After a long day of travel, we finally arrived in Istanbul. As with all destinations during the program, I approached each one as a tabula rasa (blank slate) – with as few expectations as possible regarding what to expect when we arrived. With that in mind, perhaps because some would arguably consider Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) the birthplace of Western Civilization; I was under the impression that we would once again step back in time to a place that looked like ancient Rome. When we began our journey to the hotel where we would be spending the next five nights (the remainder of the program), I soon came to find that Istanbul was very different than I had imagined. If you are of the belief that Istanbul is (at least one of) the birthplaces of Western Civilization, than you would not be surprised to hear that today it is a very western, modern city and very much reminded me of other large cities in the United States. I do not wish to make such a generalization, but in my opinion, it was very easy to compare Istanbul to New York City – with some major exceptions which I will later describe in detail. For some reason, my initial impression of Istanbul (less the mosques and city wall) was that it was a cross between Miami, FL and Hartford, CT, when evaluating the city during a crazy bus ride to our hotel through busy traffic. I suppose that being a modern city is very fitting then, in that Istanbul is not stuck in one period of time, and it continues to evolve with other western cultures.
It was fairly late when we arrived at our hotel, and after checking in, the group was in search of a meal. Istanbul is a city that has tripled its population in the past 10-years, so there is a lot of traffic and it is quite congested – a bit of a culture shock. After walking a few blocks from our hotel, and being aggressively solicited by every restaurant host that we walked past, the group decided on an authentic Turkish restaurant where the only thing that I knew (with reasonable certainty) was that I had just ordered some sort of chicken. To the best of my knowledge, I think most of the group felt fairly uncertain about what to expect when our meal arrived, and were concerned about the food not agreeing with our systems. I was also unsure of the attitude of Turkish people toward Americans at this point, however my fears began to ease as a result of the friendly and exceptional service which we received. After later evaluating many meals, I came to find that my initial impression of the servers at this restaurant was appropriate in that the Turkish have a very strong work ethic and really deliver what they promised. Our meal of kebabs with vegetables and toasted flatbread soon arrived, which was quite delicious, and that was followed by Turkish tea afterwards. The only part of our dining experience that seemed unusual that night was the amount of time it took to receive our bill (even after multiple requests). I later came to find that for some reason this is very typical in Turkey, and it often times took longer to get the bill settled than it did to be served and eat the meal.
After a good dining experience, I was beginning to feel more comfortable being in Turkey, until I began to mull over something that happened during check-in at the hotel. In order to obtain our room key, my roommate and I (as well as the rest of the group) were required to present our passports to the front desk clerk. Initially, I thought that the clerk was going to make a copy and return the passports, however he kept them! Perhaps due to being over-tired, I was rather upset by this and thoughts began to go through my head such as our passports being lost or sold on the black market. This was another occasion where I definitely appreciated being in a faculty-led program, as our professors reassured the group that the practice of holding passports is standard procedure in that they have to be registered with the local police. We were also ensured that our passports would be returned to us in the morning (and they were). Although I fully trusted my professor’s rationale, and I felt reassured, it is somewhat un-nerving being without your passport when in a foreign country. This is because you cannot leave Turkey or enter your transfer or home airports without the passport being thoroughly scrutinized and approved. Although I had no intention of leaving the program early, again due to being over-tired from travel, the prospect of being trapped in a foreign country makes you feel very homesick. In addition, this experience helped me relate to some of our readings and discussion of religious toleration, namely during the holocaust. I could empathize with the trust that many Jews put into figures of authority who required them to turn over different personal belongings (and likely identification), only to find out that they were fooled and would lose their rights and freedom. I began to understand the rationale of how individuals or peoples can fall victim to figures of authority, when looking from the outside we may criticize their cooperation. Of course once again I must clarify that there was no problem and our passports were returned the next morning. I mention this instance so that if you are traveling and experience this, of course use skepticism and avoid leaving your passport if at all possible; however feel a bit more comfortable knowing that it is a standard procedure in many cities.
After a good night’s rest, we met with Umit, who would be our tour guide for the next two days. Once again I must commend the Turkish work ethic, or at least that of Umit, because he went to great lengths to make sure that we understood the history of Istanbul as he explained it. I was also very impressed with him in that he spoke Turkish, English, and Arabic fluently, and I believe one or two other languages. It again became apparent to me during the program how disadvantaged many are in the US in that they only speak one language (including myself), and in a global economy how important it is to understand at least one other culture and language.
