Istanbul – the City of Smiles Pt. 1

Istanbul, Turkey


I landed in Turkey in the middle of rush hour on a very hot Friday (September 3) but still managed to get to my hotel, the Seven Hill, in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul in what I thought was record time. (I was in the lobby 1 1/2 hours after landing and that included going through customs, obtaining my visa and retrieving my luggage. And a big congratulations to American Airlines by the way for still being the ONLY airline to lose my luggage 3 weeks into my trip – the payola to the Russian chick actually worked.)

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View from my room to the Haghia Sophia

Anyway, the neighborhood I am staying in is the oldest section of Istanbul – think thousands of years old and not hundreds. My hotel is an old building overlooking both the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. As the name of the hotel indicates, the area is built on hills so it was going to be fun hiking around. The other plus to the location for my hotel – the rooftop restaurant has a 360 degree view of the city. As we approached my hotel, the roads became narrower and narrower and pretty soon we were in what would only pass as alley ways in North America. Apparently, the city of Istanbul has banned driving in the area and now only cabs are permitted on most of the roads. On arriving, the desk manager, who was a very charming young man (I soon learned that this is a trait of Turkish men – more about that in a minute), kindly informed me that the Blue Mosque room I had reserved almost a year ago was not available (WTF??) but would I mind being upgraded to the Hagia Sophia suite. Uh … since you put it that way…. So we took the tiny elevator up to my room and wowza. The view is not only of the Hagia Sophia, but also a view to the Sea of Marmara, and I have a whirlpool tub in the bathroom.. (Yay!!)

As I was settling in, I heard what was my first live experience of the call to prayer. Turkey is approximately 99% Muslim, although far less are active, practicing Muslims. In addition, Turkey is different from other predominantly Muslim nations in that it is a secular nation – strict separation of church and state. Nevertheless, the Islamic faith is omnipresent with hundreds of mosques and many women dressed in headscarves and/or longer coverings.

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Obelisk of Theodosius at the Hippodrome

Anyway, my first call to prayer was an absolutely stunning experience. The muezzin at each mosque calls out over loudspeakers affixed to the mosques to “hasten to prayer”. Although the call to prayer is heard five times a day and is supposed to commence at the same time (according to times published in the local newspaper) you often have muezzins at the various mosques starting the call to prayers at slightly different times. Some of the muezzins have better voices than others (although it is a job requirement to have a good voice – this obviously rules me out since I have a crap voice – of course I am also disregarding the fact that the muezzin must be a man) and some calls to prayer last longer than others. So what I thought would be a single call to prayer is in actuality an almost 5 minutes symphony of sounds. I cannot stress enough how incredibly moving the the call is live and in person.

So, inspired by the sound and knowing that this call to prayer was special coming at sunset during Ramadan, I headed out to the Hippodrome area (a park and historic area near my hotel) where the faithful were breaking their fast. (Ramadan lasts for 30 days and healthy Muslims are precluded from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.) Anyway, I knew it was a special time in the day, and I wanted to experience it first hand. As I exited my building and began the walk towards the Hippodrome I narrowly missed being run over by a car that came barreling down the narrow street (hey I thought cars were banned). I was actually pulled out of the way by a fellow who identified himself Kerem. Another charming rather tall Turk. As I walked, he somehow attached himself to me and proceeded to tell me he was going to break fast and would I like to join him. My first reaction was “uh buzz off fella”, and then my second instinct was I needed to be extremely careful. Turns out my first two reactions were off base. Turks are extremely friendly people and are very anxious to share their culture and religion with visitors. After receiving repeated assurances that I would be fine, and that there were plenty of people around, I agreed to hang out with Kerem for a bit. It turned out to be a great decision.

I sat with him as he ate his meal and the conversation obviously turned to religion. “Are you a Christian?” “Not really.” “Jewish?” “No.” “You must believe in some god?” “Uh sorry I don’t.” Kerem (who I learned was Kurdish) was incredulous. Then I explained to him my reasons. Religions preach tolerance, acceptance and being good to others, yet I found that many people of faith were the least tolerant and accepting of all people. I told him if being accepting, tolerant and good to others is the hallmark of being religious then I was already all of those things and was more religious than many who attend churches, mosques or synagogues. He told me that no one had ever put it quite like that to him. It was a fascinating discussion.

