Last night I ate on the roof of our hotel, the old Ottoman house. The roof had the best view of the Blue Mosque in all of Istanbul. Unfortunately these pictures obscure just how close we are to the mosque. If I had Josh’s throwing arm I could have tossed a stone and hit one of the minarets (although I am not condoning throwing things at mosques!) I sat here for several hours drinking Turkish şarap and writing postcards. By the time I left the mosque’s lights illuminated each of the six minarets. It’s impossible to describe that feeling you experience near a mosque, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. Mosques are incomprehensibly immense and give you a sense of how small you are in relation to the bustling city of Istanbul. You can gaze at a mosque for hours and still discover small details in the domes. the inside of the mosque is a space of reflection. Everyone is dressed modestly to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Being within the mosque is about gazing at its internal beauty and turning inward to examine oneself.
the view from our roof when I began writing
the Blue Mosque by the time I had finished writing
writing postcards and drinking şarap
When the sun had set I met up with some friends and we ventured into the Hippodrome. I came to Istanbul to experience things I could not read about in a textbook and what I saw in the Hippodrome is the perfect example of this. It is Ramazan so there must have been at least 4,000 people in the Hippodrome breaking the fast. Families and neighbors shared blankets and laid out Turkish rugs on the cobblestone street. Children slept while their parents unpacked boxes of figs and fresh bread that they had spent all day baking. Live bands were playing traditional Turkish folk music on every corner and vendors pushed their way through the crowed selling toys and sweets. To get an idea just how lively the Hippodrome was, no event I have ever been to in the states, not even the 4th of July in a metropolitan area, compares to this celebration. And breaking the fast happens in the street like this every single night for a month.
The next day…
We had about half a day in Istanbul before we planned on returning to campus. The first day we had toured the major sites, the second day was entirely devoted to gluttony, so today we simply wished to experience the Old City like a local. We had no plans except walking around and grabbing the occasional çay or simit.
We found ourselves at the spice market, which differs from the grand bizarre in that locals actually shop here for their groceries. The entire space smells of sumuc and cinnamon. Shop owners ambush you in the narrow corridor, claiming that their Turkish delight is sweeter than the stall next door. I attempted to barter with one in Turkish but since this is a local space and not a tourist quarter he showed me the door. Not to worry, I will return home with plenty of spices and cooking inspiration!
just one of the many stalls selling spices. you can see dates and figs in the foreground and tea blossoms behind these
Inside the spice market each stall has a unique way of displaying their goods. Some spices are in special containers, other are mounded or molded into eye-catching shapes. The spice market also has designated sections for meats, cheeses, vegetable pastes, plants, and animals. I found a pet shop tucked into a forgotten corner of the market and a basket full of baby bunnies. I asked the owner if I could pick one up but once I did I realize it was probably the stupidest, most unsanitary thing I could have done. We snapped a picture and then set off on a search for a tuvalet. I washed my hands five times and scrubbed soap up my whole arm!
don’t let his appearance fool you, he’s disgusting
Old City encompasses the Hippodrome and the famous mosques, but we spent our afternoon a few kilometers from here by the Suleymaniye mosque. We found the cafe where we had eaten Turkish breakfast on the food tour the previous day and ordered some çay. Then we simply sat drinking and watching people go about their daily lives. The cafe is tucked in a quite corner but we could watch Turks getting on the ferry, ordering their spices, and washing before entering the mosque. As I sat drinking a piping hot çay on a 90 degree day amongst some lemon trees I realized that this is the true Istanbul experience. Visiting historical sites is important, but the real Turks recognize their monuments and develop new cultures around them. And I mean literally around them. The Turks incorporate everything into mosques, from the tramvay to office buildings to constructing store fronts out the the 15th century buildings. The coexistence here of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and modern Turkish culture fascinates me.
the Suleymaniye mosque incorporated into gardens, the spice market, and a cafe
After a few cups of çay we kept walking and happened open the back side of Topkapı Sarayı. Do you remember when I wrote that the inner courtyard of Topkapı is like a park where you can find locals reading and relaxing? This park, somehow overlooked by every Istanbul guidebook, is even more local. It is surrounded by Ottoman walls which are immensely high and have slots for guards to shoot intruders. The wall is entirely intact and is simply repurposed as a park fence. We were outside Topkapı so these walls must have functioned as a first line of defense. We appreciated the shade in the park and the intersecting pathways which stretched around ponds and statues of Atatürk. This made for a lazy afternoon, as we strolled around the park until we caught public transportation back to campus.
Ottoman walls surrounding the park
Istanbul has beautiful landscaping, even on the freeways. I don’t remember it being this green!
a little girl walking her pet sheep in the park. coolest thing I’ve seen all day!
(This article originally appeared on Savor Istanbul and has been republished with permission.)