Friday, July 23: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia sit on a hill in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul; their minarets seem to be man’s hopeful attempts to touch the celestial. Reaching for God, either Allah or Christ, some glorious being. Almost all hotels and restaurants have rooftop terraces. Up, up, up, we all want to go, to the skies, to a place of beauty, serenity, love. This is Istanbul. Stretching into heaven. Stunning.
The Big Apple Hostel:
My first morning I climb 5 flights of stairs to the terrace of the Big Apple. I am getting a very late start; I have slept till 10:00. The terrace view of the Bosphorus Strait is amazing. I meet the Turkish owner of the hostel. He is with a lovely Japanese young lady named Tomoko who is living and studying in Stockholm, Sweden. We talk and I find she is quite the vagabond; she doesn’t even know her next destination.
I like her very much ~ she’s soft-spoken, mature, and self-assured. She doesn’t know where she will go, but she will go somewhere, wherever her heart carries her. My trip is already planned out. Next time I want to be more open to going wherever the universe wants to take me. I want to learn from other adventurers about how to travel…. Later that afternoon, after the girls from the Anatolia Congress check out, Tomoko becomes one of my roommates.
Two sisters from the U.S. also check into our room. Last summer, they backpacked all over Europe. This summer, they are doing the Middle East: Israel, Turkey, Egypt… I can’t say they are my favorites; they keep to themselves and aren’t overly friendly.
I wear jeans and a long-sleeve shirt because I plan to go to the Blue Mosque and the guidebooks say you should cover. I have a scarf in my bag. None of it is necessary, it turns out, because the mosques all give you pieces of cloth to cover with. I regret my decision on the jeans; it is too hot and inside of each place is no air-conditioning. Of course. These are ancient places; why should I have expected otherwise?
I go to Hagia Sophia; it is beautiful but breathlessly hot and steamy. The mosaics are amazing, the history and immensity overwhelming. Originally known as “The Great Church” of Constantinople, it was later called Hagia Sophia (“Divine Wisdom”) by the Greeks.
The Turks call it Aya Sofya (the actual pronunciation). Emperor Justinian built it between A.D. 532 and 537. In 1453, when the Ottomans took Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror turned it into a mosque. Now it is no longer a place of worship; it’s a museum. It contains elements of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and their religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Like Istanbul, it represents both East and West, all tied into one. It represents all I love about Turkey ~ its Middle Eastern and European two-sided personality.
Anyone can read any guidebook about Hagia Sophia, but here are the things that impressed me most: (1) When you enter through the Vestibule of Guards, there is a mosaic over the door that somehow survived the Iconoclast era, when all human representations were destroyed. In it, Emperor Justinian presents a model of Hagia Sophia to Christ. What’s so amazing is that this version of Hagia Sophia doesn’t have the minarets and has a cross on the dome. It is how it was originally, before it became a mosque; (2) its pure immensity. Apparently the Notre-Dame in Paris would fit within its dome; (3) everything is symmetrical and the dust-filled light creates a surreal atmosphere; and finally (4) the Ottoman calligraphy on the 24-foot-wide medallions is quite impressive and startling.
What about the sublime? I can’t find it here. In Hagia Sophia, I feel small and human and insignificant. The place makes me aware of my own human weakness but also imparts a sense of man’s striving to reach something higher than himself. But I don’t feel a desire to worship here. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because of the heat and discomfort. Maybe because of the immense scaffolding erected for a long-term restoration. The space is dark and bulky, the light is filled with dust and the air inside is stagnant and hazy. I feel the urge to see as much as I can see and escape. I don’t do well in heat, this I have always known about myself. I hope for a sense of the sublime, but here I do not find it.
I leave Hagia Sophia and go to the Underground Cistern, a huge underground reservoir dating back to Justinian’s reign in the 6th century A.D. It is beautiful, lit by little torches at the bases of the 336 columns, but impossible to capture with my little Canon point-&-shoot camera. Modern glass sculptures hang from the ceiling, adding a delicate beauty to the space.
Carpets or kisses?
