Istanbul, Turkey

Karie on Feb 14th 2008 01:25 pm

Our time in Istanbul was split into two parts. We spent a full day there on our way to Cappadocia, and a few more days on the back end. They say that Istanbul is “where the east meets the west” – both literally & figuratively, and that couldn’t be more true.

We found that most people spoke English in the city, and in many ways it was not too different from other major cities we’ve visited. Turkey is currently working very hard to join the European Union, so it makes me curious if the larger cities are embracing the “ways of the west” more than they might have several years ago? Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, there was still a feeling unlike anything else we had experienced in Europe. We definitely observed some cultural differences, despite the western influence.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, and while probably not as “extreme” as many other eastern countries, you do notice some differences, such as there being fewer women and children out and about. It is also customary to hear the “call to prayer” 5 times per day. The call is broadcast from speakers on the minarets of the many mosques, and can be heard everywhere, including in our hotel room at 5:00am. Some shops briefly close while the owners head to the nearest mosque or prayer room, while others go about their business but respectfully turn down music or anything else to distract from the time of prayer.

We experienced another culture shock while walking through the Grand Bazaar – the world’s oldest & largest market, housing over 4000 shops. The shop owners and workers are… aggressive, to say the least. If you can withstand the harassment long enough to find something that you want to purchase, then you’re ready to take on another cultural trait – the bartering.

The general rule of thumb is to never pay more than ½ of their original asking price. While neither Scott nor I are master negotiators, we were still able to pick up a few small things for what we think were good prices. However, I have heard of people getting ripped off, so beware. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the bazaar on your first day in Istanbul. Explore other shops throughout the city to gauge prices first (on common items such as souvenirs, jewelry or pottery), and then visit competing shops within the bazaar before making a purchase.

There are many interesting sites in Istanbul, including Hagia Sophia (which has been both a Christian Church and Muslim Mosque, and is now a museum), and the Basilica Cistern. The Cistern, originally built by Constantine, holds 80,000 gallons of water. What an elaborate well! Fans of the classic James Bond films might recognize the photos.

One of our other interesting ventures was to the Topkapi Palace, which features what it claims to be the arm & skull of John the Baptist, the rod of Moses, and the turban of David. I found it strange to stumble across these things right in-between the circumcision room and the harem. What a mix of history and questionable information all in one place.

On our last day, we took a ferry across into the Asian side of Istanbul. It was really more about the experience of bridging continents than the particular activities on the other side. Even though we had already driven into Asia on our trip to Cappadocia, it was still a cool experience to step onto a boat in Europe, and 20 minutes later, stop off in Asia.

Overall, Turkey was one of the most fascinating places we’ve seen thus far. I think that the country is a bit misunderstood – at least it was by us – but in the end, it far exceeded our expectations. In fact, if we didn’t have a nonrefundable plane ticket back to Barcelona, both of us would’ve liked to have stayed longer. After meeting people and hearing stories about other places they had visited throughout the country, I think we could have easily spent a couple more weeks exploring. Definitely add it to your “must see” list.

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