Turkey 2019

Istanbul Day 3: The Lightning Round

I woke up at ten. Tried to write a blog post. I looked at my notes. I went back to bed.


I woke up at noon. Because Sarah made me. I was in terrible shape. I was a puddle of sweat that still felt like I was on a boat.


Mind you, it was our last day of Istanbul, and we’d yet to see the inside of Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, or the Blue Mosque. It had been the plan to do all three. But we were in rough shape.


I say “we,” but I was mostly the problem.


The one positive element of the morning was that we were able to switch rooms. SO we packed all our stuff and relocated to the top floor of our building. We heard the hum of an air conditioner as we turned it on. At first it wasn’t overwhelming. We thought we’d still get the same tepid air blown at us as we’d felt in the last room, but after five minutes or so, we felt like we were in the arctic, and we were happy about it. Our new room also had a view of the Blue Mosque, so that was cool.

It’s there. Y’know. Just behind some satellites.

It was like 1:30 in the afternoon, and we’d missed our complimentary breakfast. So instead we went in search of lunch. On our way to the ATM we’d been hassled by a guy to look at his restaurant’s menus, and neither of us were in the right headspace to come up with any other options, so we decided to go back and try his place.


It was the worst meal we’d had by far. Sarah got a curry that was all oil, and I got some kind of meat dish that had the texture of leather. I forced myself to eat some French fries and rice to settle my stomach, but that required a lot of willpower. The menu man came over and saw my mostly-empty plate and he asked if I hadn’t liked it. I didn’t want to offend him so I said I had a stomach ache. Then Sarah threw me under the bus and said I’d had too much to drink last night. Then he laughed at me. I deserved it. It was fine.


We’d planned to go straight from lunch to go sightsee, but my stomach was still in knots, so while we were still in throwing distance of our hostel, we decided to go back, sit in the air conditioning, drink some water, have some pepto bismol, and breathe before we headed out again. It wound up being just the break we needed to super charge us for the rest of the day. I’m not gonna say I felt 100%, but I did feel 80%. And that was gonna be as good as it got. Because it was 3pm and the day was slipping away.


Our first stop along our route was the artisan market we’d visited on our walking tour. It was on the way, and I needed to procure a headscarf so that I’d be allowed to go in the mosque later. I know they had free ones there. But I also wanted a pretty one. I bought one from a shop with a very nice, friendly, non-pushy salesmen, who I was happy to give my money. It was blue and gold with all kinds of swirly patterns on it. The plan is to use it as a tapestry when I get home. The goal is to make my apartment look like Turkey when I get back. Okay MORE like Turkey.


Our next stop was Topkapi Palace, the former residence of the Ottoman Emperors from the 1400s to the 1800s. Now, the highlight of this stop for me was going to be the harem. I find harem culture fascinating. Sultans had a whole apartment setup for concubines, wives, children, and servants, in which they live their entire lives. I studied it a bit in college, and I was so excited to see it up close.

Well, while we’re waiting in the hot sun in line to buy our tickets, I look over and see that there are opening and closing times for some of the exhibits. I saw a little line that said “Harem: 9:00- 16:00.” I look at the time. 4:09. I had a bit of an internal crisis. This was one of the things that I was excited about seeing. Like, in all of Turkey. So if it were closed, I was going to have a breakdown.


We got to the ticket counter. Sarah asked if the harem was still open. “Yes,” said the ticket counter lady. I could breathe again. Phew. Crisis averted.


After that near panic attack, we passed through the palace gates and entered the courtyard. It was this beautiful sprawling park lined with huge trees, pretty flowers, and featured a gorgeous view of the rest of Istanbul. Right away we understood why the Sultan chose this location to procure a residence.


We decided to see the harem first, considering it was the big-ticket item of the day, and I’d cry if we didn’t make it. We had to buy a second ticket, but afterwards we’d scooted our way past the line, through another turnstile, and made it to the harem.


