Today was seriously PACKED. It’s a huge blur as I look back on the day. We had breakfast of different types of cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, Turkish bagels and hard boiled eggs in the morning. Salih suddenly announced, “If you all don’t like this, we also have some American food for you,” and gestured to cocoa puffs, weenie sausages, and French fries. Lol! I made sure to eat stuff from the first list because even though it was nice of them to consider us, that was one American stereotype I was NOT going to fulfill. We had coffee and tea to drink, of course, and then we were off to Topkapi Palace, where sultans lived for nearly 400 years. It’s more of a museum now but there are certain rooms and areas they’ve left untouched and it was AMAZING. It was surreal especially to walk through the parts of the palace that only the sultans were allowed in.
The palace was inside of the old city, with Constantine’s wall surrounding it. I ran my hand along the stones of the wall and tried to fathom how old it is. After we went through the grounds and looked at old swords and other relics (where we weren’t allowed to take pictures but Dramell was sneaking some, anyway) we got lunch at Ottoman Restaurant, where we were served an ENORMOUS amount of food: salad, of course, and lentil soup and bread, and then we got to pick our entree from what felt like 30 different options. For dessert, they served us baklava which was AMAZING and I don’t even like baklava. We felt bad because we just couldn’t finish all of it; we did what we could but it was just SO much.
After lunch, we started walking again when suddenly someone pointed at Dramell and yelled, “Obama!” And then all of these other people started chanting, “Obama! Obama!” which was hilarious because yes, Drammel is African-American, but unless our President has suddenly changed to a darker skinned, 6’4 college student with both ears pierced, they don’t look a thing alike. But now we call him either Odrama or Drambama, depending on our mood.
Next was Hagia Sophia: oh my word. The stunning beauty of it. I could have stayed there for hours. It’s doubly amazing because it was a church before it was a mosque (and a mosque before it was a museum) so it’s the only place in the world to have Christian and Muslim art in one place. It’s enormous and gorgeous and stunning…oh my word. So old and wonderful. After various earthquakes, it had to be rebuilt three times, and parts are still under construction.
When the Ottomans took over, the Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque. Because Islam respects Jesus, Mary, and other religious figures, they did not destroy the paintings already there. In order to be respectful, they simply covered up the Christian art with plaster and added the Islamic art. (Muslims do not have paintings or portrayals of people while they pray, as they believe it distracts them from their prayers.) The paintings, preserved from being weathered, were discovered (some almost completely in tact) when the plaster was chipped away as it was being converted to a museum in the 1930s.
Then we went to the Bascilla Cisterns which was a little freaky but way cool; we were informed multiple times that the cistern was used during the filming of From Russia With Love. In addition to admiring yet another centuries old structure, we laughed at the giant ugly carp swimming in the water and I looked Medusa in the eyes even though our tour guide told me I would turn to stone if I did. I forget what his name was; we all called him Fred because he asked in the beginning, “What’s this group’s name?” meaning Rochester College or Niagra Foundation or something he could shout so we’d all hear him and know where to go, but Natalie said “Fred,” and he thought that was hilarious so we stuck with it. And every time he’d say, “Over here, Fred!”, a whole group of people (mostly girls too) would troop over to him and he’d just laugh and laugh.
After picking our way through the slippery, underground cavern, we emerged to walk along the Hippodrome, an oval shaped area where horse races were held because gladiator type games were deemed barbaric. The Hippodrome was not immune to bloodshed, however; in the wake of the Nika riots (during which the Hagia Sophia was partially burned), Justinian had 30,000 of his enemies brought in, closed off all exits, and had them all slaughtered. I felt a chill run down my spine as I looked at the cobblestones covered in rain water, knowing that blood once filled the cracks.
