You Say You Want a Revolution

ISTANBUL, TURKEY: June 2-6, 2013

Leah: Nothing like flying into a hotbed of political turmoil as protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square literally caught fire days before we arrived. Although, after almost a year on the road and making it otherwise unscathed through the occasionally dodgy political climates of Central/South America, I suppose it only made sense that the world stage was bound to catch up with us somewhere along the way. After an otherwise uneventful routing through Bahrain on Gulf Air (where I was strangely one of only a few females in the airport) we touched down in Instanbul; after first visiting in 2009 with my sister, I couldn’t wait to experience Turkey through Steve’s eyes.

Steve: I have now stepped onto the European continent for the first time in my life. After several months of scorching heat and/or stifling humidity we found ourselves in the pleasant Mediterranean climate of Turkey; of course as Leah mentioned the political climate is a different story that we will get to shortly. This being my first time in Europe I was excited to see a different part of the world and a different way of life, although our weeklong foray into Dubai would prove to have been an excellent segue into this largely Islamic country.

After an uneventful but mostly English-less ride on the city’s subway system, Leah and I found ourselves at the Big Apple Hostel which is perfectly situated in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district. Making our way to the rooftop terrace (where a to-die-for buffet Turkish breakfast was included with our lodging) we could see the famed Blue Mosque looming comfortingly on one side and the Sea of Marmara joining the Bosphorus Strait on the other—without a doubt we had picked the best location possible for our short stay. The other hostel hotspot was in the lively and trendy Taksim district which we would find wasn’t the most traveler-friendly spot this time of year.

The first day of sightseeing began with a visit to the aforementioned Blue Mosque (officially known as the Sultanahmet Mosque) which is pretty much shown in any photo collage or movie montage of Istanbul (for example, Taken 2 which I just watched on a recent plane ride). (NOTE: Not due to laziness but rather to not miss out on any facts please click on the links provided for info on any of the sites in this post…I guarantee these will do these amazing sights better justice than I can provide!)The mosque was flooded with curious tourists such as ourselves who wanted a look inside this historically if not religiously significant landmark. The architecturally impressive structure will undoubtedly amaze any person, regardless of their religious affiliation or preconceived notions of Islam. It sits atop the Istanbul peninsula like a movie backdrop—seriously, with the still white clouds and intense blue sky the Blue Mosque looks like a prop from Universal Studios.  I think Leah would join me in saying that sitting in front of the mosque in Sultanahmet Square—sipping on Turkish tea provided by eager vendors (Leah: or eating roasted chestnuts or boiled corn!)—will be one of our fondest memories of our stay in Istanbul.

The next day began at the equally impressive Hagia Sophia which is a living testament to Istanbul’s chaotic past as a Byzantine/Christian-capital-cum-Ottoman/Muslim-seat-of-power. It sits across from the Blue Mosque on the opposite end of Sultanahmet Square as if in a perpetual standoff. Inside the museum (it is no longer used as a Muslim or Christian place of worship) are staggeringly old relics of days past, many of which the casual visitor can touch with their own hands. Brushing my hand on marble columns put in place by craftsmen over 1,500 years ago is a though that I still find hard to swallow. Juxtaposed with giant Arabic plaques and Islamic paraphernalia are Christian relics and mosaics which have either been unearthed or carefully restored. Throughout much of the Hagia Sofia are scaffolding and do-not-enter signs as there is always work being done—although there was definitely no lack of things to see for even the most educated observer.

Between these first several days Leah and I also visited other impressive museums and relics. We ventured down into the Basilica Cistern which was created somewhere around 500 A.D. and is still an atmospherically wonderful place to visit. Indeed, as Leah was quick to note, these cisterns were even used for filming one of the date scenes on ABC’s The Bachelorette, and I can see why (Leah: not that I would ever deign to watch crappy reality TV with my friend, Ellen, who was referenced in our Chiang Mai, Thailand blog post.). From there we visited the Mosaic Museum which houses the original location of various pre-Ottoman mosaics, replete with mythical symbolism and picturesque storytelling. Afterwards we made our way into the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, which have an impressively daunting collection of artifacts dating from 6,000 B.C. onwards, including Alexander the Great’s Sarcophagus (which wasn’t even his apparently). Making our way from floor to floor Leah and I finally had to leave because the information finally became too much for us to handle.

