Our visit to Istanbul ended just before the horrific terrorist attack on the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. To read our reactions to the attack, please read here. We feel it is more necessary than ever to share the stories of the beautiful city. It remains a place filled with many kind people and incredible sights.
According to the latest UNHCR updates, Turkey now hosts the most refugees in the world, some 2.7 million Syrians.
Turkey has an “open door” policy that says refugees are admitted if their lives are under “imminent threat,” which has contributed to a heavy flow across the Syrian border into southern Turkey.
With the EU-Turkey deal in March, Turkey was supposed to get visa-free travel and possible EU membership in exchange for taking back the migrants who left Turkey and landed in Greece, as well as making its borders more secure.
While the EU-Turkey deal has made a dent in the number of arrivals in Greece, the highly politicized deal is in a precarious balance that could still shift back.
In October 2015, the city of Istanbul housed more Syrian refugees than the rest of Europe combined.
We arrived in Istanbul on a warm Friday evening during Ramadan. With only 14 hours of layover, we dropped our stuff at the hotel and quickly stepped back into the
cobblestone street to absorb as much of this fascinating, colorful city as possible.
Istanbul has served as a portal from East to West for over 4,000 years, serving as the catalyst point of the rises and falls of great empires and today, bridging two continents, two seas, two religions, and a tapestry of cultures and languages.
The hotel reception guy, a Turk in his early 30s with a ragged ponytail and beard, spoke
good English with a bored expression. He had seen many visitors before; our excitement didn’t inspire him. He did, however, graciously show us the tourist map and trace our route from the hotel to the famous Hippodrome.
“Ramadan is on, so there are people everywhere,” he complained.
Right off the bat, we found a new personality in the mosaic of Turkish cultures: the begrudging, millennial secularist.
Back outside, we hiked up to a main road leading to the Blue Mosque. After years of reading about the history of this diverse city, we were finally standing in Emperor Constantine’s chariot racing area. Now, a night market and picnic tables surround the ancient obelisks in the center.
The plaza was packed with people, a few tourists like us who stood out for their bare legs and hairstyles, but mostly Muslims out for Ramadan. Families sprawled out on the grass
around picnic baskets, groups of friends shared hot tea at the tables, and people trickled in and out of the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. A sermon broadcast over the mosque loudspeaker was overpowered by a call to prayer from a minaret across the plaza, creating a surreal mix of sounds.
We bought little Turkish coffees and a pistachio-crusted baklava, then sat down at a wooden table to people watch: women with colorful headscarves laughing together, an
elderly couple sitting on a bench, a group of teenagers eating ice cream, two kids tossing a volleyball back and forth on the grass.
In another plaza, a concert was underway. The musicians played exotic instruments in an eastern-style musical scale.
Later, walking down a side street, a jewelry display caught our attention. When we took a closer look, the shop owner came up the steps to the street level.
With broken English, he said, “We like [the United States]. New York?”
To Cristian, he said, “I only speak a little Spanish. I know how to say, ‘this jewelry is pretty and cheap!'”
Back down the hill, we stopped at a little shop to look at handmade earrings. A nine-year-old businesswoman in a pretty pink hijab came to help.
With hand gestures and some key English words, she complimented my color choices and told me very confidently, “For you, special price.”
Inside the shop, I got up the courage to ask her how to tie my headscarf properly to visit the mosque. At first, she and her mother didn’t understand. The only word in Turkish that I could remember was the name of the Aya Sofia, so I said that over and over while patting my head and holding up the scarf.
When you can’t use words to communicate in a different culture, you resort to exaggerated nods, mixed words, sign language and pointing to pictures or maps. But the common language is a big smile.
Finally, they understood me and I bent down so the little girl could tuck my hair in under the silk material. Her mother jumped in to expertly fasten it with a pin, and the two of them stepped back to proudly survey their handiwork.
“Very beautiful!” said the charming little businesswoman.
The next morning, we got up at 5:30 am to take a golden hour photo walk before heading to the airport. At that hour, the streets were calm and the lighting was perfect. We shared the sunrise with some fishermen on a bridge, waved at shopkeepers opening up, and walked through the Blue Mosque’s courtyard once more, quietly listening to the morning prayers on the men’s side and women’s side.
Our stay in Istanbul was short but sweet and flavorful, just like a good Turkish coffee. We were enchanted by the intricate details of the multicultural, multilingual, multidimensional “city of the world’s desire.”