That call to prayer at the Blue Mosque I’d found so fascinating the previous evening was less so at 4:45 am the following morning. My family slept through it, as I learned to after that. This morning’s call hailed from the mosque next door. There would appear to be a mosque on every other corner in that part of Istanbul, though even the mosques might have been outnumbered by carpet shops. Surprising to me, no one seemed to stop and do anything when the muezzin harkened. I thought it was the signal for all good Muslims to face Mecca and get down and pray, five times each day. Later, a Muslim I worked with told me you don’t have to pray at the moment of the call but rather it serves as a reminder. For him, I believe that. But I also suspect many Islamic followers are no different than many of the Christians and Jews familiar to me in the States—largely in name, less in following.
We had our first breakfast at the Hotel Ada—a rooftop view of the Bosphorus with massive quantities of Turkish and Western fare prepared by Maya, an extraordinarily sweet blonde Russian woman with more than passable English skills. We tried all manner of exotic victuals at her kitchen buffet and the kids even found plenty to enjoy, most of it doused in honey. The view was spectacular as we watched large ships and small pleasure craft on the beautiful, wide blue strait, incredulous that was Asia right there. Too far for even Tom Brady reach. Directly in front of us was a huge masonry column perhaps 50 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. Someone told us it was from around 700 AD, but I don’t recall details so its just a believable rumor. Regardless, it made for an interesting element in an already idyllic scene.
First stop was the Blue Mosque, or formally the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named for the leader who had it built in the early 17th century. I wore a skirt with leggings underneath and a long-sleeve sweater, and had a headscarf on hand because women could not enter without them. I could have borrowed the ones they had for tourists, in the same way you might arrive at a fine dining establishment without a coat or tie and have the frowning maître de lend you one.
Our photos convey what words cannot. The mosque is as large as Notre Dame, perhaps, with an open, beautiful rugged area for prayer, working chandeliers, and tilework that was surely envied by all the other sultans. And indeed, Ahmed has constructed it to impress, with more spires to inspire (six!), more domes to decorate (too many to count!), and exquisite blue tile (inside) that earned it the famous moniker.
It would be an easy lob for Tom Brady from the Blue Mosque to the Haga Sophia, now a museum, but once a large cathedral that was converted to a mosque with the regime change in the 15th century. We waited in a short line for tickets, then succumbed to a personal tour guide who was well worth it. He explained the history it would have taken us hours to read and pointed out nuggets we’d likely have missed.
Originally constructed in the 4th century, we saw the evidence in the stone columns depicting Roman gods. Some of the marble and artifacts were hijacked from conquests in the Middle East and Europe and repurposed at the Haga Sophia. When the Ottomans took over Constantinople, the church was done over as a mosque, with the Christian mosaics and frescoes that exposed the human form plastered over, and decorative script from the Koran taking their place. After the Ottoman empire was defeated and Turkey was established as an independent state in the 1920’s, Ataturk, the country’s founder and first President, brought secular and western changes to the land. One of these was designating the Haga Sophia a museum and restoring both Muslim and Christian and even the pagan Roman aspects of the structure. There was so much to see and learn; again, words pale relative to photos.
By mid afternoon, our minds were bloated and aching from overindulging in centuries of culture, like after a Thanksgiving feast. True gluttons, we strolled to the sultan’s palace to squeeze in just one more wee world-famous ancient site. We were determined to stuff the best of Istanbul into three days, or bust.
On our way to the palace, we bought grilled corn-on-the-cob and roasted chestnuts from one of many such pushcart vendors—surprisingly tasty! We sauntered through the blissful Gulhane Park and sat to eat, watch children playing in fountains, and soak in the colorful plantings. A man approached us, speaking perfect English with no accent. Originally from Turkey, he now lived in Florida and was, you guessed it—a rug wholesaler. He advised us not to buy rugs from just anyone, but added that as a wholesaler, he himself couldn’t sell to us. As we weren’t looking for rugs, it didn’t matter and we enjoyed talking with him.
