Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Last day of Classes, Good Friday, and the first 24 hours in Istanbul!

First thing’s first: I AM DONE WITH GRAD SCHOOL! I have turned in all my papers, finished all my classes, passed comps, and completed all my presentations. It feels great to come home at night and not have schoolwork to think about. About two months ago, my cousin Cara and I were talking about her upcoming trip to Istanbul. She told me about her great set up and it sounded like it would be a great way to celebrate the completion of my Masters degree. So I bought my ticket for the day after my last class.

After two months of craziness involving much more than just school and work, I am now on the other side and looking at job searching, apartment searching, and just figuring out the next general steps for life. I am so excited to see what unfolds. Since there is very little certainty in my life, it’s probably best I just stick to writing about what I know, and that is mainly what has already happened. So I will do my best to recount the events of my recent trip to Istanbul and include pictures and video where appropriate.

The night before I left, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with some of my favorite William and Mary alumnae (Latin scholars… that means they were all girls!) who came out to celebrate the end of grad school with me. Mer even came from Colorado. Dedication! We danced and kicked back the cocktails to the sounds of the Bandylions, my friend Matt’s cover band. I am a borderline groupie, especially now that they play in Arlington more and not just Adams Morgan. It was a great end to my grad school classes and I felt very privileged to have so many fantastic people around to help celebrate.

I left for Istanbul the next evening. My flight wasn’t until 11pm that night and being Good Friday, I had just enough time to fit in the service at The Falls Church before I left. It was a beautiful Tenebrae service and a reverent send off for the flight. I flew direct to Istanbul. Aside from a very garish color choice for upholstery, the flight was great. I had most of the row to myself and so was able to stretch out across some seats and actually slept which is a major feat for me. I arrived around 4:30pm, got my visa and got on the Havas (pronounced HA-wash) bus to the heart of New Istanbul and the site of my hotel – Taksim Square. Driving from the airport to Taksim, you go under a 4th century aqueduct put in by Justinian. Justinian was apparently a fan of public water works because he is also responsible for the Basilica Cistern, which I will come to later. But then you arrive in this very modern, European square that is crowded, noisy and full of bright video billboards. This is the first very apparent contrast in Istanbul- old and new. You are confronted with it visually first, and the more time you spend in the city the depth of the roots of this contrast become more apparent. Over the course of my trip, I noticed several of these contrasts or clashes that I kept coming back to when I would reflect on the day: dirty vs. beautiful, Islam vs. Christianity, East vs. West, and, as I mentioned, old vs. new. I will touch on all of these in the context of the site which embodies it best in my mind.

After wandering around the square for a bit, then finally asking a parking attendant, I found the hotel and then I found Cara. I will take a moment to say that this trip would not have happened without my awesome cousin Cara, who offered to let me stay with her while she was in the city for work. We had a lovely view of the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait from the room. After I set my stuff down and got cleaned up, we dove into the urban crush of Istiklal Street on a Saturday night to find some dinner. Istiklal is a pedestrian street lined with shopping and dining options that is right off Taksim Square. It’s almost assured you will end up there at some point on any trip to Istanbul. It’s also assured that you will mispronounce its name a LOT before you finally get it down. Cara made the mistake of telling a funny story about a guy she knows who calls it Icicle Street either because he literally can’t say the right way, or doesn’t care to change. From then on, I could not say the name of it correctly. I kept thinking icicle, icicle, icicle.

Turkey is almost 99% Muslim and so the fact that it was Holy Saturday didn’t change the pace of the evening at all. Cara and I between us had been researching where to attend Easter services the next morning. While we did get some good recommendations, the one I really wanted to go to was Aya Yorgi (Church of St. George) which is the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox church. You have probably come across Patriarch Bartholomew at some point. He’s a pretty cool guy as Patriarchs and my limited experience with them go... He’s into environmentalism and an inter-religious dialogue, also social justice. He’s a hero for the marginalized Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul, and rocks a totally sweet beard.

