Istanbul: the Gateway to the East

Following is a journal entry that I wrote on 3/28/09 after I took a week long trip to Istanbul, Turkey.  

“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte – 


Imagine a land whose history stretches back to the dawn of human civilization; a land that is one of the oldest, continually inhabited regions in the world.  It’s a land once known as Anatolia and the site of one of the world’s first empires, settled by the Hittites roughly 1700 years before Christ.  Five hundred years later, it came under the influence of the Greeks and became home to one of the most famous ancient settlements in the world, Troy.  It is a land that has seen a rule under Alexander the Great, and by 500 BC, it had succumbed to the power of Rome, which ruled the region under different names for nearly 2,000 years.  By the 1300s AD, the Ottoman Empire rose as an Islamic successor to the Roman Empire, and in a couple hundred years was one of the world’s most powerful political entities, often locking horns with the Holy Roman Empire.  The Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War and a new parliamentary republic was forged.  This land is known today as Turkey.

Now imagine a city which has been at the center of this history for millennia.  It has had many names throughout history:  It was first known as Byzantium and acted as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, while Rome remained the capital of the Western Empire.  By the Fourth Century AD, the city of Rome became less important in the Roman Empire, as the city of Byzantium became increasingly more powerful.  With the fall of Rome, the emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, which was then renamed Constantinople in his honor.  Constantinople acted as the seat of the Roman Empire (or generally known today as the Byzantine Empire, to distinguish it from the Roman Empire based out of Rome) for a thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.  It is under Ottoman rule when this city took on its present day title.  It’s the 4th largest city in the world, with an estimated 16 million inhabitants, roughly double the population of New York City.  It’s the only metropolis situated on two continents and thus earned it the nickname, “The Gateway to Europe and Asia.”  This city is Istanbul.


After spending an entire week in Istanbul and now faced with the task of writing about it, I find myself facing a daunting question:  Where to start?  The traditional style of simply recounting all I did would take far too long, and would undoubtedly get a little dry.  And so, after thinking about it, I thought I’d just do what I love to do: tell stories.  So, it might not be in perfect chronological order, but here it is, my trip to Istanbul:

Usually I like to do some research about the places that I’m visiting before I leave; not necessarily make a plan of action, but just acquaint myself with the history of the city and the different things to see while I’m there.  But, I ended up not “researching” so deeply into Istanbul.  Sure, I knew the general outline of its history, but mainly I knew that I’d have my friend Leyla, who was born in Istanbul and taught at VSU last year as a visiting Fulbright Scholar.  Plus, I thought it might be more of an adventure if I just showed up and then experienced what the city had to offer.  I already knew that the city was an intersection and mixing of cultures and with a name like Istanbul, which just sounded exotic to me, I just couldn’t wait to get there.

So on Saturday afternoon, I got off the plane and was heading through passport control when I hit my first snag.  I guess I had just gotten so used to traveling around in the European Union where I didn’t need to worry about Visas (or even my passport), that it didn’t quite fully hit me that I was traveling outside of the EU (there’s a large debate as to whether or not Turkey should be let into the EU, as to just how “European” it is).  So, I got to the passport controller and found out that I needed a visa to enter the country.  Luckily, they were selling visas for only $40, so I was able to buy one and then head on in to Turkey; crisis quickly averted.

And after taking a bus and a train to the airport in Frankfurt, and then (obviously) a plane to Istanbul, I met Leyla and then took a taxi to a boat, which led us to another taxi.  And while on the boat, as we skirted along the coast, I was able to get an idea of just how HUGE Istanbul is.  It may have double the population of New York City, but Istanbul is more spread out (NYC has a pop. density of 27,000 people per sq. mile / Istanbul has 16,000 people per sq. mile).  The city just stretched on and on!  When Leyla and I took the taxi from the docks to her apartment, I got my first taste of the speed of Istanbul.  We squealed away from the curb, and I started scrambling (though trying to look cool and calm) to hook up my seat belt.  I was torn between looking out of the window to see the city as we went barreling by, and keeping my eyes focused on the back of the driver’s seat so that I wouldn’t see how many cars we were cutting off.  The entire time, Leyla was talking, and I was trying to answer without having a “I’m on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” look on my face as the driver floored it to beat a red light.  Finally, Leyla told the driver to stop and I almost face planted into the back of his seat as he locked up the brakes.  I gladly got out of the car and back onto my own two feet.

Little did I know, that was only a small taste of what was to come.  I got my first full dose of Istanbul street life the next day as Leyla and I headed to the European side to see the sights.  It was a sunny day, but cool enough to need a light jacket; I was glad to finally see the sun again and even was able to wear my sunglasses.  We had barely made it to the curb when I heard honking that was obviously headed our way.  I looked up to see what looked like a slightly larger version of a sky blue Volkswagen Bus flashing his lights.  I, naturally, took a couple of steps back, but Leyla stepped forward.  “Yep, this one’ll do.”  The bus lurched to a halt in front of us, tire hitting the curb, and door sliding open.  Leyla got on and then before my foot had even fully left the ground, the bus was speeding along again.  I grabbed the handrail above, barely able to stop myself from falling flat on my face.

