Revisiting Istanbul

Revisiting Istanbul

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
― Heraclitus

Returning to Istanbul was not quite what I had anticipated in more ways than one. Despite a period of political turmoil, including a violent coup attempt in 2016 and the seemingly-relentless purging of academics, journalists and opposition figures, I felt comfortable in the city and developed quite a fondness for it. I was reminded of how easy it is to believe our bubble is the universal reality. Unable to understand the language, ‘living’ in a hotel (or expat community) and not having to access public services, reality rapidly becomes distorted. Everything is wonderful, right? On my first morning, I took a walk just as the sun was rising as I wanted to take some photos of the Suleymaniye Mosque from the bridge and hear the call to prayer. A little one, no more than 8 years old, sat huddled next to a open fire as I walked by. I don’t know anything about this boy, where he came from or sleeps every night, what his needs are or how he came to be there. Is he a victim of the vile EU-Turkey Migration deal? Perhaps he ran away from home. I’m ignorant to his story but, clearly, such a small child shouldn’t be roaming the streets alone. How do we help or, like me, do we just return to our bubble and feel frustrated, angry and sad? I’m curious, given the political situation, would you visit Turkey at this time? Generally, do you consider politics and the plight of local people when visiting a country?

But, back to my bubble… Ayasofya was even more awe-inspiring than I recall. Despite having been converted into a museum, a sense of spirituality enveloped me – the altar/mihrab, the stained-glass windows (a favourite architectural feature since childhood), Koranic script joined mosaics of Our Lady and Jesus, the low-hanging lamps and the cats, oh the cats! I could have stayed for hours and, as I’m already planning my third trip to Istanbul, Ayasofya will be my first port of call. Initially, I felt conflicted by the indentations of crucifixes removed at the cathedral’s 15th century conversion to a mosque. Running my cold fingers over the smooth marble, I closed my eyes. A wave of gratitude sweep over me: rather than being destroyed, the building now homes majestic elements of both Christianity and Islam for all to embrace.

I often wonder why we travel. For someone with an ever-increasing fear of flying, I spent an awful lot of time in the air. What are we seeking and why? A tan, an education, escapism from our reality, bragging rights and/or exposure to ‘new’ cultures?  And, importantly (to my mind), how do we represent our own culture and identity as we travel? Moreover, do we have a responsibility to do so? I know this is somewhat controversial, but I believe we do. My concerns have never related to my ethnicity; sometimes my gender and religion come into play but, mostly, I am conscious how people perceive me as a result of being British. I started writing, but it turned into a chapter of a book which has little to do with Istanbul, so more on that later. Back to Ayasofya… In the galleries, there’s a simple marble doorway known as the Gates of Heaven and Hell. A scantily-clad, very young woman posed seductively for a series of photographs. Instantly, I was transported back to the Taj Mahal for yet another episode of I-don’t-know-how-to-behave. I’m a firm believer in people doing as they please within the confines of law. However, it’s my assertion that cultural sensitivity plays a vital role in any travel experience. Turkey, even ‘cosmopolitan’ Istanbul, is a socially-conservative place, and respect ought to be given to the land in which you are a visitor. Besides, I find it most distasteful cavorting around in such a manner in a former place of worship. Thoughts?

You have no idea how much strength it took to stop me from screaming at the top of my lungs whilst visiting the Topkapi Palace. My ceramics obsession was indulged to maximum as I strolled around the former Ottoman Court. Quite frankly, I’m ready to give up life in London and move into the the Baghdad Pavilion (as seen in the two images above). Mesmerising tiling, lush rugs and a genius use of natural light, this small structure is an absolute must-see. Imagining tea, a good book and those tiles. The dream!


As always, spiritual experiences happen when least expected. Shopping is of no interest to me and, as such, the idea of visiting the Grand Bazaar didn’t particularly appeal. But, had we not visited, I wouldn’t have ‘discovered’ the 18th century Nuruosmaniye Mosque. The exquisite delicacy of the glassware and the simplicity of the tiling, particularly after visiting the ornate Blue Mosque, caught me off guard. Tinged in my favourite colour – blue – the carpet hugged my feet and, as if by divine intervention, everything fell silent. I sat down and closed my eyes. A moment of serenity. In recent weeks, I’ve been struggling with some inner turmoil. Reflecting on this very dear moment has been a source of stability and calm, and I remain deeply grateful for it.