It was its own building within the complex, off to the left side of the courtyard. Immediately upon entering the building, we were greeted by tile mosaics. My favorite. It was dark and cool in the chambers, probably by design. After all, it was 84 degrees outside with 70% humidity and royal concubines probably would like to be cooler than that.


We read a couple of the informational signs inside, which discussed harem life. I knew a bit of this from college, but basically upon entering the harem, girls were given courses and training to best be a suitable consort for the sultan. It seemed to be similar to geisha training: how to look, how to behave, how to speak, et cetera. And then once they passed through the trials, they were able to be with the sultan.


There was also a strict hierarchy. The most powerful woman in the harem was the Queen Mother: the Sultan’s mom. She was basically in charge. And then special privileges were given to other women as well, such as the Sultan’s favorite concubine, and the woman who bore his first son.


The rooms themselves definitely suggested royalty. The mosaics were probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, each tile hand-painted with intricate designs. My favorite room was the grand hall, laid with rows of giant couches and decorated with a giant chandelier. These ladies had all the luxury in the world while hanging around, waiting for the sultan to call them up for a good time.


They also had a courtyard that overlooked the city from a hill. Which might have been crazy tempting, considering they were essentially stuck there.


It’s an interesting case in sex work. If you’re a concubine in the harem, you’re essentially a slave to the sultan. You get the picture. But then again, it’s not like there were a million options for girls back then anyway. If you’re going to have a job, or have a family, it probably wouldn’t be terrible to do so while also living in a colorful mosaicked palace, eating well and not having to do much work. Not saying it’s not also kind of weird. Like they’re stuck there, not allowed in the presence of any other men with the exception of eunuchs. It’s crazy interesting.


The harem was so pretty that we decided to forgo the rest of the palace. We knew we’d seen the prettiest part, and we wanted to get to our other two sites before they closed, so we decided to make our way to the Hagia Sophia. On our way we got stopped by a guy who was trying to get us to go to his carpet store, but also went on 85 tangents about his life story and about how he paid for his sons’ college. It was definitely weird, but he was at least friendly.


We also passed a golden retriever on the inside of the palace. Does he live here? Did he go through security? We named him Suleyman after the Ottoman emperor. He looked privileged enough.


This wound up being an ordeal, as people kept cutting us in line as we were getting our tickets. Like we’d be the next one queued up to go to the window and twice, people came from the exit of the line and just scooted up to the window. We thought they were asking like quick questions, but no, they spent a whole five minutes doing their thing. We were salty. But eventually we did get our tickets and made our way into the museum.


This was the first one that really had me in awe. This was the place I’d seen in textbooks, that I’ve taught my students, that I actually knew what the inside looks like. And there it was. It was a little disappointing that half the place was covered in scaffolding, but other than that, it was amazing.


So the cool thing about the Hagia Sophia is that it was originally built as a Byzantine Orthodox Christian cathedral in 537 AD, then when the Ottomans conquered Anatolia they converted it to a mosque in 1453. And then in the 1930s, they turned it into a secular museum to showcase the architecture. So yeah, it’s got quite the history.


It’s really cool to see what remains of its past. You can see the Christian influence in the mosaics and frescoes of Jesus and Mary, and the obvious remnants of an altar. On the Muslim side of things, the whole place is adorned with calligraphic emblems of prayers, as well as the geometric art designs. It’s cultural diffusion at its finest.


On our way out, we realized there was an entrance to the upper level, so we went up there too. Instead of stairs, there’s a weird ramp you have to climb up, which never seems to end. But it was worth the cool view.


Then on our way back down, we got to see what the awning is up for. They’re refurbishing some of the painting. History requires preservation, after all.

Look at the color differences on the arch vs. the ceiling. Good work, paint crew!


In general, my feelings about the Hagia Sophia.