This was a Mini Bus, Leyla told me; the fastest and cheapest form of transportation in the city.  You just get on wherever you want, tell the driver where you’re going and he charges you accordingly.  We continued speeding down the road, the driver constantly honking his horn, letting people know he was coming in case they needed a ride.  I remember thinking, Well, if there are no stops, how does the driver know when to let people off? Silly me.  The answer is simple enough.  You just stand up, yell “Stop!” and the driver slams on brakes, sometimes ramping onto the sidewalk, or simply stopping in the middle of the road to let you out.

And this was not just how the hundreds (maybe thousands) of mini buses drove; this is how EVERYONE drove.  The painted lanes of the road were a joke; people simply made lanes wherever they needed.  Traffic lights were mere suggestions.  Usually, at least once a day on my one-hour long mini bus ride from Leyla’s apartment to the ferries, the driver would run a red light.  He might slow down to make sure no traffic was coming (which was rare) or he’d simply go on through and make those with a green light wait.  Once, there was a delivery truck stopped in the street to unload its delivery; therefore, the line at the red light was longer since there was only one “lane” open.  I guess my mini bus driver got tired of waiting, so he just ramped the concrete divider, into the lanes of oncoming traffic.  This was on my fourth of fifth day there, so I wasn’t scared anymore (I knew these people had been driving like that their entire lives and knew what they were doing); I was just laughing to myself the entire time. We drove on, forcing everyone to get over, until we got past the red light and then we ramped the divider back into our own lane.

And just as each ride was an adventure, the people and overall atmosphere of Istanbul were incredibly lively.  People spoke with elaborate hand gestures and, in restaurants people laughed or talked loudly over a delicious dinner.  Street vendors were everywhere and selling everything from roasted chestnuts to perfume.  People walked down the street enthralled in animated conversations.  And when I saw a couple of old men walking down the street arm-in-arm (which wasn’t uncommon, even for younger guys), I told Leyla that it looked like they were best friends discussing the matters of Life.  In reality, who knows what they were talking about.

Most every restaurant had a man standing outside the door, trying to “win” customers.  In the more touristy spots, the men would let loose a string of greetings in multiple languages.  These are some that I heard:  Hello, Sir, perhaps you would like to eat here / Hello, hello, hello, good food / Yes! Yes! Yes! / Please Sir, Pease Sir, come in, come in / You want to eat here.  Very good restaurant.  Best in world / And once I heard a “Thank you, sir” without even doing anything.  On some side streets, with less traffic, the men would stand inside until they saw you coming and then three or four would step outside and start advertising, “Not there sir, eat here.  Better food.”

Watching these people trying to “win” customers was almost as funny as watching the street vendors trying to sell umbrellas on Thursday when it rained.  “Umbrellas Umbrellas Umbrellas!” they would yell, with barely a pause between words.  I saw one guy actually sprint towards a group of guys, yelling “Umbrellas!” when he saw that they didn’t have one.  Pretty Damn Funny.  But, that’s one reason I love the city.

Even the animals contribute to the energy of the city.  Of course there were more than a kajillion pigeons and seagulls, but there were also a lot of stray cats and dogs throughout the city.  Contrary to looking ragged and making the city feel dirty, the strays were all well fed and seemed perfectly content with wandering the streets or sunbathing on the grass.

two stray cats on headstones

So, the vibrant feel of the city was amazing, but Leyla’s hospitality was out of this world.  She treated me like royalty!  On my first night, we got to her apartment and she showed me to my room.  We only stayed long enough to set my stuff down because she said that she wanted to take me out to eat for some traditional Turkish food.  We took another mini bus and I got to see Istanbul all lit up at night.  We arrived at the restaurant, and let’s just say, it was nicer than I was used to.  The waiters were all in tuxes and bowties and the head waiter (Matron-de?) showed us to our table and then asked what I would like to drink.  Of course, Leyla had to answer for me.  Leyla told him that I was from America and didn’t speak Turkish, but was just visiting and wanted to have some good Turkish food.  The guy started going on about something (and I wasn’t sure it was a good thing or not), but when he left, Leyla told me, “Wow, he’s impressed that you’re here and not in some touristy spot on the European side.  He said that he’s going to wait on us personally and make sure you get some real Turkish hospitality.”

