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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.