One month before we arrived in Istanbul, an ISIL bomb killed 13 tourists. It exploded in the downtown tourist district, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the two biggest attractions.
What would you do? When we purchased our plane tickets, in December, we knew that Turkey could be dangerous. It was a destination for thousands of refugees, neighbors Syria, and was engaged in a war with two terrorist organizations. Oh, and a frightening demagogue had recently been elected. But I don’t think either of us had really considered what could happen. Waking up to news of the attack was a sobering reality check.
By continuing with our plans, we’d be putting our lives in danger. By canceling, we’d help the terrorists accomplish their goals – targeting a tourist site was a deliberate strategy. In the end, it came down to math: Istanbul is a city roughly the same size as New York City, 14 million people. One small terrorist attack, in a city so big… can you let yourself get scared?
Our plane touched down late at night, February 13. We were staying at an AirBnB/hotel close to downtown… and the whole experience was a shock. We’d arranged for a taxi with our host, and walking out of the airport we saw a guy with a sign for Alex. So we waited while he set up the taxi. We made it downtown no problem – I understood the rough route we’d follow from maps I’d seen online. But the windy downtown area, our car seemed to get lost. The driver didn’t speak English, and we spoke as much Turkish. Comparing the address, and using the host’s phone, we figured out where we were supposed to be.
The next morning, we got an early start. We were staying pretty close to the old town, but Istanbul was completely unlike other cities I’d visited. It was certainly more run-down. Even the tourist district, which was adjacent to us, had seen better days. Maybe during the Ottoman empire.
It took me about two days to adjust. Initially I felt nervous, unsafe, on edge. But it was just a matter of calibration before I felt comfortable – though never quite at home. Animals were everywhere. Stray cats roamed the streets, and were quite friendly – more on this later. Stray dogs frequented the tourist sites.
The first site we visited was the Hagia Sophia. I’d been anticipating seeing it for two years, since we’d visited St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. During that time, I’d been gripped by the fear that somehow, after 1500 years, there would be an earthquake right before we arrived. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I was still underwhelmed. Hagia Sophia is ancient, and huge, and that’s impressive in itself. But the exterior is a frnakly ugly jumble of structures with pale faded paint, and there was extensive construction on the interior that interrupted the view and disturbed the ambiance. In the end, I can say that I enjoyed St Mark’s Basilica more.
Right across the plaza was the Blue Mosque, the most recognizable building in Istanbul. It really is beautiful, with a huge unified grey-blue exterior. I realized that I’d never been in a mosque before. Maybe as a kid. I didn’t remember it. There’s a whole process for entering the mosque: take off shoes and put them in a bag; for women, cover your hair. No shorts allowed. The inside felt sacred, like a church, but was also completely different.
Start with the carpeting. You probably haven’t been in a hall as big as the Blue Mosque with thick carpeting. The corporeal, musky smell of cleaner permeates the air. Looking up – you see millions of little tiles. There’s no idolatry in Islam, no visions of God or Muhammad or saints. Just Arabic script and ornate geometric patterns. It was beautiful and alien to me.
We crossed over the main bridge into Galata, reputed to be the ‘hip’ area of Istanbul, and wandered the streets. It was narrow, winding, steep. This area actually felt more touristy, probably due to the Galata tower, which presided over the whole peninsula. I think Alex’s biggest desire was to see the whirling dervishes, of the Mevlevi order of Sufis. This order held that spinning rapidly was a way to commune with God. The very term ‘whirling dervish’ evoked fond memories of old Tintin cartoons for me, which was appealing. On the other hand, I was expecting something of a tawdry tourist spectacle. We purchased tickets to the event, which was scheduled a few hours later, and continued to explore.
We returned back to the Galata tower, which was a nice place to simply sit around. It’s scenic now, but it was the scene of heavy fighting during the seige of Istanbul, between Ottoman troops and Italian sailors.
I went in with absolutely no expectations or preconceptions beyond a hunch that the event would be commercial and touristy, but I think the dervish exhibition was surprising for both Alex and I. I believe it was more mundane than she was expecting: longer and less eventful. On the other hand, it felt a lot less tacky than I expected. In the end, I was glad I’d seen it. It was mesmerizing, about half an hour of choreography, all while spinning rapidly.
It was getting dark after this, and we crossed back to the main peninsula and wound through some back streets – streets of shuttered roll-up garage doors and pomegranate presses that felt vaguely menacing (but which was my favorite part of the city when we returned in daylight). Later, wandering, we passed an old Roman aqueduct and another mosque. On the way back, we stopped for some hookah in a wonderful old market-like hookah joint, filled with kaleidoscope lamps, heavy smoke and tasseled couches, before finally arriving back at our hotel.
And that was how we spent Valentine’s Day.