Between the enticing aromas of kebabs being cooked, the enormous mass of people filling the streets, colorful lanterns and flags strung up everywhere, the sweet smells of shisha pipes filling the air, the gravity-defying piles of spices, more tea and coffee being shoved your way than is humanly possible to consume, and the ever-present calls of the pushy carpet touts, you’ll instantly know that you’ve arrived in Istanbul. One of Europe’s 3 largest cities (along with London and Moscow), it lies along the Bosphorus Strait — which divides Europe and Asia — making Istanbul the world’s only metropolis to span 2 different continents.
From a historical perspective, the city is a veritable treasure trove of significant sites, fortresses, and religious buildings — having formerly been the capital city of the Roman Empire (for a period), the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire (for a time), the all-powerful Ottoman Empire, and now the most populous city in Turkey. It now serves as one of the first links between the Eastern and Western worlds. Architecturally, the skyline is dominated by the many domes and minarets sprouting out of the numerous mosques, but it is also not without a few Greek and Roman ruins sprinkled throughout. There is also an amazing blend of influences from the Ottoman, Persian, Greek, and Arabic worlds, resulting in the Turkish culture we now know today. And this isn’t even mentioning the food! (which, incidentally, will have to wait for a future post). Even taking into account all of these different elements, I was still surprised to find out was a commercially developed (and frankly Westernized) city it was — though my surprise may be more due to gap between my expectations and the reality that truly exists than anything else. Regardless, here are a few more images to complete the picture in your mind:
Two of the cities most recongizable landmarks lie only a few hundred yards away from each other in the Sultanahment neighborhood in the old section of Istanbul: that of the Blue Mosque and the former Orthodox basilica and former mosque that is now the Aya Sofya Museum. Walking through the area can be a bit treachorous for those polite folks out there, as the pushy touts are out in force, but the views of these two monuments down the park-like lane that connects them makes it a worthwhile adventure.
To truly experience the flavor of Istanbul, however, one must dive head-first into the many markets sprinkled throughout the city. From the Egyptian Bazaar and the Spice Market to the many Fish Markets and the endless, tangled maze of the Grand Bazaar (where you WILL get lost), there is almost certainly someone selling something you’re looking for — whether or not you even know you’re looking for it. The sights, sounds, and smells in these respective markets makes for a sensuous experience, and is one you’re not likely to forget:
Besides simply strolling through the markets and hanging out at the mosques and monuments, there are quite a few other experiences to be had while staying in the city. I’ve got a boat tour of the Bosphorus Strait coming up in a few days (I’ll update this post with more pictures once I’ve gone) for one. Additionally, I also went to see the Mevlevi Sema ceremony performed by the famous Whirling Dervishes – which was both a beautiful and spiritual exhibition to behold, but unfortunately, photography was not allowed.
In an attempt to work some of the stress from travel out of my body, I also visited another Hamam, or Turkish bath. Whereas the facilities were more upscale and delicate as compared to those I experienced while in Morroco, the massage was anything but. After enjoying a the sauna for a few minutes and being doused in scalding hot water, the masseuse (who happened to be a very large, muscular individual) asked me “English” or “Turkish.” At first I thought he was refering to what language I spoke, so I replied honestly, ”English.” He gave me a dissappointed look, so I jokingly said Turkish and a huge smile grew on his face. He pointed to another massesue across the room putting another customer in what could only be described as a wrestling move intended to make the recipient lose consciousness, nodded his head approvingly, and showed me a devious smile. It was in that exact instant that I realized the fate for which I had just doomed myself. There was nothing “gentle” about the “massage” that followed, but let’s just say the only sounds to be heard were the cracking of virtually every bone in my body intermingled amidst the moans of pain that I tried my best to muffle. Alas, I did sleep quite well that night.
After my time in Istanbul, I’m headed off to the interior of Turkey — specifically to the region of Cappadochia. Though the name translates as “The Land of the Beautiful Horses,” it is the surreal landscape and fairy chimneys here that draw the crowds. I’ll be back in a few days with my findings (and a post dedicated to the food in Turkey, too). Until then, Serefe from Istanbul!