So I’m done with Europe. I spent a total of four months exploring parts of Northern, Western, Central and Eastern Europe. It was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. I can say with total sincerity it has forever left an impression on me. I would give almost anything to go back to that first day in Reykjavik, Iceland and do it all over again. But now is the time to move on to other continents and some less developed countries. Here is where things could get very interesting, and perhaps even a little dangerous. At least, that’s the impression I have going in.
The next chapter of my around-the-world journey starts in Turkey. When I was in college, I had friends who were from Turkey. I used to tell them that I would make it to their country someday, and they encouraged me to see it if I could. Unfortunately, we lost touch over the years. I graduated before Facebook existed, and I don’t have their email addresses or phone numbers anymore. I don’t even know for sure if they’re still in the US or went back to Turkey. As my arrival in Istanbul approached, I tried using google to track them down, but no luck. That’s what I get for not making the effort to stay in touch.
Turkey has its roots in the Ottoman Empire which began around the year 1300. It lasted over six centuries and in its best years occupied land in what is now Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They were known for their architecture, jewelry and rug making as well as weapons. The capital of the empire was Constantinople which is present day Istanbul. (That song by They Might Me Giants called Istanbul (Not Constantinople) kept running through my head while I was there). After WWI, the Ottoman’s found themselves on the losing side and pretty much a finished state. As the allied forces began to occupy Turkey, a war of indepence broke out. An officer in the former Ottoman army named Mustafa Ataturk led a national indepence movement, and organized forces to repel the British attempts to control Turkey. Eventually, the republic of Turkey was founded and Ataturk became it’s first president. Ataturk is highly revered not just for being the first leader of Turkey, but also for his reforms and modernization of Turkey. For one, he established the country as one with a secular rule. He also granted equal rights to women, and reformed the education system. He also converted the alphabet in the Turkish language from arabic to the Latin alphabet to make it easier to learn. Today, Turkey remains unique in it’s mix of Eastern and Western influences. I think it’s the only country which lies partly in Europe and Asia. Although secular, religion still plays a major role, and the country leans socially conservative in my opinion. The capital is in Ankara and not Istanbul as some might believe, but Istanbul is the cultural center and most populated city in Turkey.
In my first few days in Is, I explored most of the famous sites around Istanbul…
Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in English)
The Hagia Sofia was practically right next door to my hostel. It’s what’s pictured above, but here’s another outdoor photo followed by some from inside.
This used to be a catholic church, then it became a mosque, and now it’s a museum. The mosaics from the christian period were covered with a layer of plaster when it became a mosque, but were uncovered when the Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum in the 1930’s under Ataturk’s reform efforts.
The most famous mosque in all of Turkey. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been inside a mosque. Islam prohibits the use of living things in the artwork of a mosque. What’s inside are beautiful geometric shapes and patterns. The inside of that place is just massive. When arriving, you find there are two entrances, one for worshipers, and another for visitors. In Islam, there is a call to prayer five times a day, and they ask you not to visit during the 20-30 minutes it takes for this to finish. The prayer times are posted outside, so it’s not really a problem. Everyone must remove their shoes before entering. Although not strictly enforced, women are asked to cover their hair and not enter if they’re wearing a short skirt or have exposed shoulders. I saw a few women who didn’t wear a headscarf, but most seemed respectful enough to abide.
This is a pretty cool building. However, it’s annoying just walking around in there because you’re constantly hounded by rug, jewelry and clothing vendors trying to get you to come buy their wares. Even if I was interested in purchasing something, I wouldn’t be able to with all the aggravation. Although one might expect to haggle, I heard stories from people staying at my hostel they didn’t have much luck. Despite the vast supply of rugs, I heard even a tiny floor rug just 4 square feet can cost a couple hundred dollars. Seems like more of a tourist trap than an authentic market.
This place is a smaller than the Grand Bazaar, but I kind of liked it more. They had really good Turkish delight. It also smelled wonderful in there as you might imagine considering it is a market filled with spices.
Large palace complex with gardens which kind of reminded me of some places I saw in the Andalucia region of Spain. Regrettably, I didn’t pay the entrance fee to go inside and see the entire palace complex. It was my first day, and I wanted to spend more time walking around the city. I never made it back, so I just have photos of one of the courtyards, an entrance gate and a church.
That wraps up my first few days in Turkey. I spent a total of one week in Istanbul, and I have to be honest, I didn’t have a good time. In fact, it was kind of awful, and I’ll elaborate more in my next update. Part of the problem came from staying in a hostel in the most touristy area of town. I also should have done more research on the scams the city is famous for. The architectures and markets weren’t as interesting as I imagined. The city just didn’t live up to the hype for me, and it would take some strong convincing for me to venture my way back. Some people might find this surprising. I’m definitely in the minority opinion in regards to disliking Istanbul. Everyone you meet traveling who’s been there loves it. I wish I could have seen what they saw. More to come.