I’m back, and finally cranked out a blog post about Istanbul! I have to admit I’ve been procrastinating a little bit- the amount of things that I had to fit into this post was a little overwhelming. I’m still a little surprised by how smoothly the trip went. Six 20-year-olds traveling internationally just seems to have “disaster” written all over it, but I have no complaints! Here goes:
Friday afternoon, five friends and I piled into taxis and headed to the Cairo International Airport. We actually got there really early, and had a good hour or so to spare before boarding even began. We had also all agreed to each bring one small bag or backpack so that we wouldn’t have to deal with checking baggage, which also helped make the whole process a little easier. This resulted in us all basically wearing the same clothes for most of the trip- I’m sure we were a little smelly by the end of it. Oh well!
Upon arriving in Istanbul, we were instantly shocked by how clean everything was. I know that Egypt is a little dysfunctional, but I hadn’t realized how numb I’ve grown to it. People were driving in their designated lanes on the road, using turn signals, and weren’t honking. The landscaping was manicured. The air was fresh. Things made sense! It was mind-blowing. There was also the fact that we drove past the first of many beautiful, gigantic mosques on the way to our hostel- Istanbul has a beautiful skyline!
Our hostel, the BaHaus, was situated right down the street from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, in Sultanahmet. I knew that it was supposed to be in a prime location, but I had no idea that everything would be so close. The hostel itself was great- it kind of looked like it had been decorated by someone who frequents garage sales or thrift stores. Most of the walls were painted different colors, pictures on the walls ranged from classic art to band posters, and our bedsheets were an eclectic mix of paisley, floral, and stripe prints. It also had a rooftop sitting area and the owners had activities planned for each night.
After getting settled in our room (yes, all six of us were in one room with three bunk beds. Cozy!), we grabbed a bite to eat on the street before returning for the free bellydancing show back at BaHaus. The fact that it was free says a lot about the quality of the show (the dancer spent most of the time bringing audience members up to attempt to bellydance alongside her), but it was a fun first night. We tucked in early and planned on an early next day.
On Friday, we woke up at around 8 AM (I swear!) and hit up BaHaus’ free breakfast upstairs (bread, nutella, jam, tea, and veggies). I wanted to hit up the major sites that day, just to make sure that we got to them, so we already had a rough sketch of the day’s plans. Alex bought a Lonely Planet: Istanbul guide (I’m kind of obsessed with Lonely Planet guide books), which I had read meticulously on the plane ride over. I’m not going to lie- I ended up making a sightseeing wish list, backup wish list, AND food wish list. Too much?
We decided to start off doing the Lonely Planet book’s “Walking Tour of Sultanahmet,” which included the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Hippodrome, and wing it from there. The Hagia Sophia was first on the list. For you history buffs out there: it was originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox Church in 380 and served as the cathedral of Constantinople, but was then converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral in the early 1200’s and a mosque in 1453. It’s been a secular museum since 1934, and was the largest cathedral in the world for almost one thousand years.
I personally didn’t know what to expect when we walked inside- I thought that the outside alone was impressive! The inside was almost too much to take in at once. The walls were a rich golden yellow, glimmering in the light of gigantic hanging chandeliers and natural light. Almost every inch of it was ornately decorated in mosaics, marble, and Arabic calligraphy. Mosaic images of the Virgin Mary, child Christ, Constantinople, and my personal favorite, John the Baptist, adorned the walls. It’s hard to explain how intricate and beautiful all of the decorations were, so I’ll just say that I was tempted to lay down on the floor and stare up at everything in an attempt to take it all in. I managed to restrain myself, but still spent hours walking through the building’s upper and lower floors, taking pictures of EVERYTHING. There was also reconstruction work being completed on a few of the circular nameplates, which I think would be a pretty cool job. Hanging out in the Hagia Sophia every day doesn’t sound too bad to me!
After making my friends wait around while I oogled every inch of the Hagia Sophia, we finally moved on. Walking outside was a sort of event in itself- the Blue Mosque is literally right across the park from the Hagia Sophia, so we were confronted with an unobstructed view of both monuments. Someone mentioned that standing in this spot is often referred to as a defining moment in many peoples’ lives, and I can understand why. It really put me in my place. I had to stand there for a second, realizing where I was and how it was almost absurd that I was lucky enough to be there. I couldn’t even really grasp the concept of how much history was infused in the walls of these places, and how immaculate they were.
Our next stop was the Basilica Cistern, right next to the Hagia Sophia. It’s one of hundreds of cisterns lying underneath modern Istanbul, and was built in the 6th century to provide water to the Topkapi Palace, which is right behind the Hagia Sophia. It’s basically an underground room filled with a forest of 336 columns, flooded with water and fish. This was at the top of Margaux’s wish list, but to be honest, I had no idea what it was until we got there. It was kind of an eerie place to visit. The entire area was sparingly lit, water dripped from the ceiling, and carp swam silently underneath the platform. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see that even underwater reservoirs were beautifully constructed. Each column was perfectly placed in relation to the others, the ceiling was a series of domes, and the tops of the columns boasted Ionic and Corinthian styles. There were also two columns with upside-down and sideways carvings of Medusa heads on them- historians are still unsure as to why they’re there.