I walk out from underground and a handsome Turkish man asks me where I am from. I tell him. He goes through the usual routine they all do: oh yes, I have a cousin in the U.S…. blah blah blah. He invites me to his Turkish carpet shop. At this point, I am sticky with sweat, my clothes are pasted to my skin; I think maybe I can go relax in an air-conditioned shop! (We all want something, don’t we?) So I follow him. I decide if his shop isn’t air-conditioned, I will turn around and leave. But it is cool and he offers me a cup of apple tea. Another very handsome Turkish guy, Yussef, joins us on the Ottoman-style cushions with his vegetarian lunch; he offers me some and soon I am eating off his plate. He has the longest eyelashes I have ever seen! Yussef is charming, easy to talk to, and so handsome, there is no way I will leave. Not just yet. The other guy disappears and as Yussef and I chat about everything under the sun, he asks if I’d like a glass of wine. I say sure!
By this time I am quite entranced and firmly entrenched:-) We talk and talk, probably an hour or so. I am feeling quite relaxed. There is no discussion of the carpets. We talk about our lives; I tell him my story of Ahmed in Egypt. I tell him how the Egyptians I have met are such liars. He says maybe we are all liars sometimes. I say, yes, but lying seems second nature to Egyptians, a part of everyday reality. I think they don’t even believe it is wrong. I tell him of my marriage, my children. He tells me of his desire to put off marriage as long as possible. He is 33. I think at his age, he is probably already married, but pretending not to be. I tell him about meeting a Turkish engineer in Korea, Kemal, who designs airplane wings, and I tell him I feel Kemal to be astonishingly innocent and unworldly. He thinks it is sad. We talk about food; he says he is mostly vegetarian but he also likes fish. I also profess my love of vegetables and fish. He says he knows of a great fish restaurant I should invite him to later. Hmmm…
I have to use the toilet; would he mind showing me where it is? I go and when I come out, he is in the hallway. He catches me glancing into a room with some beautiful carpets and he pulls me in, introduces me to some of the carpets. I say I should go. He takes me downstairs in the elevator and he kisses me. I am slightly startled, but not really; he has been obviously flirting. I figure he just wants to sell me a carpet. Yet. After 5 months in Korea where no man has even looked twice at me, I enjoy the male attention and the kisses are quite lovely. I participate fully and happily. He then takes me into another room and has his guys pull out some more rugs. I am captivated by the carpets; I love these designs. But I have a house full of gorgeous carpets already in the U.S. I say, Stop! Please don’t show me any more. I tell them although they are all beautiful, I am not in the market for a carpet, so they are wasting their time. I have to leave. I walk toward the door. Yussef follows. He doesn’t pressure me at all. Doesn’t ask what price I am willing to pay. He simply asks me again if I am going to invite him to the fish restaurant tonight. I say, what time? He says 9:00. I say, are you kidding? He seems serious. I say, okay, I’ll come back at 9:00. Are you really going to be here? He says of course he will. I say, if I come back and you aren’t here, I’m going to be really irritated. He says, I’ll be here. Okay. I say goodbye and leave.
I never go back. 🙂
It’s all too confusing. Does he want to kiss me or does he want me to buy a carpet? Which is it? Carpet or kiss? Too too confusing. Probably it’s both. Carpet and kiss … and maybe something else?
The Blue Mosque:
On to the Blue Mosque. I pictured it being a brilliant blue ~ royal or turquoise ~ inside. But the ceramic tiles are white with a blue design, mostly 17th century Iznik tiles. The mosque is also decorated with non-figurative art: geometric designs, calligraphy, painted floral patterns. Arabic calligraphy is mostly excerpts from the Quran or from the hadith, or the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. A wood railing blocks off the area for male worshipers in the center; the women are relegated to a small back colonnaded space on both sides of the main entrance. Low hanging chandeliers that originally held oil lamps now hold electric light bulbs. It is quite beautiful altogether, especially with the multitudes of windows and beautiful streams of light. It is much more light and airy than Hagia Sophia.
I want a picture of myself in the mosque but when traveling alone it is embarrassing to keep asking people to take your picture. So I find a ledge and set the 10-second timer and take pictures. The pictures I take keep turning out awful, so I keep trying. Some guy watches these feeble attempts and keeps chuckling, but he never offers to take my picture!
