There is a 14-year-old girl sitting in her living room in Connecticut watching the travel channel. The next show that starts, is about a place she has always associated with Thanksgiving: Turkey. Why is there a country called Turkey? Is that where all the birds are brought for us to eat in November?
But over the next half an hour, this place has transformed from a country with a strange name to a place filled with culture, history, unbelievable architecture and vibrant colors. Images of Turkish baths, mosques, beautiful concubines in harems, and stunning tiles and rugs flash before this young girls’ eyes. This place has not only become an interest but an obsession -taking a spot ahead of others on a long list of destinations of travel…one day.
Eight years later, I am stepping off a plane in Istanbul.
If my 22-year-old self could tell that 14-year-old girl where she would be now and what she had seen in her travels, she would be astounded. That 14-year-old would never have imagined that she would be living in Italy and jumping on an international flight every few weeks.
And the most coveted flight of all: the one to Istanbul.
This has always been one of those places I have wanted to go but had no pressing reason to. England, France, and Italy absolutely. These are the big three for choir excursions, summer programs, and starting ones’ career. Opera in Turkey?…not so much.
Of course, the stars aligned and my roommate of three years and one of my best friends got engaged to a Turk! Not just any Turk, but a friend of ours from up the hill in college. Hannah (not me, “the other Hannah” as we are always known to each other) was in Turkey once again and now teaching English. Being in Italy, this was finally a feasible enough reason to go to Istanbul. It is far easier than flying from the United States and I hadn’t seen this crazy girl since graduation. After living with someone for three years, six months of not seeing them is an eternity. And I always like to tell her in person that my pronunciation of our name is right.
It will take less than 30 seconds for her to comment on this and tell me I am wrong.
We stayed at her friends’ apartment in Istanbul and they could not have been more amazingly gracious and fun hosts. Two Turkish guys and (to my delight) an Italian girl! It felt like I had known them for years and they were always excited to talk, cook for us or take us sight seeing. In fact, Engin, adopted me one of the days we were there when Hannah had a previous engagement to see a Turkish musical.
But as for the first day, my dreams of Istanbul came true.
The Blue Mosque
Hannah and I woke up early and began our long trek to Sultanahmet- the old city. Here in this one zone are the Hagia Sofia, Topkapı palace, and the Blue Mosque- all neighbors overlooking the Bosporus where the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara meet.
We first went to the Hagia Sofia and as soon as we walked into the center, I was completely overwhelmed by just how large the space was. Blue and yellow gold covered the ceilings and the famous mosaics of Christ and Mary sprawl over the walls and domes. Truly quite unreal. We decided this was our new home. I have a habit of picking my “homes” in every city I visit. Versailles in Paris, the Villa Medici in Rome, Hampton Court in London, and now the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Don’t worry, you’re all invited over.
After, we went to Topkapı Palace. This was where the sultans lived and it is kept in unbelievable condition. I kept expecting to see half of the Ottoman Empire walking around around. This brings us to the harem. Something I could not wait to see. “The Golden Road” was where concubines- hand selected by the sultan’s own mother based on their beauty and intelligence -paraded to the sultan’s private quarters after being bathed and adorned with beautiful jewelry. The road itself is not as spectacular as it sounds. It isn’t gold or lavish. But I imagine it would not have needed to be when it was filled with beautiful women wearing little more than gold and precious stones.
We almost did not go to our next destination. I truly shudder to think (!!!) if I had gone to Istanbul and had not seen the Blue Mosque. We put on our hijabs and made our way to the steps. And that was when I heard it. This disembodied voice cried out above our heads and I stopped and looked around for where it was coming from. No one else even seemed to acknowledge what I was hearing. Not even Hannah. I looked at her and saw how she was unfazed. “Do you hear that?”, I asked. “What is it?”. She responded casually, “It’s the call to prayer”. She went on to explain that five times a day,- the times varying slightly based on the position of the sun- every mosque projects from speakers placed high atop the minarets this call to prayer. It only lasts about a minute and a half and it can be heard everywhere.
