Tuesday, January 11

Istanbul - Blue Mosque and a Carpet Salesman

Hagia Sophia - "Divine Wisdom"
Built in 532 AD as a Christian Church, 1453 converted to a mosque, then a 1930s museum exhibiting both faiths!

On New Year's Day, Ryan and I flew to Istanbul for a few days. Ryan's brother Eric got us in the mood playing They Might Be Giants classic "Istanbul was Constantinople." Ha-Ha! Actually, riding in his BMW company car was the highlight! Truly awesome even from the back seat!

On some of our travels, we've seen tv commercials for Turkish Airlines that have always had us smirking for their sing-song schmoozy jingle, "We are Turkish Airlines. We are globally yours." But we were impressed on that initial flight with the meal and roomy seats. The return flight didn't deliver on either of these, but it was a nice way to start our getaway. From Munich, it was a 2 1/2 hour flight. Here's some initial impressions of Istanbul:

- Flying into a land of minarets! Just think if every LDS chapel spire in Utah had a very tall minaret to dot the skyline! Five times a day, these minarets are used to broadcast the sing-song call to prayer. This was Ryan's first time to a Muslim country and I enjoyed seeing his wonder at the sheer number of mosques and minarets on our descent.

- Our hotel shuttle driver sure liked to push the pedal to the metal from the airport to the Historic District! It was amazing how he deftly maneuvered tight streets in downtown while gunning the engine! Most buildings are in various stages of crumble it seems – it’s old and the streets are pretty dirty! There were plenty of nice buildings and housing further from downtown.

- Western Europe does cathedrals like the Muslim world does mosques – beautifully ornate and massive! The historic part of Istanbul has about 7 grand mosques or edifices impressively dotting the skyline. The drive from airport to Historic Istanbul goes along the coast and so we saw lots of people walking the waterfront, huge ships everywhere, regular kiddie playgrounds everywhere, young men and boys playing soccer on fenced in “courts”.

- Germans don’t display their flag much so it was quite a change to see Turkey’s flag waving in the breeze everywhere. Most were impressively large along the coastline which makes sense as we considered all the international waterway traffic that passes through this Bosphorus Strait.

- Thanks to airport restrictions on traveling with water bottles, we were both dying of thirst by the time we got to the hotel. We drank a cup of hotel tap water and Yuck! You buy your water here the front desk said. Thanks, that would have been useful information when we checked in. Ryan never got sick from brushing his teeth with it but I wasn't that brave. I’ve had a bad experience in the past catching a bug from tap water so I didn’t chance it from then on.

- Street food cart vendors sold corn on the cob, cheese naan, roasted chestnuts, and sesame seed bread rings the size of a big pretzel. Restaurants tout their fresh baked naan (flat) bread by having two traditionally dressed women rolling it out and baking it right inside the front entrance window on a big round convex drum-looking heated griddle.

On the way to our first sight – the Blue Mosque – a nice local began chatting with us on his way there for prayer. Ahmet soon became our self-appointed guide and we later discovered . . . carpet salesman! Luckily he was just an apprentice and hadn’t refined his pushy sales pitches yet. We figured it out when we exited the mosque and he was eagerly waiting for us outside. We tried to skirt away by telling him we were headed to see the Byzantine Underground Cistern (A.D. 500) before it closed soon, but he diligently led us there and never stopped sharing all the finer tour guide spiels. Now we started getting worried about his expectations and what it would take to get away!

In the underground Cistern that fed this area with water for centuries fed by canals and aquaducts, tourists fell for the photo op to dress up in posh sultan and harem garb.

As we exited the Cistern, Ahmet was again waiting for us outside. We tried to let him down easy because we truly aren’t in the market for a Turkish carpet, but he got us to the shop to take his card before we ran off to go eat. We must have been a big disappointment after the 2 ½ hours he spent wandering with us. We learned our lesson – those carpet salesmen know their trade!

A little about the Blue Mosque, it was built in 1609 right next to Hagia Sophia. It's known as the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful white tile painted with a lot of blue Arabic script, flowers and geometric designs. Weathly rulers liked to big massive mosques to show off their wealth. Ryan said nonchalantly, “Not blue enough but, pretty cool."

We had to remove our shoes before entering and I had to cover my head with a scarf. Ahmet drew our attention to the first timers holding up the line as they tried to open the plastic bag to put their shoes in before entering.

This last one is a view towards the mihrab, just right of the column on the left. The mihrab is a decorated niche that angles the people towards Mecca. There's a slightly raised platform there for the imam (preacher) to give sermons although he also speaks from the staircase which is in the middle of this picture. He only ascends 3/4 up the staircase out of respect for Muhammed, their esteemed holiest prophet. I find Muhammed's life fascinating coming from an LDS perspective.

Our pictures make it look brighter and bluer than it did in the afternoon light. It had nice carpet throughout rather than the eclectic layers of carpets I remember from the Holy Land mosques I visited in 1997. The carpet designs help designate where people stand and kneel to pray. It looked so old and run down and made me want to see what a regular neighborhood mosque looked like.

I first saw the low hanging ancient chandeliers and then the cordoned off women’s area (men and women are segregated during their services). I felt a wave of reverence wash over me as I saw the women doing their prayers and reading, particularly the young ones behind the women’s screen with their nose in their Koran against a window seat.

We had a good but not fabulous Indian curry dinner overlooking the Hagia Sophia skyline. On the way home, we stopped in at a shop so Ryan could get his baklava and Turkish delights fix – he had to pace himself! And then we fell for another carpet salesman on the way home. We’re just not used to being so warmly accosted by vendors at every turn who holler out asking where you're from and so on! Between restaurants and carpet salesmen vying for your attention, it gets overwhelming fast! Ryan was able to let loose and have some fun joking with a salesman who was really trying to push some pretty, but low quality, tapestry and pillow cases in colors I liked. We were finally able to walk away, but were not invited to come for tea tomorrow! Rats!