Who Would be Crazy Enough to Go to a Muslim Country?

I would and shame on anyone who is too jaded by media propaganda to see the truth in the world. Istanbul is LITERALLY a part of Europe. In fact it is the cultural capital of Europe for 2010. It was the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire for 1000 years, and after that seat the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople, Istanbul, is a city of cultural bridges where two religions and philosophies collided to make for one hell of an interesting place. It’s a city rich with history and vibrant with a modern culture. Yes it is Muslim which means that sections of it, or groups dog people within it, will practice the very ways of life and harness the very thoughts that rightfully terrify or make Americans uncomfortable, but in Istanbul (at least in the main parts of the city) these ‘extremists’ or ‘orthodox’ are far in the minority. It is one of the most important cities in the history of the world, and it should not be ignored due to fear.

View from the Roof

View from the Roof of the Hostel

After a somewhat tumultuous departure (don’t worry Jackie I’m not telling anyone), we arrived in Istanbul at 1:15 in the morning. It took us a half hour to get through customs because we had to buy a visa for our three day stay. Our hostel had arranged a pick up service for us so for the first time in my life I saw my name on a piece of paper, held by a 14 year old, waiting for us outside the arrivals. We waited for a bit for some person who never showed up before leaving into the cool night.
The airport and highway from the airport were right along the sea, which at this point of the world looks more like a river because of how close the other side of the city is. My first impression of Istanbul (besides how I understand ZERO of the language) was how strikingly similar this stretch of highway was to some in New York (whichever one we take to the LIE along the river) that run along the Hudson. There were parks and walking paths all along the dark sea and it was possible to see the lights of the city I’m the other side.
These striking similarities between far flung places is a theme which I’ve observed on every trip, at every monument and in every city. It’s interesting, and comforting, that I am able to find these similarities because it makes me gain the chance to feel at home no matter where I go. Yes, every single location is the world is unique, but aspects of each can remind me of home and transport my mind to a sense of normalcy. That’s amazing for me to feel. I compare to look for comfort, in as much as I need to understand the unknown through experiences which are usual and well-known to me. It’s nice to know that, so far, nowhere in this world has been to scary, too different, too strange for me to adjust myself to its lifestyle and culture.

Blue Mosque

That sense of comfort was pretty immediate in Istanbul. We drove by beautiful mosques on the highway, but also car dealerships and seaside hotels. We turned off the highway and wound our way through a few narrow, cobblestone (like Italy!) streets. On the left was a mammoth mosque that literally sprouted out of the city without warning. I was unsure of exactly which mosque it could be, (there are many in the city) but I had an inkling that it was the Blue Mosque because we were near our hostel and I knew that our hostel was near the historical sites. The city was dark and quiet when we arrived at the hostel.
I had read on the reviews of this hostel and Istanbul in general that it was a 24/7 city. Even though it was 3 in the morning we were starving (I went with Brian and Jackie). Unfortunately our neighborhood was silent. Nothing was open. Instead of unwinding a bit before bed, and eating, we went straight to bed. I feared that I had been misled by Istanbul. Maybe it wouldn’t be the fun, exciting city that I had hoped, but instead a quiet city, shutdown at night, with not enough attractions to keep us busy.
We woke up the next morning to a cold, dreary sky. Why do I always bring bad weather with me on vacations. Our hostel provided a free breakfast service at the rooftop bar. We went up there, and even though it was cold and windy, were struck by the majestic view overlooking the sea. Any predispositions from the night before evaporated as I looked out over the dark water. The city wound itself around the water in the hilly landscape that surrounds the Bosphorus. Behind us we could see two mosques rising from our part of the city, “the old city”. One was the Ayasofia (Hagia Sophia), and staring at it was the Blue Mosque. Our hostel, besides costing 13 euro a night for one of the world’s top-rated hostels, was situated in the touristic heart of Istanbul. We were within walking distance of all the major monuments and, as we would discover later, a short taxi ride from the major nightlife district. After a very satisfying breakfast of olives, bread, tomatoes, feta cheese, cucumbers, jam and tea, we made the short walk toasted the Blue Mosque.

