I first travelled to Istanbul in 2015 and, although I had some initial difficulty, I soon became spellbound by the richness of the city. Last week I returned for the third time, and promptly headed to the 19th century Ortaköy Mosque. In fact, I booked the same hotel as always, just to be close to this beautiful place. My days started with the muezzin’s lyrical call to prayer and ended in a similar fashion. Simple pleasures.
The first time I visited, I was a little anxious. This was the first mosque I had visited outside of France and England, and I didn’t want to inadvertently commit a faux-pas. I entered the women’s section, which was effectively a cupboard. No, that wouldn’t do. I wanted to see the interior of the main hall but my desire to see and explore pales in comparison to my conviction about respecting other people’s beliefs and practices. I stood at the door observing when a gentleman smiled and ushered me in. I still recall sitting at the back of the mosque wondering how such beauty existed and I was only just discovering it. A terrifying moment of realising how little I know about and have seen of this world.
On my most recent trip, I visited the mosque every day. It amazes me that despite the chaotic and noisy environment outside, the moment you step into the main hall, you cannot hear a sound. I’m highly sensitive to noise and don’t enjoy crowds (and I definitely prefer Istanbul in the winter), so these moments were particularly treasured. The restrained extravagance of this tiny mosque perfectly complimented by the changing natural light as faithful arrived to express their beliefs. Moments such as these afford a time to reconnect and, for me, a time to delve deeper into my being and focus on what is truly important. In a world of constant distractions and superficialities, I truly appreciate the purity of these moments.
The more I travel, the more I realise that it’s not about ticking boxes or going to the top 5 places as listed by guidebooks or fellow travellers. It’s not about the too-cool-for-school hotels or bars. For me, it’s about spending time in places that feed my soul. Places which offer a deeper connection and, quite simply, feel good: places of worship and the mountains, mostly. Sitting on my hotel balcony as the sun rose over the Bosphorus Bridge and the mosque as the faithful prayed, I was once again reminded of how fortunate I am. I don’t know if I am the luckiest woman in the world, but I often feel like it.