So after Cara went several rounds with a very unhelpful and often misinformed concierge desk at our hotel, I e-mailed the Patriarchate itself. A very nice man, the Rev. Dn. Nephon Tsimalis, wrote me back the following e-mail:

Dearly beloved in the Lord:

I pray my email finds you well and I wish you a spiritually uplifting Holy Week. I always recommend visitors in our City to attend Divine Services at the Ecumenical Patriarchate during this most holy time of year. Of course, the experience at this venerable See is very moving and promises to be memorable. It's an experience of a lifetime. Please attached the schedule of services.

Wishing you the very best, I remain...

And then he signed his name. Who wouldn’t want to spend Easter with a church after that? So Cara and I decided we would try for Aya Yorgi. We had a very yummy dinner of kofte (meatballs) and eggplant kebab, then we caught a cab to the western suburbs of the sprawling metropolis. Our cab driver sort of knew where the church was. He had to stop and ask for directions twice however. We got there a little over an hour before the service was supposed to start. We walked into a small stone courtyard and into a complex of buildings. We followed the stream of people going into the Church. We noticed everyone buying candles and kissing an icon. Cara and I decided we needed to get candles, so we did. The icon kissing we skipped but I did find out later that it was part of the ritual of this particular service. In waiting for the service to begin, we did meet a Greek couple on vacation and they helped us through some of the service when we asked what was happening since it was all in Greek. They were orthodox as well and congratulated us on our participation in such a sacred feast at such a sacred place.

To describe the service would be confusing, because even being there and seeing it all take place, we were a little lost. There was a lot of chanting, two processions, a large gathering out in the courtyard, Patriarch Bartholomew had his candle lit and spread the flame through the entire congregation, and then we all yelled “Christos Anesthi!” and then it was sort of over. The best I could find for an explanation was at this website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Saturday That link gives a little more context about the service itself.

Aside from being a little lost in the actual liturgy of the service, we understood a lot of the symbolic elements of it, like the changing from the Lenten purple robes to white, and the passing of the Eternal flame was explained to us by our Greek friends. It is a tradition that originated at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (which Cara had just visited!). Apparently, in Greece, on Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought by military jet, and is distributed to waiting Priests who carry it to their local churches. The event is always televised and if there's a threat of bad weather or a delay, the entire country agonizes until the flame arrives safely.

One thing Cara and I did notice during dinner and in our hotel was the chocolate stores and gift shops having chocolate bunnies and Easter baskets everywhere. Again, I will reference Turkey’s almost total Muslim population. Is American culture so prevalent that even in a place where Easter means nothing to the vast majority of the population, it’s still important enough to have the chocolate bunnies everywhere? I found that very strange and asked Cara what she had seen around Valentine’s Day (another mostly commercial holiday, in my opinion) when she was in Syria. She said they took it very seriously. I not a big fan of Valentine’s Day, but this Easter bunny stuff in a Muslim country does not make sense to me. Also, I have wondered why a bunny for the harbinger? Wikipedia’s answer doesn’t convince me.

So after the service at around 2am Cara and I went to Istiklal again to try and find ice cream. The street was no less busy than it had been hours earlier. When you walk down Istiklal at any given time it’s like playing a game of frogger to keep from slamming into people, especially when you want to get to a store on the other side of the street. We did find ice cream, and the ice cream scoopers liked us, and we’re pretty sure they gave us free scoops. So with our Easter celebrations behind us, and the whole week in Istanbul in front of me, Cara and I headed back to the hotel and finally went to bed around 3am with big plans for a Bosphorus cruise the next day.

Sidenote - if you are interested in the differences between the Orthodox church and some other Christ-centered religions, here’s a quick comparison chart:

Day 2 – Bosphorus Cruise and Spice Bazaar

After having gone to bed so late, we definitely woke up late the next day. I got up to try out the fitness center at the hotel and had a great time listening to the odd Turkish radio choices pumping at full blast over the stereo. When I got back, Cara and I got ready and then headed out for our first crack at the Istanbul mass transit system and to see what the Spice Bazaar held for us. We enjoyed the cheery tune the turnstiles play when you slide in your token to gain access to the trains. It sounds very much like when you win an extra life in an old school video game. Istanbul is built on seven hills. They are VERY steep hills and the city, in all its modernity, has decided that no one should be forced to walk them if they don’t want to. So you can take these underground funiculars down or up the hills as you please for a mere 1.75TL. Taksim Square is perched on one of these hills but our hotel was very close to the tram stop so transport was a breeze. By the end of the week, Cara had even been convinced to get an “Akbil” which is the Turkish version of a SmarTrip card.