Before we even ordered, several waiters started bringing plate after plate of food, filling up our table with different dishes of mouth-watering food.  Turkey’s is a Mediterranean culture, and as such, their food is comprised mainly of lamb & veal, tomatoes & cucumbers, olives & olive oil, breads (such as pita bread), cheeses (such as feta), yogurt & yogurt sauces, and other vegetables.  We couldn’t even finish one plate before it was taken away and a new one set before us.  These were all the recommendations of the head waiter.  When it came time for desert, we were served something that I had actually had before: Baklava, a flaky pastry with chopped nuts (usually pistachios) and dipped in honey.  When we asked for the bill, after a couple of hours of food and conversation, we were surprised to see that the guy had almost given us everything.  Leyla insisted that the meal was her treat.

As it turned out, everything was her treat that weekend: the extensive Turkish breakfast on Sunday, every mini bus or ferry ride, lunch, a mid-day coffee and desert, and the supper Sunday night.  Every morning I was there, I had fresh towels.  Monday, I woke up to discover that she had prepared a large breakfast for me with toast, cereal, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, coffee, juice and milk…all before going to work at her university!  I was even more surprised to see that this breakfast was laid out for me every morning!  And not to mention that on Sunday she was able to lead me down Istanbul’s side streets and show me where artists like to paint, or punkers congregate, or where intellectuals gather to voice their opinions amongst one another.  She was able to tell me the history behind all of the places we walked through, which allowed me to appreciate them all the more.  I told her that she was spoiling me.  Her answer: “Well, you deserve to be spoiled; you’re my guest!”  When she gave me a spare key to her apartment and told me to come and go as I please, it made me feel right at home.

I had always wanted to be in a country where I could speak and no one would be able to understand me.  The idea of it would tantalize me any time I would hear people speaking Spanish back home, or when I would hear other international students here speaking their own language.  Unfortunately for me and any English speaker, it’s kind of hard to find a place where you can speak without being understood.  But, when I arrived in Istanbul, I got my wish, though it didn’t really hit me until Monday, when Leyla had to go to work and I was on my own.  I, naturally, couldn’t speak Turkish, but I just figured that it would be like any other place that I’ve been, meaning that everyone (or at least the people in shops and stores) would speak at least a little English.  But the truth is, outside of the tourist area, no one spoke English; at all.

Luckily, Leyla wrote down the names of the places I wanted to go to, so I was able to just show the paper to the mini bus driver and he’d know how much to charge.  The rest of the time at the markets or around the city, I was able to get by with pointing or other body language.  It’s a strange feeling not being able to communicate with another person with words.  On Monday night, after my first day on my own, Leyla met me at the ferries (an area called Kadiköy) in order to show me how to find a mini bus that was going in the right direction.  She was surprised when I told her that I had gotten there about an hour earlier, so I went to a café and had some tea and desert.  How’d you manage that? she asked.  Well, I explained that I picked up that the word for tea, ça “chai,” and I knew the name of the desert I wanted: Baklava; so that was all I needed to know.  And like I said, body language can take care of the rest (though it’s funny how people – myself included – will still talk away, knowing perfectly well that the other person can’t understand a word you’re saying).  Not being able to speak their language made Istanbul seem more foreign, and real – not just a Disney attraction set up for tourists; it seemed more adventurous, but that’s not saying that everything was always fine and dandy.

I did hit a snag a couple of times as far as the language barrier goes.  There was one time in particular when I just wanted to shake somebody and yell, “Why can’t you understand me?!” and of course, I’m sure he wanted to do the same to me.  It was after dark and I had just gotten off the ferry from the European side.  It was Wednesday, so my third day of getting around by myself, so I was pretty proud of making it that far.  I made it to the spot where I had gone the past two nights, only to see that the mini buses there didn’t have the “Pendik” sign in their window like they normally did.  I took out my mini-notebook and found a guy who seemed to be directing the mini buses.  I pointed to “Pendik?” and he looked down the line of mini buses, even got in one and asked the driver, and then got back out, held up his hand in the international “wait” sign and then pointed towards the end of the line, something that I took as meaning “Hold on just a little bit; the ones to Pendik are at the end of the line and will be here in a second.”

So, I waited.  And waited.  All the while the same guy knew I was standing there and waiting on a bus in the direction of Pendik.  By that time, I had been waiting for thirty minutes and wasn’t very happy, but I didn’t want to call in help (aka Leyla) just yet.  But after a few more minutes with no “Pendik” signs in sight, I admitted defeat and texted Leyla, asking her to text back “Where are the buses to Pendik?” in Turkish so that I could show it to the guy.  Instead, she just called back, and told me that I could have taken any one of those that I had been letting drive off for the past half-hour.  Oh.  Well at least I knew that I wouldn’t end up in some random corner of Asian Istanbul.  So, I got on, showed the driver the address where I needed to go, paid, and took my seat.  A few minutes later, I heard the guy rambling on, only to realize that he was looking at me (and so was everyone else on the bus, wondering why I wasn’t answering).  The guy was pointing to the door, saying that I needed to get out.  I thought I might have been on the wrong bus, and so got off, but as soon as I did, I realized that he hadn’t given me my money back.  But it was too late; he shut the door right behind me and left.

