Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week 7- Head over heels with Istanbul

Istanbul just lept to the top of our Favorite Places Ever list. I'm not even sure where to begin, or how to put this into words, but here we go.

We started off cold and a little grumpy having to travel through London to use our BA miles. The only thing I knew about where we were headed was from the song "Istanbul not Constantinople. It's Istanbul, not Constantinople..." Couldn't get that song out of my head... :)

Our flight in was late, BA of course lost our bag- the same one- again, so we were marrooned at the Istanbul airport for an extra hour until after midnight with two sleepy kids and an accidental lack of transfer to the hotel. Got picked up about 12:15, and finally made it to our room at the Mystic Hotel by about 1 a.m., when there was a short power outage and our host led us to an upstairs room by candlelight. Everybody crashed hard and we were sound asleep pretty quickly.

That's where the fun begins. :) At 5:30 a.m. by my watch (stuck in some other timezone), we hear a VERY loud and sudden chanting. I sat straight up, and Miles- who was enjoying his bathroom - bedroom suite, starts wailing that there is a "man singing in the bathroom." I got him into bed with us, and spent the next 45 minutes totally transfixed by the most hauntingly beautiful singing/chanting/calls to prayer that I was totally unprepared for. It started at the mosque a stone's throw from the hotel- blaring out of speakers in a minaret- and then every 4 minutes or so the next mosque would start, then thenext, and so on until it just faded off. Can't really describe how interesting this was. (Eric slept through it- not sure how, but that's the wonder of Eric's power of sleep...)

And so this is the beginning of the totally wonderful sensory overload that was Istanbul. I've never felt compelled to describe a trip by the senses, but I can't do Istanbul justice any other way:

Sounds- the Call to Prayer happens 5 times a day, and it never failed to totally freeze me in my tracks. Somewhere during day 2, it made me tear up. I hope this recording does it justice, but the chanting really surrounds you, fades in and out, and is so gorgeous in minor key that you can't help but be overwhelmed by it. Our host Oktay says that most of the calls are sung live, and that a mosque cannot start at the same time as a neighboring mosque, which is why you get the staggered, fading, enveloping sound of the calls for nearly 1/2 hour.

Walking the streets, we loved hearing the bustle of everything, listening to people talk, the impatient (and a little scary) drivers honking. And the music is out of this world-- the kids were completely into the different sounds. We found a great restaurant with a live trio- violin, kanun (zither)- looks like a harpsicord, but it's plucked, and a drum and we went back to a couple times.

We also went to a Sufi whirling dirvishes performance in a centuries-old Turkish bath with stone walls and a domed, cavernous space. To give a little background, here's a passage I found:

Whirling Dervishes are from the Mevlevi Order was founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. The Order wrote of tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment. They survive today as a cultural brotherhood. They are not theatrical spectacles but sacred rituals. The ritual of the Mevlevi sect, known as the sema, is a serious religious ritual performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. Mevlevi believed that during the sema the soul was released from earthly ties, and able to freely and jubilantly commune with the divine. Dervish literally means "doorway" and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world. The Whirling Dervishes played an important part in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. Rumi emphasized that music uplifts our spirit to realms above, and we hear the tunes of the Gates of Paradise.

It's rare for Vivian or Miles to sit still for an hour, but it was impossible to not be hypnotized by the dance or the music. Even the music in the cab made you want to stay in the car forever- regardless of the potential danger at hand....

Sights- Visually, Istanbul was stunning. It was rustic in the best of Mexico way, but exotic in a way I haven't experienced before. There are more than 2,500 mosques in Istanbul alone, and we walked by at least 10 daily. The Sultan Ahmet / Blue Mosque was built in 1609 and has 6 minarets. The story goes that the Sultan had to pay to build the 7th minaret at Mecca because it wasn't too popular for him to trump Mecca with the same number of minarets.

Directly across a large rectangular garden / fountain area is the Ayasofya mosque built in 537. Ayasofya was fascinating because it was originally the religious focal point for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church for 1000 years, but was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 at the fall of Constantinople by the Turks. So inside you find golden mosaics of the trinity crumbling off the walls. The interior dome is 182 feet tall and it's impossible to convey how vast it is inside. We took a cruise up the Bosphorous and saw countless more mosques- the entire landscape is punctuated by minarets.

Topaki Palace, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, was home to the Sultan and his hundreds of concubines, children and servants. The Harem portion of the palace was especially interesting- Miles noted that in their meeting room the low sofas outlining the room were for "circle time." :)

Smells- mmmmmm. Spice Market. Couldn't leave the spice market without bags of saffron, cumin, meatball mix, oregano mix, and some other concoction that I have no idea what to do with, but it makes me swoon.

Taste- mmmm again. Could I ever really get sick of a lamb kebob and a warm sesame pita? Not sure. But in 5 days I didn't. Turkish coffee bodyslams espresso. Turkish tea in those little glasses- yum.

Touch- saving the best for last. The Turks just outdid the Italians on my list of people I love the most. With
all this going on, it would be impossible not to just want to grab everything and everybody and just melt into them. We all learned the top 5 or so phrases, but if Vivian or Miles could get out a "tesakur ederim" or "mehr haba", we were golden. The little blond gringos were squeezed, snuggled, patted, kissed and the mostly-willing prop in countless pictures with Turks. Wish we could get a lira for every picture they were in. :) We got them a couple soccer jerseys (luckily and unwittingly one from each of the popular teams) so that went over REALLY well as we walked around.


And finally, our host family, Oktay, Sevim, Begum and Beyza were the most lovely people. Oktay and Sevim were like your favorite aunt and uncle (and Begum and Beyza like nieces) who live in the most interesting place you've ever wanted to visit. Oktay and Vivian had a special bond - and he made me quite teary saying that "you could see Vivian's heart and when she talked, he could hear her heart." Vivian and Beyza, who is 12, became fast friends despite some language barriers and Oktay even took Viv one day to pick up Beyza from school, which was a very special treat for her. We came as hotel guests, and I really felt we left as family. I wanted to hug them and never let go. :)

So that was our week. We had one more layover night/day in London coming back, which our friend Dave said must have been like stale chips after Istanbul. SO well put... I think Istanbul will linger with us for a very long time.

Grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy the slideshow. It's a little longer, but it's a keeper:


  1. sounds awesome! hopefully i'll see you guys soon.

    i'm jealous my dad gets to go see you guys tomorrow...

    - jess

  2. What a wonderful journal, Laurie!! To experience a new place through the heart of its people is THE memory you'll keep forever. Thanks for sharing it with us. MISS YOU GUYS... especially the little blond gringo gremlins! Mom