Istanbul…through the viewfinder

I’m not one usually lost for words, some will say, yet as I contemplate our week spent in Istanbul it seems a verbal rendition of our experience just won’t cut it.

Before arriving, I’d simply assumed that Turkey’s biggest problems were with its long-held nemesis, Greece, yet as the time passed and as the experiences amassed, I started to realize that the biggest struggle Turkey seems to face…is with itself. Istanbul seems a city cut between two worlds, two cultures and two mentalities. Secular or religious…modern or traditional? Which way will it go? Only time will tell, of course, but if all that we noticed counts for anything, this will be a long-drawn and intense battle of wills.

Fully veiled ladies walk alongside young things with hot-pants and boob tubes and, whilst this may not necessarily be a unique phenomenon, it is when you consider that here, they are of the same culture, same nationality and same religion. The extent of their faith is the only thing which sets them apart and that seems to make all the difference.

Perhaps a pictorial review is a good choice here…how to best describe the incredible architecture, infectious smells and reverberating sounds of a chaotic metropolis of 18 million? Maybe through the quietest medium possible 🙂

Enjoy our story

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I always considered Istanbul a major milestone in this journey of ours, for various reasons. First of all, of course, it’s the place which will see us finally reach the end of the European leg of our trip. Secondly it has been on my to-see list for many, many years; and thirdly, it was the place where we’d be reunited with two of our most beloved friends. Relishing their love and hospitality for a week was a real treasure and the main reason why Istanbul managed to cement a spot in our hearts forever.

Here’s Chris with his Turkish ‘harem’: Ilke, Iris and Leia

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There was just one little thing we were looking forward to: peace and quiet. After weeks spent in loud, overcrowded summer campsites in Greece we were simply dying to have a few quiet morning wake-ups. A wee sleep in perhaps??? Hmm….

Oh how gorgeous to have a minaret so strategically close to our bedroom window!! When the sun set on the first day I just could not believe our luck. This view would have to be the most photogenic in the city. Alas, at 5.30 the next morning, when the muezzin called the faithful to prayer…I nearly fell off the bed. I could just about hear him clear his throat, and the microphone was off.

allah allah…

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The first thing you may notice when arriving in Istanbul for the first time, is the traffic. Except for that very early morning eeriness of a city just waking from its slumber (which we got to enjoy thanks to our sweet melodic wake-up call) this metropolis is an absolute hive of hyper-activity. People, cars, buses, donkeys; all struggle to find a nook to slide through. Add to that an enormous amount of road and pavement works and Istanbul starts to resemble a hugely over-sized antfarm.

You don’t so much ‘walk’ around in Istanbul, but rather you dive straight through it, hoping above hope that you’ll get to your destination without being run over  by something moving in the opposite direction.

Street Life (4)

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The most amazing thing I experienced, was that the moment my ears got a reprieve of sorts, when we found a less-trodden alleyway, that’s when my eyes and nose went into overdrive instead. The cacophony of sights and smells here is outstanding. Spices, mosaics, rugs, kofte, chai, coffee, ceramics; all ready to assault your senses.

page (2)Istanbul is a maze of all things great and small. from the grandiose architecture to the hidden treasures in the streets, there’s something to admire at every turn.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

The magnificent Blue Mosque

The magnificent Blue Mosque

The peaceful chai & shisha stop

The peaceful chai & shisha stop

Yet among the throngs of tourists and locals meandering about, some for whom the heat was far too tiring…

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…we found our few nooks of haven. Ironically, this was in one of the most visited sites in the city: Topkapi Palace

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As you can see, even the strays get the idea!

In a city of dog-eat-dog, we also manage to encounter a pooch who has enough good sense to stop and smell the roses in Gezi Park. Because life, even among this chaos…is simply beautiful.

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OK you’re right, he was probably just looking for a spot to relieve himself…moving right along.