That set me off and I was fuming.  I got Leyla to call me back, because by that time I had been there for an hour.  I told Leyla to talk to somebody and explain to them where I need to go.  I found the first guy and shoved my cell phone at him.  Understandably, he looked kind of freaked out and took a few steps back.  “No, you have to talk on this phone,” I was saying, knowing that he had no idea what I was saying.  So, I pointed to him and then back to the phone.  He shook his head and was probably thinking “What a freak!”  But I just nodded, insisting, and essentially shoving the phone to his ear.  Now that I think about it, it makes me laugh.  But I just knew that if he heard someone on the other end speaking Turkish, he’d understand.  And he did.  Leyla explained everything to him, and he put me on the right bus, telling the driver where I needed to go.  I spent the hour-ride home in a pretty sour mood, but by the time I got to the apartment and was telling Leyla about it, we were both laughing pretty hard at how it must have looked for that poor guy.

But apart from that incident, I found that the Turkish people were very helpful as a whole.  On the plane to Istanbul, for example, I was sitting next to two Turks, one of whom was a plump, motherly looking woman.  When the stewardess asked me (what I only imagined was) what I wanted to drink, I just answered, in English, “red wine.”  Most people in her position have to know English, so I don’t know if she understood “I’m fine” or what, but she just walked off.  The Turkish woman looked over to me, and then back to the aisle with a “Aw, hell naw!” look on her face.  She snapped her fingers and got another stewardess’s attention and then turned and asked me in German what I wanted to drink.  I told her and she relayed the message back to the stewardess.  That woman looked out for me for the rest of the trip.

Another display of the transnational willingness of people to help foreigners actually involved a mini bus.  It was the day that I was heading over to visit the largest of the four islands off Istanbul’s coast that make up the Princes’ Islands.  Normally, when heading to the European side, I just rode the mini bus to the end stop, Kadiköy.  But on this day, I needed to get off before then and take a short walk to another set of docks to head to the Islands.  So, Leyla wrote, in Turkish, in my little notebook: “Hi, I don’t speak Turkish, so could you let me know when we get to this street?”  I showed it to the mini bus driver and, as he was still driving, he started pointing up to the ceiling of the mini bus and then to the steering wheel.  I guess the look of confusion was pretty obvious on my face, so he just patted my knee and then gave me the “wait” sign with his hand.  After driving along for a little while, we stopped in the middle of the road, which was nothing out of the ordinary, but then I realized that there was another mini bus stopped beside us and the two drivers were talking to each other.  My driver then looked at me and then pointed to the other bus; I then realized that my driver wasn’t going in the direction that I needed, so he had waved down another mini bus and told them where I needed to go.  So, that renewed my faith that not all mini bus drivers just wanted to take my money, squeal off, and leave me stranded.

I loved having Leyla show me around on Sunday but, as you can guess, I also loved exploring the city on my own during the day.  It was so different than any of the other cities that I’ve visited.  I’ve almost exclusively seen Western cities (with the exception of the month in the rainforests of Belize), but now I was finally getting to see some Eastern culture.  I think the one thing that was perhaps the most different was seeing all of the mosques, and there was no shortage of them.  I read that while there is still a sizeable Christian and Jewish population in the city, there are just under 3,000 mosques in Istanbul!  And mosques can usually be spotted by their tall spires, or minarets.  In the old days, the minarets acted as watchtowers.  Depending on how large or important the mosque is, it has more minarets.   Minarets have been described as the “gate from heaven and earth.”

Minarets: the Gates from Heaven and Earth

These spires were (and still are) where the call for prayer is announced.  Of course, back then a man stood at the top and actually called for prayer; today the Call is usually played over speakers.  One of the pillars of Islam is that Muslims should pray (at least) five times a day, and the mosques announce the Call for prayer at dawn, mid morning, mid-day, afternoon, and at dusk.  More traditional Muslims will walk to a mosque to pray during these times, but of course you may pray on your own in your home.  And of course, if you are doing something such as driving, you are not expected to stop the car and pray.  Many moderate Muslims today believe that simply saying a prayer to yourself throughout the day is sufficient.

Walking down the street and suddenly hearing the poetic Arabic calling the faithful to prayer was something that took me by surprise at first, but it was something that I got to where I looked forward to it.  I don’t know if it was just the fact that it was just so radically different from anything I’ve experienced, or if it was just the way the long and soulful Arabic sounded while echoing off the buildings around me.  Either way, I always found myself smiling when I would hear those first eloquent notes coming from the loudspeakers.

