Straddling worlds in Istanbul
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From the moment I landed on the short flight from Athens, I was completely overwhelmed, fascinated, and utterly intrigued by the city of Istanbul. Wandering around the city for no more than an hour, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a city with a major bipolar identity crises that reinvents itself on a daily basis.
Straddling the Strait of Bosporus, the city itself officially sits on both Europe as well as Asia. Many people commute every single day from their home in Asia to their workplace in Europe. Upon entering the European side of the city, as you cross the bridge over the schizophrenic Sea of Marmara, a quiet sign simply reads, “Welcome to Europe”, which I always thought would make for a fantastic cover to a European guidebook.
Then there is the religious division running in and around the city. Historically the capital of the Byzantine (Christian) Empire as well as that of the Muslim Ottoman’s, modern-day Istanbul seems to be an even blend of the two schools of worship. All over the city, businessmen in modern suits rush with a purpose to their next meeting, as the daily Islamic call to prayer bellows in unison from every mosque in the city. All of this occurring daily as a nation tries to define its identity as to whether they are a member of Europe and the EU, or if a traditional Turkish mindset found in the eastern provinces towards Ankara and Kurdistan define the national psyche.
Seeing as this was all too much for me to process in the scant few days I spent in the city, I focused my efforts on the usual tourist sights and devoured every doner kebab I could get my hands on. Hands down, Istanbul has the best food I have ever encountered in my 33 countries on the road, and if you ever find yourself in Istanbul, do yourself a favor and just get another kebab every time your hand is empty Seriously, you’ll be glad you did.
That being said, amongst my first stops in this sprawling city of 15 million people were two of the more popular sights on the Istanbul tourist trail, those being Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. Literally right next to each other, these edifices with their towering minarets cast an aura of glamorous and exotic times past. The facts surrounding the history of the Hagia Sophia are simply astounding. Constructed in the 6th century, this building served as the largest cathedral in the entire world for nearly a thousand years. Once the city was taken by the Ottomans, the Haggia Sophia was converted to an Islamic mosque, which then stood as the main mosque of Istanbul for another 500 years. Once the Ottomans fell after the First World War, the building was converted into a massive museum, which is what it currently stands as today.
While the Hagia Sophia no longer stands as an official Mosque, the Blue Mosque next door still is a holy site of Islamic worship. Built to rival the Hagia Sophia in grandeur, the mosque was commissioned in the 17th century and features six enormous minarets and over 20,000 blue tiles glinting down from the interior ceiling. As the Mosque is still active, non-worshipers (tourists) must enter through the North Gate and remove their shoes. Modest dress is encouraged, and while open daily free of charge, the mosque is closed five times a day during the time of prayer.
Seeing as we were spending our time in some of the world’s largest centers of worship, we may as well make our way down to one of the largest markets in the world, that being the indescribable Grand Bazaar. A massive covered market that attracts around 300,000 visitors on a daily basis, the Bazaar stretches on in a twisting and curving grid of clothing and food stalls that seems to have no end. While many of the stalls peddle the exact same products, essentially everything you could ever think to ask for can be found in the Bazaar. Haggling and bargaining is commonplace inside these walls. Try to leave a bread trail, however, as trying to find your way out of the Bazaar can be a harrowing experience if you’ve gotten turned around.
After days spent hitting all of the sights and criss-crossing the Sea of Marmara multiple times, it was definitely time to head out in the city somewhere and grab a drink. Satisfying that urge led us to the bustling Taksim Square, site of the 1977 Taksim Square Massacre. While this is the largest downtown square in all of Istanbul, to his day large demonstrations in the area are prohibited.
In Taksim we ended up wandering in to one of the strangest situations I have been in internationally. It was such a wildly eclectic culture clash it simply has to be mentioned. Joining our friend Merve and some of her local friends with whom we were crashing (yes, we were staying with total strangers in Istanbul), we dropped in on this Irish pub that was less than happening. On stage, there was a Japanese man in a cowboy hat, singing of all things, American country songs. The only other patrons of the pub were his family members, all of whom spoke only Japanese. It just goes to show that when you’re out on the road, each and every moment can bring upon some sort of unforeseen story or adventure, because right when you think you’re having a mediocre night, the next thing you know you’re swilling beers in Turkey at an Irish pub, listening to Hiyoko croon Johnny Cash, with his family having no idea why they are in Turkey, but having a fantastic time nonetheless.