Next was my favorite! Blue Mosque: It’s the third holiest site for Muslims (falling behind the Dome of the Rock and Mecca) and it’s enormous and beautiful. It was such a cool and unique experience that I’ve never had before. In between the calls to prayer (during which visitors are not allowed in) we removed our shoes, covered our hair, and stepped inside. Despite religious, cultural, and ethnic differences, there was a mutual respect for everyone within the building that I so appreciated. In a religious building with people from all over the world and from a variety of different religions (if they held a religion at all), there was peace. It was comforting to my eternally optimistic heart to think that, perhaps, someday, such peace and understanding between humanity is a possibility. Regardless of personal beliefs, we all stood together with nothing but respect and admiration in our hearts for those around us. There was almost a tangible sense of unity that could be felt. A woman actually stopped me and started speaking Arabic before she realized that I’m an American. There were several other times, however, when people would walk by our group and say, “Ahh, Americans,” so I guess we’re pretty noticeable. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing!
It’s nearly impossible to have your hair covered and still have peripheral vision.
We grabbed dinner which was Turkish pizza an the restaurant owner was the cutest EVER. I said “Merhaba” and attempted, “Teh suchre etarim” (hello and thank you). It was hard to learn how to say thank you! Salih just told us “Sal” but that’s the informal way and we wanted the authentic way to say it. Brynn finally got us all to remember it by saying, “Tea, sugar, and a rum,” but then we all got scared we would accidentally say that.
I know I keep saying everything is delicious but it seriously is….excluding Salgam.
After we made it back to the dorms, I showered and headed to the hang out room by the lobby to journal for a few minutes before we all played cards. As soon as I walked in, everyone bombarded me with, “KATIE, KATIE, TRY THIS JUICE” which should have been my first tip that something was off. I examined the bottle closely; it was purple, but whatever was in the basket was definitely not a bunch of grapes. I didn’t see any English words on it, so I asked, “Is it date juice?” There was the briefest pause before they all exclaimed, “….Yeah!….DATE juice!” which should have been my second tip off, but I gave in and tried it and it was VILE. I was choking as Katy took pity on me and gave me some water. Dram had no sympathy for me because he said I didn’t get a sip that was big enough; apparently, he thought it was grape juice and downed back a nice, big glass when he got back to his room. Determined to discover when I had just consumed, I searched the bottle and found tiny, English words proclaiming FERMENTED BLACK CARROT JUICE. My horrified announcement created such an uproar that Salih poked his head in to see what we were doing, so we asked him, “Salih, do you drink this?!?” He replied, “Eh, yeah, sometimes, it’s good with really salty fish dinners and stuff–” but then he noticed our traumatized faces and said, “Um, I would never, ever, drink it by itself, though. Did you guys–?” and then he just started laughing. Our mantra for Salgam has become, “Never by itself,” and several of us agreed that we’d much rather drink Ayran again than Salgam.
Poor Natalie entered after I did and had to have her Salgam experience documented.
After dinner, Salih asked, “Are you guys tired?” And we were EXHAUSTED because of the long day and I think jet lag caught up finally so we said, “YES,” and he shrugged and said, “Oh, never mind, John, they’re too tired for my great and wonderful idea,” so of course we said, “No! No, tell us!” And he replied, “Oh, I was just gonna suggest a night walk along the Bosphorus to see Rumeli Fortress, but if you’re all too tired….” There was no question in any of our minds; we wiped the jet-lag from our eyes and trooped out into the slightly chilly (but still much warmer than February in Michigan!) night to explore. Mehmet the Conquerer built the fortress right before he overtook Istanbul.
After our walk, we came back and hung out because we weren’t tired by then, so we played cards and talked for a couple hours. I’m still not tired, but I should go to bed because it’s midnight here even though it’s 5pm at home. We’re going for our boat ride on the Bosphorus and having dinner with a host family tomorrow so I do know I need sleep, but it’s difficult to because I’m still so amazed to be here. It’s a life changing, amazing experience and I’m so thankful I can take part in it.
If you missed last week’s post: Adventures in Turkey pt. 1: Anxiety and Excitement