After leaving Antalya in the south of Turkey, Phil and I were off to Istanbul. I was equal parts nervous and excited for the trip. After getting used to the relatively laid back vibe of Antalya, I knew Istanbul was going to be intense. At least we would have a larger hotel room in Istanbul than we’d had in Antalya. Our room in Antalya was very cozy, consisting of a full bed, a closet, a desk and a chair all in about 75 square feet, though we did have a small balcony, which was nice. We were very much looking forward to spreading out in Istanbul and having a bit more space to decompress from our days navigating the densely populated city.
The taxi ride to the hotel was long; the driver drove way too fast and frankly, at times, seemingly dangerous, but a friend who lived in Istanbul for a few months told me when she first took a taxi in Istanbul she thought she was being punked due to irradic driving. When we finally arrived at our hotel we found that we had misjudged the size of the room based on the website pictures, and it was in fact even smaller than our room in Antalya. Oof.
Well, Phil and I have gotten used to close quarters so what was another 15 days? The nice fellows at the hotel put a small table in the corner of the tiny room at our request so at least one of us had a place to sit and type or eat, or just relax in a place that wasn’t the bed. The hotel also has a common area downstairs and a rooftop terrace (with a lovely view of the Bosphorus Strait) so at least we had a couple options for getting some more free space.
I also found a great coffee shop only a five minute walk away that I visited a few times by myself. I love espresso and I like turkish coffee but after spending so much time in the lands of small coffee, I wanted a large Americano; not nescafe or other instant coffee. I wanted a super tasty, good quality big ol’ cup of coffee, dammit. And I got it (several times)! God bless you, North Art Coffee. If you find yourself in the Sultanahmet Square area of Istanbul (and you will if you visit) I highly recommend it.
Enough about your hotel and weird coffee obsession, Jess. Tell us about Istanbul. Ok, ok. Our first two days in Istanbul we bought a turkish rug and almost converted to Islam (Istanbul is going to eat these two impressionable midwifeterns alive!). Alright, so I’m exaggerating a little. I mean, we did buy a turkish rug. That is a fact (Phil talks about it here). We also visited Suleymainye Mosque (upon the recommendation of our rug salesmen) and talked at length with a volunteer there about his faith.
As we walked around the lovely mosque, a fellow approached us with a volunteer badge around his neck and introduced himself as Ahmet. He explained that he was a member of the mosque, a medical doctor by trade, and a volunteer. He asked if he could tell us a bit about Islam and we said of course. I for one, knew very little about the religion. I enjoy learning new things and given that I was in a country where 96-99% of the population identify as Muslim (and the fact that I am a citizen of the world) it felt right to expand my knowledge of the subject.
We talked to Ahmet for at least an hour, learning the basics of Islam and just how much it overlaps and intersects with Christianity and Judism. Muslims believe that Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad were all God’s prophets, Muhammad being the last and final one. They believe the Bible and Torrah are holy books along with the Quran. They even believe in the immaculate conception and virgin birth. In fact, just as the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he appeared to Muhammad. While we weren’t quite ready to convert (it’s not you, it’s me and my distaste for organized religion at large) after our conversation, we did enjoy talking with Ahmet.
In addition to the fine conversation and beautiful mosque itself, the garden area outside of the mosque offered lovely views of the city. They also had a separate Garden that housed the tomb of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificient, the longest reigning Sultan and his favorite wife, who converted from Orthodox Christianity, Hurrem.
Prior to our trip to Istanbul, I had never been to a mosque. The ones we visited in Istanbul were each beautiful. Having visited many, many (many, many, many) Catholic churches throughout Europe it was cool to view the mosques in contrast. The lack of pews or seating of any kind (you sit on the carpet, or kneel when praying) highlight the tall, interior domes with brightly painted ceilings. Muslims do not have any imagery in mosques (why replicate what God has made perfect), rather beautifully painted ceilings and columns along with prayers written in Arabic (the language the Quran was written in) calligraphy hung throughout the qubba (dome). Another mosque feature that really struck me are the low-hung chandeliers. Simple yet beautiful and mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
Because we were in Istanbul for so long, we were able to revisit the famous Hagia Sofia mosque several times as it was very close to our hotel. Our first visit was with our friends Rob and Amanda, whom we met in Antalya. That visit was extremely crowded and a bit rushed as we had to wait so long to enter and they needed to catch a flight back to London soon after. While we were there, however, Phil overheard a tour guide telling some ladies that you can come back at night around the nine o’clock prayer time. Typically, tourists are not allowed in mosques during prayer time so this bit of information was quite helpful. We also wouldn’t have thought to return at night, assuming it would be closed.
Twice we returned at night, once toward the end of prayers and once after. Anywhere you are in the city, one can hear prayers from the loud speakers atop mosque minnerettes five times a day; at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night. It was cool to be inside of the mosque as the prayers were being recited. Both times we visited Hagia Sofia at night, it had a very calm and welcoming feel. People walked around, snapped photos, others stood, and many sat on the carpeted floors. Kids ran around, laughing as family and friends talked quietly. Tourists are not allowed in the areas reserved for prayer so those seeking that connection still have privacy and a relatively quiet place to pray. We enjoyed our nighttime visits, sitting on the carpet, feeling tranquil, and taking in the beauty of the mosque.
Across from the Hagia Sofia is the equally famous, Blue Mosque. Unfortunately for us, it is currently under a major renovation. It is still open to tourists and for prayer but those seeking to take in the ceilings and grandness of the mosque have nothing really to see. I was able to snap a quick pic of the only piece of the ceiling that wasn’t completely covered by scaffolding and tarps.
Another of my favorite places we visited in Suntameht Square was the Mosoleum of Sultan Ahmet that houses the tomb of three sultans and thirty-three sons and daughters of the sultans. It was bright and stunning and had the low-hung chandeliers that I like so much.
Though Istanbul has more to offer than just mosques and tombs (much, much more in fact). Stay tuned for my next post and I’ll tell you more about the magical city that is Istanbul.