Saturday, July 5, 2014

Incredible Istanbul

I was standing in the entrance to the Hagia Sophia, a building that was once a church, then a mosque and now a slightly neglected museum, talking to an Australian tourist about traveling and writing, when I realized how much I missed blogging. 

I was explaining why I had stopped blogging, and I said something about writing being like picking up a pen and opening a vein, bleeding into the world; when he said, “I like that.” And it was at that moment that I remembered – I like that too. 

I like writing life onto white pages and refreshing a dying memories with words more specific than pictures. I didn’t just take tourist pictures. I was there. I was alive in the moment. I walked the cobblestone streets. I saw the mosque spires. I heard the haunting calls to prayer and felt the little hands of gypsy children begging coins, asking for that last piece of leftover baklava so vulnerably displayed in a clear plastic take-out tray.  I want to remember, and for me, the only way to capture those thoughts is to go back there and write it down.

Istanbul is ....

Istanbul is a colorful place of cultural contradictions. It is Europe and Asia, a modern city teaming with people at every corner, an ancient city with the ruins of multiple great civilizations. It is a place where history happened centuries ago and where it is still happening. One weekend while Kip was working there he had to walk past overzealous police with machine guns and water cannons squelching protestors’ demands before they erupted again in Taksim Square.
Kip in Taksim Square
It is also the land of a thousand stray cats and the world's best baklava.

The stray cats are so plentiful even the ducks along the riverbank have figured out  how to coexist.

First Impressions of an Islamic Country

I felt that Istanbul was a very different place than any I had ever been to when I got off the plane. It was humid. The sun was glistening on rain-washed hillside neighborhoods protruded with mosque spires. A man was busy rolling out a carpet, facing Mecca, kneeling and pressing his forehead to the ground. Praying silently. If anyone did that in the Los Angeles airport someone would call a SWAT team.  

And while Turkish people hold their religious identity in varying degrees, it is still statistically the most homogenous religious place I have ever visited. Like most Muslim countries, Turkey is more Islamic than Alabama is Evangelical Christian, more Islamic than Utah is Mormon.  To be immersed in such a different religious culture was interesting to me, in part because it felt so different, and in part because there are similarities. 

It was initially unnerving to see so many women in complete burkas, walking with their husbands, pushing baby strollers, seeing the world from behind eye slits. But like the city of Istanbul itself, there were also women who seemed to be straddling the Middle East and the West. I saw more than one teenage girl, veiled beneath the modesty of her hijab, peering into a handheld mirror, carefully layering on mascara and lip gloss.

But it was the call to prayer that caught me off guard. Unlike the cheery church bells that rang across empty Sunday streets in Frankfurt, Germany; the daily calls sounded heavy to me, sorrowful and longing, hauntingly beautiful, like an Adele song, sad.  It always made me want to pray. So much of the Psalms feel that way to me anyway, “How long, O God?”

Our Istanbul Adventure 

Trolley running through Taksim square and the pedestrian zone shopping district

Shoppers walking past countless bakeries with amazing baklava

Baklava and Turkish delight in a bakery window. Both ancient and modern buildings in the window reflection.
Notice the street kids catching a free ride on the trolley. Gypsy children were everywhere begging for money.

 When I arrived in Istanbul Kip was finishing up a week-long conference. He was busy working and I was jet-lagged, so I made my way out of the hotel cautiously, initially walking through the same western style shopping area we had wandered the first night I arrived.  But I eventually figured out how to get a metro pass and made my way to the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar and wandered the neighborhoods in between. I did a lot of walking around and looking.

The Hagia Sophia was amazing, if for no other reason, it is incredibly old, about 1,500 years. The kids and I learned about the church years ago, listening to Story of the World a great children’s history series by Susan Wise Bauer.  It was kind of the ultimate homeschooling parent treat to actually walk through the place we had read and studied about. I wished that the kids had been with me. Maybe next time.