Revisiting Istanbul

Revisiting Istanbul

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
― Heraclitus

Returning to Istanbul was not quite what I had anticipated in more ways than one. Despite a period of political turmoil, including a violent coup attempt in 2016 and the seemingly-relentless purging of academics, journalists and opposition figures, I felt comfortable in the city and developed quite a fondness for it. I was reminded of how easy it is to believe our bubble is the universal reality. Unable to understand the language, ‘living’ in a hotel (or expat community) and not having to access public services, reality rapidly becomes distorted. Everything is wonderful, right? On my first morning, I took a walk just as the sun was rising as I wanted to take some photos of the Suleymaniye Mosque from the bridge and hear the call to prayer. A little one, no more than 8 years old, sat huddled next to a open fire as I walked by. I don’t know anything about this boy, where he came from or sleeps every night, what his needs are or how he came to be there. Is he a victim of the vile EU-Turkey Migration deal? Perhaps he ran away from home. I’m ignorant to his story but, clearly, such a small child shouldn’t be roaming the streets alone. How do we help or, like me, do we just return to our bubble and feel frustrated, angry and sad? I’m curious, given the political situation, would you visit Turkey at this time? Generally, do you consider politics and the plight of local people when visiting a country?

But, back to my bubble… Ayasofya was even more awe-inspiring than I recall. Despite having been converted into a museum, a sense of spirituality enveloped me – the altar/mihrab, the stained-glass windows (a favourite architectural feature since childhood), Koranic script joined mosaics of Our Lady and Jesus, the low-hanging lamps and the cats, oh the cats! I could have stayed for hours and, as I’m already planning my third trip to Istanbul, Ayasofya will be my first port of call. Initially, I felt conflicted by the indentations of crucifixes removed at the cathedral’s 15th century conversion to a mosque. Running my cold fingers over the smooth marble, I closed my eyes. A wave of gratitude sweep over me: rather than being destroyed, the building now homes majestic elements of both Christianity and Islam for all to embrace.

I often wonder why we travel. For someone with an ever-increasing fear of flying, I spent an awful lot of time in the air. What are we seeking and why? A tan, an education, escapism from our reality, bragging rights and/or exposure to ‘new’ cultures?  And, importantly (to my mind), how do we represent our own culture and identity as we travel? Moreover, do we have a responsibility to do so? I know this is somewhat controversial, but I believe we do. My concerns have never related to my ethnicity; sometimes my gender and religion come into play but, mostly, I am conscious how people perceive me as a result of being British. I started writing, but it turned into a chapter of a book which has little to do with Istanbul, so more on that later. Back to Ayasofya… In the galleries, there’s a simple marble doorway known as the Gates of Heaven and Hell. A scantily-clad, very young woman posed seductively for a series of photographs. Instantly, I was transported back to the Taj Mahal for yet another episode of I-don’t-know-how-to-behave. I’m a firm believer in people doing as they please within the confines of law. However, it’s my assertion that cultural sensitivity plays a vital role in any travel experience. Turkey, even ‘cosmopolitan’ Istanbul, is a socially-conservative place, and respect ought to be given to the land in which you are a visitor. Besides, I find it most distasteful cavorting around in such a manner in a former place of worship. Thoughts?

You have no idea how much strength it took to stop me from screaming at the top of my lungs whilst visiting the Topkapi Palace. My ceramics obsession was indulged to maximum as I strolled around the former Ottoman Court. Quite frankly, I’m ready to give up life in London and move into the the Baghdad Pavilion (as seen in the two images above). Mesmerising tiling, lush rugs and a genius use of natural light, this small structure is an absolute must-see. Imagining tea, a good book and those tiles. The dream!


