My response to new places is often visceral. Very quickly I get a gut-level feeling about a place by simply strolling its streets, breathing its air, and watching its people. I feel the tempo and pitch. I seek out the authentic. I look for the circumstances that define and shape a place and its people. I am attracted to the surprising and new. Often massive, complex cities such as Istanbul are at best commonplace, at worst soulless, but Istanbul is not your typical big city. Istanbul is a city to love.
In the midst of an enormous urban center that covers some 700 square miles and is home to nearly 15 million people, East is literally within walking distance of West, via a bridge from Asia to Europe. To stand in the Hippodrome, Istanbul’s Old Town plaza, is to ponder your place in a vast sweep of civilization and a history so epic and diverse that the city has had three names—Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul.
Some 1,600 years before I was born, chariot races happened where today modern-day Turkish families stroll in the afternoon sun. Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, turned mosque, turned museum was built in the 6th century, and for 400 years, the horizon has held the towering minarets of the Blue Mosque, the call to worship heralding Istanbul’s pace even before the rise of this, Istanbul’s most famous mosque.
In this place of prodigious scope and scale, it would be easy to overlook the everyday for the epoch, to miss the singular story in the sweep of human history, but part of Istanbul’s charm and beauty is the sacred to be found in everyday, ordinary life. Whether it be the brilliant colors and pungent smells to be had at Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, or the bustling hum of commerce to be found in the city’s Grand Bazaar, Istanbul holds a menagerie of everyday-life scenes, punctuated by pauses for the divine.
As a foreigner and non-Muslim, I had the rare opportunity of witnessing worship in one of Istanbul’s many mosques, something that is not allowed in most places. I listened to Arabic prayers as I watched the men in the front and the women in the back, behind a privacy screen, bend, kneel, and stand in unison. Nearby, a grey-haired Muslim man in a taqiyah and kurta held the hand of a young child I imagined was his granddaughter. He spoke quietly to her as she tried to contain what seemed to be the irresistible urge to move, jump, and run about. Men in business suits, women in burkas, and teenagers in blue jeans entered briskly, took their places, and joined in the prayer. When it was over, many left as briskly as they had entered returning to the outside world of daily responsibility. Others paused to greet one another and catch up on what I thought might be local gossip.
One of my last evenings in Istanbul, I watched a group of six men perform a Mevlevi Sema ceremony. Dressed in white and wearing tall, deep-red conical felt hats, the men whirled and whirled progressing around one another in a circle to Ayin music. A steady, methodical, almost haunting series of songs guided the ceremony, which I learned represents a spiritual journey. More commonly known as whirling dervishes, the men who performed this ceremony spun with their arms wide open, one palm toward God and one palm toward the earth.
Just before I left Istanbul, I sat on the veranda at Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman empire for most of its 624-year reign, enjoying the warmth of a Turkish apple tea and the view of the very place where the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and the Marmara Sea merge together. Locals will tell you that there is a unique quality of light in Istanbul because of its proximity to these bodies of water. At twilight on clear nights, especially in the spring, the air is so pellucid that those sitting on European shores can see the Asian side as if it is only a few feet away, and vice versa. This kind of light is described as şerbet gibi, or pleasant and sweet like sherbet. To me, finding a place where it is still possible to see the other side, the different, and the foreign in a sweet and pleasant light made Istanbul worth the trip.