Turkey – Istanbul

Before beginning my trip, the two countries that I was most nervous for were India and Turkey, and at long last I arrived in Turkey.

For anyone who knows who Zach King/Final Cut King is, he did the in flight safety video for Turkish airlines so I was happily entertained for those 2 minutes.

Adam had given me advice on what to expect and how to cope, so I was more confident when I arrived than I expected. I got a taxi driver at the airport to agree to bring me to my hostel for 50 Lira, and he pretended 4 times along the way that we had agreed to 60. It was confusing as he switched between happy and hostile multiple times. I paid 50 in the end.

The first thing I did in Istanbul is find a good café to spend some time in – Café Rumist. This ended up being the best decision of my time here. I tried pide with lamb on the first day, as well as Turkish tea and apple tea.

I started my first full day there again with Turkish coffee.

My hostel was ideally located in the Sultanahmet area and was a five minute walk to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

I have wanted to see the Hagia Sophia for many years, so I was pretty excited to finally make it there. 

Considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia was originally an orthodox church, then a Christian church, then a mosque, and finally a museum. 

When it was converted to a mosque, rather than destroying everything Christian plaster was used to cover up any depictions of people as this is not acceptable in Islam. Now, as a museum, the plaster is being removed to reveal the Christian art underneath resulting in a strange and beautiful combination of Arabic calligraphy and Christian art.

The ancient city of Byzantium is where the name for the Byzantine (also Eastern Roman) empire comes from. The city was renamed Constantinople after Constantine the Great, and later became Istanbul under the Ottomans.

The Hagia Sophia was a major architectural influence, and matching or surpassing it was the goal of the designer of many other Istanbul mosques such as the Sulimaniye Mosque – Mimar Sinan.

Like Delphi, the Hagia Sophia has its own “centre of the world” where Byzantine kings were crowned.

Since the Hagia Sophia wasn’t constructed as a mosque, the mihrab is not quite centred in order to point towards Mecca. 

I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the current ruler of Byzantium.

The Hagia Sophia was amazing, it was great to see such a beautiful and unique blend of culture in one building.

The Sultanahmet area is impressive because the two ends of the area are marked by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque opposite.

Thats for another day.

The Hagia Sophia required purchasing a ticket, which was worth it, but its tombs were separate and free.

I spent the rest of the day just walking around taking in the sites.

I ended the day, of course, at my favourite café where I was starting to become friends with the waiters.

The next day, I dedicated a lot of time to properly seeing the Topkapi Palace.

The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, ending the Byzantine Empire. With Constantinople as their capital, they went on to become one of the largest empires in history, reaching approximately the same size as the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great. A few years after gaining Constantinople, the Topkapi Palace was built to be the royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans.

It was beautiful everywhere. There is so much detail (and gold) on every surface, exactly what I’d expect a Sultan’s palace to be.

Though Constantinople was the Ottoman capital, Istanbul is not the current Turkish capital. Following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I much of the empire was occupied by the Allied forces, including Istanbul. Ankara was declared the new capital by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who then went on to lead the successful Turkish War of Independence, recovering Istanbul and establishing the modern Republic of Turkey.

Today, the government doesn’t think of Atatürk very fondly and has gone in an opposite direction from many of his policies. The one I personally noticed while there was freedom of speech, as Wikipedia is amongst a number of websites banned by the government. While a minor annoyance for me, it does reflect challenges faced by Turkish people today.

We’re still in the Topkapi Palace, I hope you aren’t bored yet. There was one section (no pictures allowed) of the palace that houses the Sacred Trust – holy relics of Islamic prophets collected by the Ottoman Sultans. These included Moses’ Staff, David’s Sword, and the Blessed Mantle of Muhammad as well as hair from his beard. 

Now that I’ve slowed my pace a little, I appreciated having the choice to dedicate one day to only seeing the Topkapi Palace (between café visits). With so much history and extravagance it was nice to spend the evening afterwards just thinking it over, letting the experience sink in.

I really enjoyed Turkish food, and managed to try a few different dishes in between my many, many cups of Turkish and Apple tea.

The next day I started at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. On this trip it is safe to say that I have seen many beautifully written Qurans, but even so a few at this museum stood out.

The museum also houses the “Damascus Documents,” which are some of the oldest known pages of the Quran, with the oldest of the pages dating back to 876 AD.

Otherwise, the museum held many other beautiful things, including some Turkish rugs.

I think Istanbul went by the European notion that a city isn’t a city unless it has something Egyptian.

After the museum I finally decided to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque.

I was starting to feel pressed for time, and managed to motivate myself that day. I’m more than happy to spend hours in a café, but I wanted to cross off another item that day so I went to the Grand Bazaar.

The bazaar was cool to see, though obviously for tourists. What I found most interesting was seeing waiters wading through the crowds delivering trays of apple tea to different shops.

Leaving the bazaar I found myself in front of the University of Istanbul, and I decided that Canadian universities need more triumphal arches.

Back in the Sultanahmet area I checked out the Yerebatan Cistern, an ancient cistern recommended to me by my friend Ibrahim from the café. It was fun to wander around, with some strange Medusa columns at the end.

The next day I decided to go for a walk to a part of the city I hadn’t explored yet, as I hadn’t been doing my usual long walks with so much to see in my immediate area.

It was a nice change to see some of the quieter streets in Istanbul, and the views of the city across the water were pretty good.

My goal of the walk was to see Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. It was very busy, but it was a good endpoint for my circuit around that part of Istanbul.

Travel can be fantastic: experiencing different cultures, trying new foods, waking up to the melodious sounds of the building outside your window being utterly destroyed.

By this time the highlight of every day was seeing my new friends at the café. Whenever he had time, Ibrahim would sit with me to talk and work on his English. He even taught me a little Turkish, so I was able to greet him each day in his own language.

I had asked another guy there named Salih if there were any Turkish card games, and he invited me out for a day around Istanbul. I happily accepted, and we ended up having a great day starting in Ortoköy.

We then went to a café where he taught me a Turkish card game and I taught him a game in return. It was awesome, and the side of me that only comes out when playing cards was very happy.

We met one of his friends afterwards for tea and I was told to visit the Spice Bazaar before I left, and learned about the architect Mimar Sinan. I learned that while his masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, the Sülimaniye Mosque in Istanbul is considered one of his greatest works.

The night ended at a café with a terrace overlooking the city… and more tea.

On my final day I visited the Spice Bazaar as advised, and liked it much more than the Grand Bazaar. Spice displays always look and smell good.

By the end of my ten days in Istanbul I was reluctant to leave, I knew I was going to miss my friends at the café. I got a picture with them before I left, and I won’t forget them or how special they made my time in Istanbul. Here’s the picture of Salih, me, and Ibrahim. I hope to see them again someday!