I’ve already written about how loud and lively the city of Istanbul is.  So you can imagine that I was pretty unsuccessful when I was trying to find a quiet place to jot a few things down in my journal.  But I was able to find one coffee house with enough chairs and tables, and where the people working there left you alone.  Okay, so I’ll admit it: it wasn’t a “coffee house;” it was a Starbucks.  Dr. Johnson would be ashamed, but like I said, I was able to have my own table, enjoy some coffee, and just sit uninterrupted for a while and write.   I found it pretty amusing that almost every voice I heard in there was either American or German, because don’t let those Germans fool you; they love Starbucks just as much as we do.

But while I was out exploring the city, there was one spot that I always seemed to end up.   Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it’s more commonly known as the Blue Mosque, a gigantic and towering structure built in 1609 by the Ottoman Empire.   The Sultan Ahmed ordered the edifice to be built to placate God, and as such, wanted it to be one of the largest, grandest mosques in the world.  His orders were that the mosque was to have six minarets, but the problem was that the mosque in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, had the same number of minarets.  The Sultan then paid for a seventh minaret to be erected in Mecca so that his own could still have six.  The Blue Mosque gets its name not from the color of its exterior, but from the intricate and beautiful blue tile-work within.  I was able to go inside twice (everyone must remove their shoes, and all women must use a scarf to cover their hair) and both times was blown away by the beauty of the structure.  The first time I was there, the imam was also there, poetically reading from the Koran (the entire Koran is literally written in poetry).  It was a surreal feeling, even if there were a mob of other tourists there, all trying to take a million pictures.

I think the reason that the Blue Mosque had such a hold over me is because it symbolized the Difference of Istanbul, versus any of the other places I’ve been.  I’ve stood in the shadow of Notre Dame in Paris, been awestruck by the size of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and gazed at the Berliner Dom in Berlin.  But all of these things have one thing in common: they’re emblems of the West; of Christianity.  Before my arrival in Istanbul, I had never even seen a mosque, and had only seen a woman in a burqa once.  And then, there I was, trying to take in the last great mosque of the classical period, and seeing several women a day covered from head to toe by a burqa.  It was almost too much for me to fathom.

With just as interesting a story was the Blue Mosque’s “neighbor.”  About four hundred yards away, directly across a colorful garden, sat the much older Haghia (“St.”) Sophia church.  The church of Haghia Sophia was founded only a couple of hundred years after the death of Christ, though the first two original buildings were each destroyed by fire.  The building that stands today, and which is simply known as the Haghia Sophia, was built in 532 AD, by the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  It became the seat of Orthodox Christianity and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years.  In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (renaming it Istanbul), and Sultan Mehmed II ordered that the church be converted into a mosque.  The most visible signs of this conversion are the four minarets that were added and still stand today.  Ironically, the Haghia Sophia, one of the oldest Christian churches, and which was considered the jewel of Byzantine architecture, became a model for Ottoman mosques, such as the Blue Mosque.

the Haghia Sophia

The story of the Haghia Sophia, to me, represents the journey of Turkey.  It began under Byzantine (Roman) rule as the site of one of the earliest Christian churches in the world; it then became a mosque under the Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire, and now acts as a neutral museum under the secular government of modern-day Turkey.  But to me, the proximity of the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to one another represents more.  Each one is an embodiment of one of the world’s most influential religions.  They sit, facing each other, sharing land and history, divided only by a beautiful and peaceful garden.  The Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque symbolize the intersection of cultures, the crossroad of East and West, and suggest that these two religions and cultures may reside together peacefully.

On Thursday, I took a break at a coffee house (okay, it was the Starbucks again!), regrouped, and then decided to follow some signs and finally find out what the “Grand Bazaar” was.  I had seen signs for it all week, but my map didn’t really give any details.  I walked down some crowded and noisy streets and then found myself walking through a large, stone doorway.  Once inside, I just stopped (probably pissing off the people behind me) and chuckled; what I had just stepped into was simply too surprising for any other reaction.  I had arrived at the Grand Bazaar, an AMAZING market and, in fact, one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 streets and over 1200 shops.  It was constructed in 1455 by the Ottomans, and to this day, you can still buy almost anything: gold, silk, porcelain, leather, pottery, spices, and of course, all things touristy.  I played tourist for a little while, haggling with the owners and buying a thing or two (including an awesome, hand-made journal for next semester).

Saying “playing tourist” reminds me of something that I’ve often thought about during my time here: the difference between “traveler” and “tourist.”  I usually hesitate to call myself a tourist, but I realize the difference between tourist and traveler is sometimes blurred (or non-existent).  Often what I associate with tourist is people, usually traveling in a group, who walk around with a guidebook, only glancing up to snap a picture for their “traveling repertoire,” and then looking back in the book to rush off to the next destination.  To me, a tourist stays in the Hilton or the Best Western, and you will never find them on the side streets, away from where the signs aren’t written in English.

And so, I like to think of myself as a traveler, a person who’s not afraid to, and in fact prefers to, wander off the beaten path and see how the locals live.  Of course, around Germany it’s quite easy for me to be a traveler; I live here and speak the language.