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Inside the Blue Mosque

We then wandered through the markets and stalls where many of the faithful, with kids in tow, were eating and celebrating the end of another long day. It was an extremely joyous, celebratory feeling and a really memorable night. After an hour or so of wandering through the area we ended up in front of the Blue Mosque and once again heard the call to prayer, I told Kerem I was hungry so he offered to take me to this small restaurant where he ordered a bunch of traditional Turkish dishes for me. I had cucumbers and tomatoes with olive oil, bread, slices of various kababs (meats) and a most fantastic dessert (a sponge cake soaked in honey – sweet does not begin to describe this dessert, but oh my God was it good). We ended the meal with Turkish tea – a funny little half glass filled with a very bitter tasting tea. I tried it without sugar (I prefer tea without sugar), but couldn’t get past the bitter taste. I put a lump of brown sugar in the tea as directed and low and behold – not sweet, but no bitter taste. OK then. Listen to the locals.

By now I was tired so I said good bye to Kerem, and as I was leaving he invited me to join him and some others to break fast the next night. I readily accepted. I can’t imagine many tourists having such an opportunity so I would be a fool to turn it down. Anyway, I agreed to meet him the next night at 7:30 p.m. for the traditional dinner of breaking the fast. I walked down the hill and through the narrow streets to my hotel ready for sleep.

The next morning my guide Lala (pronounced Lalley – it means tulip in Turk) met me in the lobby of my hotel for a very full day of exploring the Sultanahmet area. First stop the Blue Mosque. Once there, we had to remove our shoes, and I was given a shall to cover my head and shoulders. Inside, we were able to look at the brilliant blue tiles and glass from which the name arises. I learned a little bit about the history of the Mosque and the reason why women stand behind the men in the mosque (because there is so much kneeling and bowing, having women in front of men would be a “distraction” and nothing should take away from the purpose of prayer).

From the Blue Mosque we walked over to the Hippodrome, which was the gathering place for 1200 years during the Byzantine empire and another 400 years during the Ottoman empire. It was the scene of debates and fights and chariot races. The area is marked by the Rough Stone Obelisk at one end, the Spiral “snake” Column in the middle (of which only a small part remains and without its three heads) and the Obelisk of Theodosius at the other end.

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Me in the Imperial Chamber Topkapi Palace

We left the Hippodrome and trekked on to the Topkapi Palace, the original home of the Ottoman sultans. We passed through the main gate and by a tremendous amount of security (guards with machine guns!) and into the inner courtyard – a bevy of gardens. We moved through this area to the second gate and walked past the palace kitchens where I entered my first building – the Imperial Council Chamber. This is where the Sultan’s Imperial Counsel met to discuss affairs of state (and where the Sultan could spy on his counsel through a metal grate).

Next stop was the Harem. Now THIS was fascinating. There were between 400 and 500 women in the harem. Many were chosen from slave markets (based upon their beauty) and on entering the harem were provided with an education and etiquette lessons. Others in the harem came from noble families and families who offered their daughters to the harem. Once in the harem, a heirarchy arose. The Sultan would only select 40 to 50 women as his “favorites” and the remainder of the women would act as assistants to the “favorites”. There was then a hierarchy among the favorites depending on whether a woman had given birth and whether the child was a boy or a girl. The first woman to give birth to a son for the Sultan became the Sultan’s legal wife. The first born son would be first in line to become the next sultan. The real power came, however, if you were the mother of the Sultan. This woman controlled the harem, had great wealth and status in the court and often chose the women of the harem.

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Me inside a room in the Harem Topaki Palace

The women of the harem were only seen by the Sultan and the eunichs. The women of the harem were restricted to the buildings of the Harem and the Harem grounds. The Harem consists of multiple bedrooms for the women of the Harem, bathing areas and a pool, the suite for the mother of the Sultan and the Sultan’s suite. The Harem was mammoth, but particularly spectacular were the two suites. Beautiful carved wood. Hand painted tiles. Marble pillars. Stained glass. Gorgeous.

We then moved on to the treasury where there were four rooms: the throne room, a room devoted to Sultans’ gowns, a room devoted to state gifts to the Sultan and the fourth room devoted to brilliant jewels of the Sultan including the famous Topkapi Dagger and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond – an 86 carat stunning, stunning rock surrounded by enormous smaller diamonds – said to be the 6th largest diamond in the world. (I have seen the largest at the Tower of London and this was much, much prettier in my opinion). Unfortunately, as is the norm for many of these place – no pictures.

The final stop at the Palace was the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, which contain many of the world’s holiest Muslim relics. There is a hair, tooth and footprint from Mohammed, the skull of St. John the Baptist and on and on. The rooms were very quiet and made all the more solemn by an imam reading from the Koran.