Jackie and Brian enjoying breakfast

Being stupid Americans we approached the entrance to one of the two giant mosques, assuming it was the Blue Mosque. I asked Jackie and Brian why it wasn’t blue, but neither of them could explain it. Not until we reached the very entrance to the structure did we realize we were about to enter the museum Hagia Sophia (I should clarify that I only say the Hagia Sophia is a mosque rising out of the city because at its last use it was a mosque). We laughed at our stupidity before paying the largest sum of money each of us would pay at one time in Istanbul (20 Turkish lira or 10 euro).

We made the mistake of renting an useless audio guide because we wanted to learn more about the church/mosque. The thing was worthless. Whatever, the place took our breath away. The Hagia Sophia was first commissioned by Constantine (I think) when he moved the seat of the Roman Empire, what would become the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire. At the time it was the largest church in the world, and it remained so until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the church into a mosque instead of destroying the functional prayer space. The inside is indeed cavernous. The ceiling must rise more than 150 feet in the air and there is a second large area on the second “floor” which overlooks the first. The impressive and magnificent architecture dominates the eye and mind. There are few decorations left, because as a mosque there could be no iconography, except for the mihrab (the ‘pulpit’ of a mosque) and large Arabic symbols suspended from the ceiling. We walked around in awe, indulging in the importance of this ancient structure. We stood next to a library which at one time housed thousands of texts. We gazed at the place where Byzantine emperors were coronated by the bishop. I was awed by the significance of this place. In front of me, literally 2 feet from my feet existed the place where every single leader of the Byzantine Empire, something which helped shape the course of history, knelt to become crowned leader.

Kneeling place of the emperors

We moved on to the “altar” where it is possible to see mosaics of the Virgin and Child and St. Thomas. These works, though a bit dilapidated, remain beautiful as they stand over the Muslim mihrab beneath. Upstairs there were more mosaics, from the 10th and 11th centuries of Jesus, apostles and even some emperors and their families. Though all were gorgeous in their way, the truly interesting and captivating aspect of them is that they exist in what was a mosque. There existence shows that Muslims did not decide to rip out and destroy the decorations of the past. Instead they simply painted over them and replaced the Christian with the Muslim. While they most likely did this in the interests of saving time and money, it is still quite unique to have a place with both Christian and Muslim icons of prayer. That’s the true magic of the Hagia. It is a place where Christianity and Islam, once at conflict with each other, now exist side by side, both in their religious splendor. Hopefully our world will follow a similar path.

