Istanbul is so beautiful! It is one of my favorite places that I’ve ever visited. We stayed near Taksim Square, and the first thing I noticed that made me realize Istanbul is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been was that our taxi was inspected underneath with mirrors as we entered the hotel. We then had to put all of our luggage through x-ray machines to enter the hotel – and had to do so every time we entered. Once we settled in, we looked across the Bosphorus and heard the call to prayer. It was incredible. A walk down Istiklal Street led us to islak hamburgers, baklava, and ice cream. I could eat islak hamburgers every day.
In between conference duties, we had time to visit the Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofia, see the Whirling Dervishes, see the Sultan’s Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and visit the Blue Mosque. Amazing architecture! I loved it all. Seeing a culture I had never witnessed or participated in before was wonderful. Travel is truly how we learn to accept differences and learn that different is good.
We had one day to explore the city, and my colleague Brad, who appears in the Istanbul album, knew so much about the city itself. He teaches the history portion of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at our local Catholic church. Naturally he had so much to offer during our walking tour (which was really just walking around aimlessly all over the city). We even found the Mary of the Mongols church, which is the only church that was not converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city. The Sultan guaranteed that it would always be a Christian church and his signature remains in the church itself. It was beautiful.
We also happened upon Constantinople’s 5th century second wall (I think it’s called the Theodosian Wall) that was breached by the Ottomans in 1453 in the Fatih. We ended up stopping at a “restaurant” on the way back to Istiklal Street which was basically some guys who went fishing and had bread on their boat. The sandwiches were sooo good.
Each night when we would walk through Istiklal Street for dinner or just roaming around, we noticed big groups of police in riot gear lining the streets. They never really moved, but they were protected by those plexiglass shields and were about 30 people long and 3 people deep at various points throughout the street. On one of our final nights we walked through Istiklal Street and began to see people in gas masks. We knew the general direction we should be going, but we started walking away from the people in gas masks but still making our way to the hotel. Then, people started running fast away from us. My colleague Jasmine and I put on our head scarves and wrapped them around our noses and mouths while Brad turned on his iPhone video camera and ran toward the fleeing people. We ended up being gassed a little bit – when everything calmed down, we saw that there were protesters due to a man being killed recently by a gas can thrown by the police. It was tense with the protesters and the police. Being gassed is no fun, by the way.
As we walked to our hotel on the last night, still happy about our wanderings along the Bosphorus, the Fatih, the old town, the mosques, and Istiklal Street and having eaten our last islak hamburger, we noticed additional security and guard dogs on the grounds. There was additional security getting in to the hotel too. We learned from a talkative bell boy that one of Erdogan’s cabinet member’s son was having his sünnet party at the hotel and Erdogan was there.
I would highly recommend Istanbul as a travel destination. Despite some of our experiences that might be concerning to some, we were there during a time where the people were not happy with their leadership and there had been recent heated protests a few months before. I still would not be deterred from travel there – it is full of history and beauty.