Saying goodbye to Budapest, Dana and I eagerly boarded a flight to Istanbul. It has been my dream to go to Istanbul for ages. Historically known as Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul is a transcontentinental city that connects Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus strait. It’s Europe’s largest city and a historic bridge between the East and the West.
Istanbul connects the Black and the Mediterranean seas. It has a rail network that links Europe to the Middle east. It’s strategic position has made it a historic and prominent part of the Silk Road.
We had arranged a couchsurfing host there who said he would pick us up from the airport. Someone named Eric had offered to host us. He had a big infectious smile in the photographs, and from his message seemed like a genuine enough guy. We confirmed with him, and low and behold he was there waiting for us at the airport!
Arriving in Istanbul
In the bathroom, there were women who were in line, washing as part of the prayer ceromony. They even took off their socks to dab water on their feet. Seeing all the burkas is interesting. It really normalizes it. I even saw a woman at the airport in a burka breastfeeding in public. Her breasts were covered, of course. But I if I was better at drawing, I would love to recreate that image. I think that the world rhetoric is highly skewed against Muslim people at the moment, and that image was just so humanizing to me. As politicians target groups in order to win over voters, I found myself thinking of the giant group of moms out there. From white wealthy Trump supporters to moms in rural Kenyan villages, we all want the best for our children. I think the image of a woman in a burka breastfeeding is uniting and humanizing.
I love the tiny time lapse below because it really captures two diversity in style, but the similarity in behavior. Both the women in burkas on the left and the women with their hair down on the right are taking selfies and enjoying the view.
“Do you want to see the mall? Lots of people come here for shopping! There are lots of cheap things. You might love it.” I wasn’t super keen on an afternoon at a mall, when our time in Istanbul was so limited.
“Well, we don’t really need anything. I think that we both like nature a bit more than malls.”
“Oh me too!” He said and immediately, “I very much prefer nature.” and proceeded to pull up to a mall. There were many women in full black garbs shopping at fashion stores, buying sunglasses, and even- low and behold- I saw a woman in Victoria Secret! We walked the grounds for about an hour or so in the hot sun, and then returned to the car. It turns out Eric lives conveniently close to the airport, but about a two hour drive from Istanbul. So we spent the afternoon in the outskirts of the city, but it was more of an authentic suburban Turkish experience. For dinner we had amazing Kebabs on the ocean! I was so happy to be in Turkey! We could see the several lush islands from the sea side, and the walk along the coast was lovely. A few Turkish coffees later, we returned home.
That evening we staying in Eric’s uncles house. They had a huge guest room with two beds. It was lovely and there was plenty of space. There’s always a bit of unknown going into couchsurfing, but it was more than we could have asked for! But due to the caffeine, I was painstakingly awake. I’m really sensitive and had no idea how strong Turkish coffee really is. Hours and hours passed and I grew frustrated that my body would not drift off to sleep. Around 3 am, I went to the kitchen, which is the only place in the house with wifi, to chat with my friend Jake who is in the US time zone. It was nice, and I finally felt relaxed enough to try to sleep again. Then I returned to the room. In the dark I went to put my phone on the floor, and somehow jabbed my head really hard on a post that I didn’t see in the dark. I fell to the floor holding my head. I saw a flash of white. I hate hitting my head so much. I looked at what it was and cursed myself for the stupidly. But then I felt my fingers were wet. I went to the bathroom and blood was streaming from a wound on my forehead. The frustration was overwhelming at that point and I just broke down in tears. I was so horrified of the gash on my face and the stupidity of harming myself in such a way. Great, now a head wound and a new scar on my face. I went to go to sleep exhausted but still jittery on caffeine, and felt the drops dripping down from my forehead. But finally I was exhausted enough to drift to sleep.
In the morning, my head was throbbing, and I knew it was going to be a rough day. But it was more or less, our only chance to explore Istanbul. I gave myself a pep talk and hoped I would get through it.
Eric was waiting impatiently in the living room when we woke up. We had slept in a bit, and Eric has a lot of energy! He is great. One thing though- he could never quite get our names right. He called me Raleege and Dana he called Dani the whole 3 days. We went to breakfast and we had a traditional Turkish spread. The breakfast is a little of everything with tons of small dishes and bread! One of my favorite parts of traveling is the journey of the taste buds.
