The Exotic and Beautiful City of Istanbul, Turkey

Looking back on my trip to Istanbul, Turkey I feel that this was probably one of my most profound, mind-opening and exhilarating travel experiences. At the beginning of the trip, Jenn and I were discussing how indeed each time one travels, an intangible change occurs within oneself–your perspective subconsciously expands and changes–perhaps nothing you can truly put your finger upon or measure out in units–but you feel it. Often times, this realization of your soul’s growth occurs after returning home, which I suppose makes the most sense since the bubble world from which you left, now in the expanded  viewpoint of your travels, seems and feels different.

During our week long trip to Istanbul, (although too short, it was a perfect amount of time that enabled us to gently soak up the vibe and feel of the city) I made mental notes of my realizations or observations which I’ll share in “chunks” or little blurbs (instead of only re-telling our itinerary). This post will cover my “philosophical” thoughts on religion, the people and the beautiful language. My next posts will cover the places we visited, and very important–the FOOD hehe.

Overall though, we are so so thankful—every single thing on our trip went perfectly smoothly, from the weather coordinating perfectly with our activities (though raining and cold on a few days, that enabled us to not have to wait in long lines for the mosques/museums,  yet it cleared beautifully for our cruise along the Bosphorous Sea) to all of the transportation.  Everyone we encountered was so kind and polite.  I felt more safe than our travels to Italy, Spain and France which honestly I had not expected (again going back to my stupid preconceived worries).

RELIGION, ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY: UNITY

The main reason as to why Istanbul–Turkey in general, felt so exotic and mysterious to me, was that I had never before visited a country or place really, where the majority of the population is Muslim.  We stayed in the old town (Sultanahmet area) close by to the beautiful Sultanahmet Cami or “Blue Mosque” and AyaSofya (“Hagia Sophia”) and with a beautiful view of the Marmara Sea and of the “Asian side” of Istanbul, and the gentle sloping hills of the Princes’ islands.

This is where we had our delicious buffet breakfast each morning and could come up here during the afternoon or evening and bring our own food or have tea.

Everyday, via the speakers posted throughout the area, at set times (4am, 8am, 1pm, 5pm I think)  we heard the haunting and beautiful lulling call to prayer.  Walking on the square-shaped cobble stones, through the narrow streets lined with Turkish carpet stores and restaurants, the melodious call to prayer provided a wonderful mysterious feeling.

It was with this “background music” sitting in the gorgeous marble and ceramic tiled courtyard of the Blue Mosque, staring up to the magnificent round dome surrounded with six majestic minarets piercing the sky that I felt a true sense of reverent awe and feeling of peace.  This reminded me of my first time stepping into St. Peter’s Basilica–where I remember thinking, “Man, even if you are not a religious person, you will feel religious in this amazing space.” This was the moment where I felt my appreciation, admiration and a deep respect towards Islamic religion grow.

In the lovely courtyard of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
Front view of the Blue Mosque–blue bird skies
All six minarets of the Blue Mosque
The AyaSofya (Hagia Sophia)- Built originally by Justinius (during Byzantium period) then in the 1400s or so, converted to Mosque by Ottoman empire)–Beautiful mix of both religions inside)

Cliche, but honestly too often in America, we are exposed to harsh stereotypes of idiots proclaiming to be Muslim, yet acting out in ignorant blind violence. I was surprised by my own surprise (hah does that make sense?) at how much I enjoyed being steeped in this predominantly Muslim culture (although, true, Turkey is definitely a more “liberal” Islamic country–the only one with a secular government.)

I think Istanbul offers the perfect balance of exposing/introducing one to an Islamic country, without feeling worried about (as a woman) not covering your hair etc.

Turkish Carpets– I put this in the religious section because I was really touched by some of the symbols on the carpets.  Basically, a quick run down– Turkish carpets are distinctive due to their double-knot technique (vs. single-knot used in Persian, Chinese etc. rugs).  They use wool on wool, wool on cotton and silk on silk materials.  Each carpet is like a fingerprint: unique and is filled with symbols, patterns and colors unique to specific region.

The double staircase symbolizing Islam and Christianity religions leading to the same heaven.

So the symbol that I found to be very beautiful to me was two “stair cases” leading up to a single point–maybe marked by a diamond shape–but basically the highest point.  This point represents Heaven.  The two staircases represent BOTH Islam and Christianity religions.

This resonated very deeply with me because though baptized Catholic, and growing up in a Christian environment, in adulthood I made my own conclusions and I believe that the concept of God is complex–more than we mere humans can comprehend–and hence, it makes sense to have many pathways to God; from Buddhism to Sufism to Christianity to Judaism. Everyone is different. Why would God be a narrow-minded being to create us all so beautifully unique and only allow one way to comprehend? (I believe if that were the case, then we would all speak the same exact language and all look completely identical.)  Anyways haha that can be saved for another entry–but bottom line, that concept of having more ways than one to Heaven/Enlightenment, just filled me with much admiration and respect for the culture. (Again perhaps another breaking of my subconscious stereotype that a Muslim-dominated country would not entertain such a “liberal” view.)

YOU LOOK TURKISH 

Usually when first arriving to a new country, I like to try and observe how the people look like–their physical features.  We were confused because some people appeared with dark jet black hair and eyes, strong features more fitting in our minds to the description of Arabic peoples or even Persians—yet still others had more western European features, light blue eyes, pale skin.  After discussing with our tour guide (we took a day trip to Ephesus and had a lovely guide person Begun (spelling?))–she enlightened us that Turkish people were nomadic, traveled everywhere–and especially during the Ottoman empire, which extended up to Russia, then eastwards to Persian countries (Iran, Iraq) and even south (Arabic) inevitably, the features of the people become more mixed reflective of their mixed blood.

This called to mind how in two weekends in a row, we met people from Kazakhstan — One set we met in Los Angeles, at a Russian restaurant (review will be posted after I finish Istanbul 😉 and the second a couple from Kazakhstan, we met during our first night in Istanbul.  Both sets of people looked COMPLETELY Asian! To be honest you would never have ever guessed they’d be from there—if you’re from the U.S.  However in this part of the world, it really isn’t surprising…and that made me realize how in most of the places I’ve visited, or at least in my limited perspective of these places, I just assume or expect people to look similar (for example in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, people look like how I expect them to look like–dark hair etc. People from Spain, Italy England–they look a certain way). I was surprised at myself and how tied I was subconsciously, to set stereotypes of how people should physically appear.

(Sorry for the blurry photo) Our first night in Istanbul, at a Nargile (water pipe) place, we meet a couple from Kazahkstan. The man begins to play on the guitar and sing a beautiful song with a rich baritone–reminiscent of gypsy kings with a middle eastern twist heh

It was an epiphany moment for myself--a realization of my own limited perspectives due to my Western upbringing.  European history sure sure, I know a bit…Asian history (Chinese, Taiwan, Korea Japan) sure sure I know a bit too–but this area? A mystery—I had only heard of tidbits here and there.  And that is a main reason why I felt this trip to be one of the most mind opening trips–An air of mystery, of the exotic, I did not have a frame of reference–I could only focus on absorbing the culture without lazily and subconsciously relying on pre-determined definitions.

Kurdish Peoples – Also, I had never met anyone who was Kurdish–and courtesy of a brief explanation from our waiter, they have their own separate written language (usually a strong basis of a completely separate ethnicity/culture vs. those that have the same written language) and culture, yet do not have land of their own.  I had faintly heard or suspected of perhaps some tension between Turkish and Kurdish people–and sure enough after looking through my guidebook, there exists an extremist Kurdish group, the PKK who have launched a few terrorist attacks against Turks (and I’m sure vice versa).

A NEW ROMANCE LANGUAGE: TURKISH

Listening to Turkish is beautiful–and in my opinion more romantic sounding than the typically considered French.  Upon listening, there are many “shh”  and “ch” sounds that tie together vowels, soft and thick like honey and without any glutteral or throaty nasal sounds (from a pure sound perspective, in my humble opinion, those sounds do not seem romantic to me.)  Again this was another one of those surprise realizations of the many that I experienced on this trip, where certain pre-conceived notions differ from conclusions derived from my actual experience.

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