But when I go to other places, I try not to be a tourist.  But sometimes, like this past week in Istanbul, I can’t get around it; that’s just what I was: a tourist.  I was only visiting for a week, I didn’t speak the language, and while I may not have had a guidebook, I had a Leyla.  And while I don’t mind admitting to being a tourist in such situations, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to dig out my fanny-pack and visor.  Oh, no!  I may be a tourist in some degree, but I can’t quiet the traveler in me who wants to meander, without destination, down side streets and try the local food.

So in keeping with my desire to see the “real” Istanbul, I had Leyla recommend a few places for me to visit.  One spot was an area on the Asian side near the water called Moda.  On that day, I slept in a little and then spent the day walking around the area, full of bookstores and antique shops.  Later that evening, I stopped in a döner shop (luckily the menu had pictures, so I could just point), ate and then headed back home.

Leyla also suggested that I spend one day going to see a group of islands off the coast of Istanbul’s Asian side, known as the Princes’ Islands.  I decided to spend the day on the largest of the four islands, Büyükada.  The ferry ride provided for a good view of Istanbul as we sailed further away, and as soon as I got to the island, I got as far away from the piers as possible; I didn’t want to be bothered by any street vendors or people trying to convince/force me to eat in their water-side restaurant.  As I left the hustle of the docks, I discovered a pleasant surprise.  It was apparent that the island was/is a refuge for the rich (and from the sound of the name of the islands – the “Princes’ Islands” they have been a rich haven since the imperial times).  All of the houses there were mansions, though very few (if any) were new; it looked like they were all over a hundred years old, with some looking a couple hundred years old.  Some were immaculate; others were abandoned long ago, left to rot.  But they all had one thing in common: they were big!

No cars are allowed on the island, so it was peacefully quiet.  The weather was great: warm enough for me to roll up my sleeves and enjoy the sun.  I walked up and down the mansion-lined streets for about an hour and half and then took a horse-carriage ride around the perimeter of the island.  Once you left the residential area and headed to the backside of the island, the houses disappeared and there were pine tree forests.  Horses, which I’m guessing were enjoying a break from hauling the carriages around, simply roamed free.  The whole thing was, as my driver kept reminding me in the only English he knew, “Very Nice.”  I ended up getting ripped off by the driver, which put me into a not-so-great mood, but I knew that giving those rides was how he made his living, so I didn’t let it bother me too long.

After leaving the island, I met Leyla and Itir, her best friend (who was also a Fulbright Scholar in the U.S. last year – at Cornell), at the docks.  We went walking down the main street of the Asian side, Baghdad St., and then I was surprised where we stopped to eat: Pizza Hut!  Itir said that if I wanted to experience the “real Istanbul,” that meant eating at a Turkish-ized American fast food place.  It was a little nicer and offered a few more things (like lots of pasta) than American Pizza Huts do, but otherwise it was nice to have a little, greasy taste of America.  Afterwards we went walking again and then stopped in a café for some coffee.

We all got a cup of Turkish coffee, which – like Arabic coffee – is served in a very small cup since it is so strong and concentrated.  After we were done, Leyla told me that Itir could read my fortune from my coffee grounds.  Intrigued, I agreed and I turned my little cup upside down on the plate and we waited for it to cool. Even though I don’t usually believe in that stuff, it was a lot of fun (even though she did say some things that were eerily accurate.  For example: she said that I would be visiting an island soon.  I dismissed that as wrong; sure, I had just come from an island but I wasn’t going back.  But after about ten minutes it hit me that next week I’m going to Great Britain, an island.  She told me that she saw my mother as a bird, with her wings swooped over, protecting her children, and that she sensed I had a strong Scorpio presence in my life; my dad is a Scorpio.  At the end, she said, “This is weird, but I’m seeing teeth.  Does that make sense?  Something to do with teeth in your life?”  My wisdom teeth have been giving me hell for the past three years.  So, some of it was broad and general; some that she told me was just wrong; but a couple of things, like the Island and the Teeth made me think twice…)

For my last day in Istanbul, Leyla suggested a place that she thought was the most beautiful spot in Istanbul.  It was a region, further up the Bosphorus Strait on the European side called Bebek (Turkish for “baby” though I’m not sure why it’s called that).  Judging by the map, it was going to take me years to walk there, so I took a taxi, but ended up not liking the view as it went whizzing by.  When we got there, I think the taxi driver was trying to talk me into letting him drive me around a while, but I just told him to let me out by the water.  And wow, what a sight!  Leyla was right; it was gorgeous.  The sky was blue, the grass was green, and the water was beautiful.  When the French first came to Turkey, they were so impressed by the color of the water in its shores, they named an entirely new color for it: “turquoise,” which is still the French word for “Turkish.”

