Istanbul: a tale of two cities

Sorry to leave you hanging on an unpleasant note for so long! And for causing concern that no more posts were in the pipeline. But alas, a few more adventures to go :).

At 4 a.m. on November 3rd, I left Roots and Boots in Santiago, Spain, to head to DC where I was scheduled to attend an orientation for my next job (although my start date wouldn’t be until December 1). After a few days of drinking my law firm’s kool-aid, I’d be heading far, far south to finish up my RTW journey.

I decided to make the most of my 40-hour trip to DC, stopping in Madrid for an afternoon where I did my best to clean up. I rather quickly wore down the patience of the women at the hair and nail salon, who clucked away at me in Spanish, instructing me to take better care of myself. “Your hair,” one woman gasped. “It’s DEAD!” And the woman who did my nails: “Old lady hands! You HAVE to carry lotion in your purse at ALL times.” They rolled their eyes at my excuses.

After that struggle, which resulted in darker hair and darker nails (only partly disguising the grime), I checked out the Prado, Royal Palace, and the National Library before racing back to the airport where I caught a flight to Istanbul.

A few weeks prior, I booked a flight to Istanbul, which is truly a tale of two cities, straddling both Europe and Asia. In light of the security advisory for US citizens, however, who have been the target of recent attacks (due to sentiments about US foreign policy regarding the Syria crisis), I decided after much internal debate to cancel. So when the cheapest flight from Spain to DC took me back through Istanbul on a layover, I decided a few hours of exploring was meant to be.

I landed at midnight and splurged on a shuttle/hotel package for personal safety reasons (I’ve been way under budget thus far, but paying the $80 still felt uncomfortable). A 29-year-old biology researcher at Columbia University and I chatted in the shuttle as it snaked through empty, winding streets.

Istanbul sparkles with a majestic aura at midnight. We turned a corner and the dark skyline opened up to reveal the Hagia Sophia. My eyes stayed glued to that centuries-old masterpiece until the Galata bridge, which guided us from Europe into Asia, peeled them away.

My brief travel companion, I soon learned, was originally from Bosnia, where he had just spent a week visiting family. Although it was nearly 1 a.m. and we were both weary from travel–our eyes bloodshot and shoulders slumped–we became grossly engaged in a discussion about the 1992-1995 Bosnian war (his exposure being personal, and mine being through the lens of international criminal law). It was a surreal moment, talking with a Bosnian man about the Srebrenica genocide against the backdrop of glowing mosques.

I woke up to the sound of another dizzying alarm at daybreak (in a large bed with pillows and clean sheets!), took a hot shower, and hit the streets of Istanbul for three hours. I approached the Galata bridge, where throngs of men monotonously cast their fishing poles into the  Marmara Sea.

Nobel Price winner, Orhan Pamuk, describes in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of the City, a Turkish sadness that marks this city: “hüzün.” The fishermen carried this badge in their blank stares, which fruitlessly sought out a resting place on the horizon.


The Galata bridge runs smack dab into the Yeni mosque, and behind that the spice bazaar bustles about.


After checking the time, I began racing uphill to Istanbul’s main square, which boasts two of the world’s finest architectural achievements: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia looked even more regal in the daylight. This originally Roman Cathedral was built in the fourth century by Constantine the Great–the first Christian emperor and the founder of Constantinople, aka “the New Rome.” One thousand years later, the Ottoman Empire reconsecrated it as a mosque, after which it served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for nearly 500 years. Then in 1934, Turkish president Kemal Atatürk turned the Hagia Sophia into the Ayasofya museum.




Across from the Hagia Sophia, and modeled after it, is the Sultanahmet, an Ottoman mosque also known as the “Blue Mosque,” named after the 20,000 blue tiles that line the ceiling. Its namesake, Sultan Ahmet, built this Islamic place of worship in the 1600s when he was only 19-years-old. The Blue Mosque is famous for its six minarets; most mosques have four or fewer. This caused quite the scandal at the time because only the Haram Mosque in Mecca had so many minarets. The sultan quickly solved the problem, however, by sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret.


The original complex housed a madrasa (Islamic theology school), elementary school, hospital, market, imaret (public soup kitchen/pilgrim housing), and Sultan Ahmet’s tomb–most of which were torn down in the 1800s.


I spent too long taking pictures. Men were approaching, closely, and asking if I was American. Canadian, I lied. Skepticism radiated from their faces and cocked hips so I exited the area quickly and strode back to the hotel in under an hour, making it just in time before the shuttle left for the airport. Its proudly Turkish driver–in a markedly hüzün tone–gave me a cliff-notes history lesson.

And then off I flew to DC for five days. Back to suits and heels…



About Dee Walker

I am an international attorney who believes in the power of story to inspire a better world. Join my 100 day journey around the globe!
This entry was posted in Europe, Round the World, Travel, Turkey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Istanbul: a tale of two cities

  1. Sounds like a rush….good read !

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s