So after hopping on the funicular, we transferred to the tram and got off at Eminönü, the port in the heart of Old Istanbul or the Sultanahmet neighborhood. This is the place where the dirty vs. beautiful contrast is most easily seen. It’s very different down there than up at the top of our hill in Taksim. The smells down near the port come over you in waves. It goes from urine, to fried fish, to delicious bread ring thing, to gasoline and back again. There is trash everywhere and pigeons in every place not occupied by vagrants, but there is a huge and beautiful mosque right next to the port. There is graffiti and salty fisherman hocking their catches all along the historic Galata Bridge leading right to the port area. There is almost constant traffic in the city, both pedestrian and automobile. At the port it is concentrated around a big mosque right near the quay and back into the neighborhoods as you draw closer to the Grand Bazaar. We wanted to do our cruise on Sunday so we stuck close to the boats. We perused the Spice Bazaar which is much smaller than its famous counterpart but which I ended up liking a lot better.

As soon as you enter the very old tile building that contains the bazaar, you smell wonderful things. Your nose is tickled with chilies, saffron, turmeric, roasted nuts, and essential oils of all kinds. The vibrant colors of all the spices in their bins next to the luscious piles of Turkish delight instantly incite hunger. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the Spice Bazaar because neither of us was in the market for its bounty just yet. We did enjoy the feast for the senses and the free samples from street vendors around the market though. Haloumi cheese, fresh sausage, pistachios, dried apricots… I did make a mistake in my eating at this point though. I had seen all these street vendors selling grilled corn, which is one of my favorite things. So I bought one ear before we went into the spice market. It was a huge letdown. The kernels were supremely overcooked, completely overdeveloping the starches. It was rubbery and it didn’t even have that nice grilled taste. Street vendor food fail. Stick with kebaps (or kebabs) in Istanbul - they’re a much safer bet.

We then headed to the docks to see about taking our cruise. We found out there was a boat leaving at 1:30 and we went ahead and bought our tickets. There was surprisingly little detail involved in the tickets and the brochure we were given and so we assumed that it would just be an out and back touristy thing. No no, this was an actual ferry ride and had different stops and you could get on and off at little ports on the Asian and European side of Istanbul. It was a pretty chilly day and while the views from up on top were much better, the wind and the cold drizzle that had started to fall made the upper decks particularly inhospitable. We moved below after about a half hour. We made our way up the Bosphorus Strait as if we were the ball in a game of Pong. I think if the sun had been out we would have seen the deep blue green of the water a bit better. But we saw the buildings and the city really well from the water.

We ended up a good distance north of the city and found out that the boat was going to dock for 2 hours and we had to get off. With this unexpected turn, we decided to hike up to the old crusade fortress at the top of another very steep hill. With no handy funicular to help us, we intrepidly started our hike. That hill was NOT messing around. We did make it to the top and we had some awesome views of the strait and you could even see further up where it opened to the Black Sea. The fortress itself was closed off but the fence barrier wasn’t that great so I climbed over it along with a few other tourists to see what was on the other side. Some nice views, a dilapidated courtyard, and some interesting shallow tunnel works were all that was there. I think the climb over the fence just made it feel a little cooler.

Finishing up at the fortress and very hungry, Cara and I headed back down the hill so we could get good seats for the boat ride home. We had been standing the whole way up. I ran ahead to stake our bench, and Cara got us a fried fish sandwich, which we were told we had to try while in Istanbul. It was good, but I would recommend trying to get one closer to Eminönü port if you ever get the chance. That’s where all the fish mongers are and probably it’s fresher and you’d get more fish to offset the bread. It was still good though. I also had a Turkish grilled cheese sandwich. It probably tasted so good simply because I was going to gnaw my arm off from hunger. The very salty mozzarella-esque cheese they serve here might be haloumi but there’s so many things I ate that I didn’t or couldn’t identify, I can’t be sure.