Adjacent to the Archaeological Museum is Topkapi Palace which formerly served as the sultan’s seat of power in ancient Istanbul. This well preserved and heavily visited site would prove to be another source of history-overload, but not before we were able to visit the Sultan’s Harem. As the name suggests this compound did house some concubines and other important women in the sultan’s circle, but it was really so much more—it was his private quarters as well as those of his most trusted and powerful advisers. It was home to the queen, any princes, eunuchs (who held some of the government’s highest posts) and numerous military and political elite. It was a must-see look into a world that most of us can only imagine. To have been a fly on the wall five hundred years ago…

Wandering through the rest of Istanbul Leah and I found ourselves sampling foodstuffs such as the almighty kebab (which come in various sandwich and burrito fashions, to put it ignorantly), the Turkish staple of balik ekmek (which is a grilled fish sandwich that I found satisfyingly tasty), rolled lahmacuns similar to a flatbread pizza, and of course baklava and Turkish delight. And no visit to Istanbul would be complete without a jaunt through the aptly named Grand Bazaar which houses vendor upon vendor selling everything from clothes to jewelry to lamps to rugs, and EVERYTHING in between. Although we didn’t purchase anything, I did end up with the business card of a rug dealer who curiously had pictures of himself with numerous ex-Presidents (i.e. George W. and Bill Clinton), U.S. Senators, and rock gods like Eric Clapton. Apparently they all buy rugs from him. I’m pretty sure the pictures weren’t Photoshopped and I’m pretty sure this guy is in organized crime.


Leah: As luck would have it, we had also been offered hospitality by a local Couchsurfer, Özkal, who lived a quick walk and a connecting bus ride away. Our host’s abode was a tiny walk-up apartment on the top floor of an elevator-less 7 floor building, so after a bit of huffing and puffing we were soon enjoying the sweeping views to the sea on the balcony as we learned how Özkal teaches industrial engineering at a local university when he’s not tinkering with his own inventions. An avid cyclist, our host also enjoys pimping out his bicycles with personally-created flashy electronic accessories and even received a brand new unicycle while we were there, which he quickly assembled while watching riding lesson tutorials on YouTube.

However, one of my favorite parts of staying here was the fact that we were perfectly positioned not only on the top floor of an apartment building, but also right in the middle of a circle of mosques, the minarets of which we could see in every direction we looked. This was all the more incredible in the evenings when we'd return after a day of sightseeing in time to hear the last adhan, or call to prayer, of the day echoing from every corner of the city.

Typically the muezzin, or person in charge of giving the adhan, would climb the mosque's minarets to better amplify his voice. However, nowadays in most countries a pre-recording is used and played over a loudspeaker, although in my opinion it doesn't dilute the experience one bit. Standing there in the dark, the lights of Istanbul twinkling around and below me, the lyrical swell of the adhan bathed my senses in peace as I stood in silence listening to the amplified harmonic chorus (check it out here). I know there will always be people who are frightened of Islam, shrink at the thought of meeting a Muslim and abhor the idea of stepping inside a mosque. For me, however, just as in the Buddhist temples of Thailand, there is something soothing yet somehow familiar in the exotic practices of other religions. I really believe in my heart of hearts that it's all interconnected and hearing the expressive adhan five times a day while in Turkey remains a favorite activity (although maybe not the pre-dawn version at 4:30 a.m.)!

While sipping tea, conversation meandered around to the current protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square, especially once 9 p.m. rolled around and suddenly Özkal's neighborhood was awash in a cacophony of horns, bells, whistles and people everywhere banging pots and pans with spoons. Our bearded and unassuming host even grabbed his own trumpet, which he proceeded to play raucously and quite well for a good ten minutes while the din continued. Apparently this nightly jam session takes place at 9 p.m. all over Turkey in support of the protests, thanks to social media organization through Facebook and the ilk.

In case you've been living under a rock, riots erupted in cities throughout Turkey in early June, as a peaceful sit-in designed to protect an Istanbul park from demolition materialized into large scale riots against Prime Minister Erdogan and his governmental polices. According to Özkal, many citizens, especially the younger generation, are fed up with what they view as a turn toward a strict Muslim regime, with restrictions placed on alcohol consumption and purchase, women's rights to birth control and abortion, and even the way that Erdogan encourages all couples to have at least three children. 