Incredible. More on that later.
Inside the Blue Mosque
For now we were about to enter the Blue Mosque. I was entirely unprepared for how beautiful it was inside. Hundreds of lights illuminated the soft shades of blue covering the domes contrasted with the bright red carpet. It felt like walking into a dream. Really, it was surreal and everyone visibly felt the same as they staggered around half dazed with their heads lifted to the ceiling. It was spectacular.
Hannah and I then made another trip to a different part of the city. I learned from the people that live here and from just being here a few days that it takes absolutely forever to get anywhere in this city. For a commute that should be 20 minutes away, it can take up to two and a half hours…on a good day. This was one aspect of the city that became tedious and I cannot imagine having to go through that day in and day out. Nonetheless, we made it to Hannah’s host family’s house where she is staying to teach the children English.
During dinner, an array of Turkish specialties, I heard the voices again. The seemingly anguished cries that erupt from every mosque. That carry a mysterious air as your strain to hear the words knowing full well you will not understand.
When we were in the city earlier, even as the people pass by and do not acknowledge this phenomenon, it seems as though time stops for a brief moment. No matter where you are, the voice finds you. As we sat on the hillside at the host family’s house, the voice crept in through the windows piercing between the steady flow of heavy rain. I was in disbelief that we could hear it far away from the main city. The family and Hannah are all used to it but paused with me when I completely stopped again. They looked thoughtful like they were recalling a memory. They have grown up with this tradition and barely notice it anymore but for a foreigner like me…Well, maybe they could see it through my eyes or hear it through my ears.
I started to predict when it would happen, as it does change slightly everyday. And when I heard it I would stop wherever I was, grab Hannah’s hand and say, “Is it prayer time?!” It was like a little reward every time I heard it and recognized what it was. It happens so fast. Like I said, it lasts only for about a minute and a half. But a paralyzing minute and a half…at least for me.
The next day we went to Asia! I know. I didn’t believe it either. The Bosphorus separates the European side of Turkey and the Asian side of Turkey and a quick 15 minute ferry rides shuttles people back and forth. I did not wake up thinking I would be stepping foot on another continent!
This was the day that Engin babysat me and took me to Maiden’s Tower (KIs Kulesi). It’s a structure near one of the mouths of the Bosphorus that carries with it an old legend about a Sultan’s daughter who was doomed to die. She was told that she would be bitten by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday, so the Sultan built this tower in the middle of the sea away from the snakes on land. On her 18th birthday, the Sultan happily brought her exotic fruit as a gift and partially as a reward to himself to keeping her alive. Hidden in the bottom of the basket was an asp that bit and killed her thus fulfilling her fate.
Sunset over the Old City
Brutal, right? On a happy note, the tower offers incredible views. When I think of Istanbul, one burning image I always conjure is the sun setting behind Topkapı, the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. And I saw just that. I actually got to see it in person. We watched for a long time from the top of the tower as the sun slowly descended behind the mosques irradiating their minarets. I really could not bring myself to leave until the sun was securely out of view. Engin even said to me that he is used to living here but it must be really spectacular to see that as a tourist and he had never been to Maiden’s Tower either!
We walked around a different part of the city and eventually met back up with Hannah to run off to our next destination. This is one…well, I will let you decide because reactions to this have been mixed, haha! To me, this was one of the strangest and coolest things I have ever done.
Nudity for me, has never been an issue. Growing up with my mother, the art history professor, I have been taught there is nothing more beautiful or more natural than the human body. Are you scared yet? Oh god, WHAT am I about to write about?!
