Visiting Istanbul for only five days felt like being at a buffet and only getting one serving. It was a delicious first plate, but it’s a buffet, and at buffets i generally eat about five plates (not including dessert) . I was in the middle of the most expansive, dense, and lively city filled with a history of a global power, influence of religious tradition, and the presence of a secular and modern world – and so much more. I feel almost uncomfortable trying to make sense of what I saw in such a short trip because i know the layers upon layers of culture that exist; however, I am going to try to protect myself in my self-claimed ignorance in an attempt to address the complexities that I observed.
I learned about the current political landscape by Martin Selsø, a Danish-Turkish correspondent. The AKP, the largest political party, is Islamist-based. Martin made it seem as though the government quite restrictive, arresting journalists who spoke against the government etc. But they gained the public’s support because they were trying to join the EU, which seems like a step towards modernization. However, the limited political rights and EU’s focus don’t line up. So then i got confused.
Anyway, regardless of who is in control, Ataturk is the country hero. We were there on the anniversary of his death. On November 10th at 9:05 the city stopped moving. Even the cars stopped driving (once it was safe). Everyone admires the man who made Turkey a modern, secular, republic.
The billboards I saw and the commercials I watched could have been seen any where in the world. Almost every women on the billboards looked European and did not show any signs of religion or tradition (unlike the majority of the women I saw on the street). I saw a city filled with modern commercialism and filled with mosques. While five times a day the city sounded with prayer from the top of minarets, the sounds at night were American dance floor hits. This was definitely a cool balance that I have never experienced.
When i walked around, I felt like I was in a man’s city. The city was just filled with men. And about 90% of the women that I did see on the streets were on the arms of men. Men danced in the streets and fished off the bridge and worked in all the shops. Where were the women?
view from under the galata bridge. So many fishing poles! So much fresh fish!
The interactions that I saw, seemed super friendly and genuine. It seemed as that any relationship made was one for life. For example, one day I walked around the city with Şarl Şahbaz, a film man, and we went to a hotel he used to stay in because there was a great view. He spoke to all of the employees like best friends; Thrilled to see everyone of them, after the view he pointed us in the direction of home because he wanted to stay and catch up. Şarl explained to us that when he goes back to his old butcher, baker, etc. the same interactions are had.
Another man had come up to the group and invited us to see some museum and was really excited to talk to us and hear where we were all from.
When i was visiting the Topkapi Palace, I was sitting and writing and two different men came up to me and asked me what i was writing.
As i was walking through the shops I got involved with this deep conversation with the shop owner (a man) about how people need to get to know shop keepers and shop keepers need to get to know customers instead of just looking at each other as money machines. Any way, all of these super friendly interactions were either between men or with men. I did not interact with a single women in my time in Istanbul.
However, when I went into a Turkish bath, I’ve never seen women so comfortable. I really had no idea what to expect. I walked in the sauna area and there was a big marble slab in the middle where women were nakedly laying with other naked women washing them. It was literally just a room filled with naked women bathing. It was so relaxing and so great so calming to be in such a spa, but it didn’t seem to line up with what I had seen outside of the bath walls.
I know these observations and comparisons are surface ones but it was all the i could grasp in my five day visit. I left excited with all that I have seen but also frustrated and confused with all that I do not know. But i guess that’s traveling. I’m a visitor seeing a place for such a short time and mostly only interacting with other visitors. Next time i decide to spend two straight weeks traveling (hah!) i will put more of an effort into traveling in ways in which I can really engage with the communities around me.
What i do know is that Istanbul is an extremely vibrant and exciting city and there is a different vibe around every corner.
All these photos were side-streets of İstiklâl, a prominent pedestrian street.
At most any time of day, İstiklâl was filled with people. There is a point where the elevation of street changes, and when you are standing at that higher point, all you see is tops of heads. No side-walk, just a dense mass of bodies. The energy was constant, comparable to NYC.
The Mosques and Sights were incredible. I fell in love with the tiling and patterns that were used. So much personality and color.
Inside Topkapi Palace
The Blue Mosque
The Hagia Sophia
Our awesome trip leaders put a lot of effort into bringing us to the spots with the best views of the city. I saw an incredible view most everyday, and still, everyday the size surprised me.
I’m back in Denmark with one month left.
I got to make this one really count
Lots of Love