Finally, partially sated and fully seated, we settled in for the ride back to the main port. We got in some good cousin bonding time, and then we became very quiet. I think the tiredness had set in. We made it back to Taksim, went in search of a late dinner snack, and so dove back into Icicle… I mean Istiklal Street craziness. Cara had to work the next day so we didn’t stay out too late. I had an ambitious day of sightseeing ahead of me as well. I generally planned my days the night before but only once did I end up doing everything I had planned to do and nothing I didn’t plan to do.

One thing that is pretty awesome about Istanbul, being a dessert fiend, is the amazing dessert shops that we found everywhere. They don’t serve anything except dessert! It’s not like the VERY specialized stores you find in DC either. These are no one-trick ponies like the cupcakeries and the fro-yo places, which I love, don’t get me wrong. They serve cakes and pies and puddings and tortes and ice cream, etc. They give you a binder when you sit down, with pictures, and you sort through it all and it’s hard to decide because they all look wonderful. It reminds me of Europe and was somehow refreshing, and also delicious. So again very late we called it a night.

Day 3 – The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cisterne

I started each day at the hotel with a trip to the fitness center. The floor to ceiling windows in the smallish room overlook the square and I found myself able to block out the painfully outdated radio selections just by watching the crazy flow of traffic around the square. The cars weave in and out of each other and the nonsensical traffic patterns of the square itself make for an almost mesmerizing distraction. I also found that when I did put on my iPod, The Hold Steady and Rilo Kiley made my morning that much better and at certain points, the traffic seemed to be pulsing with the beat.

Cara was kind enough to let me have her hotel breakfast because she usually doesn’t have time to eat before work. Well, while breakfast couldn’t replace seeing the original frescoes in the Aya Sofya or steaming in a hamam, it certainly was a fabulous way to start the day. They had acres of food laid out: Breads, pastries, fresh fruit, dried fruit, omelette station, meats, cheeses, an olive bar, cereal, hot entrees with 4 different kinds of sausage, and all kinds of yogurt and toppings. I was thankful to be able to start my day that way. I almost never ate lunch. I would just sail on through until evening. Plus, jet lag screwed up my appetite a little as well. But I always made sure that I ate in the morning, if only just to enjoy the expansive views of the city from the huge windows.

After a hearty break to my fast, I headed out to catch the tram down into Sultanahmet where all the big sites to see in Istanbul are concentrated. I chanced upon a little bit of sun that morning and it’s amazing what a difference it makes with warmth. Aside from these rare sunny moments it was a chilly and grey week for the most part. I had originally planned to start with Topkapi Palace and then work my way to Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, but the Blue Mosque was staring me in the face when I stepped off the tram and so I headed over. I walked up to the enormous building, through the marble courtyard, past the rows and rows of washing stations, the large central fountain, and up to the ornately decorated main entrance. I covered my head with my scarf and removed my shoes, and then I entered this palatial building. Islam doesn’t allow for images of humans to be displayed in their places of worship and so you get the beautiful tiles and elaborate design of the ceilings and walls, and the striking carvings and architecture of the building itself. The magnitude of the building and the vivid colors displayed make it hard to think it was built in 1609. This building is also representative of the next theme of culture clash that made itself readily apparent in just seeing the sites of Istanbul: Islam vs. Christianity. The place where that is most glaringly obvious though is the Aya Sofya, which I didn’t get to until Wednesday.

After the Blue Mosque I went to the Basilica Cisterne, which proved to be an entertaining little slice of history and kitsch, all rolled into one. This building is probably best described by its Turkish name: Yerebatan Sarayı or "Sunken Palace". It is composed of 336 massive pillars of marble and, because it was intended to be a Basilica and then changed to a cisterne in the 6th century under the aquaphile Justinian, has excellent accoustics and a floor entirely covered in water. While the structure alone would have been interesting, more amusing to me was the fact that they were pumping in very creepy music, and had it lit very eerily. What took the cake was Turkey’s answer to the “old timey” photo places they have at amusement parks and towns that lack real tourist attractions. They had a corner of the expansive room set up to look like the den of a harem, and they had belly dancing costumes, sultans robes, and other silly hats and scarves that you could put on and have your photo taken in. It struck me as extremely out of place and reminded me a bit of some of the museums in Africa who wanted to “spice up” their museums with some extra touches that felt completely contrived and out of place.