Preparing for our Turkish scrub down
Turkish Baths. Or their rightful name: Hamams. Gear up. So let me walk you through this. This is not for the faint of heart. Hannah and I went to the “women’s section” while Engin went to the “men’s” and you walk in to this large, dimly lit room that could be from the Sultan’s era. You are given a sheet and a bunch of instructions are yelled at you in Turkish by old women. Thankfully, Hannah speaks Turkish and translated every step of the way. This was now the moment where Hannah and I went from wonderful friends and former roommates to bonded for eternity. You are told to strip completely naked and are led into this glorious steam room with vaulted ceilings, a bunch of running sinks, and a huge heated marble slab in the middle. You lay on the hot marble and relax in the steam room until the owners come in to wash you. Oh yes. Wash you. This is where it went to the next level. I am laughing as I write this because to Hannah and I, none of this was terribly strange, but I am trying to imagine it as someone else reading this and…well. It could sound a little intense.
Two old (naked women) who speak no English come in with large bowls filled with scrubbers, soaps, and shampoos. At this point, you just lie there and take what is about to happen. This was Hannah’s fourth time in a Hamam so she was a pro. I, on the other hand was at the mercy of this rather rough old lady yelling commands at me in Turkish or dragging me here and there. I will spare the details, although I’m sure you are dying to know. But if you ever have the opportunity to have a Turkish Bath- DO IT. It was so refreshing and relaxing- crazy, I know. But this was how wealthy people bathed hundreds and thousands of years ago! It is a luxury and you feel incredible and clean when you leave. If you can get over the nudity factor (I mean, come on. It is, in fact, your natural state of being) then it is calming and really enjoyable.
That is why what happened next is so funny to me. The three of us met up with a bunch of their Turkish friends at a rooftop bar (amazing views of the city at night) and when we were asked what we did today, the reaction was shock and more shock. “You were NAKED?!” This is coming from the Turkish…the culture who has used this method of bathing, again, for thousands of years. Here we are: two Americans, glowing and clean pontificating about our love for these Turkish Baths. And here are the Turkish: they have never been to a Hamam and could not understand what on earth would possess us to be naked in front of other people. It was one of the funniest debates I have been a part of. Here we are, all sitting atop a roof yelling about why being naked is either right or wrong.
No conclusion was decided in the end…but I’m going to go with naked is great.
Those of us that went to the Hamam slept soundly that night and woke refreshed and well rested. This final day was about taking in the Turkish culture. And who better to do that than two Americans and one Italian. We had a Turkish feast for breakfast outside on a side street, strolled through the antique district, haggled for Turkish clothing and jewelry and, and walked along one of Istanbul’s most famous streets for shopping. This culminated in buying Turkish Delight- Lokum. A must.
Hannah and I could not fall asleep because everything was making is laugh. The entire evening I do not think more than 10 seconds passed without one of us breaking down into hysterical giggles leading to no air and tears. It must have been contagious because eventually Hilal and Engin were in the same boat with us and could not stop laughing either. We were stumbling through the streets, stopping only to bend over and clutch our stomachs trying to catch our breath from the hysteria or making mustaches out of napkins. Normal behavior. This of course carried on into the bedroom knowing full well we needed to get up in less than three hours to get to the airport.
One of the last things I asked Hannah before leaving was if I’d be able to hear the call to prayer from the airport. She said (to my disappointment) that I probably wouldn’t because it is farther out of the city and already loud enough there.
So I savored the last one I had heard earlier that evening right after the sun had gone down. Kind of unceremoniously as we sat on a crowded street filled with street performers, shoppers and vendors all shouting back and forth to each other. I thought about it as I drifted off to sleep- The mysterious voices who all called together to Allah.
I sat in the airport at 4:30 am half dazed from lack of sleep and from the dream-like few days I had had. This city, shrouded in mystery needs far more than a mere 3 1/2 days to be seen let alone understood.
I waited for my plane to board and looked through the pictures I had taken trying to remember every sense I had experienced in that exact moment. And at 5:08 am I heard it. I looked up and heard the same strange voices echoing outside. I was filled with a sense of luck having thought I wouldn’t hear this again before leaving and then followed by a feeling of sadness. I had only been here a short time but these voices had become habitual- a sense of comfort. They promoted togetherness and sung the words of the Koran out into the air. And here it was: The first call to prayer of the day and my last one as I left Istanbul.