You may all remember the recent protests at Gezi Park, when the government’s overreaction made the ordeal reach the international news stage. From the first day we knew this was not about a park being selected for development and, sure enough, it was soon confirmed that what it was really about was the fact that secular Turks are opposing the alleged attempt by the Erdogan Government to turn Turkey back to it’s more traditional (read Islamic) roots. There are many who are opposed to this. Many. Yet not that many if one thinks about it.

An estimated 30,000 protesters took to the streets of Istanbul to protest for weeks on end and, whilst this number may indeed seem impressive, it still leaves me wondering what the other 17,970,000 Istanbul locals felt about it all. Were they just busy? Or complacent? It often happens that when a group takes to the street there is a massive side-group behind them who would, if only they could, join in. So what’s the real story?

(NB. On a VERY important side-note, it is pertinent to mention that over 2.5 million protesters took to the streets country-wide in support of Gezi – out a total population of 75.5 million- and that Istanbul did manage to organize a 1-million-man march on the 7th July)

Taksim Square (1)

As an outsider this is something we’ll probably never know, yet as an observer I can tell you one thing: the moment we left the greater Istanbul area, we stopped seeing the shorts and boob tubes. They’ve just disappeared. The farther we ride away from the city the more traditional the people appear.

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Perhaps there is a great number of Istanbul-ites who want to see the city revert back to the good old days.

The nostalgic heritage tram down Istiklal Caddesi

The nostalgic heritage tram down Istiklal Caddesi

A city touted to be the ‘gateway’ between East and West is always going to suffer from the consequences of a split-personality syndrome. When a bridge and a strait is all that divides two worlds, two-way influx is bound to bring about conflicting influences.

The iconic Bosphorus

The iconic Bosphorus

I do often wonder, however, why it is that people tend to want to emphasize their differences, rather than concentrate on their similarities. A plaque found inside the Blue Mosque is an apt reminder that no matter how we diverged, we were all borne out of the same proverbial womb and strive to live by the same morals.

Blue Mosque (19)So although I am not Muslim, nor do I affiliate myself to any other organized religion, I am not embarrassed or hesitant to admit that of all the places of worship I’ve visited during my travels, Islamic Mosques always offer me the most contemplative repose.

They tend to have the softest, fluffiest carpets, you’re allowed to take off your shoes and you can slouch on the floor! I mean seriously…how much more comfy can a place get?

Suleymaine Mosque (6)

On our last night in town we choose to pay a visit to Hagia Sophia, one of the most unique and emblematic buildings in the world. What was once a church, then a mosque and finally a secular museum is one of the rare places in the world where you can admire opposing religious symbols under the one roof. If a place like Hagia Sophia can manage to transcend religion, history and culture, it does leave one wondering why the rest of us can’t even manage to find a compromise.

Apparently, my personal axiom of ‘live and let live’ is far too simplistic for some.

Our week-long exploration of Istanbul went by far too swiftly. Before we even had a chance to register any of this, we were back on our bikes crossing the famed bridge and riding into Asia.

The first leg of our trip is now over and, in all honesty, we really could not have picked a more magnificent place as our last port of call in Europe.

Farewell Istanbul, we shall be back…Inshallah.

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PS. WordPress tells me that, despite all my good intentions, I still managed to babble 1300-odd words! 🙂

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7 Responses to Istanbul…through the viewfinder

  1. Lynette Rink says:

    Stunning!!! I have just read Dan Brown’s new book, Inferno, some of which is set in Istanbul. It was wonderful to see pictures of places featured in the story 🙂

  2. Lynette Rink says:

    Brilliant idea!

  3. Steve says:

    Excellent article and great photos, Laura! Mandy and I are headed to Turkey next year so good to see what all the fuss is about. I was there 20 years ago so it may have changed a bit since then.

  4. annathrax says:

    Just like the above, Istanbul is on my must see list, especially since “inferno”. I too need to get back to Florence!

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