It makes for a very interesting day when your tour guide and you do not speak the same the language. Because this particular weekend was so busy and all of the English speaking guides were booked, my host here arranged for her driver to pick me up and take me around for the day to show me how to navigate to Oldtown and see all of the important sites. Thus, my day was filled with exaggerated hand gestures in attempts at sign language, accompanied with emphasized head nods and shakes.
The journey began with a 20 minute ferry ride from Kadıköy to Eminönü, essentially a crossing over the beautiful Bosphorus from Asia to Europe. Even at 9 in the morning the sun was making its presence well-known to the eyes and the nostrils. I regretted my decision to wear anything more than a skimpy bikini. Upon reaching Eminönü, my journey took me through a tunnel under the tram tracks. I felt like I was in a Turkish version of the Jersey Shore, techno music and vendors overflowing the claustrophic’s nightmare.
The beauty of being in a big city is never having to wait long for public transportation, and soon I was on a tram headed to Sultanahmet, home of my first stop at the Blue Mosque. I entered the outer courtyard and found myself standing in line and roasting like a kebap under the relentless rays of the sun, along with thousands of others. I meandered around and caught snippets of tour guides’ shpiels to their groups of intrigued parents and bored adolescents. This was when I realized the benefit of not having an official tour guide; as soon as I got bored with one guy, I was free to move onto the next, like channel surfing.
I was able to piece together that the Blue Mosque was built during a period of decline in the Ottoman Empire. It was controversial at the time, because its six minarets were considered over-the-top and Muslims felt that this was rivalling the grandeur of the actual Mecca (their main holy site) itself. But, that just goes to show that the Ottoman Empire didn’t become the world power that it was due to their modesty.
Upon entering the impressive domed building, everyone takes off their shoes and women are given scarves to cover up their scandalous shoulders. I was nervous about the smell of feet in the overly crowded, carpeted and tiled room. However, it turned out to be armpits which became my sense of smell’s worst enemy. I came to the conclusion that there must a shortage or a ban of deodorant. Nonetheless, I admired the architecture and designs of the place and got out of that sweatbox as soon as I felt appropriate. I stayed long enough to appreciate the gravity and history of the mosque; it would have been a shame to let the culmination of heat and armpits to chase me out of there too soon. Although, to be honest, I was much more impressed with the exterior, much to my nose’s relief.
Next, we headed across the tourist ridden courtyard to the Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya). Standing opposite the Blue Mosque, the two looked like a pair of bulls ready to duke it out.
The Haghia Sophia was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in the 6th century Byzantine Empire. Thanks to the hands of 10,000 slaves and no technology, this amazing work of architecture was finished in a mere five days. If you could see it in person, you’d realize how lazy we are today.
Once again, random tour guides became my main source of knowledge, and I learned that when the Ottomans conquered new territories, instead of knocking down the churches, they simply turned them into mosques, which is exactly how the Haghia Sophia came to be an Islamic place of worship. Personally, I am not sure how I would feel about this if I were God, but I’m not, so who am I to say?
Despite being the 4th biggest church in the world, the vast amounts of space did nothing to disperse the smelly crowd. All of these people, combined with my cheap-o camera, prohibited me from capturing the beautiful mosaic works and marble details in the structure. The crowd also led to a very stuffy and warm environment, and as gross as this may be, I soon found out that no, that is not a bug crawling down my back, that is sweat. It was time to get out of there.
After finishing all the historical and religious aspects of my day, my incomprehensible guide and I went and got Turkish kebaps for lunch and hopped back onto the tram to head to the Grand Bazaar. The tram pulled up to the station and I swear you’d think the tram beheld the cure for cancer. There was a collage of heads, arms, legs and other unidentifiable body parts. I squished my way in and once again was reminded of the fact that I was not the only one perspiring thanks to that damn ball of fire in the sky. What’s worse is that when there are no seats, what do you think people hold onto? And where do you think that puts their armpits? Think about it.
Somehow surviving without a gas mask, we reached the Grand Bazaar. And it definitely was that. Grand, I mean. This place is HUGE. New Jersey shopping malls are put to shame by this plethora of stores. The labyrinth of merchants sell everything, from carpets to jewelry to pottery to shoes to bronze and silver to postcards to tea (çay, pronounced chai) to hookahs to lamps. I think I was twitching from the urge to throw away everything in my bank account and indulge in purchasing everything in sight.
After my stop at the Grand Bazaar, (luckily I had my guide because I think otherwise I would have gotten swallowed up in the halls and alleys of the place) we got some delicious and well-deserved baklava. I think my guide/driver was worn out because I swear he almost fell asleep while we were eating. Poor guy stuck with a wide-eyed tourist all day, probably bored out of his mind. It was time to head back anyway, and sure enough, he snoozed on the ferry back home and the day was complete.