Once again we pulled into the Otogar, after a long night of inclined sleep. It’s possible to snooze on comfortable buses, but not as restful as a bed for sure; inevitably you are the walking dead the next day. From the Otogar we hitched a lift on a shuttle to Kadikoy’s station, and from there hopped a city bus on a loop around the Asian side of town before exiting outside the Anadolu İmam Hatip Lisesi School.
We would be spending the next few days with a woman I contacted through couchsurfing, Neshe. Chris and I agreed to meet her here and to spend some time with her English students. Little did we know what was in store for us! When we showed up, we were shuffled up winding stairwells, through a sea of girls cloaked in burgundy headscarves, to the teacher’s lounge on the top floor. While waiting a few minutes for our hostess we snuck off to the bathrooms to freshen up a bit—we did just roll off an all-night bus with frazzled hair and eye goop after all. Neshe turned out to be an amazing and super friendly woman, and her students welcomed us with a party! We spent two hours eating a spread of various homemade Turkish foods and answering questions about our lives and things that we like. Some of the girls played songs on the ney (of Persian origin, an end-blown flute) for us, and at the end they begged to take photos and get our facebook names. The funniest thing was the way they took to Chris— as Neshe warned us, they don’t interact with men much, let alone older foreign men, so for Chris to speak openly with them (and dazzle them with drawings on the chalkboard) makes the girls kind of giddy… :) As far as school conditions go, I couldn’t help but notice how well kept the classes and halls were—no broken window panes, the bathrooms had toilets and soap and running water, and there was a general lack of kids just hanging out in the halls causing trouble. Amazing!
For three days we stayed with Neshe, in her apartment near the Uskadar ferry station, on the Asian coast. We would ride across the Marmara in the morning and walk around SultanAhmet, exploring as many mosques, alleys, bazaars, and baklava shops as we could squeeze in each day. Chris generally had his favorite ‘chicken man’ joint, and I carried dried figs and cranberries in my camera bag to nibble on. SultanAhmet is a large neighborhood with most of Istanbul’s best tourist attractions.
Gotta wash up before entering...
Crowded streets some vendors find opportunities selling simit, a popular breakfast snack
View of Blue Mosque from across at Aya Sophia
"Book Street" near the Grand Pazar, full of Qurans, novels, texts, and artwork
Stalls inside the Grand Pazar
Near the ferry dock is the first of 3 gargantuan mosques—the New Mosque. Nearby is the covered Spice Bazaar, where treasures and treats from the limits of the Silk Road were brought, one of the earliest products of globalization. We spent most of our time wandering, peeping into dozens of once-essential hans (caravansaries), which are now worn down and mostly converted to shops or storage spaces; de-shoeing and ducking into plenty of small and large mosques to admire the inner calligraphy and tilework; taking photos, trying hard not to let people see me capture them as subjects of the Turkish Life and Times. Most of my photos are of markets and mosques, which pretty much describes the whole city. Everywhere you turn there is a shopfront exploding with sacks of nuts and dried fruits, hanging peppers, bags of colorful spices, rows of tempting and elaborate desserts…
Galata Bridge is packed day and night with fishermen, who sell to the restaurants below deck and to the many nearby stalls serving fresh grilled fish sandwiches
Seedsellers keep birds well fed outside the New Mosque
Delicious goodies inside the Grand Pazar
Antiques abound outside the Grand Pazar
Stalls brimming with goods
Cafes and endless shops with trinkets, carpets, jewelry, etc. in the Grand Pazar
Two of the other famous mosques in SultanAhmet are the Aya Sophia (formerly the Hagia Sophia) and the Blue Mosque. Both are enormous structures with extravagant features and fascinating histories; the Aya Sophia was originally built as a Byzantine Church in the 6th century, and later converted to a mosque when the Ottomans stormed the city to conquer Istanbul in 1453. The enormous dome is mesmerizing from the outside (they say the statue of liberty can fit inside without her torch), but we didn’t get the opportunity to venture inside on this trip. The Blue Mosque is remarkable in its design—the only mosque in the world with 6 minarets. It is architecturally impressive on both the outside as well as in. Chris and I enjoyed part of two beautiful afternoons outside these camiis, taking in the views and watching other tourists and locals as they went about their day. As always, Chris busily sketched while I wrote in my little journal.
Baklava break at the Blue Mosque!
Aya Sophia and Hamam
Sketching in the mosques
Gargantuan Blue Mosque-- tourists line up to squeeze inside between calls to prayer
As the sun set we returned to Neshe’s apartment and would spend the evenings with her, usually she cooked us a fabulous dinner of Turkish foods and we’d talk about our days’ adventures. Neshe taught us a lot about the city and Turkish culture. I love couchsurfing so much because I finally have someone to answer all my silly questions, and Neshe was great because she’s very open-minded and I was able to glimpse through the eyes of a conservative Muslim woman. I also really admire her self-confidence and sense of adventure. Contrary to her culture, she’s traveled to many countries (alone even), and is receptive to opening her home to foreign strangers through CS. Actually, she has made many wonderful friends through couchsurfing and consequently opened opportunities to visit many of them throughout Europe and even host other members of their families who visit Istanbul. She really inspired me to take more advantage of CSing and to do better to keep ties with terrific people that I meet.
Two other awesome things that came about due to our meeting Neshe are: 1) she took us to the Sakirin Mosque, which is the first mosque designed by a woman. I had read an article about this a few months beforehand, but never would have found it on my own. It was only a few bus stops from her house, so we went there one evening before meeting her friends out for some tea.
Beautiful, elegant, modern Sakirin Mosque
And, 2) she took us to a whirling lesson! Neshe is learning Sufism, otherwise called Mystical Islam, which was made popular by the epic poet Rumi Mevlani, whose mosque and tomb we went to in Konya. Our very own dervish! She took us to her whirling class one night, where we spent hours practicing to spin on one foot, trying hard to not fall over, and watching the other students (all females, hoping to be the first order of female dervishes) as they twirled round and round to the music… It is much more difficult (and painful) than it looks!
Whirling Dervish apprentices (look at that concentration!)