Christian Mosaic

It was close to 1:30 when we left the museum so, of course, we were starving. We realized that the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest indoor markets in the world, was close by. I also knew that Istanbul housed at least one impressive spice market. I, being a stupid American, naturally assumed the two to be the same, which meant that I thought the Grand Bazaar would be full to the brim with vendors selling meats on sticks and other various forms of delicious Turkish food. I envisioned rows and rows of food stalls trying to entice me into buying their creations. Well, I am a stupid American. We entered the old walls of the market and were immediately overwhelmed by the mass of vendors. There were multitudes of jewelers, potters, clothes salesmen among any number of other commodity imaginable. It was a sea of stores interconnected by ‘streets’. Unfortunately we had absolutely no idea what was going on because Turkish bears no resemblance to any language which I have ever encountered. We wandered aimlessly, finding almost no food. There were little cafes, all of which seemed touristy. We barely paid attention to any of the wares around us because we wanted to eat quite badly. We were lost in the maze of stores and void of any idea of what was going on around us. Finally I heard a vendor who could speak English and asked him where to find the place with lots of restaurants. He said there was none in the Grand Bazaar. Dumb Americans.
A bit dejected we exited the massive market and went in search of some food. We passed on several kebab places (in the sense of doner kebabs) and wandered the tiny, crowded streets around the bazaar where even more people hawked their goods as loudly as possible. The city was alive and buzzing, crowded and noisy. For no reason whatsoever we took a right at some street (for the entire weekend we had no map of the city. I’m not sure if a functional one exists), which turned out to be “underwear” lane. Every single store on this street sold underwear in one form or another, including lingerie. We were amazed by the site, but a bit dismayed due to the lack of food. Towards the end of the street, however, a whiff of delicious grilled meats invaded my nose. Brian and Jackie smelled it as well. We wandered up and down attempting to trace the origin of the intoxicating aroma, but had no luck. We thought that perhaps the wind had swept it from a neighboring block so we headed Towards the end of the street, but Jackie stopped us and pointed to the basement of one of the infinite underwear stores where lo and behold a small hole in the wall restaurant existed.
We entered cautiously behind several Turkish men. They stopped talking, surprised by our presence. Communication was nearly impossible, but one of the owners made it obvious that we were welcome to come in and eat. There was kefta (grilled ground lamb) grilling away next to the register. I pointed and asked for three, using my fingers. The entire establishment consisted of two small countertop grills and a cutting board counter where the chef would put together the meals. Outside, virtually on the stairs to the downstairs underwear stores (there were ones above it), there was one low plastic table with three stools. They cleaned off the table for us and even gave us wet napkins to clean our hands. Our three sandwiches arrived quickly and simply, served on a sub with lettuce, tomato, pickles and hot grilled peppers. They were delicious, a bit spicy and not dry. When we finished we had a feeling that we would be ripped off because obviously none of us were from Istanbul. I went to pay and the total was 12 Turkish Lira, or 4 per sandwich, which meant that we had a satisfying lunch for 2 euro each! I love Turkey.

Underwear Restaurant

We left exuberant about our find and first Turkish meal, especially since it was so cheap! We, without a map, somehow managed to navigate ourselves back to the entrance of the Grand Bazaar, from where we were sure that we could fond our way home. Well, we got a bit lost, but it turned out to be fortunate because we stumbled upon a restaurant which sold what looked like crepes stuffed with spinach. I couldn’t refuse. We got one with spinach and one with potato. They were simple and great. The crepes were crisper than French and a bit lighter, but they held the stuffing well. It’s something I could easily make at home and will try. The “crepes”, though, were made with a dough instead of a batter. I’m going to have to experiment.
After finding our bearings we made our way back Towards our hostel and our final destination of the day; the Blue Mosque. We followed the crowds of people across the park which separates the Hagia Sophia from the Blue Mosque, built to match the magnificence of the originally Christian structure. We took photos in front of the fountain and watched as Turkish school children entertained themselves with the fountain. They tried to countdown (in English) so that the fountain would go off as they reached zero. Kids are hilarious. We then entered the Blue Mosque, through what I think was actually the door for people who practice Islam, and immediately became frozen by the interior of the mosque.
It sparkled at us. It invited us in, it welcomed our presence and begged us to basque in its beauty. We obliged. The walls are covered in blue, red, white and green decorative patterns instead of the morbid iconography (though beautiful) of Christian churches. There was a low hanging chandelier in the center of the prayer area and beautifully decorated blue and white tiles (perhaps from Venice) covering parts of the walls. The domes were decorated as well and supported by four mammoth pillars. The floor was carpeted with a comfortable re d flowered design. We each spent a fair amount of time marveling at its incredible beauty. We left only because it seemed as if prayer time was about to begin. I could have spent much more time, as could have Jackie and Brian, admiring the structure.
We went back to the hostel and showered before going upstairs to the rooftop bar for a couple of drinks. Up there, we encountered for the first direct time some of the other people staying in the hostel. That’s one of the greatest things about hostels that have a common area; they make it so easy to meet people! Hostels generally house some characters and this one was no exception. We met a former member of the navy who was backpacking by himself all over the place and an American whose visa to stay in Switzerland had expired, but he still had 8 weeks until his flight home. When I asked him his plan, he couldn’t tell me exactly, except that he might try to take a class in Turkish. I don’t know how people can do it. I’ve traveled alone, but only for a week and that was sandwiched between my parents leaving me in Rome and me venturing northward to meet relatives in Bolzano. I admire people who just go for it, without a plan or without a companion, but at the same time I cannot imagine leaving my world entirely behind. I love my home and friends and my girlfriend. How could I abandon them all indefinitely?

