My First Night in Istanbul

and then


Hagia Sophia Museum

I’m introduced to Mr. Çetinkaya, the partner of Topkapi Carpet by Koyuncu, and a man that I feel comfortable with – to drink tea, to have lunch, and to buy his carpets if I had the money. I can tell I will be here awhile and I try to fight the urge, but I feel like I’m being welcomed into a family. The walls are covered with patterns and colors. There are stacks and rolls of rugs along each hallway, and in every space in a room where there’s not a bench. There are old museum pieces and newer ones that deserve that honor too as I see the work that goes into the details.

I’m shown their mini-museum of a process I can relate to – the dying, drying, and spinning process. I’m shown which natural ingredients they use – walnut, chamomile, and safflower to get shades of yellow depending on soak time and how long the yarn is left in the sun. I’m brought back inside where I’m offered more tea and I try to decline, reminding my host that I’ve had the two required of kindness, but Nufel is more pressing, so I accept a cup of Turkish coffee with little sugar – and what I get is an individually wrapped sugar cube. The guys are intrigued with my amazement at something I’m used to seeing in a bowl – the simple pleasures of travel.

I’m not to go off alone though, and I’m given a clear umbrella that I will cherish to protect my camera with as other tourists are quick to open and close theirs with the rains. I’m so happy to be in a place so grand that rain isn’t slowing people down, but the slippery bricks that cover all the streets and the marbled steps will make me walk as if I’ve tripled in age – which in this region is still very spry because they’ve been climbing these treacherous hills for decades and have bread to buy and carpets to sell.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

I’m shown the Hippodrome of Constantinople, now called the Sultanahmet Square, not a walled structure, but an outdoor hall that’s common and popular in large cities – especially ones where horse racing was a historical pastime. All that remains are the Serpent Column from the 5th century, the Obelisk of Thutmose III which is 3,500 years old, and the Walled Obelisk from the 10th century. The German Fountain was added in 1900 – another example of old and new in this city from the history books.

Seats and columns were excavated and placed in museums and the original track lays just a few feet underneath the modern one. I’m happy seeing the trees with their leaves changing colors, the old couple sharing an umbrella, and the public drinking fountain – first established in London in 1859 and quickly losing popularity to the water bottle. It’s at the front-ish end of the line where my guide leaves me to enter the Basilica Cistern for 20 lira. It seems there’s a pattern of queues to get into touristy things around here – like the world’s largest Disney Land.

The time is worth the wait, though I’d prefer to go back when I could have the place to myself and be surrounded by the sound of monks – as that’s how the 1,500 year old, 80,000 cubic meter water bucket feels to me. I can imagine this is what most caves would look like if left to amateurs – carve out the “unnecessary” walls, stalagmites, etc., just to give the popular shapes more photographic space. I want to be in a gondola and find a secret passage that allows me more time amongst the lit columns and their history.

Arasta Bazaar

Arasta Bazaar

In the back is more flash photography as people bend and twist to capture their faces, feet, and families next to the statues of Medusa – one upside-down and surrounded by coins, the other on her side smiling with teeth. The other side allows a more scenic view of the columns – the one that leads to the secret passage – and that’s near the cafe, but I’m in search of a public toilet. Outside I find a roasting stand for chestnuts and corn – the more burnt the better I will learn as I’m offered one to try and I think of The Christmas Song by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé – one of the most covered Christmas songs, but not in the top five overall with ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles.

The architecture of the Hagia Sophia Museum is wondrous. The old red bricks make it appear to be a factory, but the gray columns tell me it’s a castle, the domes say theater or mosque, and the golden pieces could decorate a palace. It was a church from 537 to 1453 when it became a mosque till 1931. It would open as a museum four years later and is currently charging 30 lira to enter. I chat with a humorous woman and her husband while we wait in line, umbrellas at the ready.

Past the cemetery and into the front that appears to be an abandoned school for sorcery. The ceilings are in amazing condition given their age, but that’s also because Jesus was plastered over, and the marble floors carpeted, for so long. There’s lots of restoration in the works – saving the design flaws of history to show three million tourists and one cat. Up the slippery stone walkway to see another angle of the stained glass windows and the arches of natural light overlooking the hanging bulbs below.

street food in Arasta Bazaar

street food in Arasta Bazaar

The mosaic pieces are small which helps with the intricate wall patterns and the details in the faces and clothes. Some windows, on tiptoe, allow you to see the Blue Mosque or the sea; and the ramp on the way down is grooved as Istanbul is one large slippery slope. The umbrella comes back out as I make my way to the Blue Mosque and I’m approached by Hüseyin who wants to take my picture with my camera – not till the rain stops. Then I meet yet another carpet guy who tells me the mosque is closed for prayer time, so I now have an hour to spend with him – of which I’ll spend 40 minutes.

He takes me through the Arasta Bazaar where there are plenty of textile, pottery, and jewelry shops; and then into his shop where I experience my first rug flop. A professional is quick to roll out 10 and then 20 rugs of varying sizes and colors. The others watch to see which one attracts me most while offering me another cup of tea. I really like a red and black one, and another with dark blue. They’re both 5×7 feet, but I think of their demise via dogs once delivered to my domain, and have to decline the $3,000 offer – especially without discussing such a purchase without Caleb.

We walk back towards the mosque so he can find more customers and I see his hand reach out behind me. I won’t let him touch me and I also won’t advertise for him. We part ways and I walk into the mosque courtyard and back to the bazaar. There’s the famous saying, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”, but here in Turkey the popular saying should be, “It’s always time to eat” as I’m invited to share a table full of food. I won’t mention how vigorously I undressed the bread with my eyes, but it sure was good to sink my teeth into.

inside Blue Mosque

inside Blue Mosque

There are cats sleeping about, but one kitten is having fun playing in the drizzle and pressing himself into my umbrella until it rains chicken bones in his direction. I’m happy to give him one too as people here know there is enough food for all – humans and animals alike, so that no one must go without. I check the time and excuse myself. It seems I won’t be going to the Mosaic Museum as the mosque should be open again. I get stopped in the tunnel and told to return to the bazaar because the queue will be long to get in, but I take his card and carry on.