As always, spiritual experiences happen when least expected. Shopping is of no interest to me and, as such, the idea of visiting the Grand Bazaar didn’t particularly appeal. But, had we not visited, I wouldn’t have ‘discovered’ the 18th century Nuruosmaniye Mosque. The exquisite delicacy of the glassware and the simplicity of the tiling, particularly after visiting the ornate Blue Mosque, caught me off guard. Tinged in my favourite colour – blue – the carpet hugged my feet and, as if by divine intervention, everything fell silent. I sat down and closed my eyes. A moment of serenity. In recent weeks, I’ve been struggling with some inner turmoil. Reflecting on this very dear moment has been a source of stability and calm, and I remain deeply grateful for it.

Explore | Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore

Explore | Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore

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Last summer I visited Singapore for the fifth or sixth time and, unsurprisingly, once again it wowed me with its diverse culture, delicious food and glorious warm climate. I wish I could return every year but so many places, so little time… Though it seems that these days being religiously affiliated/devoted (in any sense) is somewhat démodé, my personal experiences have always been diverse, inclusive and positive, and when planning a trip, one of the first things I look into is religious architecture. Singapore, with its diverse ethnology and secular society, was no exception and, being such a small country, evidence of its citizens beliefs in Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity, not to mention Hinduism and Taoism, abound. There are also synagogues, which sadly I didn’t have time to visit.

In Chinatown, I visited the oldest Hindu temple – the Sri Mariamman Temple, which has been granted National Monument status due its significance within Singaporean society.  I paid a small entrance fee plus an additional amount (in total less than £2) which permitted me to take photographs. Built in 1827, the temple served as place of community, something it maintains today.  Newly-arrived immigrants sought refuge here, weddings were conducted here and people gathered to share experiences. Today, this continues with the fortunate addition of curious tourists being allow in.

The boldness of the colours and statues stands out, the welcoming nature of the employees and worshipers was just delightful and although I felt completely overwhelmed as people prayed, the priest led his congregation and tourists thronged in and out, I felt what I always feel in a place of worship: peace, happiness and an overwhelming sense that no matter what we believe, we can all be and do good.

Sri Mariamman Temple
244 South Bridge Road
Singapore 058793

Milla’s London: ‘Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam’ at the British Museum

Religion is always a touchy subject and I’m slightly hesitant to bring it up on the blog. Despite my hesitation, I simply have to share the ‘Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam‘ exhibition with you. Firstly though, I must mention that this exhibition is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, who has been heavily criticised by international governments for the huge disparity between the quality of life of the nation and the ruling class, the lack of women’s rights and the severity at which ‘regular’ Saudis are treated should they dare speak up. There has been a lot of press about this and whilst I agree that Saudi Arabia needs to address these issues seriously, I feel we must separate the purpose of this exhibition from the politics.  

Somehow, that isn’t so difficult. The exhibition seamlessly transcends the usual politics and propaganda one tends to associate with any form of organised religion and we get a first class education into what Hajj means to Muslims. The curator’s passion really comes through and we get a deep and unapologetic view into the fifth pillar of Islam. I won’t pretend to know much about the history of this age-old religion but what struck me most was the emotion. People connecting with the heart of their beliefs; the intimacy and symbolism of the pilgrimage is unparalleled, and the enthusiasm with which the British Museum presents this makes it arguably the best exhibition they’ve put on. So much so that I did the tour twice, spending almost 3 hours there. I’ve never seen anything like it. As I watched the hypnotic videos of the Hajjis walking around the Ka’bah, a deep sense of peace came over me. That overwhelming belief and connection not only to your faith but to fellow worshippers is awe-inspiring.

As a non-Muslim, I am not permitted to enter Mecca and given the political climate, I think my chances of going to the Middle East, in the way I would like, are sadly pretty slim. I left touched by the spirituality and with an even stronger view that we must take the politics and agenda out of religion and continue to educate ourselves. Religion should not, in my opinion, be about dictating the lives of others but forming and maintaining a spiritual connection with whoever/whatever we believe in.  

I searched high and low to find a neutral video about Hajj and voilà, the Financial Times offers a brief but insightful breakdown. The exhibition also introduced me to the work of two amazing artists: Ahmed Mater, whose piece (featured above) titled ‘Magnetism’ is as beautiful as it is unique, and Idris Khan, the artist behind ‘You and Only You’.  The exhibition continues until 15th April so if you have a chance to see it, do!

The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London
WC1B 3DG
+44 (0) 20 7323 8299

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