Istanbul is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s beautiful, with so many ancient structures from the Ottoman period juxtaposed against super modern and sleek new buildings. It’s also surrounded by water, which in my book is what any good city should be. There are lots of people, but not too many that it overwhelms you, and most of them are helpful and friendly. Before we embarked on our journey some of our family members were wary about us going to Turkey, especially from Israel, due to the conflict they’ve had with Israel lately. But as we suspected, the average Turk has no such prejudices, and Manor even ended up entering the country on his Israeli passport because the visa was free, unlike the American on which was $20.
One of the most remarkable highlights about Istanbul are it’s many beautiful and elaborate mosques. There are of course two very famous ones that sit across from each other in Sultanhamet, Istanbul’s old quarter: the Aya Sofya (ask Hagia Sofia) and the Blue Mosque. I’ve been to both before, but they were no less majestic this time around. The Aya Sofya was especially different because last time I was there they were doing renovations so there was a lot of scaffolding up. The building also has a fascinating history, originally being dedicated as a church in 360 CE, and then turned into a mosque in 1453. In 1935 it was secularized and turned into a museum by Ataturk, the man generally credited with secularizing Turkey and bringing it into the modern world. While it has many of the markings and installments of a mosque, beautiful Christian mosaics have also been uncovered. You can easily spend a couple hours exploring the gigantic building and we did just that.
The Blue Mosque is quite different, in that it is still a functioning mosque that people actually pray in. You can’t walk wherever you want (i.e. into the prayer section, which is most of the room), but you can still get a good sense of the beauty and majesty of the building. It was extremely crowded the day we went, which was a bit frustrating, but we managed to carve out our own little spot.
We also visited the New Mosque (or Yeni Camii, in Turkish), which is not that new, but being built in 1597 is comparatively so. It is in a different part of the city, perched above the Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn (the part of the Bosphorous River that divides the city and forms a strait leading to the Sea of Marmara). Also a functioning mosque, it was full of people praying.
There are many more mosques in Istanbul, and we awoke each morning to the muezzin’s call to prayer, often coming from multiple places at once. As a Jew and an American, being in an Islamic country, albeit a more secular one, allows a new understanding for the religion and its people. There are obviously many prejudices about Muslims, and while there are many in Israel we were mostly shielded from them. Being in Turkey allowed me to be more immersed in the culture and appreciate it as a valid culture and religion.