We were taken to Sultanhammet, which in my opinion is the Turkish version of St. Mark’s square in Venice. It is home to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, as well as some other artifacts. In contrast to St. Mark’s , which as described in an earlier blog is very historical, Sultanhammet features more modern architecture which surround the historic sites, and has a more western feel. We then toured the Blue Mosque, which was a very interesting and insightful experience for me as I had never been inside a mosque and did not know what to expect. Before entering, we were required to remove our shoes, however were allowed to continue to wear socks. Upon entering, I immediately began to notice some differences when compared to a church or cathedral. Although the artwork in The Mosque was very beautiful, what was most outstanding was the absence of human figures. The Mosque is lit by lights which hang down from a maze/web of chains, forming a new pattern inside. In addition, there are no seats or an altar – just a podium where the mass is celebrated from.
After our tour of Sultanhammet, our guide took us for lunch at a Turkish restaurant where we were seated on the rooftop which was about four-stories above street level and overlooked the Bosporus River. We once again had a delicious meal of kebabs, but what happened next was the first of what was perhaps the most significant cultural experience that I had in Turkey. As we began to eat our lunch, all of a sudden we heard loud singing coming from the mosques, which can be heard across the entire city! It is rather difficult to describe, but it is approximately a 20-minute ritual that consists of passages which last anywhere from about fifteen seconds to two minutes. Initially, I did not know what this singing meant, and it might have even been a bit frightening not understanding the language or culture. It was at this point however that I once again appreciated our tour guide, as he explained that the singing is similar to church bells in that it worships God and calls people to pray. In addition, he dispelled some misconceptions that I had about the Islam religion, and I came to realize that Muslims are extremely religious and peaceful people. The singing occurs four times per day, and the orthodox Muslims go to the mosque each time they are called to worship – true devotion!
In contrast to our time in Italy, where to a certain extent I felt safe and comfortable navigating the city, in Istanbul I initially felt quite uncomfortable not being able to interpret signs, menus, or the language. For example, at one point or another, each one of us was plagued with allergies during the program, and when we arrived in Istanbul, it was my turn. I sought cough medicine, however I did not know where the pharmacy was, so I asked at the hotel front desk. With the little English that the hotel clerk spoke, all I surmised was that it was down the hill and approximately 100 meters on the left. I walked about three blocks and did not find the pharmacy, so I walked back toward the hotel. On the way, I found a medical equipment store (wheel chairs, oxygen, etc.) and asked the man if that was the pharmacy. He pointed back down the hill, and I had the impression it was only a few doors down. There was an old indoor shopping mall, so I thought maybe the pharmacy was inside, but did not know how to find it on the directory. At this point, I was feeling extremely frustrated, and stupid. I had been reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and this experience made me relate with the book’s Lithuanian characters when they arrived in Chicago and did not know how to find the stockyards (since the only English word they knew was Chicago)! Finally, I returned to the hotel, and again asked for directions, when the clerk this time wrote “eczane” on a slip of paper, which is Turkish for pharmacy. That was extremely helpful, and it turned out that 100 meters was actually about six-blocks from the hotel! In fact, it turns out that a pharmacy in Turkey, as well as Italy, uses a green cross (similar to the U.S. Red Cross symbol). It is amazing how a simple task can quickly feel so overwhelming!
Throughout our time in Istanbul, we toured many fascinating sites, such as the Topkapi and Ottoman palaces, as well as an archaeological museum. When touring the archaeological museum, I was once again amazed to find actual Mesopotamian artifacts which I had only read about in my Western Civilization course. We were also taken on a private Bosporus River cruise, which was quite fascinating in that on one side of the river was Europe, and on the other was Asia! In addition to the educational points of interest in Istanbul, we also went to the Grand and Spice Bazaars, which are comparable to what we know as flea markets, with the exception that the sales people were much more forward. It was difficult to shop, at most places in Istanbul, because if you showed the least bit of interest, the sales person would literally follow you as you walked away. Although both were interesting to see, I was most impressed with the Spice Bazaar in that the vendors offered very unique items (tea and spices), when compared to the typical flea market, counterfeit items offered at the Grand. We also visited Taxim Square, which is basically a congested street with shops and restaurants, but reinforces the western feel of Istanbul (minus the singing coming from the mosques!). Taxim also provided a great view of the city, and in my opinion was very representative of Istanbul in that it bridges the gap between old and new by nicely blending Turkish and western cultures.
What an amazing experience!