The Interior of the Blue Mosque

That night we had an ok dinner at some place recommended to me by a lady with a crazy name who was also staying at the hostel. We went back to our room around 9 to find three Australians, about our age, playing loud music and drinking. They had taken a mattress of the bottom bunk of one of the beds (one which was actually in use by the former navy man) and had it situated on the floor. They were rambunctious and making fun of each other constantly. We decided to join them, especially since they bought us a round of beers.
Australians are quite the characters. The three of them had each graduated and were now spending almost an entire year traveling! We asked them why Australians seemed to be always traveling and they answered it was because there was nowhere to go when one lives in Australia. Therefore, once they graduate it is almost an Aussie tradition to travers the globe. About an hour later we all hopped a cab ride to Taksim, the club, bar and commercial center of Istanbul.
This was the most fun cab ride of my life even though we squeezed five people into this cab and had no real conception of to where the cabbie was taking us or how badly we would be ripped off. Before entering we had set the price, or agreed upon the price, as 10 Turkish Lira, but this was done using sign language and gestures so the probability that it would actually happen that way was slim. Still, we went as the cabbie maneuvered the streets of the Old City before zooming over the Galata bridge over the Bosphorus to the other side of Europe and where Taksim is located. During the ride the Aussies were hilarious. They simply have no care for common rules or customs. They jabbered at the cabbie in English even though it was obvious that he could not understand a word of it. They smoked in his face, used his lighter and even lit a cigarette in his mouth! The Aussie in the back seat with us actually reached through the open drivers window with his head out of the car to do so. They poked and prodded the driver. I laughed, but only because the cabbie actually seemed to be enjoying it! In any ordinary situation, I would imagine, I would assume that the cabbie would simply pull over and kick us out, but no. He laughed and played along and jabbered back in Turkish! He loved it! Apparently, in Australia, this is a common occurrence. It’s a kind of game that they play in Sydney to see how long it takes before the cabbie throws them out. And, according to these guys, they do much worse things to the drivers such as pull the hand brake as they are moving!

We arrived in the center of Taksim, not knowing anything about where we should go, but the Australians, being Australians, led us down the main block into the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife. The reviews I had read of the city did not lie. This city goes 24/7, all the time. Bars were loud, the street was packed and there were clubs everywhere, extending 5 stories into the air. We wandered around, the Australians asked for drink prices and tried to haggle. Everything was a game to them, everywhere a new adventure. We finally managed to stumble into an obviously local joint. Nobody spoke English and we were the only foreigners. Still, we decided to stay for a drink. The Aussies threw peanuts around as if nothing could affect them. This turned out to be a theme of the night. As we went to various bars and clubs the Australians did whatever they felt like, without a care in the world. They screamed English, talked to people who couldn’t understand them, ran around the city, touching, prodding, investigating. Life was new and exciting and no rules or commonly understood customs would get in their way of a good time. Something, which can be seen as admirable, but Australians are absolutely nuts.

I think Australia is the definition of why parents should not suppress their children because when you deny something to somebody for a long time they will go overboard once they are actually allowed to have that thing. In this example, Australians could never travel when young because they live on a giant island far from the world, and then once they can travel, they go overboard with it. There are also other factors in their attitudes toward the world that I cannot exactly put my finger upon, but one might actually be that their ancestors were prisoners. Maybe the whole Australian attitude has something to do with their heritage of criminals. Who knows. All I know is that they live an unrestrained life, and everybody seems to continue to love them.

We went home around 5:30.

There are more photos from this trip that I will eventually put on an online album!

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