Next up was a lunch break at a small restaurant down the street from the main sites. We sat outside and enjoyed the perfect weather- it was cool outside, but the sun was shining and the air was crisp. One thing that made me feel at home was the presence of stray cats (just like in Cairo!), but these ones looked like they were in better shape than most domestic cats. They were clean, multicolored, and almost too friendly. While we were waiting for our food, one sat in my friend Gwen’s lap and enjoyed a little TLC. After lunch, we ventured into a park across the street in search of the Hippodrome, but ended up wandering around under the autumn trees and taking pictures with statues before running into a couple of fellow AUC students. We all backtracked to the Blue Mosque, and after getting lost for a bit, realized that the Hippodrome was the general area surrounding Theodosius’ Obelisk and the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, right where we were standing. Oops! I have to say that was a little strange standing next to a giant obelisk covered in hieroglyphs while we were in Turkey. Egypt is everywhere!
We wandered into the Blue Mosque grounds, overwhelmed by the size of the structure and its layered domes. By the time we got inside the gates, it was prayertime, so visitors weren’t allowed indoors until it opened up later that day. So, we took the opportunity to return to our hostel to nap and freshen up before returning about an hour later. We entered through the back, where visitors were told to remove their shoes and were covered in shawls if their outfits weren’t appropriate (meaning long pants and shoulders covered), but female tourists did not have to cover their hair, as is usually the norm. Its inner decorations were completely different from the Hagia Sophia- this mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed) was built in the early 1600s, and is still put to use as a prayer area. Tourists are segregated in the back of the main room. It appeared to have completely white walls, which had been extensively covered in intricately detailed patterns. There were no images or figures of people, in accordance with the mandates of Islam. Again, it was impossible to take in at once, and is difficult to put into words here. Everywhere you looked, there were colorful geometric designs in mosaics and paint. The room was lit by a gigantic chandelier. In the very back, behind the tourists, there were designated prayer areas for women. And again, if I could have, I would have been laying on the floor staring up at it all.
At this point, I could have basically died happy… but there’s more! We decided to check out the Sulemaniye Mosque, and walk by Istanbul University and the Grand Bazaar on the way. It was also our first attempt at taking the tram, which was an interesting experience, to say the least. We (stupidly) tried to cram onto a packed portion of it, and ended up getting off only one stop later to escape the locals who were a little too excited to be surrounded by tourists. Luckily, we only had to walk for a couple more minutes to get to our destination. We walked along the outer walls of the University, passing block upon block of street vendors, both with actual storefronts, and with blankets of goods laid out on the street. Around the back of the campus, we approached the Suleymaniye Mosque (an Ottoman imperial mosque, and the second largest in Istanbul), but it’s currently undergoing renovations, so it’s closed to the public. Nonetheless, we happened to wander into an Islamic cemetery right next door to the grounds, which was pretty cool, and definitely worth the trek.
The guidebook had mentioned a small tea and shisha (or nargile, as it’s called in Turkey) cafe near the Suleymaniye mosque, which I thought would be a cool rest stop before the trek back to the hostel. Out of pure luck, we walked around the side of the mosque and found it! …and by ‘it’, I mean a literal hole in the wall which lead down to a tree-covered open seating area, complete with a fountain and soccer game being projected onto one of its neighboring walls. We enjoyed apple tea (Istanbul’s specialty- it’s just like hot apple cider), shisha, pomegranate juice, and turkish coffee alongside the locals before heading back to BaHaus.
We took the rest of the night easy, lounging around the hostel for about an hour before grabbing dinner at a sidewalk cafe down the street. The hostel had planned a ‘pub crawl’ for its guests, so we all gathered in the main lobby to meet our fellow tourists- almost everyone was in their mid-20’s, a student (or recently graduated), and spending the year traveling. We ended up meeting a few recent grads from Australia, Chicago natives studying abroad in Paris, Americans studying abroad in Morocco, and Italians. Our hostel supervisor, a silly Turkish man named ‘Volcano’ (I’m not kidding) lead us to a busy downtown street to dance and socialize for a few hours before hopping in cabs to return to home base for the night. Istanbul taxis are a little bit different than Cairo ones, that’s for sure- they actually followed traffic laws for the most part, and were expensive! While we were complaining about the cost, though, the kids studying abroad in Paris were appreciative of the price, explaining how they’ve been paying $50 for five minute rides. Ouch.
Even though this was just our first full day in Istanbul, I think I’ll end this post here- it’s getting pretty lengthy already. This day was definitely the fullest, and included my favorite sites, so the next post won’t be quite as detailed. Sorry that this was a little rushed- I’ve had a lot of schoolwork to do this week, and I’m heading off to Luxor and Aswan in Southern Egypt for the Thanksgiving weekend, so I have some packing to do! I’ll recap the rest of the trip (and add pictures to this post) as soon as I get back, I promise.
Istanbul: Part 2 coming up next!