Up next, Topkapi Palace. I walked over to the huge marble wall with the ornate inscriptions in gold and jade inlaid over the ebony doors. I loved walking through into the pristine courtyards and seeing all the tulips in bloom. Sultan Ahmet was a big fan of tulips and I happened to be in Istanbul during the International Tulip Festival as well as Shopfest! 2011. Shopfest, as far as I can tell, is just a time when they advertise all the shopping in Istanbul and have sales and people are supposed to fly in from all over to pump money into Turkey’s economy. The Tulip Festival is much more pleasing to the senses and easier on the wallet. When a sultan decides he likes something, the people really respond because there are tulips everywhere. They are well cared for, colorful, and artfully interwoven into the major sites and boulevards of Istanbul. Even amidst the grittier parts of the city, you could still find some bold red and yellow splashes peeking out of trash-filled streets and unsavory odors. Another prevalent theme in Istanbul: the juxtaposition of the dirty with the beautiful.

Topkapi Palace would have been a lot more pleasant had there been about one third of the number of tourists. I waited in line for a solid 45 minute to get an entrance ticket to the Palace itself, then I waited another hour for the audio tour rental. They don’t have good signage in the musems and so audio tours are really necessary if you want to know what you’re looking at. They are always an extra charge but worth it. Once I was through those lines, I thought it would be normal walking through buildings and seeing things. Such was not the case. The palace is made of... I would call them compartments. Certain rooms are connected to one another but there are divisions and you cannot walk from one room to another all the way through the house. Learning more about how palace life was conducted it was easier to see why they would build it like that. You need to be able to keep the concubines away from the wives, the men separate from the women, and there is a distinct hierarchy to where one lives in the palace as well. The palace’s best feature is far and away the unbelievable painted tiles and the intricate designs you find to demonstrate both the wealth and power of the sultan. It’s also interesting to see how beautiful the harem is and in the audio guide they talk about the importance of the position of the mother of the sultan. All the women used to compete to have the children essentially so that they would be the mother of the eventual sultan and wield incredible power over the sultan and the government of the country even.

There is also a gigantic diamond housed there called the Spoonmaker diamond because legend has it that someone long ago traded the diamond for three spoons. In another area they house the most holy Islamic relics, the prophet Mohammed’s cloak and sword. I had fun going through the different rooms and it would have been great had it not been for the huge volumes of people and the long waits at every turn. It was worth the trip because the architecture and design elements are beautiful. After Topkapi Palace, I walked around the Sultanahmet neighborhood for a little while. I walked to a mosaic museum in the far corner of the district that was tucked away behind a small bazaar. The mosaics date back to something like 600 AD. There are some pretty hilarious information plaques next to the sections of mosaic they have recovered. You can tell they are done by the archaeologists themselves because the translations are a bit off, and they go into extreme detail about the excavation process, how hard it was, and how much visitors will appreciate the excellent care taken to preserve the tiny tiles. I promise I appreciate the mosaic and the work that went into excavating it for my enjoyment! You don’t have to be a archaeological martyr about it, sheesh.

After the mosaic museum, I was getting tired but still had some time left. I walked up to the neighborhood of the Grand Bazaar and thought whether or not I should dive in to the crush and pressure to buy or not. I decided not to that day, and to save my energy for a more concentrated effort on Wednesday. I hopped on the tram and went back to the hotel. I got back and decided that I wanted to take a trip to the on-site hamam. A hamam is a turkish bath house. Traditionally it involves a large slab of heated marble on which patrons would lay, steam themselves, and then bathe using water spigots in several places around the large marble table in the middle. The one at our hotel was unisex and had small compartments off from the large slab in the middle that had smaller benches around the wall spigot in each. I hung out in the steamy room for a while, then popped into the very deep and very hot jacuzzi tub. Suffice it to say, it was a pretttttty strenuous afternoon.

I met up with Cara and one of her co-workers and we hung out in a room for a while. It was interesting to hear her talk about her work in real time. Usually when she gets back from a trip I only hear a very condensed version of how the trip went and I don’t get the blow by blow stories that a visit to her work site treated me to. I’m not totally sure how much I can say about Cara’s job on a blog, suffice it to say that it’s very interesting and provides for a lot of ups and downs and human interest stories.

