I have returned from my trip to Turkey, and will be posting the next few blog updates a little out of order so pictures can be combined more thematically appropriately with each other. This one covers the sights seen in my first couple days in Istanbul, and a short stop in Bursa during a group tour.
One thing I read about Turkey and noticed immediately is the cats. They’re everywhere, each neighborhood has their own set of cats, which roam and live freely outdoors as far as I can tell. Most of them are quite friendly, not a one cursed at me while I was there, and a few let me pet their usually flea-ridden heads.
I met up with a friend for this leg of my journey, and one of the first things we did was take what was billed as a “sunset cruise,” but was actually the exact same thing as the “Bosphorus hop-on, hop-off water tour”, just a boat that goes to about 8 stops along the Bosphorus – the large waterway dividing the European and Asian parts of Turkey. We showed up and took an earlier boat, so didn’t actually get the “sunset” part, but it was a nice ride with nice views.
During an evening stop to Taksim Square, we saw some street performers which were, as far as I can tell, dressed as Native Americans. Weird. Lots of turks were getting their picture taken with them as they played music that did not sound particularly Native American to me, but I’ll admit I’m not particularly familiar with their music. In the morning, we went to mass at Sent Antuan Cathedral, which had an English service, attended by many people of various ethnicity from all over the world, but almost none of the Turkish people who are the currently prominent demographic in Istanbul, which is not surprising because something like 99% of Turkish people are Islamic, though for a lot of them it is more of a cultural identity and less of a religion. Luckily, despite this, Turkey has a very strong separation of government and religion so people of all religions are welcome in Turkey.
We visited Ayasofia, or Hagia Sofia, which translates as something to do with “wisdom”. The Hagia Sofia was originally a Christian cathedral, in the time of Constantine (back when this was the seat of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine empire, after the fall of Rome, 4th century or so). It was later converted to a Mosque, but retains some of its ancient iconography of Christian figures Mary and Jesus, who are also revered in Islam. The writing on the walls, as in all Islamic places of worship, are prayers and Bible/Quran verses. The Ayasofia was majestic inside, though under significant renovation. It is now just a museum, holding mostly Islamic art.
We visited Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or, as it’s called in the West, the Blue Mosque. This is a major historic mosque which is still actively used today. As part of the Islamic religion, people are directed to pray particular prayers, which are led by one singing the prayer, at set times throughout the day. This is done at every mosque which broadcasts the prayers over giant loudspeakers to the surrounding neighborhood. Though a little disconcerting at first, especially with the 4am prayers, it quickly became a quite familiar and comforting sound while I stayed in Istanbul. Hearing the singing from the nearest mosque, as well as what sounds like echoes as other mosques in the distance also sing their prayers, was quite neat. The Blue Mosque was by far the biggest, and loudest, of these around. Though most just pray in silence while this singing is going on, some people will attend prayers and other religious services at mosques such as the Blue Mosque, so there was only a limited time in which it was open for us visitors. A strict dress code was enforced, and blue skirts and head wraps were provided to women whose legs or hair were not covered. We had a bit of difficulty getting my friend’s to stay on, but it worked out well enough. When inside, the signs indicated that half of the mosque was reserved for people in prayer, though, like irreverent tourists everywhere, not everyone respected that. We spent a while inside this beautiful, clearly spiritual, place, and had some long discussions spurred by the pamphlets available there which had a nice summary of the shared and divergent family trees of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
Very early the next morning, we left for a group tour taking us to a whole bunch of sites (more on that in a later blog entry), and on my way to check out from our “hotel” (the reception was a few blocks away from the rooms we were in), I walked past a litter of kittens playing near the street, brightening my morning.
At the end of our tour, we traveled through Bursa and visited another historic mosque, this one generally called the Green Mosque. It is… much more blue than the Blue Mosque, but apparently used to have very green minarets. It is quite small compared to the other we saw, but also rather beautiful. Across the way from it is the Tomb of the Sultan, or perhaps a sultan, as it was just one famous one entombed there with his family.
Istanbul was a pretty busy place, and absolutely huge – it takes hours to get from one end to the other, though we spent most of our time in the smaller European side of Istanbul. After Istanbul, it was nice to get out of the city, but the hours in a bus and hurried pace of being in a tour group was exhausting as well. I’ll definitely need a bunch of days without running around as a tourist when this is over!