It was already hot, and we began the journey to the city. We drove to a metro stop, parked, took a metro, then a ferry and arrived. It was breathtaking! The mosques looked like castles towering over the busy city. I had never seen anything like it. My head continued to throb. The fashion was so diverse. You had everything, from people in full burkas, to women wearing tight pants or dresses. It really was a case in point how in many parts of the Islamic world, how people dress is completely free choice. Who are we to judge anyone for expressing their religion or their modesty in ways that they deem appropriate? I see nuns in Christianity wearing veils, and also I see Christian girls who wear normal western clothes. Granted there are still places in the world, like Saudi Arabia, where it is mandatory to wear the burka. But I think that in understanding the Arab world, it’s important to understand the diversity of style that exists within the confines of it.
Eric gave us a great tour of the city, and for that I am grateful. He was very kind and had great manners. Overall, he was a great host.
We walked through the streets, winding through both indoor and outdoor bazaars, with all sorts of treasures. Everything from fruits and traditional Turkish dried foods to jewelry, scarves, clothing, household items, and more. I wish I could have had time to make a package to send home! But we were on a mission to see as much as possible in a single day.
We walked through a beautiful garden surrounding a castle.
Inside the castle was an archeology museum that had some of the most amazing artifacts that I’ve ever seen in my life! It really painted a picture of the importance of the Arab Peninsula, and Istanbul as a gateway between Europe and Asia.
For the past 16 centuries, Istanbul has been the center of the world. During the Roman/Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires, Istanbul serves as these nation’s capital. Many of the mosques have changed religious affiliation multiple times, becoming Christian during the Roman times and back to Islamic during the Ottoman times.
There were many items from 3000 BC or earlier!! The collection included some of the earliest known texts on pieces of stone to Greek sculptures to Egyptian hieroglyphics. I absolutely loved it despite feeling faint.
This horse was taken from a wall and is dated 600 BC.
A terracotta tablet denoting a verdict about murder from 2100 BC!!
Istanbul has been names the European Capital of Culture, and this museum was probably the most amazing collection of ancient artifacts that I’ve ever seen. Artifacts discovered in Istanbul indicate settlement back as early as the 6th millennium BCE. The city since then, obviously, has changed hands a lot, but it has never failed to be at the center of the world. How grand and amazing to be here! Being the capital of Antiquity, to Persian rule briefly, to the Ottoman, the history of these city walls is beyond what I can imagine.
Next, we continued on. We toured the Hagia Sofia, a grandiose mosque museum that towers over the city of Istanbul. The Hagia Sofia was at one point a Greek orthodoc Christian church, then later became an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now is a museum. But you can see evidence of all religions here. It was the world’s largest building when it was built in 537 AD, and is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It’s said to have revolutionized architecture!
Next, we continued on to an underground area called the Basilica Cistern. I didn’t know at all what we were getting into, but I was in shock when we walked down several floors to see several hundred ancient pillars. This is the largest of several hundred cisterns that lie under the city. A cistern is an area built to catch and store rainwater. They often have waterproof lining, and are an ancient complex of reservoirs. This cistern was built during the 6th century in the Byzantine empire.
So blown away by Istanbul at this point, I didn’t think it could get much better. We continued walking the streets, in order to see as much as we could before the day passed us by. Have you ever heard of people feeding cats in Turkey? Apparently it’s good luck!
Next we walked through another bazaar, and had some food at the most gorgeous restaurant that I’ve ever been to in my life! We were sitting between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. These giants are breath taking!
We continued on to a whopping two more mosques, the Blue Mosque and another that I forgot the name to. We made it on the last metro back, and ended getting home finally at 3:00 am! It was a long day, especially with a head injury, but it was still one of the best days ever. I absolutely loved Istanbul, and through traveling here grew a deeper understanding of world history as well as a greater understanding of Islamic culture. I wore the hijab around town, and got several favorable comments from people. We all appreciate when others respect our culture, and I don’t know about you, but I like head scarfs are kind of cute anyways!
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