Explore | Istanbul – First Impressions

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I often reflect on what my expectations say about the tiny, orderly bubble-of-one I live in, and Istanbul was no exception. The stakes were high as I had intended it to be a gentle introduction to the Middle East. I had read so much about Turkish ceramics, craved the pickles I’d sampled here in London and looked forward to exploring a city of beauty and religious diversity. Against the backdrop of an increased terrorist threat, complaints of religious pressure and the majority of people saying “I wouldn’t go somewhere like that”, I applied for my visa online, packed a small bag, and off I went to finally experience the wonder of the Blue Mosque.

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However, things didn’t quite go as expected. My experiences before I even got through passport control were less than welcoming; the chap at passport control threw my passport at me. Deep breaths.  Stepping out of the airport I was engulfed by a thick, cough-inducing cloud of tobacco smoke, people spitting everywhere and this incessant hooting of taxis. My taxi driver chatted away on his mobile phone as he puffed cigarette after cigarette on the seemingly endless motorway. The traffic was heavy, loud and chaotic but every now and then I would catch a glimpse of a minaret over the hills and feel a wave of peace come over me. I would finally get to explore Istanbul’s mosques, eat a kebab (such a tourist!) and see a place I learnt about by ogling its porcelain at the V&A. Complaining because a city in a foreign country is different to what I know and love seems ridiculous to me. Almost as ridiculous as not sharing one’s true feelings… Istanbul is not my city; I don’t know the rules and, as a tourist, I needed to relax and take it for what it is, one day at a time. 

I have never been so happy to get out of a taxi! The hotel, so clean, smoke free and with a smiling face greeting me was such a relief.  I walked in and within 5 minutes, I was in my room, where I had a wee cry. Shattered expectations. Anyway… Whenever I travel, I always contact the hotel to ask for a yoga mat to be placed in my room. Like many people, and maybe more so as a solo female traveller, I struggle to sleep in hotels and often do a gentle yoga practice in these moments of insomnia. The only time I slept well whilst travelling was on a Junk Boat in Halong Bay, despite being certain it was going to sink! For my first night, I stayed at the House Hotel Galatasaray: the gentleman on the reception desk explained that he had upgraded me to a Junior Suite because it was quieter for my yoga practice. This is service.  Even yoga wasn’t enough to help me that night – I opted to calm my nerves with a martini in the hotel bar, where I met a lovely Turkish lady whom happened to be enjoying cocktails with her friend.

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In the morning, full of excitement, I ate a light breakfast before rushing out discover my new neighbourhood. Being late December, it was cold but the blue sky dazzled and I was finally able to explore a place I’d read so much about. I visited St. Anthony of Padua Church to enquire about Christmas Day masses, climbed Galata Tower for spectacular views of the sprawling city, completely in awe of its size, the glistening strait and the enormous mosques dotted around. There were a few school groups too; I cannot speak Turkish but the children I encountered were extremely polite, calm and engaged with their teachers, and it was a delight to watch their little faces as they saw their city from a different perspective for the first time. What a shame we often lose that sense of wonder as we age. The sun shined upon me as I made my way through the cobbled stone streets towards Galata Bridge, where fishermen chatted amongst themselves as the tram whizzed by, people rushed across and tourists like me crawled by at a snail’s pace, taking photographs and getting in everybody’s way.

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As I neared the end of the bridge and approached the Bazaar Quarter, I heard the Call to Prayer for the first time. I was terrified! I thought it was an announcement or warning as it seemed to echo (it was in fact from other surrounding mosques) but nobody else seemed concerned. I noticed a gentle stream of people heading into the New Mosque, and soon figured out what was going on. Within a few days, against the backdrop of exquisitely-designed and maintained mosques, I came to appreciate this call and the meaning it has for Muslims. I feel grateful to the universe I was able to have such an experience. Religious rules and rituals fascinate me, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit some such an array of mosques, churches and a synagogue, and indulge my fondness for religious architecture. This exploration greatly aids my desire for a deeper understanding of our different beliefs, but more on religion later. 

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The spice bazaar next to the New Mosque was a feast for the senses: cardamom, sumac, fennel and spices I’ve never heard of. The selection of dried fruit, sugar syrup infused pastries, ornate tea sets and ladies juggling babies and baskets was unique. I loved the scent of pickled chillies infused with freshly-roasted coffee beans from across Africa and the Middle East; suddenly you see names of countries only mentioned when talking about war and misery yet here, in a market,  you are reminded that life goes on, people work and breathe and, in some little way, we can help them. I sampled everything I could until I reached the point where I needed to stop eating or return to my hotel and put my yoga leggings on and return, but that’s not really my style.