Then, Topkapi Palace, home of sultans and their concubines and families and all the fanciness they indulged in for 400 years. Like royalty in their castles in medieval Europe. This compound was mostly one story, fortified on all sides by large stone walls and built around courtyards with welcoming sun and shade. In the kitchens, we saw endless examples of china over the years. In the private mosques were cushions and drapes with fine embroidery and exuberant color. For some reason, the “treasure room” on the palace map was in reality hidden and our quest did not uncover it. We chose not to tour the Harem, the private sleeping quarters, though I’m sure it was worthwhile.
I was most curious to visit was the Sacred Relics exhibit. There was a long entrance line though it turned out to be only a 15-minute wait. It was jam packed inside. An older woman in the line in front of me motioned nicely, but disapprovingly at my bare arms so I donned my sweater and makeshift hijab in order to not offend. Now we came to the holy wonders: the staff Moses held when he parted the sea, David’s sword, a pot used by Abraham, and from Mohammed himself, bits of his tooth and hair from his beard. I kept wondering if these items could possibly be real. If so, why had I never heard about them, and if not, why did the signs portray them as authentic? I stopped worrying about it and instead imagined the history the artifacts referenced. At some point later, I Googled the sacred relics and determined that most were indeed not actual artifacts, but representative. It wasn’t clear to me if the throngs of visitors believed they saw the real thing. Before ye cast judgment, consider our own Coca Cola, the self designated real thing and far less fascinating than the holy imposters at the palace.
An unexpected delight was the Islamic calligraphy exhibit. It was comparable to a western art gallery, though perhaps more like a medieval one featuring only religious art, with a broad collection of decorative writing from the Koran. Muslims do not allow human forms to be represented in print and so their artwork was based on their scripture. Extremely elaborate and detailed constructions, with lots o’ gold and glowing colors. There were groups of scholarly-looking men viewing and discussing the work, so it likely had significance beyond its age and beauty.
As we cooled off with a view of the Bosphorus from the patio of a building at the far end of the royal compound, we saw a black submarine making its way up the strait. A non-sequitur not only in this narrative, but in actuality.
But wait, there’s more! Ginsu knives, hundreds of them! We just had to stop at the weaponry room, with swords and mail and muskets from Istanbul’s past 1000 years. I could have done without it but for reasons I still don’t fathom, the rest of the family pored over every blade and bullet.
When we got back to our apartment, the kids and Michael collapsed for a bit while I found us a place to eat. Our Facebook friend, S, had recommended we dine at the palace, but the restaurant there was closed by the time we’d finished touring it. We decided to walk around until we spotted something good. Once again, we foolishly passed up the poofy bread-rooftop view spot near our place, but I did promise the beckoner we’d be back the next night. It occurred to me that beckoners are like neon signs or billboards, just in human form, so not so unusual after all. What finally caught our eye was a very touristy looking restaurant on the main drag that leads from the Hippodrome to the harbor. It had Turkish cuisine as well as pasta with butter for Kamala. We sat on big cushions on the floor, watched a woman seated behind the front window as she made bread, and ate tender chicken that was served in a flaming clay pot. Turned out to be delicious! There, we had our first Turkish coffee, served on a small silver tray with figs and Turkish Delight candy on the side, plus some tasty dessert. Only 3 or 4 tables were occupied, with dozens empty, which seemed a crime, and it is, literally. Stupid terrorists. Poor Istanbul, poor all of us.
Outside, though, the street was bustling, with many shops calling out to show off their craft. At one ice cream venue, the servers perform a funny, delightful show, slapping and flipping their scooping utensils about. Kind of like the Japanese steakhouse grillers, though they didn’t fling a dab of ice cream into your shirt pocket. Surprise—there once again was Mehir, wondering when we’d be coming to see his rugs. On our way back to the apartment, we decided to pick up some wine for the room. It wasn’t easy to find a store selling it—we saw no signs for packies or ***LIQUOR!!!*** like you would in the states and no beckoners calling out “Best Tequila!”. Turned out, our corner grocery store had some and while there, Michael picked up a box of Turkish Delight. The last pieces are still in our cabinet at home, which tells you how good it wasn’t. Lucky for us, that was the only disappointment of the day, that is, if you don’t count the failed treasure hunt.