Turkey – Travelling in trust
Roger Short Memorial Fund Travel Diary – Lucie de Gentile (2018, BA Literae Humaniores)
Rain splayed on to the windowpane as the aeroplane took off. Sleep fell on to my eyes.
I awoke to the kind touch and smile of the flight attendant offering me Turkish tea and cake and an incredibly well-behaved and adorable baby waving to me: a taste of the gentleness that this new country would offer me.
This trip was not as I had originally intended. It had been delayed by 2 years due to the pandemic and then my final exams. This meant that I was no longer heading to Turkey with a textbook mind, but instead in a post-university haze wondering, wandering, floating between hope for the future and anxiety at my lack of certainty. I had spent the last four years of my life studying the ancient civilisations of 2,500 years ago. Today, I felt more remote from, and anxious for, the society in which I was now living. Perhaps I was hoping that the archaeological visits I had planned would cast me back to the security I felt in my passion and knowledge of the past which had been my companion for so long.
However, it was not unearthing the past (both archaeological and my own) and its familiar nostalgic reassurance which would be the main gift of Turkey. Instead, it was all that I would learn from encountering its people. It would be the experience of being in the moment, the trust I had to place in others (and by extension, life itself) which would be the underlying golden thread of these travels.
I arrived in Istanbul in heavy traffic, torrential rain and with a migraine and “dead” phone – unable to find the address of my hotel. I panickily got off the bus, charmlessly entered a café and asked: “Do you have wifi, a charge point and tea? Can I use them?” The waiter smiled and responded, “We even have toilets too”. I sheepishly apologised. Instead of mocking judgement, he offered me only kindness and patience. And so, in the Faros Café on Taksim Square began my introduction to Turkish hospitality. Recomposed by the kindness I had experienced, I left the café and flagged down a taxi. As we were about to leave, the taxi driver asked if we could take two more passengers and make a short detour to avoid them standing in the rain. A glowing Austrian girl and her mother jumped in. She smiled widely as she told me she had moved to Istanbul two months ago to continue her studies and that the city and the country had seduced her. Her joy and enthusiasm shone.
I arrived at my hotel very wet and very late. I was welcomed with warmth and concern by Talep and Farouk. Talep upgraded me to the hotel suite at no extra cost because it was late and still empty. The hotel restaurant was now closed, but after showing me to my room Farouk offered to go out into the dark wet night to buy me some Turkish food, which he then served on a tray in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. I dined on unknown delicacies admiring the twinkling lights of Istanbul’s skyline.
Day 1 – Serene Sights
I awoke to the call to prayer as the sun timidly shone on the autumn leaves outside my window. My first Turkish breakfast was a revelation of tastes and abundance. As I sat there having an unexpected feast, a toddler and his parents came into the breakfast room – and you could sense the joy exuding from the waiters. Suddenly service became slower but only because one waiter was playing with the child, a second was preparing a special meal for him and the third was blowing up a balloon to give him. Soon after, another guest arrived who was ill. The waiter proceeded to bring out the cook, who upon hearing her symptoms, went out into the garden to pick some herbs and make her own home-made remedy. It really felt more like a family than disparate guests. I smiled to myself on realizing what I had just felt – and yet it was probably the first time that I could not even guess what anyone was saying in the conversations around me – the vast majority were speaking Turkish.
I was then treated to my first Turkish coffee; it’s history and social meaning explained to me with zeal by my friendly waiter, Seçkin. Now, fueled by my breakfast and coffee, I set out to explore the most famous landmarks of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. As I walked towards them, another call to prayer echoed along the streets. I stopped often to take in the beautiful architecture and unexpected sights (such as the Sublime Porte where the Grand Viziers had lived and worked) and to marvel at the incredibly well-behaved and well-groomed stray dogs and cats in the incredibly clean streets. (This remains a mystery to me, I still do not understand how stray animals have been toilet-trained – I saw no “mess” in my whole visit to Turkey!). As I approached the Blue Mosque, I was told by a local that it was closed for another 15 minutes due to Friday prayers – and he invited me to visit his shop. As we walked to his shop, he gave me a personal tour of the hippodrome – explaining for example, that the Serpent Column (built in 478 BC) had a fire-pit at its base which when lit would send smoke up the inside of the serpent-shaped column. The first smoke emerging from the “serpent’s mouth” signaled the start of races at the hippodrome. At the shop, I sipped my first apple tea and admired beautifully ornate rugs before leaving to see the Blue Mosque.
Entering the Blue Mosque for the first time, I probably didn’t get the full “wow effect” because it was undergoing renovation. However, one could not help but be impressed by this beautiful building. It was my first time inside a mosque. I was struck by how the absence of imagery to distract me, encouraged self-reflection. I found it incredibly peaceful and serene – even with all its visitors and the unexpected scent of feet!
I then proceeded to the Hagia Sophia with it’s beautiful pink rock and amazing structure. It was truly a feat of wonder. I was also amazed by the huge collection of incredibly well-preserved archaeological vestiges around the outside of the Hagia Sophia – many of which were remains of the Theodosian Hagia Sophia inaugurated in 415. The Hagia Sophia had recently been reconverted into a mosque (after previously serving as a museum), so a lot of the famous Christian mosaics had been covered up. I did however see The Vestibule Mosaic from the 10th century which depicts Mary and Jesus being offered Constantinople by Emporer Constantine and the Hagia Sophia by Emperor Justinian.
I decided to return to the hippodrome to take a more leisurely walk around it. I re-appreciated the Serpent Column – knowing from my studies that it was an offering to Apollo from the Greek city states who had united to triumph over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479BC (The name of each city state is inscribed on the coils of the serpent). I also admired the Obelisk of Thutmose III which is the oldest visible monument in Istanbul dating from 1479-1425BC.
Curiosity propelled me into the beautiful Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. I was initially surprised to see stray cats and kittens roaming around the museum, but I soon became absorbed by the museum’s collection. I admired ancient Qurans and book covers, pots, doors, rugs and Ottoman clothes and was fascinated by the associated explanations of their significance. What was even more amazing was how serene and quiet the place was, as I silently went from room to room. I found it interesting that in these rooms, Turkish fireplaces were smaller and triangular in shape, apparently to help facilitate the preparation of coffee. Walking through the museum’s courtyard, I was lucky to see the sun setting over the Blue Mosque making her seem like a blue jewel in a pink sky.
As the museum closed, I left having enjoyed both the cultural experience and its tranquility. I decided to have a cup of tea at the Seven Hills restaurant which offered impressive panoramic views, but planned to eat at another restaurant. Urged by my hunger, I left and walked until I arrived in a more « popular » neighbourhood. Although I was initially wary, people only tried to give me good directions as I got myself lost in the winding dark alleyways. I finally found the restaurant I was seeking and enjoyed traditional mezze in a quaint courtyard. I walked back to my hotel in the late evening, feeling completely safe (except for a group of Spanish men who abruptly appeared from around a corner and brusqly asked me for directions).
I tucked myself into bed, smiling at the abundance of beauty and peace I had experienced on my first day in Istanbul.
With special thanks to Mehmet, Basar, Marco and all those who made my time in Turkey so special. You offered me Xenia worthy of that found in epics.