Ancient Byzantine mosaics and huge Islamic calligraphic medallions

You can see the Apse Mosaic, a 9th century depiction of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus.

The museum seems to be constantly undergoing renovation.
Mosaics of Jesus from the Byzantium Empire look down on the Ottoman Turkish mirhab pointing the direction to Mecca. The grand marble minbar on the right is a giant pulpit also built by the Ottoman Turks.

The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque sit opposite each other.

The Grand Bazaar, as the name implies, was kind of a crazy place. I wandered into the 600-year old labyrinth of shopping booths alone on my first trip into the city. I found it a little too overwhelming to barter alone, so I brought Kip back the following day and we bought a few souvenirs -- the obligatory coffee cup and T-shirts for the kids. I also indulged the pushy silver salesmen and negotiated a few earrings for myself and a little necklace for our daughter. Like nearly every restaurant, shop and tour guide in Istanbul, the salesmen in the Grand Bazaar were relentless.

“Hey, hey lady, buy this scarf. Look at this scarf. Hey lady, don't break my heart. Just look.”

They would say nearly anything to make you turn around and look. The first day I stopped once; just long enough for a young Turkish man to seize the opportunity and wrap a beautiful silk scarf around my neck.  

“Look, you see it. You like?”

He motioned for me to take a step into his booth-shop, which looked like an apartment size walk-in closet. Feeling tired of all the nagging, I stepped forward and SLAM. He shut a door behind me revealing a full length mirror.

“See for no charge extra I match your eyes. Very beautiful. I give you for 200 Lira.”

There were other things I wanted to spend $100 on, so I managed to smile and tell him I should take his card and come back with my husband later. He opened the closet door, I escaped. I didn’t come back.

One of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar, an indoor labyrinth of a marketplace dating back to the 15th century. 

Need a tea set, pipe, magic lantern?

Silk scarves for sale in booths lining the archways

Fountains for ceremonial washings

More lamps and scarves... want to make a deal?

When Kip went out alone he had several experiences with hustlers, shoe shiners trying all kinds of scams to get his attention, guys trying to get him to go out for a drink with him, all scams he had been warned about. When we were together it was mostly just the restaurant hawkers and tourist oriented shops that berated us, but it was enough that we were actually relieved to leave Istanbul and head to the more laid-back Greek Islands.

Taking a break from souvenier shopping at the Grand Bazaar for Turkish coffee and baklava

Kip enjoying a fish sandwich aboard the Bosphorus River cruise.

One evening, after going on a river cruise of the Bosporus and buying too many overpriced souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar, we found the best marketplace, the almost equally ancient Spice Bazaar. Kip tracked down the country’s best Turkish coffee bean roaster and discovered a treasure trove of spice stores. We walked away at the market’s closing with coffee, bags of olives, dates, Turkish delight and an assortment of spices. I think it was the highlight of Kip’s time in Turkey.

Kip is so happy to be at the Spice Bazaar that he makes the shop owners happy too.

Kip's own private Heaven of spices

And more spices
Dates and other dried fruit by the kilo
Spices, pickles and more spices.

That night, with bags of souvenirs and spices and much less Lira than we had started with, we settled for $5 fish and bread sandwiches with Turkish beer at a restaurant literally under the bridge. The mosques were bathed in lights, reflecting on the river. It was the kind of moment that I wanted to remember forever, just because.

Had we not been heading to Greece for our anniversary celebration trip, I would have enjoyed spending several more day in Istanbul.

 More Pictures of our Istanbul Adventures

One night we stopped at this open-air bar where Turkish bands played a mix of Turkish and American top 40 songs. It was funny to hear these guys singing songs in English that we grew up with.

Entrance to the Blue Mosque. They were having services when we visited, so never saw the inside.
Turkish food was amazing. Kip's dinner of many little fish.

Kip loves funiculars. This one was unfortunately underground.
I think the guy with the green suitcase was happy with his pictures too.

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