We crossed Sultanahmet Square and made our way to the Blue Mosque, which is one of the oldest, and supposedly beautiful mosques in all of Istanbul. I’ve studied Islam quite extensively for the past decade and then some, and this would be my first time actually entering a mosque, so I was ready to go. We put on our headscarves and made our way to the door (panicking a little bit, as they kept getting blown off in the wind).


I’ll be honest, the Blue Mosque was a bit of a disappointment. They were undergoing a lot of construction, so the ceiling was completely out of view. And that’s the pretty part. On top of that, it was INSANELY crowded, elbow-to-elbow with other tourists, and it smelled like feet because you have to take your shoes off. I honestly felt really bad for the people who were in there to pray, because it was really chaotic.


But anyways, by some miracle, we’d recovered from our hangovers and made it to the three sites we’d wanted to see in record time. We’d left by 3:15 and by 7, we were on our way back to our hotel once again through the artisan market. We picked up a couple of pieces of jewelry on our way, and at the very last stall, I got to finally get my Turkish ice cream. They make quite the show out of it. Our guy saw Sarah take out the camera and then put on his A game.


Soon we were back at hotel to shower and relax a bit before our barbecue and pub crawl.


Okay. So I know what you’re thinking. I had just recovered from the worst hangover of my life. Why on earth had I signed on to do a pub crawl?


First of all, I’d signed up for it the day before.


Second of all, I had not gotten a taste of Istanbul’s night life. I’d gotten too drunk on a boat full of old tourists. Was it a mistake? Yes. Did I regret it? Yes. Did I still want to go dancing? Of course.


So we went to the hostel’s barbecue, an event catered by none other than Elif, our favorite Turkish grandma. It was really good–although we wished there was more meat. The little lamb nuggets (for lack of a better word) were really tasty. While there we also met up with some new comrades from all over the world, including two more Americans, two more Australians, a guy from New Zealand, a Spanish guy (who was cute) and a German guy (who was weird). There was also a French family who was having a full-on conversation in French with Sarah, who kept freaking out about how bad her French was. Hey. It was better than my non-existent French.


After dinner, we were treated to another belly-dancing show. This girl was cool—but also really young, She went around the table and tried to have us each belly-dance with her. I did alright. Sarah again had to go to the bathroom again right at the beginning of the performance. Took her a half an hour too. So odd this keeps happening.


While waiting for the pub crawl, we gathered around the big table in the hostel kitchen and played Uno. The weird German guy kept making up his own rules. He pulled a King out of his hand and threw it down and acted like it was part of the game while we all looked at him like “what the hell…”


By midnight we were dead. But we still found ourselves on the bus, pub crawl-bound. We were sleepy because we’d only had a couple of drinks and then stopped drinking. Meanwhile Rebecca, one of the Aussies, kept yelling at the bus driver to play Beyonce. He didn’t. But he did play Despacito and the cute Spanish guy sang along with it. We also played the Pirates of the Caribbean score because we felt like we were on an adventure.


We got to the first club and climbed 1000 stairs to get to the rooftop dance floor. It was insanely crowded but the music was good and the dancing was great. By the time we got here, we had definitely woken up a bit. We got a round of free shots and they set off sparklers that made the whole bar light up. Later while we were dancing they passed out even more sparklers to everyone dancing, which seemed like a dumb idea. I mean it was cool, but you just gave fire to drunk people. Seems like a poor choice.


Sarah was very concerned about fire safety.


After about an hour there, we were brought by Max down an alley to the second club, which was also a crazy crowded rooftop establishment. After a couple songs, Sarah and I (who had to be up at 8 the next morning) decided to call it an early night and head back to the hotel. Haha early night. It was 2am.


Our new American friends joined us in our cab (which cost us a whopping $5) to get back to the hostel, and we hopped our way back upstairs. Alright, Istanbul. I’d seen the streets, I’d seen the sights, I’d seen the nightlife. The people have been amazing, the food’s been good (mostly), the city’s gorgeous and everything’s amazing. Thanks, Istanbul. It’s been a good time.


Onto Cappadocia.



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