We got a little sidetracked chatting and we didn’t end up going out to dinner until about 10pm. It’s not a problem in Istanbul though because the city is still humming well into the wee hours of the morning, even on a weeknight. We were on a mission to find molten chocolate cake (or “kek” in Turkish... which was far and away my favorite foriegn vocab word for the week). We did not succeed during my entire stay despite numerous efforts at at least seven different dessert purveyors. I did get to try some very nice other kinds of chocolate kek in my search and was only disappointed once or twice. One interesting menu item spotted: rice pudding with chicken breast! We had another late night but it’s fine because sleep is irrelevant on vacation.

Day 4 – Chora Church, Aya Sofya, Whirling Dervishes

My day started off with more weird music at the hotel fitness center, another fabulous breakfast overlooking the whole of Istanbul, and a little bit of misdirection from our hotel’s concierge. There is a very out-of-the-way Byzantine church in the western suburbs of Istanbul that was supposed to have wonderful mosaics that I wanted to see. I asked the concierge how to get out there via public transport. She said I should just take the number 87 bus and then she gave me very specific directions for where to wait for this bus. It was easy to find the bus stop she was talking about, but after waiting for a half hour there and seeing every other number bus except the 87, I decided she was wrong. Cara had also told me that they had been wrong or unknowing in other areas before so I decided I should ask someone else and try and find it on my own. Then, I was walking back to the hotel and passing the bus stop that the concierge specifically told me to ignore and there, sitting there just waiting for me to board, was the 87 bus. I hopped on and we started off into the farther reaches of the sprawl of Istanbul.

I quickly realized that I had not really asked any other questions about how to get to this church such as, when should I get off the bus? Hmm. So I went up to the bus driver and started pestering him, which in DC bus culture is strictly taboo. These transactions are also made much more difficult because no one in Istanbul outside the hotel and tourism culture seems to speak much English. So I tried to keep any questions I had to ask people to the bare essentials and use hand motions whenever possible. Example: “Chora Church?” (hand motions: shrug of shoulders and bewildered look on face, followed by pointing to a map). This may have been overkill, but the driver knew what I wanted to know and showed me where to get off so I considered it a communication job well done.

I didn’t spend a lot of time at Chora Church because it is small. If you are planning on a visit to Istanbul any time soon, I would say you could skip this if you’re pressed for time to see other things. However, it is a great break from the bigger attractions and mosaics are some of the most important and historically representative of the Byzantine period. Chora means “land” or “country” in Greek or This church was converted into a mosque during World War II and then later became just a museum. A layer of plaster covered all the artwork and over time earthquakes have taken chunks of them down. And archivists and archaeologists did what they could to salvage what was left. This is the exact same story with Aya Sofya which was next on my list for the day.

Aya Sofya was far and away my favorite building in Istanbul. It’s very similar to Chora Church in its history, and not that much older. The site was dedicated in 360 A.D. (Chora was dedicated in 408), and completed around 520 under Justinian. It has served as a place of worship for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox christians, and Muslims for over 1500 years. It changed to a mosque in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. No services of any kind have been held here since 1931 when it was closed and in 1935 it reopened as a museum. As I mentioned before, this building really embodies the clash between Islam and Christianity that made its mark all over Istanbul. Chora church alludes to it, but really the view you get when you step off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop and turn towards the square is the crux of it. You see two gigantic structures, both shining examples and defining achievements in their respective architecture styles, and each representative of a different religion.

The Aya Sofya has it all inside. The Blue Mosque was always a mosque and still remains so to this day. The renovations done to Chora Church removed the minarets, the mihrab, and the minbar, as well as any other decorations that were added while it was a mosque. Aya Sofya still has the remnants of the battle inside it. When you walk in, you get the audio tour and the tour orients you with the outside of the structure first, asking you to note the minarets, and the outward evidence of different periods of construction which you can see pretty easily, even without an untrained eye. Walking in, you feel the coolness off the marble immediately and the weight of the structure around you. I would guess that there isn’t one piece of that building that doesn’t weigh less than 200 pounds. The huge doors and grates that lead to the cistern below are the most prominent features that lead from the narthex into the main sanctuary. I wish I knew all the technical terms for the parts of the church but I do not and so I ask for leniency with my terminology.