I leave the mosque and go to the Hippodrome, but I don’t even realize it’s the Hippodrome. I think it is just a park. Because I had a late breakfast, all I eat for lunch is a rubbery corn cob (like they make in Korea!!). I go to the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum and before paying the 10 lira entrance fee, I ask numerous people if it is air-conditioned. It takes 3 people before I finally get NO for an answer. I leave. I am just too hot to go into another sweltering building.
I go back to the park and look at my guidebook and realize I’m sitting in the Hippodrome, built in the 4th century A.D. mainly for chariot races. I take pictures of the Egyptian Obelisk, brought here from the Temple of Karnak on the Upper Nile in the 4th century A.D. I also photograph the Column of Constantine, constructed here in that same century.
By this time I am exhausted. I go back to the hostel and sleep for 3 hours, the air-conditioner turned on full blast. At 8 p.m., I get up, shower, and put on a purple knit dress (again like pajamas!) and go to eat across from the Hippodrome at Sultanahmet Koftecisi, a place famous for its meatballs. I order a white bean and olive oil salad and the meatballs, which are delicious. Then I wander to an outdoor cafe where people are smoking water pipes and listening to 2 musicians. I sink into the stuffed Turkish cushions and drink a cappuccino and am mesmerized by a whirling dervish. After, I wander about looking at shops filled with lovely pashminas and silk scarves and scarlet and turquoise lamps.
Vibrant lamps and a walk by the sea….
I walk through some more streets and come upon a shop called Peace Art where a Turkish guy named Harun and two very young French boys are sitting at a table out front. His shop has lamps I adore and I stop to admire. Harun says, these are my friends! Do you like these boys? I say, yes, they seem like very nice boys! We all go into the shop and the boys buy a fez each; they put them on for a photo. Harun wants me to buy his lamps, his ceramics. He is a practiced charmer. I tell him I have 11 days of travel ahead and have decided not to buy anything until I return to Istanbul in another week. Harun then says he likes me very much, he thinks I am such a nice girl, he would like to take a walk with me. I say, what about your shop?
He says no problem; he has someone there who can keep shop. So we go. We meander through all the old town cobblestone streets and then he wants to take me to the Sea of Marmara. We walk through a lovely park, Gulhane Park, where the tree trunks are a glowing white. Absolutely stunning, even at night. There are many stops for kisses along the way and he is quite nice but begins to be a little pushy. He says he wants me to come home with him. I say, no, that’s not what I’m looking for. I want romance, I want to be courted, wined-and-dined. I want to spend time with someone getting to know them and them getting to know me. I should be afraid in this park with him, but there are other people about, and I don’t feel afraid of him for some reason. This is my adventurous side. Maybe it will get me in trouble someday. My judgment can not always be trusted.
So we walk, out of the park and along the old city walls, beside the Bosphorus Strait to the Sea of Marmara. The sea is on our left, Topkapi Palace above us behind the city walls. Finally we return to the part of town near the hostel and his shop. He is irritated, I think, that I will not go home with him, but he says he wants to spend the day with me tomorrow, all day. He says to come by his shop at 10 a.m. and we will do something together. I tell him I want to go to Topkapi Palace. Then we part and he doesn’t look back. I know when he leaves that I will not return to his shop the next day. He is too pushy, I feel, and I don’t feel comfortable ultimately. I return to the hostel at 1 a.m. and fall asleep.
In the final analysis, I don’t know what I’m looking for but I feel I will know it when I find it. Yussef is a confusing mix of carpet salesmanship and sweetness and physical desire, with a degree of cockiness thrown in. Harun is after one thing, that is sure, but I know I want more than that. He is more about what he wants than wooing me.
It has been a long time since I have had any male attention. In Korea, no Korean man looks twice at me and frankly I have no interest in Korean men. So it is a relief to me to find that someone still finds me attractive. Maybe I’m not all washed up after all. A nice boost to my little ego, this Turkish adventure. And this is only Day One! 🙂