Cats. Cats everywhere.
Skinny ones, fat ones, big ones and small ones.
Cats with red fur, in places obscure.
At your feet or on the table. If you couldn’t reach it, the cats would be able.
You hear the noise, in the alley? It’s a chorus of purrs, rising from the valley.
The first thing we noticed in Istanbul was the plethora of cats among the streets. It was a humorous first impression of the city and of Turkey, and was just one of the surprises we received as we moved around the country.
Turkey felt like an entire trip within our trip. In the countries we had visited prior, you could see the influences of other countries or of globalization, but Turkey was a place all its own. Up until we arrived, the places we had been felt unique, but there wasn’t ever a significant challenge in navigating from point A to point B. We did not have any international data for our phones while we had been traveling, but that had rarely been an issue due to the fact that most of the places we visited either had signs in English or a decent amount of people spoke English. If all else failed, there was usually a café or a McDonalds within walking distance where we could get WiFi and figure out directions. In Turkey, only in Istanbul and tourist attractions did we encounter English speakers and English signage. We learned very quickly that we needed some basic Turkish in order to get from place to place. Amanda learned basic greetings and numbers as well as simple questions such as how much something costs and that was able to suffice. It was rather enthralling to do this, because it required us to turn our minds up to the next gear and more intensely focus in order to get where we wanted to go.
We started our time in the country’s cultural and economic center: Istanbul. We met up with Mike’s friend Abhinav who was there for a few days as a stop on the way back to New York from India. We wanted to fit many of the highlights of the city into a few days, so on our first full day in the city, we decided to visit the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. It was the first time either of us had visited a predominantly Muslim country and we were startled awake at dawn by the call to prayer our first morning there. The call to prayer was sung five times a day and it took us a bit of time before we got used to it. We stayed in Istanbul’s historic center where a majority of the city’s significant architectural attractions were located. In the morning, we visited the Hagia Sophia, a behemoth Byzantine structure that was the largest building in the world at the time it was built. It had gone through several iterations by the time we visited in year 2020 A.D. The structure was built in 6th century A.D. to be a Christian cathedral, however was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman empire then became a museum in 1935, which it remains to this day. Thanks to the impressive restoration efforts, the versions of the Hagia Sophia are clearly on display as you walk through its expansive layout. There are mosaics of Christ and the Virgin Mary alongside massive circular panels of Arabic calligraphy containing verses of the Quran and crosses that had been painted over with geometric designs.
The Blue Mosque is on the opposite side of a sprawling public square from the Hagia Sophia and is distinguished by its six minarets surrounding the mosque. A minaret is a narrow tower that was once used as a post for men to shout the call to prayer in all directions. Nowadays, there are blaring speakers adorning these towers that project the sound. We first listened to an intriguing presentation on the attributes of the mosque and its construction and it helped us to better appreciate the design once we entered. We walked through the mosque, Amanda with her hair covered, all three of us shoeless, and admired the ornate blue tiles embellishing its interior. Again, we were amazed by the beauty of the Arabic calligraphy on the ceilings and pillars. Once we left the mosque, we then walked the short distance to the Grand Bazaar and had lunch.
The following day we visited the Turkish baths. The hammams are traditionally gender separated, with different hours for men and women to visit, but we found a bathhouse that allowed couples to stay together. The building on the outside looked nondescript and when we entered, we were welcomed by a warm oak interior with a sitting/lounging area covered by a thick red Persian rug. The bathhouse was designed by one of the most famous Turkish architects, Minmar Sinam, in 1557. An attendant greeted us and showed us up some wooden steps to the second floor, where we were given some flannel shorts and Amanda was given a matching flannel bikini top. We changed and were taken into a large square marble room full of incredibly moist, 105-degree air. We picked out some wooden sandals and got an ice-cold water bottle as the door shut behind us. In the middle of the room was a marble platform at waist level for people to lie on and in each of the four corners of the room were four smaller quadrants that one could enter if they wanted a little more privacy. The upper left quadrant had a small sign in front of it that stated that a former Turkish Sultan, Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, had taken his Turkish bath in the room. Naturally, desiring a kinship with the spirit of a 500-year-old Turkish Sultan, we chose to lay out here.