The nave is really where the beauty is. The huge domes, the massive purpose poryphyr pillars, the huge medallions of Muhammed’s relatives’ initials, and the gradeur and history of the structure leave their mark immediately. I can think of few other places where I really do think of the stories the walls could tell, but this place is one. What would the narrative of a building that has its mihrab right underneath a beautiful mosaic icon of Jesus and Mary be? You think of the battles that were won and lost and the people who took shelter here, the conquerors and the conquered that passed through these doors, and you can see the scars on the walls and how each left their own mark. One of the best features of the building for me was in the upper gallery where the vikings left their initials carved in the marble in the balcony. You can only really read the name “HALVDAN” and it dates from the 9th century. But there are other carvings and figures which are possibly older but undeciperable.

Obviously, I loved the Aya Sofya. It’s the building that left the biggest impression on me. I think it’s the best example of the culture clash that defines modern day Istanbul and the best example of what a strategic and interesting seat it holds in today’s Near East and European spheres. I was sad to leave the building but I know that I will continue to think about it as I read more about the history of the region and how events that transpired there influenced present day circumstances.

After the Aya Sofya, I walked back up to the neighborhood around the Grand Bazaar again to see about going to a hamam. I stopped by one that had been recommended to me but found that I didn’t have time to fully enjoy it that day. I decided to hamam (not sure if that’s a verb) the next day walked up to the Grand Bazaar to see if I could get a slight orientation. I spent a half hour there and barely scratched the surface of one of the avenues in the mercantile labyrinthe. I couldn’t stay long because I was meeting Cara for dinner and a whirling dervish show that evening. I met Cara at the tram stop in Sultanahmet and we wanted to go to this place that doubled as a cooking school for dinner. Turns out, they were full and only do one seating at a set time per night but we did stop by and I decided I would sign up for the cooking class for the next evening and Cara would join me for dinner the next day. I had a mezze plate for dinner. When my brother Ben and I were in Egypt we decided that we could live on mezze forever and never get tired of it. I still believe that.

The whirling dervish show was good. I had been told to try and find one that’s less a spectacle and more of a cultural experience. I wanted to know more about Sufism and what goes into the whirling. There were no lights and no grand choreographic measures for this but it was a dual show: turkish traditional music and dervishes. I appreciated getting to hear a little more from the crazy instruments and how the two aspects, the religion and the music support one another. I was amazed at how the participants can spin in one place for so long without getting dizzy, without looking, without moving from their center at all. Whirling dervishes are a particular mystic sect of Islam. Kabbalah is to Judaism as Sufism is to Islam, basically. It’s sort of mandatory to see a Whirling Dervish gathering while you’re in Turkey. It’s also on the Intangible Culture World Heritage list and my UNESCO geekiness mandated it. After the performance Cara and I went to Taksim, found a yummy dessert place and sat around and chatted until it was very late again.

Day 5 – Dolmabahçe Palace, Grand Bazaar, Hamam, Cooking Class

And then it was my last day in Istanbul! I took a little more time in the morning to leave the hotel because my day wasn’t as jam packed as the others had been. I decided I wanted to walk around the city a little bit more and not use public transport very much. That was always my favorite thing to do in Paris. Whenever I had spare time, I would fill it by walking wherever I was going, no matter how far. It helped me get to know the neighborhoods, and get a better feel for different areas. I notice a lot more around me. One thing I got very loud and clear on this day walking around more was that being a blonde in Istanbul makes you extremely conspicuous. I didn’t feel like a target so much as I just wish that I wasn’t so noticeable as a tourist and immediately identifiable as American. In any case, walking around the city felt a little stranger due to that.

