Sunday, April 15, 2012

4/11/12: Now It's Istanbul, Not Constantinople... Turkey Day 1

Hagia Sofya 
As much as it pains me to admit, I am not the most well traveled individual. In fact, I have never been anywhere (except for Mexico, which I don't really count) independent of an organized trip, and even with an organized trip I have only ever been to Israel and Jordan. With this information it shouldn't come as a surprise that I was giddy with anticipation and excitement for my 5 day trip to Istanbul with my good friend Susanna. On Tuesday evening we boarded a train to Ben Gurion Airport, changed our money (Turkish money strongly resembles monopoly bills), checked in through the Israeli Passport holders line since we are both new immigrants to Israel, got through security, and waited to board our Turkish airlines plane!

I'm rich!!! Not really but I can dream :-) 

Our Turkish Airlines flight
After a very bumpy hour and a half flight we landed safely in Turkey, met the person who was assigned to pick us up and bring us to our Hostel, and were on our way to the Sultanhamet (Old City of Istanbul). I have never stayed in a hostel before so I really had no idea what to expect, but it was 1 in the morning and I frankly didn't care if it was a hole in the wall as long as it had a mattress and a blanket. Luckily my expectations were exceeded and we booked a very lovely, family owned hostel walking distance from all of the main attractions in the Sultanhamet. The night director was there to welcome us and check us in, we got our room key, readied ourselves for bed, and had a great night sleep.

The hallway on our floor 

Our bedroom 

Our changing area 
After a very decent night sleep we started our day with a cute little breakfast at our hostel. We felt so bad that we had to refuse the bread and cookies because of Passover, but luckily there was plenty of other food that we could eat. When our stomachs were full we decided to start our tour of the Sultanhamet at the grand Hagia Sofya Museum. Everything was walking distance so once Susanna oriented herself (since I am directionally challenged and am not to be trusted with directions of any kind) we were on our way. I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as astonishing and beautiful as the Hagia Sofya and neighboring Blue Mosque (which we visited after). The architecture was unbelievable, the size was overwhelming, and the interior was among what I would think is the most beautiful in the world. My breath was taken away and I was left speechless staring at this grand structure.

The Hagia Sofya 

The inside of the Sofya was nothing short of awe inspiring; from the artwork, to the chandeliers, to the Arabic carvings on the walls. It was gorgeous beyond description. I only wish the pictures truly captured how beautiful this place was. Looking around the walls I immediately noticed that there were huge hangings with the names of the first 4 Muslim caliphs written in Arabic with hangings of Allah and Muhammad in the front. It was so exciting seeing things that I had only just studied and learned about one semester ago. The fact that I knew and could identify the Caliphs, read the prayers on the walls, and understand the meanings of a great deal of the Arabic script, was truly amazing.

Abu Bakr (the 1st Caliph) 

Allah and Muhammad 

Ali and Hussein (2 of the first 4 Caliphs) 

Hassan (1 of the first 4 Caliphs) 

Taking it all in 
After making sure we did a thorough walkthrough of the Hagia Sofya museum we decided to visit the neighboring Blue mosque. I don't know what it is about Islamic architecture, or maybe being in a place of worship, but I was completely overwhelmed and blown away. I am not a Muslim, but we pray to the same God, and you could feel him everywhere in the Mosque. We entered the mosque just after Duhur (afternoon) prayers and were able to see some men still praying. When the call to prayer rang out you could hear it throughout the whole Sultanhamet, and it was such an amazing way to spend the afternoon. After we removed our shoes and made sure we were adequately covered we were able to freely roam around the Mosque. I think, at this point, I was just so happy to see signs in Arabic I didn't care much about anything else :-)

Finally a language I know! 

Inside the Mosque in front of the prayer area 

Susanna being a good Muslim! 

