I walked through the archway into the courtyard of The Blue Mosque. The step down had been worn into a gentle slope by an unimaginable number of feet that have crossed the threshold. It was loud, everyone was talking and babies were crying. It was also hot, the hottest it’s been so far, my shirt was beginning to stick to my back and my scarf to my forehead. I stopped to sit on the floor, in the shade cast by one the many pillars that surrounded the courtyard, to take it all in. The stone was cool beneath me and I was grateful for the slight relief from the heat.
When we entered the mosque the level of noise dropped slightly – people were still talking and cameras were still shutting. Although now it felt in a slightly different tone. It was one of amazement, of complete awe at the building that towered over us. The painted walls, the blue tiles, the stained glass, and the low hanging lights. Prayers were taking place in a restricted section and they were being amplified throughout the mosque. The carpet was soft underneath my feet and many people sat, some lying, looking up at the intricate patterns up the walls and the domes above.
As we were leaving the Call to Prayer started. I turned around, looked up and saw a man standing on a balcony of one of the minarets singing into a microphone that sent echoes across the city and was met by a responding voice from the far side of the mosque. We crossed the square, moving the shade of one tree to another. We stopped at a cart to buy ice cream, by the time it had been moved from the freezer to me it was dripping down my hands and making them sticky. We walked back up the road to wash our hands at a public fountain gifted to the city from Germany as a symbol of friendship in the late 1880’s.
We spent the rest of the day in the city, exploring places like the astounding Hagia Sophia, before heading to the water and the Galata Tower. The queue took forever and I was exhausted, so when we were crammed into a tiny lift to take us to the top I was not in a good mood. People pushed past me out of the lift and up the final few stairs. The sun blinded my eyes as I stepped into the thin balcony that surrounds the tower. I shielded my eyes from its glare and my mood instantly changed, I saw a city stretching away from me, narrow cobbled streets twisting out of sight and rooftops filled with people. I looked out and saw a horizon broken not by skyscrapers or construction cranes, but by a Blue Mosque and bluer mountains. A river turned gold by the setting sun. An entire city laid out before us, filled with music from the street below.
That night we ate at a restaurant a little further from the hostel, it was filled with tourists as well as locals, the air was heavy with smoke from cigars, cigarettes, and shisha pipes. It was an open air restaurant, and there were long lines of small, round tables, benches ran along side them covered in musty blankets and thick pillows. On a small stage in the centre of the room were Whirling Dervishes, the dancer was spinning, first at a steady pace and then steadily faster. A girl copied his movements on the floor next to the stage. There was something about the atmosphere, the smoke, the dance, the rise and fall of the music. It was truly memorising.
The next morning we went to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. I was standing in the street with my map open looking very obviously lost when a man came up to us and gave us a history lesson on the Roman collum we were standing next to. It turned out he was a history lecturer at a nearby university. He ended up showing us the way to the Grand Bazaar, and when I said that yes we would like some tea, he showed us the way to his cousin’s shop and brought down sweet rose tea. We were sat in there for maybe about twenty minutes and discussed the crash in the Turkish tourist industry, and the resulting redundancies and closures that had followed in the community. When I walked around later I paid closer attention to all the closed shops. When it was time for us to go he gave me a Lucky Eye pendant and I haven’t taken it off since. (I was hoping it would give me luck solving my current technical difficulties in trying to retrieve all my lost photos trapped on my hard drive, but it looks like that won’t be the case).
Before we left, we paid a final visit to the Blue Mosque – I couldn’t leave without seeing it one more time. It seems like every place we visit I’m not ready to leave when the time comes, and Istanbul was no exception. In fact, I wanted to stay more than I had done for Vienna, or even Budapest. For the small parts we saw in the short amount of time we were there, I just loved it. The vibrancy, how unbelievably friendly everyone was, and I’m so happy that I got to a part of it for three days, and two nights.