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At the end of the first day, I switched to another hotel – House Hotel Bosphorus – where I stayed for 4 nights, and discovered my favourite mosque in Istanbul, met some interesting local people who informed me “we are not ISIS” – a comment I also (sadly) heard in Iran – and sampled some pretty good beer. Istanbul is heaving, very loud, people are suspicious of you (and baffled by why you would visit Istanbul now, at this troubled time)  and, dare I say, aggressive.  By the same token, I also experienced help and kindness from people I did not share a language with – the ladies who helped me take a bus when I decided to have an adventurous moment, the random young man who advised me not to walk alone at night (and he was right, as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable even in daylight) and the volunteers at the Süleymaniye Mosque who made me feel very welcome. The paradoxical nature of Istanbul has me debating whether or not to return but, at least for now, my memories (and the 2000+ photographs I took) will have to suffice. 

Coming soon: Exploring Istanbul’s religious architecture. 

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8 Comments

  1. maryna
    8 May 2016 / 09:09

    I feel incredibly blessed to be living in London when I know how bad it is for the women in Turkey.

    “I grew up at a time where Turkey was quite secular and where girls were really seen as equal to boys in schools.
    Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the opening ceremony of a school in Ankara (18 November 2014)
    Image caption
    Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of authoritarian tendencies – but he remains popular
    “So many changes happened. So many people from the rural areas moved to Istanbul and to the major cities with different expectations and with different visions of what they wanted and what they needed. There is [now] a new conservatism – a new religious conservatism – which makes it more difficult for women, I think, in contemporary Turkey.”

    So so sad to read this. I go to Germany a lot the majority of the Turkish population there has integrated quite well, but there are still people who refuse to allow girls on school trips by themselves !

    Turkey needs to step up and put less emphasis on religion and more emphasis on compassion, tolerance and women’s rights

    • Not Just Another Milla
      Author
      8 July 2016 / 16:24

      Exactly! Often we need to remember how lucky we are to live in our little bubbles of relative safety.

      The thing is most religions are based on tolerance and compassion, and women have a leading, nurturing role. This idea of being slaves and solely there to gratify women is nonsense but, sadly, popular. Change is in the air but I cannot say I like it. Just look at what is happening in the Philippines, UK and US – aggressive and ignorant potential leaders who are as popular as ever. Who would have thought the likes of Duterte and Trump would make it this far? People need to stop watching mainstream, politically-motivated media and read a book, understand the economy, learn about discrimination and human rights, and see what is at stake. I am worried about the world we live in.

  2. 8 May 2016 / 17:59

    I’ve always wanted to visit Istanbul. Great post and beautiful photos. It’s interesting to read about your first impressions there..I’ll keep them in mind when I finally get to visit and will see if I feel the same!

    http://www.leftbanked.com

    • Not Just Another Milla
      Author
      8 July 2016 / 16:14

      Thanks, Tiffany! Things are intense in Turkey at the moment; please wait until things calm down (for your safety). I would love to hear your views. Do you still live in Canada? Thinking of visiting next year…

  3. 11 May 2016 / 01:37

    Istanbul looks absolutely breathtaking! A couple of hits and bumps aside, you look like you’ve thoroughly enjoyed yourself! *adds Istanbul to ‘to visit soon’ list*

    PS: I couldn’t fall asleep at all in the junk to Halong Bay! How did you manage to fall asleep?

    • Not Just Another Milla
      Author
      8 July 2016 / 16:12

      I would love to advise you to visit Istanbul but… I don’t know. It’s just not safe enough right now. The airport was the safest I’ve ever been to – you cannot enter without being scanned (maybe you have something similar in KL) – but look what happened. I know people will say that it’s fine, still go and, of course, you must do what is right for you, but I say wait a while. As I wrote, I didn’t feel 100% safe during the day time. I don’t know, Aggie…

      RE Halong Bay: Really? It was the best night’s sleep of my life! My house is pretty quiet but this was pure silence. Loved it! Were there many people on your boat?

  4. 4 July 2016 / 10:30

    I have to agree with much of what you said Milla. Turkey as you have conveyed is a place of paradoxes. I am not surprised at your first encounter at the airport, though that was not mine. Sometimes as you have stated Turkish people come across as aggressive when they really are just very very and I do mean very impatient people. That is where the ‘aggression’ lies. With that said, I can’t think of a place where the cuisine and experience of Islamic culture is not more beautiful than Turkey.

    It is by far the best introduction to Middle Eastern life. And yes it certainly has gotten more conservative over the last five years or so. Even with a young population, the emphasis on ‘the way things were’ is more important than ‘the way things could be’.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Not Just Another Milla
      Author
      8 July 2016 / 16:01

      I’ve experienced culturally-different people across the world and in my city but, at least for me, it was less about difference and more about aggression. It seemed particularly pronounced against the backdrop of the city’s exquisite architecture. I have a very limited experience in the Middle East and with Islamic culture but I felt welcome in all of the mosques I visited, as I did in the churches and synagogue. Sadly this sentiment does not seem to be shared by local, non-religious/secular people. I think it’s really important to emphasis that conservative and extreme are not the same thing, as I’m sure you’d agree. The issue now is that, the media aside, many scholars now argue that the balance has now shifted towards extremism within the political institutions (and general society).

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