The city of Istanbul is many things, but boring is not one of them. After two and a half weeks of living in the city, there are still areas I have yet to explore even though I spend my days walking around town for miles at a time. Of all the wondrous things I experienced during my visit, nothing was quite as unique as the view from across the Galata Bridge in the middle of town.
Looking back at the old town of Istanbul from the other side of the Golden Horn is a sight that I will never forget. Rising from among the densely packed crowd of apartments and shops are seven giant mosques, each with its own personality and architectural style. After nearly six months of traveling I've gone from a city like NYC full of skyscrapers to an ancient metropolis full of needle-like minarets. While the old town that lies before me appears small from a distance, it could easily take a lifetime to fully explore this small part of the world.
My adventures in Istanbul are far too numerous to cram into a single post, but it all began with a day of the usual tourist attractions. With my newly minted friend from the hostel, Alex, we set out to explore the Topkapı Palace that for 400 years housed the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. While the entry fee is exorbitant, we spent the afternoon wandering the complex that once housed nearly 4,000 people. The palace now stands as an enormous museum full of artifacts, ancient weapons, and jewel-laden gifts to the sultans over the centuries. Alex and I easily spent three hours wandering the grounds and while each of the museums were fascinating in their own right, the architecture and beautifully detailed gilded calligraphy plastering the wall of these structures mesmerized me above all else.
From the Topkapı Palace, we headed to the nearby Basilica Cistern. The giant subterranean water reserve was built in the 6th century and stands as largest, and oldest, cistern in all of Istanbul. I would recommend skipping the cistern as it is a giant tourist trap, but since I coincidentally just finished reading the book Inferno by Dan Brown so I had to check it out (the Basilica Cistern plays an important role in the book). The Cistern is extremely straightforward and consists of giant underground space filled with reused marble columns and two feet of water with a few fish. Unless you are adamant about seeing the famous Medusa heads or have some fetish for old roman columns (like me) I'd go elsewhere.
Here’s a picture - now you've seen it. I just saved you ₺20 (~$9).
Unimpressed by the Cistern, Alex and I headed to the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It is frequently referred to as the “Blue Mosque” thanks to the blue tiles that adorn the building's interior, but I didn’t see nearly enough blue to warrant the nickname. Naming aside, this cavernous structure has one of the most visually appealing interiors I have ever seen in a house of worship. Every single square inch of the walls, column, and domes are covered in elaborate calligraphy and intricate designs. Sadly much of it is obscured by the myriad of wires hanging from the ceiling that suspend the numerous large chandeliers, but it is a small price to pay for such an incredible building. While not socially acceptable to do so, I could easily have laid on my back and just stared up at the ceiling for hours as if I was stargazing.
Instead, I just got a neck ache.
In the Sultan Ahmed Mosque there is a barrier blocking the tourists from the main prayer area, but both Alex and I wanted to walk around and explore the interior more. Since neither of us knew the first thing about proper mosque etiquette, we were fearful of inadvertently committing a serious faux pas and pissing off the worshipers. We stood by the entrance debating what to do when a complete stranger, Zoheb, overheard us and offered to guide us past the visitor barricade.
Talk about perfect timing.
Originally from Canada, Zoheb was returning from a trip to India and had a layover in Istanbul for a couple days. Thrilled at the opportunity to venture into this unknown territory, Alex and I accepted his offer and Zoheb took us through explaining the "dos and don'ts" of mosque etiquette. For example, I was unaware it is impolite to cross between a person and Mecca while they pray.
For twenty minutes we sat chatting about the basics of Islamic faith and talked about our own travels when the call to prayer began echoing high above. Little by little people trickled into the main chamber and Zoheb asked if we wanted to leave before the prayer started, but Alex and I were eager to participate as long as it was permitted. Smiling, Zoheb took us to a corner of the mosque out of the way of the more dedicated worshipers and we lined up as the imam began reciting text from the Quran. While entirely incomprehensible, I savored the unique tones of the foreign language and the eloquent vibrato of the Imam’s chant. For the next few minutes, Alex, Zoheb, and I followed along with the group as they all stood, kneeled, and bowed in lock step. We repeated the process four times and while the mechanics are basically the same as in Catholicism - just swap the bowing for sitting - the fact that the prayer only lasted a few minutes instead of an hour was fantastic! Point Islam!
Although having to pray five times a day is really inconvenient.
On second thought, we’ll just call it a draw.
As I am not a religious man, praying in an Islamic mosque was never an item on my travel bucket list, but I’m thrilled to mark it off - and of all places to experience the prayer we got to do it inside the gorgeous Sultan Ahmed Mosque! What’s most surprising is that this still wasn’t even the end of my first full day in Istanbul, but since I'm beginning to write small novels and passing them off as "blog posts", the rest of my trek will have to wait for the next post.
Sonra görüşürüz! (See you later!)