It’s 6am in Istanbul and I’m tucked in bed in our apartment, the first shades of gray light peaking through the window. Outside, the bustling neighborhood of Beyoglu is just beginning to wake up, with a few coffee shops on the main drag, Istiklal Caddesi just starting to open their doors. The local taverns have only just shut theirs…
Through the air, winding its way through the piled streets of this ancient city, the first Muslim call to prayer begins to sound, the voice of the muezzin echoing off the cobblestones and hills, down to the shore of the Bosphorous, and finally, through my window. Half asleep, I begin to awaken with the melody of Islam streaming quietly through the air, and I feel as though I have woken up inside a dream; a dream with an enchanting soundtrack in a magical city. This is how it feels to wake up in Istanbul.
I’ve spent just over a week in the heart of Turkey, in a city whose rich and variegated history makes it seem as if every stone in the street tells a different story. Istanbul is situated on two sides of the Bosphorus Strait, its geography making it an ideal trade passageway for ships of yore and present, and thus a coveted location. In its hundreds of years, Istanbul has been the setting of countless kingdoms, battles, triumphs, defeats, cultures and religions. Its most revered landmark, the Hagia Sofia mosque, plays out this history in her very walls, where Islamic mosaics have chipped away to reveal Christian paintings underneath. The images of crosses and saints are remnants of one of the city’s heaviest influences, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who lead his forceful Christian reign in this city, once named for him, until Islam converted the church to a mosque after the 1453 invasion of the Ottomans. The city is sprawling, and is in fact the only city lying on two continents (Europe and Asia), and the edifices are built on top of each other along winding and confusing roads – validating the years of construction it took to build such a jigsaw puzzle of a town. And as soon as you set foot in the city, you can feel the depth of the story it has to tell. Walking along ancient cobblestones, streets swelling with a people and culture seeped in history, you are convinced that the city herself breathes on its own. Istanbul is truly unlike any other place in the world.
We spent 7 days and nights in Istanbul, which proved to just barely be enough – you could easily spend a month here with activities to spare. I traveled with my sister and her husband, and we made what turned out to be an awesome decision to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel. We were situated in the happening neighborhood of Beyoglu on the European side of the city, which meant restaurants, bars, and public transportation were all close by. We never far from a major landmark or a tasty kebap.
We spent the first full day knocking out some major landmarks: First we checked out the underground Cisterns – essentially some of the world’s first sewer systems, unassumingly tucked away under a grassy knoll with only a small entryway in modest, cottage-like ticket office. I was amazed at the sophistication of the architecture dating from so many years ago. We then wandered to Topkapi Palace, where Sultans of the past had kept over 400 women at one time as wives, slaves, and “favorites” in the housing known as “The Harem” which sits adjacent to the main palace. Walking through the halls of the marble and brick structure, I thought about what it must have been like to be a young woman in those days, living solely for the service of the royals. And here I was, wearing my Western clothes, traveling to Istanbul with money I had made on my own in my own career, independent and allowed to make any and every choice about my life. How different my life would have been if I had grown up here, 1,000 years earlier.
Later that day we checked out the bustling Spice Market, sampling Turkish delights and bargaining for a deal. It felt like an 1800s shopping mall in a way, only with far more interesting wares. Glass mosaic Turkish lamps dangled from storefronts, and fabrics of every color and texture were displayed, their salesmen all trying to say “hello” in every language they could, in an effort to gain your attention.
The next day we made our way to the Blue Mosque, whose rich mosaics lived up to the reputation of the building. Since the mosque is still a functional house of worship, we removed our shoes and my sister and I covered our heads with scarves (as traditionally done in Islam) before entering the building. The Blue Mosque is not only impressive in its architecture, but in the deep sense of peace it instills in you when you enter. You can literally feel the sanctity when your feet touch the beautiful carpet and you gaze up at the rounded ceilings. Unreal.
Later that day, we walked several miles of the Walls of Constantinople, also known as the Land Walls, a stretch of wall that once covered the whole Western entrance to the Golden Horn. The Land Walls protected what was then Constantinople from over 20 attacks, until the Ottoman invasion (and the advent of gunpowder and henceforth cannons) in 1453. As we walked along the walls, I looked down to the rolling hills and wondered what it would have felt like to be one of the young soldiers, watching a rival army of 160,000 soldiers arrive at the gates to my city. It made the me shudder to think about what must have been going through their minds.
The next day we were met by two friends who had come to join the gang and we gathered the group together for a boat ride along the Bosphorus, stopping at a tiny town on the Asian side, outside Istanbul. After a fresh fish lunch, we hiked up to the ruins of a castle that overlooked the Bosphorus. Yep. Real-live castle. You don’t see that in San Diego. Or anywhere in America, really. We took in the views of the Strait and then headed back to our hood, snapping magnificent photos of Istanbul by sunset on our approach to the dock.
New Year’s Eve saw the arrival of two more friends, a couple from London, and we gathered our motley international crew of seven together and headed to the city’s pièce de résistance, the Hagia Sofia. The history of a city that was once considered the capitol of the world shines through this building. It almost feels that as if you were very quiet, you would hear the building tell you secrets of everything that happened here. It was a deeply sacred and haunting place – and no wonder that it’s the city’s main attraction.
Our final two days were spent exploring lesser known neighborhoods, including another trip to the Asian side where we engaged in the traditional Turkish pastime of smoking (or attempting to smoke) a hookah – an activity that elicited more laughs that puffs. We rounded out the trip taking in a show of another Turkish tradition – the Whirling Dervishes. Whirling Dervish “dance” stems from the religion of Sufi, whose followers were believed to become so enraptured in the spirit of God that they spun in circles for hours. It was a fascinating performance, and it felt so right to spend out last night engaged in such a traditional Turkish activity.
Istanbul, as I said, is unlike any other city in the world. I won’t bore you with the details of our sightseeing or at thousand photos of mosaic tiles (unless you really want to know – just email me!), but its safe to say I was blown away by this stunning city. And of course, diabetes was there with me on the whole trip, popping up at some inconvenient (low in the middle of a Harem – that’s a new one!) times, and being challenged by drastically changing time zones and foreign (but oh so very delicious) foods. I’m saving that for the Part II blog post (which will come as soon as I get proper internet access and a chance to upload my photos), because believe me, there’s plenty to say about my adventures with the ‘betes in Turkey! But for now, on my last night in this incredible city, I’m just going to take in all she has to offer – thousands of years of rich history embedded in a modern city and culture. Istanbul – there’s no words to truly sum up this city. She’s a feeling, a story, a poem, and a song. Incredible.