I awoke to the resounding call to prayer, permeating every corner of the dark room. It was nearly 4 am, early yes, but to the jet lagged traveler it didn’t seem too early. At first, I was confused at what the deep notes were, where they came from, or why. I peered behind the sheer curtains trying to locate its origin. An immense navy domed mosque across the street boomed with the call to prayer. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep due to the excitement brimming for my first day in Istanbul. I pattered down the hallway in sock adorned feet and found a corner to read quietly until the rest of the group awoke.
Although we toured the city from top to bottom, I remain enamored most with three points of interest: the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the spice market. One of my favorite photographs is of the famous Blue Mosque, its layered domes varying between cerulean and royal blue depending on the direction of sunlight. The domes and turrets of mosques starkly contrast with architecture seen around the world. Byzantine architecture is appealing to the eye, in both an exotic and elegant way. The Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, towers over its surroundings, with silver gray walls capped by blue hued tiles. Inside, mosaics of blue, red, and white tiles construct beautiful geometric images with gold Arabic letters accenting the walls. The curvature of the domed ceilings creates fluidity within the space. The center rug is lined with people on their knees with heads bowed in prayer. The foreign sound of the prayers is mesmerizing. I find myself captivated in a trance as the words swirl around me. This was my first true exposure to Islam, and the beauty of its beliefs and the everyday devotion of its practitioners awed me.
The Hagia Sophia. Need I say more? It is one of the wonders of the world. The majestic edifice was initially built in 537, but was converted from a church of Orthodox Christianity into a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II. Its exterior of reddish hues fading into beige appears less opulent than its inside. The gold flaked ceiling glows in the afternoon sunlight, beaming through rounded windows, illuminating the colorful interior. Chandeliers dangle from the ceiling every few paces, but natural light is what guides tourists through the interior. The chipped paint adds a romantic appeal to the religious site’s character.
I love meandering through market stalls in whichever city I find myself in. The bright colors of produce, interesting meat options, and smells of spices vary dramatically between countries. And I enjoy seeing locals interact and go about their usual daily activities, buying and selling, gossiping and bargaining. I felt compelled to snap a few pictures of the mounds of vivid colored spices in one booth, then the rugs and stained glass lamps in the adjacent stall. Sellers yell bids through the mass of people, haggling and negotiating prices on items you hadn’t even looked at, convinced that if they name a low enough price, you will take them up on the bargain. Throngs of people flow in packs through the narrow walkways between stalls, forming an odd sort of organized chaos amidst the sensory overload.
Traveling through Turkey, and in particular Istanbul, sparked an interest in world religions for me that persists today. I read about as many different belief systems as I can, which expands my knowledge base, breeds tolerance and acceptance, and fuels my insatiable wanderlust. Religion is such an integral aspect of a culture, and neglecting that particular facet of a people severely undermines any true travel experience.