[I'm the first traveler-in-residence to participate in a new partnership between Matador
Here’s the brilliant thing about this tour: Our guide, a 25 year-old Turk named Iskender, introduces every place we’ll visit with an orientation walk. Iskender spent four years at university in Cappadocia turning his passion for his country and culture into a career, and his knowledge is savant-encyclopaedic. Quick: How many years did the construction of this mosque take? Eleven, he replies. No pause.
Iskender is not just educated. When he delivers his lessons, his boyish face becomes serious. In his intense expression I can see that he wants us to not only to memorize, but to feel something. It’s not hard to do. Though the tourism industry is alive and very well here, it somehow fails to neutralize Istanbul’s soul. That nebulous energy is carried across the city in the five-times-daily calls to prayer.
In time, our group will recognize just how valuable these walks are, but on this first early morning before we can even remember each others’ names, we’re simply following Iskender around like a row of sleepy ducks.
Day one in Istanbul.
Next stop, bagel-seller. OK, I have a confession to make: When it comes to historic political intrigue, military strategy, and religious conflict, I’m distractable. It’s not that I’m not interested, but more ordinary, relateable things can sometimes catch my eye. We were just getting to the part about the sultans and the minarets when…kitty!
Muezzins, the religious men who perform the call to prayer, used to climb interior stairs of the minarets (the spires found on mosques) and call from the top. Now, minarets are equipped with amplified sound-systems, but the calls are still performed live. Most mosques have a single minaret but those built by sultans have four. Sultan Ahmed had the Blue Mosque (below) built with six, a controversial decision because it matched the Ka’aba in the holy city of Mecca. To appease detractors, the sultan ordered a seventh spire for the Mecca mosque.
Historically, mosques were community complexes and bazaars (marketplaces) were built to support them. The Grand Bazaar, built in 1461, is the largest covered bazaar in the world with over 4000 shops. The stalls are grouped into areas with vendors selling like wares.
In Turkey, there are two streams for university education. In the public system, the tuition is nominal, starting at under 1000 lira (around $525 CAD) per semester, and is accessible only to those students with the highest grades. There is an alternative system for those without the grades. For 20,000 – 30,000 lira per semester, anyone can buy admission.
The second largest mosque in the city, Süleymaniye is open to the public except during prayer. I’d never been in a mosque before (in fact, I’ve only ever been in a church a few times in my life) and I was a bit nervous. At the door we removed our shoes, and the women in the group were given scarves to cover our heads. Inside, Iskender led us to a space in the main area and sat us down on the carpet. He wanted to talk about Islam, he said. He wanted to show us that Muslims are not terrorists.
“Islam has five pillars,” Iskender began, ticking each off on the fingers of his right hand.
Muslims pray five times per day. (“If you can’t pray because you’re sick or because of work, you must make it up later,” Iskender tells us.)
Muslims try to go to Mecca once in their life. (“It’s very expensive, and now it’s become a business. This is wrong.”)
Muslims fast. (“Fasting is a way of dealing with temptation,” Iskender says. “Old people don’t have to fast, and children don’t have to fast because they are just kids. For girls, it starts when they begin menstruation and for boys when they begin to notice things. Before that they are sinless.”)
Muslims give to the poor. (“If your neighbour is hungry and you have food, you must give. If you do not, we have a saying – You are not like us.”)
Muslims believe in only one God. (“To believe in more than one God is paganism and that is wrong according to our religion.”)
Iskender speaks in absolutes a lot. Later, when I know his heart better, I’ll forgive this quality but today it chafes uncomfortably against my liberalism. I’m also preoccupied by the head scarf. Here’s what happened: When I approached the mosque with my group, the man handing out scarves to the women skipped me, mistaking me for a man. I have short hair; I wear men’s clothes. I’m accustomed to the mistake and all the possibilities that spool out from it — but this is exceptionally complicated. Sitting on the floor with my head covered, I feel more not-myself than I have in a long time. It’s terrible. It’s exquisite.All photos © Keph Senett