How I Got a Taste of Istanbul in One Day
A Step by Step Guide to One Day in Istanbul
I know what you're thinking: "Who goes to Turkey for a day?" I was on my way to a sports convention taking place in Belek/Antalya and, as I mentioned in my post How to Squeeze a Little Sightseeing into Your Business Trip, you take what you can get. However, being the planner that I am, it did not sit well with me that I had to wing it because due to flight schedules, I only managed to squeeze in this brief stop at the last minute.
I arrived in Turkey having done zero research or any google mapping. On the ride from the airport to the hotel, I managed a quick online investigation and picked my priorities. I checked in, all the while tapping my foot nervously as the front desk employee seemed to take forever to go through the paperwork. Finally, I ran to my room, tossed my bags and ran back down, stopped by the concierge and grabbed a handful of sightseeing brochures and got a cab.
The Blue Mosque
When I arrived, I learned that the Blue Mosque is a working mosque, but I had been fortunate to arrive at visiting hours and, even though I was wearing pants (refer to Hagia Sophia photos), I was also wearing a pashmina that I used to cover my head.
I pulled out my brochure in between staring open-mouthed at all the beauty that surrounded me. Construction of the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. The upper levels of the mosque are painted blue and watching the light filtering through 200 stained glass windows made for a magical effect.
The walls are inscribed with the names of the Caliphs and with verses from the Quran in gorgeous calligraphy. As you can see in a couple of the photos I took, I’m a big calligraphy nerd.
I took several turns around each level because I wanted to commit as much as possible to memory. It’s simply one of those places where you are reminded that humans are capable of producing unbelievable beauty.
The Hagia Sophia
I looked at the watch and reluctantly started walking towards the Hagia Sophia, reading my brochures as I approached the red minarets. I was built in the year 360 AD and was a Christian church for over a thousand years. I wondered how such an ancient construction had survived so many wars, including an invasion by Sultan Mehmed in 1453?
When the building was captured, the Sultan declared that it should be converted into a mosque, hence the blend of Christian and Muslim art within this magnificent place.
The cultural importance of the Hagia Sophia is evident the moment you enter: it is the place where two of the world’s most important religions met hundred of years ago.
The walk from the Blue Mosque to the Hagia Sophia is adorned by tulips of all colors, the national flower. I had always thought tulips were exclusive to the Netherlands! Tons of learning in one day!
I found a bench outside the Hagia Sophia and sat down to investigate where I could see dervishes. I quickly found the website and was able to buy a ticket online. Success! But I still had a couple of hours before I had to head for the theater, so I did a little exploring in the shops near the Mosque. I immediately fell in love with the Turkish lamps. Damn the airlines and their baggage allowances! (Bucket list: the Grand Bazaar).
Obviously, I bought a few blue glass amulets. From times dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, the amulet is believed to protect the owner from evil. Hey, better safe than sorry, so everyone back home got amulets.
I took a cab and told him to drop me off near the theater so I could continue exploring. I had been walking for all of 2 minutes when suddenly I came face to face with my addiction: tea. My body moved into the tea shop of its own volition.
A waiter approached me and I asked if I could have tea. He said: “Turkish tea? Of course!” I didn’t get a choice and I’m glad because it was DELICIOUS. The 30 minutes I must have spent there, drinking my tea, watching people walk by, were only made even more perfect when from the loudspeakers in the city I heard the call to prayer again. It plays 5 times a day and it is one of the most peaceful, beautiful sounds in the world.
I opened my eyes, finished my tea and started to walk towards the theater, a tiny little thing, and it made sense why it is so small once the performance started.
The Whirling Dervishes
As we waited in the lobby for the theater doors to open, I learned that the ritual of the whirling Dervishes has its roots in Sufism and the Mevlevi Order formed in 1312 in Turkey. The Whirling Dervishes are actually called Sema and the ceremony they perform represents the journey of man’s spiritual ascent through love, finding truth and arriving at what is perfect. When the Sema return from their spiritual journey, it is as men who have reached maturity and a greater perfection, so they can love and be of service to all creatures, regardless of belief, class, or race.
The hat worn by the Sema represents the tombstone of his ego and his white skirt represents his ego’s shroud, as he is spiritually born to the truth. While whirling nonstop (the ceremony lasted about an hour and a half and they did not stop once!) with their arms open, their right hand is directed to the sky ready to receive God’s beneficence and their left hand faces the earth as he gives to all creatures what he is receiving. As they revolve, at times to the left and at times to the right, they are revolving around the heart, embracing all creation with love.
I was very fortunate to have found a front row ticket so I sat excited and intrigued. The musicians started to play hypnotic music that perfectly set the mood for the ritual. As they start to spin, I could feel the win produced by their skirts, the scent of incense in the room and when I closed my eyes, I felt a calm descend on me as if I had been meditating for hours.
One day, I hope to replicate this feeling of serenity and calm again.
Thank you, Semas, for closing my day in Istanbul in such a beautiful, soul-stirring manner.