommendations for you!!
2nd September 2013

How fantastic is Istanbul?
Hi Katie I love this blog on Istanbul - we were there in June 2012 and fell in love with the place. Congratulations on Blogger of the Week too. Cheers Ren
8th September 2013

Thanks!
Isn't it a great city?! We totally fell for it!! Safe and happy travels to you, and thanks for checking out my blog!

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