Pieces of Turkey

Last June, on our way back home from teaching in Georgia, a friend and I spent a few days in Istanbul. Unfortunately, a few days wasn’t nearly enough! Istanbul is such an incredible, vibrant city, where the people are friendly, all the food is amazing, and there is something interesting to see or experience around every single corner. Not too many civilizations are old enough to have such a rich history and culture, and not too many cities are located on two different continents. Simply walking around Istanbul’s colorful, busy, ancient streets is a thrill. I already know that I need to return to Turkey soon, in order to discover its other stunning areas and to continue my exploration of one of the largest and most unique cities on Earth.IMG_3900The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is better known as the Blue Mosque for all of the gorgeous blue tiles that cover the interior walls and ceilings. Completed in 1616, the Blue Mosque is still used today as a place of worship. Due to poor lighting, I was unable to get any decent photos inside, but I could’ve spent all day examining the more than 20,000 floral tiles. The mosque’s exterior, with its many domes, minarets, huge courtyard, and colorful gardens, is also very impressive.IMG_3787

The Grand Bazaar, which was constructed around 1455 and encloses over 3,000 shops, is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. Even though it’s crowded, full of tourist traps, and impossible to walk through without being hassled by every salesperson you pass, I loved browsing around the authentic carpets, towels, and spices. The hand-painted ceramics especially caught my eye, and I only wish I’d had more room in my luggage to bring home more of these lovely bowls. They were so much less expensive than they are once they’re imported to the States!

IMG_3655Since this trip took place in June of 2013, I ended up being in Istanbul during some of the most heated moments of the protests in Taksim Square. I think I was most surprised by how little the Turks (at least those who didn’t live in the Taksim Square area) were affected by the situation. In fact, if I brought up the subject, most would roll their eyes and say that they disagreed with the protestors. Naturally, my friend and I were in no mood to get injured while on vacation, but we did want to try and observe from afar… Well, we ended up in a giant parade of people marching through the city to Taksim Square. There was a lot of cheering, chanting, and honking of horns, but it was all peaceful. However, two English-speaking students warned us that continuing without masks or hardhats was a bad idea, and half an hour later, when we were a few hundred feet from the square, the lingering tear gas in the air was already bothering our eyes and throats. That, coupled with the sight of hundreds of police officers with their weapons aimed at the crowd, let us know it was time for us to bow out. We were still glad to have been able to witness a part of history, in which people stood up for the right to express their needs.

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I obviously ate more Turkish delight, baklava, and dondurma (thick, traditional ice cream) than was necessary during my stay in Istanbul. But like the small child that I apparently am, I was most intrigued by osmanli macunu, which is basically fruity, sticky sugar swirled around a stick like a gooey lollipop.
IMG_4329The current structure of the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 (former structures date back to the 324!), and the building had switched multiple times between serving as a church and a mosque, before becoming a secularized museum in 1935. It looks strikingly bright and pink at sunset. Again, I couldn’t get any good pictures inside because of the awkward lighting, but I was completely blown away by the interior. East truly meets West, with Christian influences positioned right next to Islamic elements. I was especially fascinated by the Christian frescos and mosaics that have been uncovered from underneath Muslims’ many layers of paint.

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When I saw this little boy, I figured his costume was for a traditional dance performance. Nope. He was just on his way to or from his circumcision ceremony! Probably from, since he doesn’t look too happy…IMG_3848One of the magnificent views from the top of the Galata Tower, built in 1348. Here, The Bosphorus Strait, the strip of water coming from the left side of this photo, the Golden Horn, the estuary coming from the right side of the photo, and the Sea of Marmara, the water coming from the back of the photo, all join together. The Bosphorus actually runs between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea (left of the picture) and separates Istanbul’s European side from its Asian side, the land in the back. The hills of the Princes’ Islands can be seen in the far distance.

IMG_4078Between 1465 and 1856, the Ottoman sultans lived in the massive, extravagant Topkapi Palace. Though only a small portion of the hundreds of rooms are accessible to the public, it’s clear that no detail was spared in the construction and design of the palace complex. I particularly loved ogling the museum’s collection of Ottoman exotic treasures and exquisite jewelry. And these cabinets, made of genuine tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, are to die for.

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Ritual purification at a fountain in the New Mosque.IMG_4422On my last day in Istanbul, I took a morning ferry to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Motorized vehicles are prohibited on Buyukada, so natives and visitors must walk, ride bikes, or take horse-drawn carriages to get around. I can’t properly describe how charming and idyllic this gem of an island is, but it reminded me of a more relaxed Charleston or Savannah. I rented a bike and made my way toward Saint George’s Monastery (it seems I’ll never truly escape Giorgi!), passing the most picturesque historic homes (doesn’t this one remind you of those gingerbread houses in New Orleans?) on the way. The final 30 minutes to the monastery was a hike on foot up one of Buyukada’s steep hills, but the spectacular views at the top were more than worth it. I still daydream about this perfect day… It should also be noted that even though Buyukada is two square miles and doesn’t allow cars, it does have a Starbucks! But I resisted the urge and opted for Turkish ice cream instead.

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