I bought tickets to Istanbul on a whim because my friends were going there and I didn’t have anything to do my last weekend in Europe. That was so far out from the trip that, after I bought my ticket, I didn’t give much thought to this city where Europe and Asia meet, that was the capitol of three empires, that has a history unlike any place on Earth.
Istanbul blasted back into my mind the Monday before we left when the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) shot up the U.S. consulate there and bombed a police station.
The consulate closed and the state department sent out a notice, warning people of further attacks by the PKK and admonishing American citizens against traveling to Turkey. We were worried, but not nearly as much as our parents, who probably wanted to come to Germany just to bar us from getting on our plane.
The attacks seeded doubt in our minds, and we all seriously considered not going. Jordyn was about 70 percent in favor of going, but said that she was “low key terrified.” Kam and Nathan also leaned towards going. Jenna, Katie and I were 50/50.
A few hours before we left for the airport, Jordyn texted me, I’m not going without you and you’re sure as hell not going without me. Ok then. My nervousness receded as we got closer to our departure time, and the act of packing melted most of my worries away (By the way, make sure to read Jordyn’s Istanbul blog here. She’s great, as always).
Still, when we left for the airport, I didn’t know if we were going there to board a plane or demand a refund. Then Jordyn said that she was 100 percent, and before I knew it we took off. As we flew out of Munich, I saw the Allianz Arena glowing blood red, and, despite my excitement, I half-jokingly thought, I hope I see you again.
What a stupid fear. The flights went without a hitch, despite our multi-hour, middle-of-the-night layover, and we landed in Istanbul at 6 a.m. Giray Alp, a friend of Kam’s from high school, picked us up with his father, Nerdin. They took us to a hostel, then to a traditional Turkish breakfast.
That was our introduction to the Turkish philosophy of meals and hospitality. You don’t eat quickly in Turkey. You feast, and you bask in the company of the people you’re with. We ate endless platters of meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits and bread (with Nutella!), and sipped on Turkish tea. We were exhausted — Jenna fell asleep at the table, and she and I passed out in Giray’s car — but content.
We were exhausted, but we were also on a tight schedule, and we had to squeeze a city of 15 million people and 2,000 years of history into a day and a half. From breakfast we went straight to the Hagia Sophia.
That place, whose name translates to Holy Wisdom, embodies the history of Istanbul more than anything else. Istanbul was once called Byzantium, when it was a trade hub of the Roman Empire, then the emperor Constantine renamed the city after himself when he made it his capitol in 330 A.D. It outlived Rome by 1,000 years, and in that time became a seat for Catholicism first and Eastern Orthodoxy second. Constantinople fell in 1453 after centuries of decline, and the conquering Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II gave the city its current name.
Likewise, the Hagia Sophia was originally a Catholic basilica. It became an Orthodox cathedral after the Great Schism and a mosque after Mehmed took the city. Now it reflects the latest chapter of Istanbul’s history; when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the secular, independent Turkish government converted it from a mosque to a museum.
And what a museum it is. The massive central dome feels sky-high when you stand underneath it — it’s hard to describe the scale of the place, and how insignificant you feel inside of it. Christian frescoes and Islamic mosaics sit side-by-side on the lavish walls. The walls and floors are soft, cool marble. The Hagia Sophia is a place, like Istanbul itself, without equal in the rest of the world.
After that, Giray took us to the Grand Bazaar, the world’s oldest shopping mall. I’ve never felt more overwhelmed than I did when I first walked inside. There are more than 3,000 tiny shops, and every step you take someone is coming at you, trying to sell you a rug or a lamp or spices or a fake Gucci handbag. It’s claustrophobic, a literal maze, and I was happy to leave after I’d bought a few souvenirs (only after haggling, of course).
By that point we were too exhausted to do anything else, so Giray left us and we napped at our hostel for a while. After we recharged, we ate dinner at the first restaurant we saw on our street. It was a tourist trap, but not in a bad way.
Our friendly but aggressive host offered to comp our meal if we didn’t like it, and the service was prompt and gracious. The restaurant is built into the old walls that formed Istanbul’s boundaries when it was called Constantinople, and after our entrees our waiter showed us an old cistern in the tunnels under the walls. Then he brought us up to a rooftop terrace, where they gave us free Turkish coffee. When we paid, they cut our bill by 20 percent. It was by far the best, friendliest service I’ve had at a restaurant on this trip.
We finished the night at our hostel’s rooftop bar, where we drank Turkish beer, smoked hookah and played king’s cup with some really cool Australians and one douchebag from Miami. We went to bed early and happy.
In the morning, we endured a breakfast with the douchebag from Miami.
“I firmly believe that there are five things in life you should never be cheap about — the coffee you drink, the beer you drink, the food you eat, your woman and your passions,” he preached to us from the head of our table.
Cool, bro, what men’s advice website did you memorize that from? Anyway, we had a good laugh about it as we waited in line to see the Blue Mosque, which, unlike the Hagia Sophia, is still a place of worship. Thanks to a miscommunication, I got separated from the group and went in twice.
It was worth it, though; the mosaics that give the place its name are exquisite, and Sultan Ahmet spared no expense when he built this temple to reassert Ottoman glory after a series of disastrous military defeats. My only complaint — it smells like feet. Really, really stinky feet.
We met up with Giray again and he invited us to dinner with his family. We mentioned the uncommon hospitality we’d experienced there — from him, from restaurants, from shopkeepers — and he shrugged it off.
“That’s how we do it in Turkey,” he said.
Giray’s family lives in a swanky apartment complex five minutes from the airport. It’s clean, thoroughly modern, and looks like it came out of a magazine, but it wasn’t half as impressive as the people there. Giray, Nerdin and Giray’s mother, Saide, showed us exactly how they do it in Turkey. They fed us our fist homecooked meal in two months — chicken casserole, fruits, cheeses, spreads, Raki liqueur, red wine and baked sea bass. After dinner they served us endless cups of coffee and tea; we had a flight to catch but we didn’t want to leave. We felt at home. Then they drove us to the airport, told us that we always have family in Turkey, and we were off. I can’t thank them enough.
Those amazing 48 hours made me realize how absurd our pre-journey fears were. As we flew out of Istanbul, I saw it glowing brilliantly out the window and thought, I know I’ll see you again.