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Istanbul - the magic, the madness and the mosques

The Blue Mosque

Europe’s most populous city is split by the Bosporus River into two distinct regions. Half of it lies in Europe and the other half in Asia. The Black Sea is to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south. Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world that lies on two continents, and over 10 million people call it home.

I arrived at Ataturk Airport at around 6 am with several men asking me if I needed a lift to my hotel. I ended up having to haggle over the taxi fare to my hostel. On arrival my hostel room wasn’t ready so I decided to take a walk around the neighbourhood to acquaint myself with the city I’d call home for the next few days.

I was staying at the Bauhaus Guesthouse. It was ranked #1 in the world at and I would soon learn why. It’s located in an area called Sultanahmet, aka Tourist Town, with almost all the main attractions within walking distance. There is an area of about a one-mile radius packed with hostels and boutique hotels, each of them with beautiful rooftop terraces with views of the Bosporus, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia.

My little walk didn’t last long. It seemed as though every Turkish man I walked by called out to me, either for a date, or to buy a carpet. This was a culture shock I wasn’t expecting and would be forced to get used to if I wanted to explore and enjoy this city. I hurried back to my hostel, wrote an email to my Turkish friend, Ahmet, telling him how scared I was, and hid and cried for the rest of the day in my room. I was going to be stuck in this town for a while.

I met a Columbian guy on the rooftop. He’d been there for about a week and was about to leave. He said Istanbul was magical, though I was unable to see the magic at that point. I didn’t like having to bargain for my taxi ride, nor was I amused by men who hassled me everywhere I walked. Ahmet, a man of few words, wrote back simply that everything would be okay and that he would pick me up the next day at 10 am to be my personal tour guide for the day.

A room in the harem of the Topkapi Palace

I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 2002 at UCLA. When I left I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. There we were, five years later on his home turf. He looked more distinguished and notably comfortable, since I was used to seeing him on the UCLA campus like a fish out of water. I supposed it was my turn to play the fish.

After a brief stop for a cup of Turkish apple tea, we headed straight to the Topkapi Palace. This massive palace, which at the height of its existence was home to about 4000 people, is not to be missed. Topkapi was home to the royals from 1465 to 1853, including Sultan Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne. It was occupied by the Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan), who ruled the harem, plus the Sultan, the Sultan’s wives, up to 300 concubines and their children, and their servants.

The royal residence is an exquisite display of Ottoman architecture, housing beautiful displays of antique porcelain, weapons, and murals. We spent about 3½ hours strolling through the four courts. The murals are masterpieces by themselves. Don’t miss the treasury. There I found a seemingly endless array of treasures including gold and diamond candlesticks, jewel-encrusted swords, a throne made of mother-of-pearl, the Topkapi Dagger – decorated with three enormous emeralds – and the pièce de resistance, the Kasikci, aka Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The Kasikci is a teardrop-shaped 86-carat diamond surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds. It is the fifth largest diamond in the world.

Steps away from the Topkapi Palace is the world-famous Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a church in 537, Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque in 1493, as it remained until Ataturk proclaimed it a museum in 1935. As we walked into this massive structure, I must have looked pretty silly with my head tilted back and my mouth open wide. I was stunned at the indescribable grandeur of this building but it must have looked like I was trying to catch raindrops in my mouth. Oh well, I assume many others looked as I did.

Both famished, we took a two-minute taxi ride down to Eminounu (I guess we could have walked). From there we walked along the Galata Bridge, an experience in itself. Hundreds of fishermen line the top of the bridge, where restaurants lie underneath. I asked Ahmet why all those men were fishing. He answered simply, “to catch fish.”

We ate at a nice Turkish restaurant with lots of vegetarian options for me. Turkish food seems similar to Israeli food, or maybe that’s just the Middle East. Loud singing from speakerphones suddenly interrupted our lunchtime conversation. What was that?!! Where was it coming from? I looked around and nobody seemed to take notice. I didn’t see any police and Ahmet continued eating. Should I be concerned? No, because once you’ve been in Istanbul for more than a day you’ll notice these loud prayers from the mosques penetrating the city 5 times a day. I was not pleased with the first one, which was at 6 am.

From there we walked up through the 350-year-old Spice Bazaar. There I found Turkish delight, spices, nuts, teas, lotions, potions and trinkets for tourists. A bit overwhelming at first, but it’s a mere warmup to our final destination, the Grand Bazaar, aka paradise.

The Grand Bazaar is no simple task. Take the advice from the master – moi – who after the first time, with Ahmet, conquered the labyrinth three times thereafter. Put on your bargaining hat, take out the compass and map, hold your bag and brace yourself. There are over 4000 shops, with every shopkeeper trying to lure you in. From the carpets and pottery to the jewelry and the belly dancing costumes you’ll be sure to find what you want! I found the perfect belly dancing costume, but $400 was a bit out of my budget, so I settled on a beautiful turquoise and silver bracelet. I bargained down from 120 lira to 50 lira, and included matching earrings. I suppose the carpet wouldn’t have fit in my suitcase.

We spent the night partying with Ahmet’s friends until sunrise at the bars and clubs across the Galata Bridge in Taxim, the hip place to be.

Assortment of spices at the Spice Bazaar

Ahmet was right. Everything was okay. I adapted to Turkish culture and was soon roaming around the city on my own. Most people speak English and the public transportation is fast and simple. I even impressed myself by taking the train from Sultanahmet down and across the Galata Bridge to the Dolmabahce Palace, which served as the imperial residence between 1852 and 1922. The palace was also home to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. It was Istanbul’s first European-style palace. It displays the world’s largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat chandeliers, with the world’s largest chandelier hanging in the center hall. Fourteen tonnes of gold were used to decorate the ceilings, so once again I looked like I was catching raindrops.

A good friend from Israel, Liron, flew to meet me. We decided to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). The women are asked to cover their heads, which made me uncomfortable, but after some time in Turkey I accepted this rule. We stood in front of the mosque in awe. Liron told me how strange it was to be so close to a mosque without feeling scared. The mosque is decorated with tens of thousands of blue tiles, giving it its unofficial name.

On my last night in Istanbul, on the rooftop of the hostel with some new friends overlooking the Bosporus, I remembered my Columbian friend. He was right. Istanbul is magical. There is no other place that compares. I was so unhappy when I arrived in Istanbul, and now I was so unhappy to leave. I slept through the three alarm clocks I’d set to wake me up in time to catch the shuttle to the airport, and if it weren’t for the 6 am morning prayers, I would have missed my flight.

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