At 10 this morning, we were eating breakfast at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant, overlooking the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque (both of which are just across the street). Yesterday at 10 am, we were exploring Ephesus, the greatest Roman ruins in the world. And two days ago at 10 am, we were strolling through the ancient Athenian Agora, at the foot of the Acropolis. The morning before we were in Milan and the morning before that in Lucerne. It just hit me at breakfast this morning how much we’ve seen. I told everyone that I feel like Ferris Bueller, when he tells Cameron, “We’ve seen everything today!” Fortunately, Joylani, Jackie, and Alex are happier than Cameron, who responded, “Not anything good.” Joylani’s already doubled the number of countries she’s been to. Our first day in Turkey concluded a two-week period in which we’d visited 12 nations.
We started our day by visiting the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya (formerly the Hagia Sofia). The Blue Mosque was built in the 17th century by an Ottoman sultan who wanted to build a mosque that would surpass the Aya Sofya in beauty and grandeur. Even though the Aya Sofya is far more famous and has much more history, I actually did think the Blue Mosque was better looking. We were allowed to walk though it, as we went between prayer times. I cannot describe how big it was on the inside, but the art and architecture were awesome. Afterwards, we headed to the Aya Sofya, the most famous site in Istanbul. The original structure collapsed in an earthquake, when Emperor Justinian decided to rebuild it as the greatest church in the world. It took only five years to build, but remains one of the great accomplishments of human building. That was all in the sixth century. By the 13th century, Constantinople was conquered and its name changed to Istanbul. The Hagia Sofya was converted to a mosque and its interior plastered over, since Islamic law forbids representation of the human form. But in 1935, Istaanbul’s first president, Ataturk (who’s still regarded highly enough that his portrait is on all Turkish currency and his photo is displayed in many shops) declared the Aya Sofya museum and had the plaster removed, revealing beautiful intricate mosaics from 1500 years ago. One thing I found interesting is that our trip is following the ancient waves of power. We saw 4th century Athens ruins, and then turn-of-the-millennium Roman ruins, and now 6th century Eastern Rome ruins, and many of Istanbul’s sights are from the sultanates height of power as well.
After seeing the sights and changing our clothes (since we had to cover ourselves to enter the mosque), we headed out to find some food. This hasn’t been a problem in Turkey for two reasons: the food is good and there’s a million guys trying to get us to come to their restaurant. Most waiters stand outside their restaurant and ask, “Where you from?” Although some just cut straight to the point with things like, “Yes, please. Come eat. Student discount. Korean discount too.” We’ve been mistaken for almost everything, although many people think we’re Turkish or central Asian as well. Several people just start speaking to me in Turkish, while others ask if we’re from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, and so on. Mostly what we’ve been eating are kebaps (although spelled and pronounced kebab in the US), which are basically pieces of chicken or lamb stuffed in a piece of bread. Not only are they delicious, but they only cost 1.50 – 3.50 USD. So we’ve been pretty much surviving on those, with the exception of at least one “real meal” a day.
After eating and exploring the city a bit longer, Joylani decided to rest while I went with Jackie and Alex to check out Taksim Square. Jackie really wanted to see it as it’s the center of Istanbul’s modernity and nightlife. Western upscale stores lined the main wide street emanating from Taksim, while upscale and expensive restaurants were everywhere too. We found an alley of the main street that offered hookah. So we saw at a little table, ordered an Efes each, and enjoyed hookah (narghile as the Turks call it), where it originated. I can say that it was the best hookah I ever smoked. The tobacco retained its taste ‘til the very end and it was still hitting good. One thing that’s different about Turkish hookah is that the shafts at the end of the hose are all 2-3 feet long, so you have to hold it in the middle (unless you have super long arms). The Efes was good, but I think I was a bit biased due to the fact that we had just walked a long way and I was really hot. It was difficult, but I limited myself to one-hour of hookah and one beer before we decided to call it a night. Eating breakfast overlooking some of the worlds greatest architecture and winding down the night with some Turkish narghile.