Turquoise: the French word for “Turkish”

I decided that it was a nice day for a walk, and so started walking back along the water.  Right at the edge of the Bebek region is a reminder of Istanbul’s diverse past: large walls and fortifications built by the Romans.  They were impressive, but it was actually nothing to see Roman remains alongside Ottoman structures.  Not far from the Blue Mosque is a large section of Roman aqueducts, constructed to supply water to cities and industrial sites all throughout their empire. These aqueducts were among the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world, and set a standard not equaled for over a thousand years after the fall of Rome.

Roman Aqueducts in Istanbul

After a while of walking in the sun, I lost track of time, and ended up walking all the way back to “downtown,” a distance that I later found out was over 6 miles.  But hey, it was nice and I enjoyed it.  On the way, I came across a row of food stands and some locals eating something that I had never seen before.  Well, of course I got excited and went up and ordered one.  As it turns out, it’s called a Kümpir, and is a local favorite.  Imagine this: Cheese, yogurt sauce, red cabbage, green & black olives, English peas, carrots, corn, pickles, sausage, lintels, topped with mayo & ketchup….all inside a baked potato! Yes, that is the monstrosity of a potato known as a Kümpir.  It may sound disgusting, but the food addict in me jumped for joy.  The locals were eating it, and you know the old saying, “When in the capital of the former East Roman Empire, later known as Constantinople, and now known as Istanbul!”

The monstrosity of a potato known as a Kümpir

Afterwards, when I realized that it was getting a little late, I told Leyla that I’d be a little bit later getting home because I wanted to stay and see the Blue Mosque at night.  But night wasn’t for another couple of hours, so I made my way back to that “coffee house” (yep, you guessed it: Starbucks AGAIN) to wait, read, and think.

As I sat there, drinking my coffee and listening to all of the American and German around me, I realized that there were two things in particular that shocked me about Turkey. One was political:  Though Turkey is a parliamentary republic, Leyla explained to me that her country didn’t have the same freedoms that America does.  For example, instead of freedom “of” religion, Turkey has what I might call a freedom “from” religion; Leyla called it a forced secularism from the government.  Atatürk founded Turkey on very secular principles and this “separation of church and state” has apparently been pushed into public life as well.  According to Leyla, you are free to worship in any way you please, but it is required to be a very personal thing.  If anyone tries to witness to you, or influence you in any way, you may report them and have them arrested.  With that being said, religion is obviously not dead in Turkey; there is still a large Jewish and Christian presence, though the majority of the population is Muslim.  Many, I would say most, women I saw wore a headscarf, and I saw several women each day wearing the full burqa.  Leyla was very outspoken against such practices, but I pointed out that Turkey was not like Afghanistan under the Taliban where women were forced to wear the burqa.  In Turkey, if they were being forced, they could have their husband arrested, so they were obviously wearing them by choice (though I’m sure how “freely” they chose could be argued).

Leyla also told me that there was no freedom of speech in Turkey, and that under the new government (elected in 2006 maybe?), many professors and authors have been arrested for speaking out against the government.  I guess that’s maybe connected to the fact that Turks are a very nationalistic/patriotic people.  There were Turkish flags everywhere – even more than you see American flags in the U.S.  Every schoolyard had a statue or bust of Mustafa Atatürk, their founder, along with a gigantic Turkish flag.  It was also election time and there were party flags tied up everywhere imaginable.  Thousands hung over the streets or along the sidewalks.  Vans and buses, with large pictures of their party leaders, drove down the streets playing music, or political messages.  Of course, my mind wondered if that was how it looked/felt in early 1930s Germany when the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party was running for election.

Okay, I got a little side tracked; my point was that I realized that Democracy ≠ Free.  People in Turkey elected their leaders, but that didn’t by default assure a freedom of speech.

The second thing that really shocked me: I realized that every time you got on a ferry, you had to go through security.  And I also noticed thousands of surveillance cameras around the city.  The police held a noticeable presence and you’d sometimes see them with large guns.  I asked Leyla about it, and I’m sure my parents will love her answer.  She told me that Istanbul had had three suicide bomb attacks in the past few years, and so security had been beefed up after that.  I have to say, I didn’t expect that answer.

So, I sat in the “coffee house” for a while, but when the sky got that perfect color – when the sun dips far enough below the horizon and the sky turns a remarkable and unique blue that makes it seem as if the sky itself is glowing with a light coming from everywhere and nowhere at once – I left and made the short walk to the garden between the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

I got there and just stood and stared.  The sight was too magnificent for words.  The towers and domes stood in contrast to the glowing blue sky of dusk; Dusk – a time when the sky looks more like a photographer’s backdrop than the actual sky itself.

I raised my camera and took a few pictures, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to spend any more time looking at such a sight through a lens.  So, I put my camera away and just sat and stared at the edifice.  It was unbelievable; I just couldn’t believe, and still can’t grasp, that I’ve been able to see such things in my short life.