I went from the hotel and walked down the steep hill to Dolmabahçe Palace. I didn’t intend on going inside but once I got there, it was just about to open and I thought maybe I would just do it. I am really glad that I did. The tour guide at Dolmabahçe was great. It was so nice not to have to listen to an audio guide and to be able to interact with someone. The Palace is like the Turkish Versailles. It was fun to peruse the opulent décor, chandeliers that weighed two tons, and immaculately manicured lawns and gardens. The Palace is also right on the water with guards patrolling the docking areas. This palace is where Ataturk died as well. No travel blog about Turkey would be complete without a cursory view of Ataturk. He is credited as the founding father of the modern Turkish state, many political, cultural and economic reforms, and Turkish Independence. The best takeaway from my tour was a new phrase: “No mubalaga!” which basically means no b.s. There were a lot of Indian tourists on my tour with me and they struck up a conversation with our guide about the language. I don’t know if this is true or not but Levant said that modern day Turkish is 45% derived from Urdu. Either way, this phrase was a good one and rolls trippingly off the tongue. So fun to say.

After Dolmabahçe I took a long walk to the Spice Bazaar to pick up some souvenirs for family and then I started up to the Grand Bazaar to get a few more. Scarves are the thing to get here. And I began to try and bargain for everything. If I wanted a necklace, I would ask about a discount for two. I would not sit with the merchants, I would not drink their tea. I told them I was there to deal and drove hard bargains. I thought I was doing such a good job. Of course, I wasn’t and was probably just paying the prices they originally intended to get people to pay. I found out later that I went through the entire Spice Bazaar paying the marked prices when I could have been wheeling and dealing my way in there as well. I was sad about that. But it didn’t occur to me that spices or teas would be different from scarves or jewelry. Missed opportunity.

After the Grand Bazaar, I was excited for a real hamam experience. I had a long discussion with my friend from the study abroad office who had given me a heads up about the full hamam experience. I was glad for this preparation because I think it’s a little easier to go for it if you know what you’re getting into before it happens. I went to the Çemberlitaş Hamam and signed up for a scrub and a massage. I had never done anything approaching a spa experience so everything was new to me. It’s a beautiful room and very nice inside. They had mostly tourist clientele. When you walk in, depending on your service, they give you a towel and everything else you need. And you get a locker you can use to keep your stuff in. I had a very relaxing afternoon and even felt like I got a real cultural experience as well. I maybe wouldn’t have done it otherwise since it’s not really my style but it was fun and new. I’m leaving out some details so if you go to Turkey and want to hamam, let me know and I’ll give you my full story run-down so you can be prepared.

I was thoroughly relaxed and shiny with oil by the end of my time at the hamam and it was time for me to go to my Turkish cooking class. There is this place in the Sultanahmet neighborhood called Cooking Alaturka which is run by a Dutch lady who studied in Istanbul, fell in love with it, and moved back after university and started a life there. She used to be in the hotel industry and is writing a book about it but she currently teaches Turkish cooking to tourists and I had a great time learning from her! We had quite the menu. We started off with zucchini patties, green beans in olive oil in tomato puree, and yoghurt soup. The main course was called Sultan’s delight, which is a large pot of vegetables and meat slow cooked with Turkish spices and red pepper paste, a smoked eggplant puree in béchamel sauce, and for dessert we ate quince stuffed with apples cooked in vanilla and cinnamon syrup. It was a delicious meal and so fun. I would recommend this for anyone traveling alone as it was a great way to meet other travelers and a fun, communal way to spend an afternoon. We had a great time cooking together, and eating together was a great opportunity to trade information about what to see and do. It was here that I found out I could bargain at the spice market and that I probably should have looked for a more local, less well advertised hamam. Randomly, a guy at the class went to Duke with Cara and they knew each other. Small world! So after we all ate and drank together to finish our evening Cara and I caught the tram home. It was a great finish to my stay in Istanbul. I was excited to go home the next day because I felt like I just put my life and all its big decisions on hold for a week. It was a fantastic break and I feel like I did the right thing going.

Istanbul is an incredible city. And the rest of Turkey is definitely on my list for places to see. I’ll have to pump Cara for information on Cappadochia, Gallipoli, Chalcedony, Izmir, Ankara and other sites. Sigh. So much to see in this world. My flight home was great, uneventful other than another random meeting with a friend of a co-worker who had been traveling in Istanbul as well. What a great trip! Many thanks again to Cara and all the people who gave me great advice and guidance for my time there.

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