Our Spring Break in Egypt fell much later than it did for many American schools. We had ten days off from school, and I decided from the beginning that this would be an excellent time to travel. There are so many interesting places within close reach. Many of my friends did a Middle East tour. However, I have always dreamed of seeing Turkey and Greece. Flights were fairly reasonable, so I jumped on this opportunity.
Istanbul was my first destination. I landed and was amazed at how clean the city was. The streets are well maintained, with tulips of every hue decorating the medians. I was amazed to see people following traffic laws and staying within their lanes on the highway! It was a nice change from Cairo.
As my taxi driver drove into Sultanahmet, the area in which my hotel was located, I saw beautiful streets, paved in cobblestones like many old European cities. There were people walking everywhere as my taxi weaved through the winding streets.
I kept trying to use my Arabic with shop owners and waiters. I’d be in mid-sentence before I realized that they had no idea what I was saying. It was difficult when inquiring about the price of something not to just blurt out “bi keem?” (How much?).
Turkish is such a different language, but very interesting. It was such a change from hearing Egyptian Arabic all the time. While I heard plenty of Turkish in Turkey, I heard so many more languages. I heard so much Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian and many other languages I didn’t recognize.
In fact, often shop owners would have difficulty identifying the nationality of myself and the other people I was with. They often thought we were Spanish or French and would try speaking to us in those languages, extremely confused when we didn’t respond. People especially thought I was Australian and would address me as such.
Turkey is also a Muslim country; however, there is much less obvious emphasis on the religion, at least in public. For example, I saw very few women wearing a hijab. The call to prayer didn’t seem as loud as it is in Cairo also. Although all of this could be simply related to the area I was in. The call to prayer was much different than that of Cairo, and in a way, I liked it better. It was very calming and seemed to flow better together.
Restaurant owners shout at you to try to lure you into eating there with their promises of delicious food. We simply ignored these people, as we had already eaten and had no need for a restaurant at the moment. However, one man was incredibly persistent telling us of his tasty food. We kept walking when he shouted “Are you student? Are you student? You look poor!” Somehow, this did not entice me to want to eat at his establishment.
I was able to see all the major sites in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque (in photo above) and Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya, as all Turkish people call it – in the photo right) were steps away from my hotel. Hagia Sophia was so much bigger than I ever expected. I have always wanted to see it, and while I had seen pictures, I really didn’t know what to expect. I can’t even describe how beautiful it was on the inside, you’d really just have to see it yourself.
I felt like I could see the history within it, and see the different developments over time within this amazing building. The domed ceilings reach into the sky, while the rest is decorated with intricate mosaics and majestic columns. In one area there is what is called the weeping column. Here people rotate their thumbs in an indentation in the cold marble. If your thumb returns wet, your wish comes true. I wasn’t quite sure whether my thumb was wet or just cold from the marble. So I’m not sure if my wish came true or not.
I saw Topkapi Palace, which covered so much space. I explored this area for hours, deciding that I would one day live in a palace like this. I saw the Kariye Muzesi, which is a beautiful church about fifteen minutes away from Sultanahmet. It is worth the taxi fare, for sure. It is a small church that is just filled with intricate religious mosaics detailing stories from the Bible. They cover the ceilings of the entire church, and everyone just stares up in wonder at them, taking pictures to try to capture how awe-inspiring they are.
But perhaps my favorite place in Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern. It is an underground structure that once provided the Great Palace of Constantinople and other surrounding sites with water. It sounds like just a well, but it was so much more than that! I went when it opened at 9 a.m. as it had been pretty crowded all the other times I passed by. I was one of the only ones at that time to descend into its depths.
Dark, but with orange dimly lit lights, I could see the water that spanned out from the walkway I was standing on. Beautiful columns arose from the water, giving the space an eerie, otherworldly feel. The one big sight was the Medusa head columns, tucked into a corner. Medusa’s head formed the base of these two columns. Oddly enough, in one her head was turned sideways and in the other her head was upside down. It was especially scary following the path to go see them as the signs pointed in one direction “Medusa” and in the other “Exit.” All my knowledge of Medusa and the gorgons told me that I should avoid the direction that led to Medusa. However, I ignored my inner voice and ended up safe.
Istanbul was beautiful, and I was sad to leave, even though my next destination was equally amazing. I got on the 12-hour sleeper train and headed to Greece!