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Basillica Cistern

Before a very later afteroon lunch we stopped by the Basillica Cistern which is a subterranean water filtration system built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD to supply water to the area. This place was absolutely stunning. The cistern was bathed in redish lights and is supported by hundreds of marble columns with different design and markings. Today it is filled with hundreds of fish. At one end of the cistern you find two huge marble medussa heads that have been inverted, allegedly to ward off the spell of medusa that will result in turning to stone if you look at it – I looked at the medussa heads straight on and am here to tell you I did not “turn to stone” (I will refrain from any ELO reference here in case Terry Clark reads this entry…).

We stopped for a quick lunch (it wasn’t as good as the restaurant Kerem took me to the night before) and we moved on to our final destination, the Haghia Sophia Mosque built by the Emperor Justinian in just 5 years. This place is mammoth and it was incredible to think the Mosque had been completed in just 5 years. An interesting fact – the Mosque was originally a Church and there are a number of frescoes depicting Jesus and Mary, which were gorgeous. The stone work and carvings in the building were outstanding, but my overwhelming impression of the place was “Holy **** this place is HUGE!”

So we left the historic area and decided to do a little shopping at the Grand Bazaar with over 4,000 stalls. Not really my cup of tea (too large and touristy), but I figured what the heck. As Lala and I wondered the stalls, Lala was helpful steering me clear of the bad and directing me to the good. I ended up buying a glass ball that will serve as a Christmas ornament from Turkey because Lala told me that the glass ball will be as close as I will come. (And I am certain she is correct.) We continued on and passed by more jewelry stores and hawkers than should be permitted in one area. I soon learned that blue eyes are apparently a big attraction for the Turks…. “Lady with pretty blue eyes” “Hey lady with blue eyes” “Blue eyed lady look here”… and on and on… give it a rest guys….

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Grand Bazzar

Anyway, Lala and I stopped by a jewelry shop run by a fellow she trusted, and I ended up purchasing a beautiful silver bracelet. I am not much of a silver fan, but this was a really nice piece and he threw in the matching earrings for free. (Yes I really have completely thrown out the window my commitment to only purchase Christmas ornaments).

At this point, I was done for the day so we headed back to my hotel. I grabbed a two hour nap and then went down the street to meet Kerem. It turned in to a terrific night. We set up a blanket with his friends in the Hippodrome with the other faithful and proceeded to have fantastic meal of spicy pumpkin soup (delicious), salad and these flatbreads stuffed with meat, eggplant, roasted pepper and mushrooms (another hit). The only part of the meal I did not like was the spicy, spicy juice drink. I had a couple drinks and could not have any more. I opted for water after that. Dessert (of course) followed with a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on an apple pie like concoction.

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Table of fruits and nuts for breaking the fast

After the meal, we again wandered around and Kerem suggested we go to the Taksim area of Istanbul. This is an area of shops, restaurants, bars (yes they have bars in Istanbul) and coffee houses. Um OK. Why not? So we jumped on the tram and off we went. Turned out to be another great idea. We got off the tram and transferred to the subway for a one stop ride to the beginning of Taksim Square. The air was filled with music – apparently some rock singer in Turkey who is quite famous was putting on a free concert. We stopped and were able to get close enough to watch for a bit before we moved on. (No idea what the guy was singing about, but he was quite good. Later, we stopped in a CD store and Kerem showed me the guys CDs – OK then he really was famous.)

We walked across the street and down the main street in Taksim (I can’t remember how to spell it, but it is the Turkish word for Indepedence.) Anyway, we wandered through the throngs of people and cut back and forth between these really narrow pedestrian alley ways where there were lots of restaurants, shops and coffee houses (and yes the odd bar or two). There were very few tourists. This was where real Istanbul came to gather and hangout. As we walked (it was approximately 3 km from one end to the other) we came across a group of guys singing and dancing some authentic Turkish dance. I asked Kerem if this was a show or if it was real and he said it was real. The guys apparently were celebrating some soccer win and were in a rather happy mood. It was pretty awesome to stand and watch.

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Taksim Square

We ended the walk at the Galata Tower (which I was scheduled to visit the next day) and sat and had Turkish coffee. Oh My God! This stuff is like molasses. Not a fan. By this point I was exhausted and told Kerem it was time to head back to my hotel. We jumped in a cab and were back at in the Sultanhamet neighborhood in about 10 minutes. I was done in, thanked Kerem profusely for being such a kind host and headed off to bed.

Now one of the downsides to the call to prayer… the first call is at sunrise (about 5:00 a.m. presently in Istanbul) so while I find the call to prayer beautiful … at 5:00 a.m. … not so much. Nevertheless, I am now becoming accustomed to waking up, however, briefly, by the various calls to prayer at sunrise and since I am surrounded by mosques in the old quarter there is nothing to do but enjoy. However, It does make getting a good night sleep tough if you aren’t getting to bed until midnight. Sunday would have to be an early night.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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