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.
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.
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.
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. :)
Grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy the slideshow. It's a little longer, but it's a keeper: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8611188@N02/sets/72157617061236624/show/