Istanbul: A Beautiful Cultural Crossroad

Istanbul: A Beautiful Cultural Crossroad

I’ve always liked places where you can clearly witness the collision and subsequent integration of separate cultures. This derivative culmination of opposites often creates interesting contrasts, and occasionally reveals nuances in the nature of those origin places that you might have missed if not for this strange new hybridized world. It’s at these crossroads where you’ll witness fascinating fusion in cuisine, in language, in attitudes, in religion, and seemingly in the very fabric of reality. There’s perhaps nowhere in the world that provides a better example of this explosion of opposites than Istanbul, Turkey: the transcontinental gateway city that marries East and West.
Make no mistake about it: this duality comes with a steep price. Istanbul, as you’re likely well aware, is a constant battleground both ideologically and literally, sitting adjacent to an ever-volatile Middle East, sharing a border with troubled Syria, and providing a thin geographical buffer between radical Islam and more permissive Western ideals. It’s a strange sensation, witnessing armored tanks and heavily weaponized police occupying the foreground against stunning architecture and jovial children behind – but it’s an image you’ll become accustomed to in Istanbul. Don’t get me wrong – I witnessed nothing but kindness, peace, prosperity, and happiness during my stay – as I fully anticipated I would. But beneath the surface, there was no escaping the knowledge that this city has endured tragedy and tumult – and will again.
For my stay, though, no such heartache reared its head. What I found was a city in the throes of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting – which turned out to be fortuitous, indeed. There was a pervasive festive buzz in the air – not to mention my selfish appreciation of nonexistent lunch crowds – but most of all, the city came alive at night as Istanbulites broke fast nightly and took to the streets, draping local parks and mosques with picnics and good cheer, all smiles as children laughed and the evening’s final call to prayer echoed loudly through the aromatic streets. It was sights like these that came to define my stay in Turkey’s largest metropolis.
My first day was largely sacrificed to the jetlag Gods, though not before I was able to do some basic sightseeing and take in the awesome image of Istanbul’s best-known sites: Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The latter is a functioning mosque still very much in use today, and the former has been immortalized as a museum after nearly 1,500 years(!) of surprising history, having served as a Greek Orthodox Christian church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, an Ottoman Imperial mosque, and for one brief week under the control of radicals, as a brothel. Here again is that hybrid juxtaposition at work. Take a look inside – this is the sort of jaw-dropping opulence and dedication religion is capable of extracting from the hands and backs of its disciples.
To further recover from my 12-hour redeye from Korea, I took advantage of one of Istanbul’s ubiquitous hamams: traditional bathhouses still very much in vogue amongst the Turks even today. These are beautiful public spaces in which locals disrobe, don loincloths or towels, and laze in massive sauna-like spaces that feature heated marble slabs and various sources of hot water. Some wash themselves, but many opt for the more traditional experience, in which a sturdy Turkish man scrubs you with merciless force until your skin is softer than a puppy in a down blanket. Wearing moisturizer. He then proceeds to stretch and pummel your body with reckless abandon, and continuously douse you with very hot water without considerable warning. Surprisingly, you find that this is ultimately a pleasant experience. At least after the fact. Meet Omar, my abuser bath attendant! 
Further highlights from Istanbul included a trip to the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinthal maze of commerce, food, and formidable local salesmen hawking Turkish lamps, china, clothing, spices, rugs, candy, and street food.    
Speaking of street food, you know I’m a sucker for good local grub. My favorite dishes in Istanbul were Lahmacun – a sort of Turkish pizza topped with lamb, tomato, herbs, and a squeeze of lemon – and the always delicious baklava, a sweet and flaky pastry layered with nuts (often pistachios) and honey. Both of these are insanely delicious.
I was also a big fan of pide – a dish with some Georgian roots – but didn’t snag a great photo. Here’s somebody else’s.
Since Istanbul has so many incredible mosques, I was obligated to explore at least one more – and that brought me to Süleymaniye Mosque, oddly the city’s least known but amongst it’s most beautiful and untouristed. And man, was that a great decision – not only did I get to soak in this gorgeous interior, but I was also invited by a local Islamic outreach and education volunteer to join him and some friends on the mosque grounds that evening for Iftar dinner, when they’d be breaking fast.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve ever had. Set against an absolutely gorgeous view of the MASSIVE Istanbul skyline (home to 20 million residents, by the way), I joined a big international group of travelers and local practicing Muslims for a big traditional feast as the sun set beyond the horizon. The meal was free, and the nice folks who organized it did so merely to share their culture and spark interesting conversation, in part to combat the pervasive negative worldview that Muslims are all a violent, radical sect – and in part out of simple kindness and pride in sharing their customs with others. It was a beautiful act of kindness and outreach that I’ll never forget.
The subsequent day, I decided to hop on a boat across the Bosphorous to see Istanbul’s less touristed Asian side. That’s right: this is the only city in the world that spans two continents, and you can easily jump between them with readily available public transit. I decided to head to Kadıköy, renown for its vibrant street art, trendy cafes, and slow local life. It was the ‘hipster’ part of town, and as usual I was an unabashed fan.
…Aaaaand that was a wrap for Istanbul! As a quick stop between my Asian and European itineraries, it was never meant for a long, extended chapter, and to be honest, the amount of time I had felt perfect. This is a tremendous city, and for many travelers it doesn’t get any better: I spoke with many who heralded it their favorite city in the world. It was easy to see why, given the warm hospitality, awe-inspiring sights, tasty food, sprawling depth, and seemingly endless history through the ages. You could spend a lifetime without really scratching the surface.

For me, though, it was a beautiful and worthwhile destination, but it didn’t press those right buttons to really be tailor-made for ME. I say this not at all to be negative – I really can’t say enough nice things about the place – but more to demonstrate that not EVERY city is going to be my new #1 favorite world destination. It was starting to seem that way, given the increasing floweriness with which I’d been describing each consecutive locale where I’d find myself – Indonesia > Vietnam > Seoul made for one hell of a back-to-back-to-back stretch for me. 

With so many great places to travel in the world, I don’t know if I’ll make it back Istanbul – but I sure am glad I had a chance to see it, and if you’re interested in going, I recommend the journey wholeheartedly 

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