Istanbul, November 24th 2012.
I start the first day of my holiday with the inclusive hostel breakfast of olives, cheese, bread and cucumbers in the colourful downstairs canteen. I eat these clumsily with a fork in one hand while I try to flip between the pages of my guidebook with the other. I’ve already decided that ebook readers are the future purely on the ability to read from them over breakfast without these one handed contortions or having to use stray heavy objects to hold the pages open.
On this first day I decide to go straight for some of the main attractions in Istanbul. My first stop is the huge 6th century Hagia Sophia, built originally as a church before being converted into a mosque by the conquering Sultan Mehmed in 1453. Since 1935 it has been a museum and under restoration, removing much of the plaster to reveal some of the original Christian mosaics underneath.
The internal space under the dome is impressive, one giant volume of air held still above you. Chandeliers hang a little above your head, suspended from long wires that vanish upward into the ceiling. Around me fellow tourists slowly drift around, pointing and taking pictures, some with cameras on auto-fire, snapping pictures almost continuously.
I take a few pictures, but try mostly to absorb the feeling of the building, the patchy and cracked plasterwork, the old mosaics and re-create in my head what it must have felt like for ordinary people of the 6th century to enter such an extraordinary building, people who didn’t regularly experience mile long suspension bridges or skyscrapers as we can today.
I’m slowly learning that most pictures of famous sites turn out to be poor, uninteresting pictures to look at afterwards. I still feel obliged to take a few, to prove to myself and others that I was really here, but knowing that the photos won’t really draw the viewer in.
Next I head to Topkapi Palace, former home of the Ottoman sultans and from which the Ottoman empire was run. The palace is made up of a series of courtyard gardens surrounded by parts of the palace, with various additional freestanding buildings. I wander through the old harem, home of the sultan’s concubines and family. The small narrow courtyards in the shadow of the surrounding rooms and roofs hint at the hushed bustle of the eunuchs who used to work there. Around me I notice more and more tourists using iPads instead of cameras; holding them in front of themselves to take pictures and video. Some never seem to put their tablets down, experiencing the palace for the first time as it will be replayed; through a shiny glass screen.
My favourite stop of the day is the New Mosque, opposite the Galata Bridge on the edge of the Golden Horn. Surrounded on three sides by wide paved areas which bustle with small time traders selling their wares from plastic sheets as people wander to and from the nearby winding streets of the shopping district. As an active mosque it feels more alive and sacred than the Hagia Sophia. Inside I sit with other tourists behind a low wooden railing, holding, like everyone else, my shoes in a standard issue white plastic carrier bag.
The interior is light and airy, beautiful pastel patterns and tiles blending together and pulling the eye over peaked arches and smoothly across the walls. The carpet adds a warm hush, making the quiet feel comforting, less fragile and strict than in a stone floored church. I sit peacefully for a twenty minutes before the muezzin starts to call the adhan, quickly echoed by the calls of other nearby mosques. As worshippers start to make their way in, the small gathering of tourists make their way out, feeling that prayer shouldn’t be a spectator sport.
I walk away from the New Mosque, against an inflow of the faithful, towards the bustling lights of the Spice Bazaar and the main shopping district. The Spice Bazaar is an L-shaped building with a passage down the centre, each side packed with shops, no square centimetre bare of goods. Piles of spices and sweets sit heavily on stalls as traders call at passers by and the thick smell of honey hangs in the air. Uphill, between the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar, are many small winding streets of shops, each with their own specialty. There are clusters of denim, leather, silk and footwear; then watches and jewellery; next tools and household goods; followed by fruit and vegetables. The strangest is a shop selling baby clothing, which has two decapitated rows of baby doll heads on display, each sporting a different tiny hat on its plastic crown, forty pairs of glass eyes eerily watching the crowds passing by.
I find a small side entrance to the Grand Bazaar and wander round, attempting to keep in mind where I am, trying to make it back to the tram line and my hostel. I think I’m doing well until I walk out of the Grand Bazaar next to Istanbul University, on the exact opposite side of the Bazaar to that which I’d expected to appear. I attempt two more times to dive back into the Bazaar and not to be disorientated by the millions of items on display, jackets, carpets, gold and silver, but always get distracted by something new; then before I know it I’m lost again. After three failed attempts I leave the Bazaar and walk the long way around the edge and eventually make it back to the tram line.
That evening when I return to the hostel I sit in the lounge to check e-mails via the wifi. On the other side I can see my Palestinian roommate waving at his laptop screen and talking in baby toned arabic to someone on the other end of a video call. That feels like the best use of technology to me, not to put a glossy screen between yourself and reality, but to use the screen as a window to the people and places you can’t be.