Trying to Make Sense of Istanbul

Trip Start Sep 09, 2013
Trip End Dec 16, 2013

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Where I stayed
Hanedan Hotel Istanbul
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Turkey  , Istanbul Province,
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

We returned from our week in the peaceful Turkish countryside to the frenetic rush of Istanbul, a city of 14 million people (approaching 20 million when including the greater metro area). From a Canadian perspective, that's more people than ALL of the provinces and territories outside of Ontario and Quebec. In one city. Woah. It literally takes hours to get from one side of the city to the other because of the volume of traffic - by day or by night - it is always "rush hour" it would seem.

The city, formerly known as Constantinople of course, is steeped in more than two thousand years of history, equal in scope and grandeur (though not quite as ancient) to that of Rome, or Athens. The most important trade routes, by sea and by land, between Asia and Europe came through Istanbul, and the ancient Persians, Macedonians, Greeks and Romans all defended it's location in their time, on the strategic Bosphoros Strait. It was a world city well before Prague, London or Paris were anything but villages. Everywhere you look there are historical wonders. At one time, the entire Roman empire was ruled from here, and the great Hagia Sophia was erected as the Holy See of Eastern Christendom (Byzantium) when that empire divided. Later, the Ottomans conquered and ruled from grand palaces here, for six centuries, erecting beautiful mosques, solidifying the Islamic faith as a world religion, and governing a surprisingly progressive empire (by feudal standards). This history built the foundations of the modern Turkish state which emerged, with revolution, in the aftermath of World War I.

There are no straight roads in the old city, nor even in the 'new city' (which is hundreds of years old). It's easy to get lost, and we did. Lots of times. There are outdoor and indoor markets in every neighbourhood (not just in the famous Grand Bazaar) and at each one someone will try to sell you a carpet, some knock-off name brand clothing, a hookah pipe, or Sahlep ( a delicious creamy hot drink). Apparently the hawkers and hustlers can sniff out Canadians - our hostel concierge warned us that our countrymen are far too polite and are known as easy marks. This is probably the same reason so many Canadians end up owning time share condos in Mexico, and the same reason we ended up paying someone 10 lire (about 5 bucks) to 'help' us find a recommended restaurant (it was one of the times we were lost).

My western sensibility - or perhaps sensitivity - was challenged by this at times; the smiling faces of the men who would strike up conversation and offer me tea only to turn around and try and sell me a carpet, or a tour, or a leather jacket. Their approach is dogged and persistent. Though I may not appreciate the style, I have to concede that in every culture, the job of the business man is to separate you from your cash. And so it goes. Be polite, be assertive, no thanks.

On another occasion, I was visiting the Suleymaniye Camii (Sultan Suleyman's Mosque, which is every bit as beautiful as the Blue Mosque) and happened to be in the visitor's section when prayers began. I was not the only visitor in the mosque ('camii' in Turkish) at the time, there were many Turks wandering around like me, jaws agape in amazement at the grandeur and serenity of the site. However, I was clearly the only foreigner - and the government employed security guard singled me out. "No visitor, prayer time," he said curtly, and kicked me out. Outside, I waited (just a little peeved) as Turkish tourists continued to file into the visitors section unimpeded. Finally, I plucked up the courage and walked back in. I found a spot at the back of the visitors section, between two Turkish families.... just to blend in... as if.

Having never been in a mosque before, I felt a little self-conscious as the Imam began the sung prayer - so I just closed my eyes. Having never heard Muslim prayers before, other than the distorted ones through the loudspeakers on the minarets of every mosque, I was at first surprised and then astounded by the beauty of what I heard. I did not hear the words, which I couldn't understand anyway, but only the ephemeral intonations of the soul - the pleading, lonely, tired heart - my heart, longing for release. I like to think of myself as open-minded, and now I was being carried in song, challenged to be open-hearted - confronted by my own fears and prejudice of this faith - and these people - about which I know almost nothing. The architecture and splendour of the domed mosque, such a feast for the eyes, is clearly and finely tuned for this moment of the soul. I was deeply moved.

Outside the mosque, Istanbul raced on.
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