I will readily admit that what got me interested in traveling to Istanbul was an installment in the Assassin’s Creed video game series (well, in the game it was still Constantinople). So when I realized that I needed out of Moscow for a bit, Istanbul was the choice. A short flight and I was in a country unlike anything I had been in before. A country with an overwhelming majority of its population identifying as Muslim.
The Blurred Lines
I’m not religious. Nor am I an antagonist towards religion in general. Life is a hodgepodge of the absurd, and we all must find some interpretation of it. Some find it in obeisance to deities, some find it in TV.
But, in the places I have been around the world thus far, religion has been something that people carried around in their hearts, affecting their actions in a more subtle way. What I mean, is that it was unusual to see women garbed in burkhas. Specifically next to some fellow in completely modern clothes, sporting a watch, sunglasses, Lacoste trainers, and the keys to a Mercedes resting on a table next to an iPhone buzzing with messages from persons unknown.
Unusual to hear a call to prayer sent over the city via megaphones every couple hours, drowned by the ambient music in a Starbucks.
Unusual to buy a pair of fake Adidas beneath the shadow of a slumbering mosque.
To feel this sober religion woven through a city that bustled with modernity. Quite the contrast.
Over the Threshold
And then I set foot in a mosque. The timing was perfect. A call to prayer had just been sounded and a number of people entered the building. The women huddled in an enclosed corner. The men barefoot and shoulder-to-shoulder in the main area.
What followed was, in a way, both impressive and uncanny.
I cannot say what the women were doing in their enclosure, but the men were quite visible.
A group of them pressed together, all facing a single direction, casting words upon the stones around them, words handed down to them by their fathers and the fathers before them. Words they will pass to their children in the hope of leading them on the proper path of life.
I wanted to stay, to view more of the phenomenon. But, the uncanny side prevailed over the impressive, and I stepped out. Put on my shoes. And got lost in the city. Actually lost.
From ages past…
I’ve been in churches, I’ve been in temples, and I’ve been in cathedrals. This was different.
What impressed me about the mosque were its ties to something older than itself. Something that has remained, within those walls, quite unchanged from its source material. The sobriety is there, the atmosphere of solidarity in this faith, the adherence to a certain method of practicing one’s worship.
Or so I felt, in my rather exhaustive ignorance of Islam.
It was almost as though, for a few moments, I had been transported to an earlier time, or a more fantastical realm where calling upon the gods results in boons or retribution.
Moving on. Boats. If you suffer some seasickness, Istanbul will not be your ideal spot. Some of the best areas, like the Prince’s Islands are (obviously enough) only accessible by crossing the waters.
The ride of these chugging machines is scenic in itself. The arrival almost dreamlike. Something about watching a boat dock gives me a supreme satisfaction. Even the enthusiastic landing of a plane does not quite match the silent thrill given by coming in to port at an island…if that is even the correct term.
Then the climb to one of the highest points on said island. Seeing the surround expanse of sea, civilization, and rolling land. Hearing nothing. Seated on a bench. Coming down the slope just in time to get beneath an awning before a deluge hits. All just a boat ride away in Istanbul.
The (Grand?) Bazaar
Oddly enough, what I had expected to be a rather thrilling part of the trip ended up being, to put it simply, the most underwhelming…the Grand Bazaar.
I had in my mind this romantic image of a lively sprawl, owners hawking their esoterica in a haze of tobacco smoke, each new stall offering some unique goods or trinkets or…It was nothing like that. It was more like an encased cycle of backpacks, fake shoes, tea, hookah sets…ad infinitum.
Less numerous craftsmen proffering their labors, and more people desperately selling the products of a Chinese factory. So, not unlike an American mall in that sense.
I left the Bazaar with a somewhat dejected feeling…and a pair of not quite authentic Adidas in my backpack. A small victory.
The Art of the Alley
But the alleys made up for it. Much like what I loved about Putian were the labyrinthine passages that connected the city, away from the main roads. Stairways with real flavor and life. Hole-in-the-wall cafes and eateries where you run into a meal and warm hospitality.
Where you are away from the jumble of languages and you get to see the real tempo of the city. Away from the exchange of dollars for lira, the exchange of lira for goods, the exchange of goods of the emptiness in us. Where you can meet the eyes of a stray cat, get hussled by a shoe-shiner for a couple lira, and get lost. But I mentioned that already.
All Said and Done
A place not too exotic, but a far cry from the sedation of many other Western countries, Istanbul is a city that I would gladly return to, sit down in a shop by the side of the road, and drink some Turkish tea, with a book, of course.