The gardens outside of the mosque 

In the gardens with the mosque in the background 

It's almost to beautiful to be real 
The Blue Mosque 
Once we saw everything the mosque had to offer it was time to try our first authentic meal in Turkey! We couldn't eat bread but I was very excited to try the meat and other Passover acceptable foods. We picked a lovely little restaurant close to the Blue Mosque in the Sultanhamet, ordered our food, and then awaited the glorious experience of eating the local cuisine. Unfortunately, before our food came, they brought us an assortment of breads and crepes that we couldn't eat :-(. Luckily our meal was so delicious so it didn't matter. I can honestly say I have never had such good food in my entire life. The food in Turkey is almost literally to die for. The meat is so succulent and spiced to perfection, the desserts are divine, the salads and produce are fresh and amazing, and I think I had an average of 4 hot chocolates a day! As we were dining the call to prayer rang out once more and added to the authenticity of our dining experience. We spent a fair portion of time wondering what people who don't live in a Middle Eastern countries think when they hear the Muezzin's calling the subjects to prayer. Susanna and I are very used to the sound but it must be shocking for those that don't experience it often!

The beautiful little restaurant whee we ate our first meal 

Probably the best lamb I have ever had... in my life! 
When lunch was over we decided to venture to the Museum for Islamic and Turkish art to see what it had to offer. The pieces in the museum were absolutely stunning dating from the Seljuk period all the way to the Ottoman period and beyond. There were different Qurans, Turkish pottery, doors to ancient mosques, and more. The history in Turkey is among the richest in the world and it was such a pleasure to see how well preserved it was.

Map of the Ottoman Empire  

When we were through with the museum we decided to go back to our Hostel for a little nap before our dinner excursion. During the day we happened upon a restaurant that offers dinner with a show of Sufi music and Belly dancing for 35 Turkish Lira + the cost of food and drinks. All and all it was very reasonable and every since studying sufism I was dying to see the Whirling Dervishes perform. The Whirling Dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Sufi order (the largest Sufi order in Turkey) and they are known for their spinning dance style. After our little rest we showered, dressed for dinner, and were off. When we arrived I decided it was time to try some Turkish seafood. Ok so it is not so kosher kosher, but it is kosher for Pesach!! I had the most divine shrimp dish followed, of course, by a hot chocolate, and then it was time for the show to start.

Simply scrumptious 

Suze's delicious Beef Shish dish 
When we were halfway through our meal, the lights dimmed, the sufi band started playing, and then it was time for the Dervishes to perform. It was magical watching their focus and precision. Though they were doing nothing profound, it was captivating beyond belief. Once the Dervishes were finished, the Sufi band played a little more, and then we were delighted with a Turkish belly dance performance.

The Turkish Belly Dancer 

The Whirling Dervishes 

The Sufi Band 

After the show was done it was time to experience another aspect of Turkish life; HOOKAH BARS!! There was a lovely little place very close to our hostel, a place that became our nightly spot, where we enjoyed peppermint nargila, more hot chocolate, and delicious Turkish delights. I have never tried the native dessert but it turned out to be quite delicious and very satisfying! 

What would become our nightly hot spot! 

Turkish Delight! 

Me with my Turkish delight and hot chocolate 
After the hookah bar there was no question it was time for bed. We had a very full and busy day, and we were both very ready to get a good night sleep. It was really a perfect first day in Turkey and we had the best time orienting ourselves to the city and seeing some of the main attractions. Turkey has to be one of the most aesthetically beautiful, and clean, cities in the world, and it was such a pleasure exploring! It also didn't hurt that they have AMAZING food! Really the only downfall was having no orientation to their language (which is one of the most complicated languages I have every heard!) 

Stay tuned tomorrow for posts on days 2 and 3 and then, what is sure to be a very entertaining post about my first experience in an authentic Turkish Hammam! 

Lilah Tov Ya Chaverim, this travel day has wiped me out so I must postpone the next posts until tomorrow :-) 

Neshikot (kisses),
Jordana Simone

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