We spent 40 minutes laying in this room to open up our pores before our masseurs came. It was unbearably hot and humid. Towards the end, we were no longer laying down and were instead pacing back and forth like caged animals. There was no configuration of sitting or standing, in the main room or side room, that provided any measure of comfort. Finally, after making us wait an eternity, the masseurs arrived and led us to the quadrant on the opposite corner of the room, where we were told to each sit next a fountain while our masseurs poured cool water on us. Put simply, it felt like being reborn. They then each put on a cloth glove and rubbed copious amounts of dead skin off our bodies. We were soaped down and scrubbed, massaged and cleansed. We emerged from our time in the hammam feeling much different than the feeling after leaving a spa or massage. Our skin did feel like a new baby’s cheek, yes, however there was a sense of triumph from enduring a heated trap in order to bask in relaxation and skin refreshment.
The following day, we took the high-speed rail to Konya, a city of about 2 million people in southern Turkey. The train was smooth and peaceful and we slept almost the entirety of the 5-hour trip. We arrived late in the evening and after arriving, we were shuttled into a taxi and fell asleep shortly after reaching our hotel. The area we explored in Konya was not particularly spectacular in its layout or its architecture and there wasn’t much vegetation or color to the city. Think various shades of gray and beige. What the city lacked in aesthetic pleasure, however, it made up for in its culture and cuisine. Konya is home to the Mevlana Museum, a museum dedicated to the Mevlana order and the location of scholar, poet, and theologian Rumi’s tomb. You know, Rumi, the 13th century philosopher and Sufi mystic that you see oft quoted on mugs, cards, and coffee table books?
A familiarity with the work of Rumi has become somewhat of a trend and the dimensionality of his teachings is oftentimes reduced to a few of his most popular poems and quotes. While we don’t pretend to be highly well-versed in his work, we both have enjoyed reading his poetry and the complexity of the love of the Divine that he describes. Just as Gandhi took the concept of suffering, which typically carries negative connotations, and gave it beauty and a sense of purity, Rumi took the concept of love, which typically carries positive connotations, and gave it depth and darkness. As an example, a short poem of his we liked is translated as the following:
“Questioning cannot unravel the secret of truth / nor giving away your wealth and position. / Mere words do not exalt the heart / pain is the price that the heart has to pay”
In coming to Konya, we wanted to better understand his background, his context, and the world he lived as he espoused his deeply moving and stimulating philosophic musings. The Mevlana museum was full of fascinating information and artifacts, such as various versions of the Qur’an throughout history all way back to the 13th century, clothes worn by the dervishes of the Mevlana order, and original versions of Rumi’s books. The tomb of Rumi himself was enormous and ornate; it was covered in brocade embroidered in gold with verses from the Quran. It brought to mind the interesting paradox of when an individual lives an influential and transcendent life, yet also does not give value to the ways in which people typically celebrate those they revere. When Rumi’s father passed away, another highly respected and venerated man of his time, the people wanted to build him a mausoleum to pay him homage. Rumi disagreed with the idea, stating that the greatest tomb is one beneath the open sky. It made us wonder what he would think of his own body being housed in such elaborate style of grandeur and gold.
Nearby to the Mevlana museum was a cultural center that happened to be showing a traditional Sufi music performance the second night we were there. We attended and were enchanted by what we saw. It seemed to be a family affair, with what looked like multiple males from the same families participating and the age range of the performers looked like it was from age 5 to age 70. The room was circular, the men sang and chanted while sitting in a circle and somehow the music itself seemed circular; the rhythm and the voices whirled themselves round and round and one could see the synchronicity of this music with the dervishes’ form of meditation through movement.
On our last day in the city, we visited a delicious restaurant serving Konyan cuisine and tried some of our favorite food of our travels. The best dishes were a pepper and peanut soup and a desert called almond helva. Almond helva is an almond paste that was shaped into a cake and contained just the perfect level of sweetness. It was served with a raspberry sauce and presented with an edible raspberry whirling dervish. It was the perfect way to end our time in the city. We caught a bus later that day and were off to our first Workaway in the coastal town of Anamur.
Until next time,