Monday, November 3, 2008

Istanbul: Muslim Country with a Western Feel

Another late night flight, we arrived in Istanbul at 6:30 AM. We got to the hotel only to find out our reservation had been cancelled. After getting in touch with our travel agent, come to find out she moved us to a different hotel. Unable to check in, we stored our luggage and headed out. Istanbul was nothing like Cairo. Clean, pretty, and very New England fall feel… Istanbul quickly became my favorite stop on the trip.

We first visited the Blue Mosque (similar in style to Muhammad Ali’s mosque). The domes are blue, hence the name. The inside is so ornate every inch of the walls covered in different designs. Here we saw a sign for a woman’s only section. It was built during Ottoman control and is the national mosque of Turkey

After that we visited the Hagia Sofia. Originally a basilica built by Constantine in 60 AD. It was converted to a mosque in 1453 when Constantine was conquered by the Ottomans.There are two remaining symbols of Christianity displayed in the mosque. Both of which depict Jesus.

Our last stop of the day was the Topkapi Palace. Filled with gold, jewelry, thrones, ornate outfits, tiled rooms, and intricate ceilings it was the home of the Ottoman sultans from 1465-1853. Mostly used for entertainment and state functions it housed up to 4,000 people in its heyday.

We headed back to Old town for lunch where we sat on cushions and watched people around us smoke their water pipes. After that we did some shopping in old town. Turkish hospitality is something you encounter a lot when you shop in Istanbul. Shop owners invite you in for hot tee or cider and usually bring multiple items to you as you sit and observe. Unlike Cairo and Alexandria, where I did not feel comfortable walking around by myself, Istanbul felt extremely safe to me.

Our dinner was typical “Turkish hospitality” in that after our delicious meal the owners came over and asked how things were. They then offered us fresh fruit, chocolate cake, and some Turkish tea to top it off. We headed to an Irish pub down the street from our hotel (it is true they are everywhere) and had an Efes (Turkish beer). The dark Efes was good but the light one tasted like Heineken. It was nice end to the evening. Once again the only females in the place, we watched the soccer games that were on and rooted for whoever seemed to be in the majority.

The next day we went to the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Much different then the one in Cairo, this one was covered and more modern. Found pretty much the same items in that bazaar as we did at the one in Cairo. Never the less, still fun to wander around and bargain with people. The men working the different stands (never saw a woman at any of the stands) would call out to us to entice us to come in. We got everything from “hey spice girls, to the lovely ladies of sex and the city, to Charlie’s angels”. Also, everyone seemed to think we were Australian because apparently the Aussie’s travel A LOT. We have met / ran in to Aussie’s everywhere we have been both in and out of Greece. They do not quite compare the number of Asian tourists but then again no one does.

As we were leaving the Grand Bazaar it was noon on Friday, which is high prayer time for Muslims. We were literally almost run over by the number of men flocking to the mosque right outside the bazaar. It was like something out of a movie. The call to prayer came and suddenly swarms of men flooding towards the washing station and then the mosque. We obviously stood in amazement / culture shock and watched this all unfold.

After a quick lunch we jumped on the metro and headed towards the new part of the city. My advisor at Rollins lived in Istanbul for 5 months so when I told her I was going she recommended visiting this new section of the city. She said one street in particular “would blow my stereotypes about a Muslim country out of the water.” Needless to say, I had to check it out. A completely pedestrian street filled with shops and restaurants. We saw everything from a 3 floor NBA store to Puma, to Nike, to Starbucks, and so much more. Everyone was dressed in very chic western style clothing. Not what you expect from a country where two hours earlier men were flocking to the mosque.

However, I will say that Istanbul was the most liberal of the three cities we visited. There were very few women in head scarves and even fewer in full burkas. It was this strange yet interesting mix of east and west. Other funny stories from Istanbul are on our last day in the city Liz, Fabi, and I were waiting for Leslie and Teplyn when these two guys approached us. Assuming we were Australian they asked us if we like Istanbul better then Australia. After acknowledging that we were from the states, they both said “we don’t like America.” Now, to be honest with you, I was expecting more of this sentiment. This was however; in all the time I have been abroad the first time anyone has ever said that to me. I mean I have encountered tons of people who dislike Bush and love Obama but nothing as blatant as this. Unsure how to respond I just said “That’s OK”. And then 5 minutes later they invited us to have tea with them, which only confused me more.

The only downside from the trip is that we all (in varying degrees) got some kind of stomach / intestinal bug from the food in Egypt. I felt so awful our last day that I felt like I was getting the flu. Although, I’m glad my body held up until the last day because I would not have wanted to miss a single day.

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