Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

Survival instinct kicks in soon after I first arrive in a new city. My one thought is of securing food and shelter, and I am struck with a peculiar focus that blocks out anything irrelevant to these two necessities. Every building fades into a grey haze except the tourist information booth and the road leading to my hostel. I smell nothing, hear nothing, and see nothing until I place my bag on the bed.

My train arrived in Istanbul early in the morning. As I navigated my way through the colorless fog to my pension, I assumed that I was walking down yet another cobblestone street, instinctively prepared for more baroque churches. It was only during my shower that all of my sensory functions began to whir again. Hunger was whirring the most noisily, so I took a short walk to find breakfast. I found a small cafe near the central park and settled down to breakfast, preparing to explore yet another European city.

And then I heard the call to prayer.

The Hagia Sophia began first, lifting its voice in notes never heard in Western music, breaking all the rules of ordered sound in the first cry. The Blue Mosque soon took up the call. Back and forth these religious strongholds wailed, dueling with chants that streaked across the sky and swirled around the minarets.

And then it suddenly stopped.

With the voices still echoing in my head, my neck prickling, I realized that I had left Europe as I knew it. The cliche is that Turkey is where East meets West, and, although I have never been too far east and cannot truly test the truth of this, the country strikes me as an amazing blend of eastern and western cultures that I didn't think existed. The population is 98% Muslim, but rather than stereotypically conservative it is very western-inclined. Most women go about in hip, albeit modest, urban wear, with only a casual headscarf to remind you of their background. The Arabic script was usurped by the Latin one when Turkey became a republic in 1923. Turkish government is, constitutionally, strictly secular. And, although mosque spires take the place of church steeples, Istanbul has all of the trappings of a modern city, with Gucci advertisements, lovely parks, a slick lightrail, and posters for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Eastern exoticism remains, however. I arrived in Istanbul in time for the final days of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, and it was an unforgettable glimpse into a world far away from anywhere I had been. During the ninth month of the Islamic calender, called Ramadan, many Muslims fast during the daylight hours. At sundown, however, they are allowed to eat again. In Istanbul this means going to the hippodrome (the main park in the city) for a grand ol' party after the coach buses have carried the tourists away. Underneath Egyptian, Greek, and Byzantine columns, glowing stalls line the streets, with vendors hawking roasted chestnuts, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, Arabic calligraphers for hire, hot apple pudding, baklava (a flaky pastry with pistachios and walnuts, soaked in honey), a photo op with a sultan (a surprising number exist in Istanbul), roasted sweet corn...kinda makes caramel apples and an organ grinder seem pretty lame. The entertainment roars up later in the evening, starring the world-famous Whirling Dervishes (spinning dancers from the Sufi sect) and an Ottoman marching band -- which received the cheers given to any popular rock band in the States. With a thousand exotic smells in my nose, a thousand in my ears, and at least a million in my eyes, I was as excited as any good Turkish kid.

But Istanbul has treasures in the daylight, as well. The majority are centered around the hippodrome, which, although today it is a park, it's the historical site of the actual Byzantine hippodrome. As it fell out of use and the years went by, local builders began to use the edifice as a convenient quarry and later as a dumping ground for the dirt removed for new buildings. As a result, the ground is 10 feet higher and nothing remains of the original hippodrome. Some elements serve as reminders, however, such as the Greek and Egyptian monuments which were stolen from throughout the Roman Empire to add classical grandeur to the spot.

The cities two biggest attractions, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, sit at opposite ends of this oblong park, enemies made to stare at each other for centuries. Each one is a roar made by believers unrivaled to this day. Humbling any Christian or Islamic structure constructed since, they the epicenters of their sect's architectural achievement.

The Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom") squats on its haunches at one end of the park like a massive pink behemoth, buttresses piling on top of each other like thick, flabby limbs. Inside, however, is a different story. After 1400 years of history and modernization, whole countries forming and dissolving much less people's opinions, every tourist is hushed when entering the Hagia Sophia. The timeless beauty and sheer size of this basilica cum mosque cum museum continues to silence visitors after more than a millennium. Coming inside, you feel like you have loudly stumbled into something terribly sacred. You are the filthy intruder of something pure. The dusky gold on the walls seems to drift across the vaulted ceiling like translucent cobwebs, making the room glow warmly. With no columns cluttering the nave, yours eyes are drawn up towards the cavernous dome by shafts of light. You see a towering, stern-faced archangel float in one corner, while on the opposite wall sweeping gold brush strokes proclaim the greatness of the prophet Muhammad. For two hours, with your head bent up to the ceiling the entire time, you wander the building entranced.

The Blue Mosque is, in my own estimation, blatantly misnamed. If any religious institution in town was to attach a color descriptive to its name, it should be the Hagia Sophia (I was thinking something along the lines of "Pink Church"). Of course, the tourists are to blame for this misnomer; locals call it the Sultanahmet Mosque, after Sultan Ahmet who commissioned the project. But the mosque has been the object of much understanding. When the sultan was instructing his architect, he said that he wanted a gold minaret as a symbol of his wealth and power. The words for "gold" and "six" are very similar in Turkish, and it seems that the sultan was misunderstood and got a granite minaret...six of them. Despite the confusion, it remains a magnificent building. The architect, Sinan, was the master of his day, and he created a stunningly elegant exterior -- even before being compared to the Hagia Sophia's. Growing organically growing from the ground, grey stone billows out into domes and fountains up into spires. The inside is the real attraction, however. Walls, ceilings, arches, and pillars all drip with the famous Iznik tiles. Each tile is a hand-crafted work of art, containing leaves and flowers in shades of purple, red, and teal. The effect is an intricate ceramic garden that drapes between elegant arched windows and gilded accents. A contrast to the heavy mysticism and dark beauty of the Hagia Sophia, but a delightful one.

And that's the flavor of Istanbul. Over two thousand years of different cultures being whipped into a unique whole -- a melting pot to rival any American city. You can wander the Byzantine walls, pass a cafe built into a crumbling Ottoman mosque, find Grecian columns in the cistern, and see a Roman road sign all within a 10 minute walk. An incredible mix of new and old that continues to change today as the country races towards European Union membership. Considering how it has managed the last two thousand plus years, I look forward to seeing what happens next!

Good thing my senses kicked in again. Istanbul was just a warm-up (tune in next time...).


Blogger vladimer said...

isn't all wisdom holy? Joyce: Will the East show the West the way and the West will have the night for mourn? Can you eat haggis in the Hagia Sophia?

November 24, 2007 11:31 AM  
Blogger Samuel said...

Hi Vlad. Sam here. Is my mind clouded by a vodka we may have shared in St. Petersburg, or is it simply my poor short-term memory that prevents me from remembering your face?

With presumably fond greetings,

November 26, 2007 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this really is an excellent review/sum of Istanbul. I was born and raised there but haven't been to Istanbul in almost 10 years. Am now living in Houston, which is pretty darn lame in comparison. Looking forward to going back soon though, can barely wait. I'm glad you enjoyed your visit.

-Yucel K.

May 13, 2008 4:50 PM  

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