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