I go up the first set of steps I see and it’s the exit, where people are putting on shoes and removing hijabs. I’m told to go down and around to get in, where I slip on the first marble step sending my handful of belongings into the rain. I’m grateful my camera is ok as I feel the large wet spot on my hip that I’m sure will bruise later, but I don’t have time for that now. I take the other steps down at a snails pace and then look up to see others walking across to the courtyard entrance that I can cross to the back, or go all the way around. That would’ve saved me a fall, but left me one story short in Turkey.

A lady asked if I was alright as she helped gather my things. It’s a short wait and there’s a corridor for shoe removal and hijab donning – a big, blue, medical-looking cloth that I’m sure would stay on in the wind. Of course the inside is beautiful. Past the groups of tourists and all the cables for lighting are wonderful, mostly blue, mosaics and levels of 260 stained glass windows with arches, columns, and colors reminiscent of Istanbul’s history. I could stay longer, but most of the details start 12 to 18 feet above my head, and this place too is crowded.

Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes stage

Hodjapasha Whirling Dervishes stage

I was given a bag for my shoes – one, so their wetness won’t drip on the carpet and two, so that I don’t have to come back to the shelf for them, causing more traffic. I pass by the woman’s prayer area, which looks like a kiddie corner, and have to be grateful that it’s even there. I put my wet shoes back on and return the hijab to the bin. It’s only once I’m down the steps again that I see the ramp with rails. I walk back to Topkapi Carpet to avoid some hassle-free time before my scheduled Whirling Dervishes show at 7pm.

Nufel suggests I take the tram, but it’s only a 15 minute walk past sweet shops and restaurants, to Hodjapasha: Tarihle iç içe gösteriler (history intertwined display). I arrive with ten minutes to enjoy a cup of hot tea or cold water before getting my ticket for seat 3, out of 120 or more, with standing room in two corners – one needed for the band, another for the media guy. There’s a 15 minute musical introduction as the five Semazens come on stage and kneel on a fur rug.

There’s no photography allowed during the show, though other venues will allow it, I’m guessing the circular indoor stage with their outfits flitting on our knees leaves no room for a flash competition. This leaves me with these words to describe what I saw: entrancing, seductive, puppet-like, anticipation, wind from their skirts, shadow of their body, music box figurines, dizzying, calling the ancestors, magical, they moved as one, and the original left turn – as they took turns spinning in the middle.

walking in the rain

walking in the rain

They take the stage and you expect them to spin, but not on and off for 45 minutes. To accomplish such a feat one needs to study for at least six months on just the physical aspect. The Mevlevi Order is founded on love and tolerance and their costume symbolises the death of the ego. The dancers hands show that they receive from God, give to man, and keep nothing for themselves. This ritual, performed for 800 years with such grace, and being such a profound part of a culture, was added to a UNESCO list in 2005 – so it’s not just me that was affected deeply.

The walk back to Topkapi Carpet is nice as the bricks reflect the lights from the restaurants. I’m offered a cup of apple tea and gladly accept. Further, I’m offered another cup and put under an awning for the sudden downpour. As the man tries to offer more than appropriate I open my umbrella and walk away. I stay in the street, except to let the tram pass, as the smaller, dual-directional bricks offer a less slippery walk than the larger ones. The hills help the cities drainage system as I slosh through the current.

I enjoy the stillness of the city and the different colored lights along the Hippodrome. Nufel has offered to take me to dinner and has patiently waited the 45 minutes it took for my return after the show by playing a card game on his phone – 101. He’s so addicted that he has to stop in the middle of an intersection to play his turn before driving us to Akbiyik Fish House where he puts his phone away. We sit down at 9pm and a tray of 16 appetisers is brought out for us to choose from.

a guest at dinner

a guest at dinner

I point to the octopus, and yogurt, fish paste, and butter are added to the table along with two plates of fried something and a glass of Yeni Raki (new distilled – made with sugar-beet alcohol and anise). I debated getting fish due to bones, so Nufel had the waiter debone it for me. I was grateful for the delivery of fish and chips (fries) at 9:45pm, but 15 minutes later I’m in the toilet scratching a bone out of my throat. I’d picked out a few tiny ones and tried washing this one down with alcohol before I started to panic.

Nufel suggested that he could take me to the hospital but I figured a decision could wait till morning – though I’d have had another item marked off my not-bucket list. I calm down and forfeit the other half of my fish – I’m not chancing it. The waiter brings out fruit and I’m more than happy to indulge and then wish I had some to share as we pass some Syrian refugees on the way to my hotel at 10:50pm. I take the stairs to the fourth floor and stare down at my soggy, green feet – the sign of a good day and bad shoes.

I check the balcony door to make sure it’s not my fault that my room is wetter, at the end of the bed, than I left it. I ignore the puddle, shower, and lay my head down at midnight as I listen to the neighbouring rooms – one sounds like Russians reading the Quran and another is a couple having sex in the shower. I could’ve paid more for a hotel room, but I would’ve missed out on Ast Hotel – one of many in a line of stories.

Akbiyik Balık Evi

Akbiyik Balık Evi

This entry was posted in Animals, Art, Entertainment, Fiber Arts, Food, History, Music, People, Photography, Places, Travel, Water and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to My First Night in Istanbul

  1. Pingback: On the Winged Stallion to the Land of The Turks | TheJessicaness

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