Haghia Sophia at Dusk

After the sky had faded from blue to the dark of night, I headed down the streets, back to the ferry.  I left with a familiar feeling – a feeling that I get when I see something like the Blue Mosque, or the Reichstag, or the Coliseum.  After the initial feeling of being overwhelmed or blown away fades, a feeling of contentment settles over me.

It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain.  When you first see such an impressive structure, your eyes dart around greedily, trying to take it all in; you can’t believe it’s so massive, or so intricately detailed.  But then comes a point when your heart settles a bit and you see the thing in its entirety.  You realize that it was built by people – just human beings.  Someone had a vision, and people gathered to put it all together.  It’s all just a mixture of stone and paint.  But once the last brick is laid, or the last tile is in place, the structure becomes its own entity.  Yes, it is the end result, the compilation of the work of many people – but once it’s completed, it then stands on its own.  It’s more than just height and size; it’s a capsule – a statement that captures the essence of a culture.  It is that culture’s bid at immortality, knowing that in a generation, centuries, or even in a millennium, people will stand in front of the Building and be reminded of the People who built it.

It’s at that point that you finally feel at ease enough that you can pull your eyes away.  And so, I took a deep breath and turned away from the Blue Mosque, saying goodbye, and walking down the streets with a small smile playing at the corner of my lips.

The Blue Mosque at night

The next morning – Saturday – Leyla fixed me one last Turkish breakfast, and then we went to the airport.  Finally, at around 8pm Saturday, after taking a taxi, boat, bus, plane, and a train, I made it back to Marburg.  Though I wasn’t happy to leave Istanbul, I was glad to be back in Marburg.  This city just feels right; it felt like coming home.

And so, that was my trip to Istanbul.  It was unlike any other place that I’ve ever been.  It’s the furthest East I’ve ever traveled, and was in fact my first time on the Asian continent.  I saw my first mosques and enjoyed hearing their Call.  I got to wake up in Asia and then spend the day in Europe.  The people were loud and energetic, the food was amazing, and the history was simply humbling.  I’m not sure I could ever live in Istanbul, because I don’t think I could keep up with its pace; but it sure is an awesome place to visit, and I will definitely go back again.  I’m just glad that I have a friend like Leyla there who has told me that her door is constantly open.

I saved one last story, which I think epitomizes the Difference of Istanbul for me:  It happened on the first night that I arrived.  Tired from my trip, but happy from the great welcome Leyla had given me, I quickly fell into a deep sleep that Saturday night.  Despite how well I was sleeping, something woke me up Sunday morning, around 6am, while it was still dark out.   I leaned up, slightly startled, and still too groggy to figure out what was going on.  I was hearing a very loud voice, a man’s voice that, after a while, I realized was speaking  – or singing perhaps – Arabic.  I was trying to wake myself up so that I could figure out where this bodiless voice was coming from, but as suddenly as it began, it ended.

A few hours later, after waking up, I laid there for about fifteen minutes, wondering if the voice I heard was real, or if it was just a vivid dream.  I honestly could not decide and it began to really bother me.  On top of that, I wasn’t sure if I should ask Leyla about it.  I could only imagine what her reaction would be when I told her about hearing a strange, foreign voice – one that I wasn’t sure was real or not.

But after breakfast, while we were walking down the street, I awkwardly broached the topic, not sure how to ask, “Did you hear a loud voice coming from nowhere last night?”  At first Leyla just looked at me incredulously, but then said, “Oh!” and laughed.  “That was the calling to prayer from the mosque near my house. I guess I’ve just gotten used to it.  Welcome to Istanbul!”

And so that was my first experience with the Difference of Istanbul.  As you can imagine, for someone like me growing up in the Southern Baptist buckle of the Bible Belt, suddenly hearing the Muslim call for prayer at six in the morning was quite a shock.  But like I said, I got to where I looked forward to hearing the Call throughout the day and it was something that I deeply enjoyed about Istanbul.  After that first night, it never woke me up again.

As different as Istanbul was, there were many things that I realized were not different at all from back Home.  People went to the grocery store and to work, taking care of their family.  They went to church or mosque, hoping to find peace, or giving thanks for what they had.  And I’ve been to enough places in the World to know that some things, like the willingness to help a stranger in need, go beyond national borders.  And hospitality, I’ve found, isn’t just confined to the South (though, I must say that we do specialize in it!), because if the rich mixture of culture and history of Istanbul was the proverbial Cake, then Leyla’s true Turkish hospitality was the Icing.

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Post navigation

2 thoughts on “Istanbul: the Gateway to the East

  1. Pingback: Indonesia Hair and Makeup Artist - Malaysia Makeup Artist

  2. Kathryn Lawton

    wow, sounds amazing!

Let me know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: