Istanbul..........peeling thru the layers
When I planned my first visit to Istanbul, I was not ready for the questions and emotions that would arise in me. Istanbul has so many layers of history and religion that found myself obsessed with reading, exploring, and finding connections on how we interact today from this storied past. My trip was September 2014, and it has taken me 6 months to put into words what Istanbul meant to me. On my trip, you could see the bones of this history through the architecture and the heart of Istanbul through Istanbul's people and their Turkish hospitality. To dig deeper, I read Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize Winner, Istanbul: Memories and the City, to open my eyes up more to what this city means to a local resident. Join me on my journey as I peel back the layers, and what Istanbul means to me.
PART 1: THE HISTORY OF CONFRONTATION AND COEXISTENCE
Istanbul is the center of the rise and fall of the greatest empires of the world, especially the Roman (Byzantine) and Ottoman empires. A brief history shows the confrontation that took place in Istanbul. From 675 BC to 196 AD, Istanbul was Byzance settled as a Greek trade colony due to the importance of the sea route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. I met some Greeks in my travels that still feel Istanbul should be a part of the Greek empire. In 324, Istanbul became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire after Constatin, the Great, took over Byzantium, and renamed it Constantinapolis. Constantin made Christianity the primary religion of the Roman empire, and Istanbul became a thriving religious city for Christianity. In 1453, the Turks headed by Fatih Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer conquered Byzantium, which became the glory years of the Ottoman empire from 1453 to 1923. Eastern Islamic religion became the dominant religion of Istanbul under the Ottoman empire, and still remains today with 98% of Turkey's residents are Muslims. Underneath all these battles of the empires, there was a 1300 year battle between Western Christianity and Eastern Islamic religions. Due to geography and history, Istanbul was center stage for this worldwide battle between the East and the West.
As we walked through Istanbul's major tourist sites, we could see all the empires and religions that confronted in the past are coexisting today. Our first afternoon, we visited Topkapi palace, the palace where Ottoman sultans lived for 400 years of their 624 year reign. As we wandered the rooms of the expansive palace, we found treasures from around the world of Chinese, Arabian, and European influences. The riches of the Ottoman empire showed with the jeweled plates to the prize of an 80 karat diamond! We were in awe as we walked through one room where we saw Moses Staff and Prophet Muhammed's footprint. As a Catholic, Moses was a prophet that I learned from in the Bible. For Muslims, Moses was also a very important prophet in the teachings of the Quran. No matter what our religion is, we all come from the same story and core beliefs and values. Our religions have differences, but lots of beautiful similarities. By seeing this historical artifact through travel, I could open my mind and heart to this with hope others do also to end all the prejudices and violent acts in the name of religion.
We ended our tour at the Harem, which means "forbidden" in Arab. The Harem at Topkapi palace consisted of 300 tiled rooms connected by courtyards. This was a private place where legend says at one point a 1000 women of Christian and Jewish descent were there in waiting for the Sultan, the only man that could enter beside the guards. The women were converted to Islamic religion, taught to read and write, and how to please the Sultan by the Sultan's mother. Competition was fierce for these women to get attention from the Sultan, and mother his children. The Harem and life in the Harem was fascinating to me. However as a woman, I had a hard time understanding this way of life. They lived a priviliged life, but also it did not feel like they had the freedom. Some of this same history happens today in other ways. If we are to repeat our history and treatment of women, all of society, men and women, need to come together as a unified force against the mistreatment of women.
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
After our visit and history lesson of the Ottoman empire at Topkapi Palace, we ended our day with a sunset view of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. A representation of the historical confrontation of religion is shown with the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque looking across the crowded square at each other. Hagia Sophia is on one side with it's red brick grandeur built in 360 AD. It was a Christian Church for 1000s of years to the Orthodox Catholics. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed invaded the city and declared the Hagia Sophia be converted into a Mosque immediately, and the minarets were added on. Today, it is a museum and looks like a mosque, but there are small reminders of it's Christian past.
On the other side of Sultanahmet Park, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque from the Blue Iznik tiles covering the interior, was built in 1616 by the young sultan, Ahmet I, who wanted to build a more impressive Mosque than the Hagia Sophia. It was the first Mosque to be built with six minarets, where the call the prayer is made 5 times a day. The Blue Mosque is an active worshipping mosque that you can get an inside look to the spirituality of the Islamic religion. Around 5 PM, we waited in the corridor during the prayer hour, an ominous but calming sound for the call of prayer. It was a perfect time to reflect before we saw the beauty inside this iconic place of worship, and begin to open our hearts to a religion we do not know a lot about. As we entered the Mosque, we covered our head with berkas and took off our shoes out of respect. 20,000 blue iznik tiles cover the Blue Mosque from ceiling to floor. In the worship area, you can observe the men kneeling and praying to Allah. A circular chandelier brings extra light and beauty to the Blue Mosque. In today's world, the news of ISIS encourages us to relate the Islamic religion to terrorism. However, we have to remember that a few terrorists do not represent a whole population of millions of Muslims. After seeing the beauty and feeling the sense of peace as I explored the Blue Mosque, I felt in my heart that the Islamic religion and the Muslim people want peace in this world like all of us.
WANDER KARMA Tips and references
Topkapi Palace and Harem Apartments: Take 4 to 5 hours to really explore all of it's treasures. The Harem is extra price to visit but worth it! Get the headphones to have more of an understanding of what you are looking at.
Blue Mosque: You must be covered up out of respect to enter the Mosque. The Mosque will provide berkas and robes if you are not. You can only enter the Blue Mosque during non-prayer times.
View of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia: Enjoy a refreshment for one of the best views in Istanbul at the Seven Hills Restaurant. Skip the dinner with prices high and not the best Turkish food. http://www.sevenhillshotel.com/restaurant
Whirling Dervishes: The Whirling Dervishes are mystical and fascinating to see their spiritual dance. Watch the performance in the old Serkeci Train Station for around $40 Lira. Location is near a tram stop and the Spice Market.
Read: Orhan Pamuk: Istanbul Memories and the City