There has also been a frightening turn toward imprisoning academics, artists and other educated citizens with no warning or proof of crimes- chilling tales echoing some of history's greatest massacres and human rights violations. There's no dearth of articles providing background and commentary on the Turkish protest, so feel free to read around on the issues if you're otherwise unfamiliar. However, it was quite extraordinary to be talking with our young academic host regarding this history in the making and how even he has suffered at the hands of such repressive ideologies. 

Özkal himself was forbidden by his department head to teach and research at Berkeley, even after he was offered the short term visiting professorship from the prestigious university. Another of his colleagues won a Fulbright Scholarship to the US and was also denied permission for temporary leave- he had to quit.  Özkal also shared that he had frequently visited Taksim Square since the protests started; he assured us that since the police had moved out, the area was in fact quite safe and a stage for peaceful sit-in protest. After checking the news, talking to more locals and tourists and promising ourselves that we would turn back if it felt at all uncomfortable, we decided to head to the revolutionary epicenter on our last day in Istanbul.

We crossed the Galata Bridge into the Beyoglu section of Istanbul and immediately fell in love with the meandering cobblestone streets, myriad cafes and boutiques tucked into corner recesses. The youthful and hip vibe heightened as we strolled down the main thoroughfare past high end shops and fashionable restaurants, while locals and tourists alike streamed around us. We even popped into our first Catholic church since New Zealand for a quick prayer, which was admittedly a little bizarre after being used to temples and mosques for so long.

The closer we got to Taksim Square, the more tagging appeared on walls and several shops had evidence of broken windows. The French Consulate looked like an inner-city street corner with all the brightly-colored spray paint across the facade and nearby vendors hawked Guy Fawkes masks and Turkish flags. The  square itself was full of music, graffiti, flags and food vendors, while all buildings were strewn with flags and banners. As we approached the park itself, encircled dancing protesters had us tapping in time to the hypnotic beat punctuated with energetic ululations (check it out here) and an ad hoc "museum" had been created by protesters inside an abandoned building where news pictures of the protests and previous police violence had been plastered to the wall amid more graffiti and what looked like a wish wall. 

Further strolling revealed overturned and burned out cars and buses, as well as blockades at all access points to keep out police and other vehicles. Tents and small communities  took up every strip of spare space possible, with the occupants singing, handing out information, creating art and updating their social media profiles with the newest plans and ideas. It basically felt like a giant protest amusement park with tourists and locals alike milling about snapping pictures, socializing, eating, and taking in the atmosphere, all just a quick walk from the historic and touristy center of Istanbul across the bridge (check out pages 1-4 of our photos for riot-aftermath specific shots.) 

We never once felt in danger and we also never once saw a police officer. Everyone was helpful and kind and it was almost a bizarre out-of-body experience to realize that we were standing in the middle of living history as the seconds ticked by. Steve remarked at one point that something of this size will probably not end well, especially since military or police force will be needed to forcibly remove everyone if a mutual resolution is not reached. That remains to be seen, but our final day in Instanbul was one of quiet contemplation and wonder at this battleground. We'll definitely be keeping an eye to the news as we continue to travel this multi-faceted country, but there's no way we'll ever forget walking through Turkish history.

CLICK FOR ISTANBUL PICTURES.

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wolfiecr June 12, 2013 at 3:37 PM

I loved reading your blog,it took me a while to read all the adventures.

you have gone a long way in what has it been ? 10 months??? I am over in Romania right now (work......bleh) ....heading to the US soon

Carlos from Couchsurfing, Costa Rica

Stephen Matthew June 22, 2013 at 6:55 AM

Hey Carlos! I hope life has been treating you well. It's been a long time since our stay in Costa Rica...hopefully we'll be crossing through Romania in a month or so (please let us know if you have any favorite spots!).

Whenever you make it back to the States the offer always stands...you'll have a place to stay in California!

Take care,

Steve

P.S. I still have The Killing Star on my to-read list...I'll get to it when I have a library card again!

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