To The City, Always

The name İstanbul (Turkish pronunciation: [isˈtanbuɫ], colloquially [ɯsˈtambuɫ]) is commonly held to derive from the Medieval Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” (pronounced [is tim ˈbolin]), which means “to the city” and is how Constantinople was referred to by the local Greeks. This reflected its status as the only major city in the vicinity.
(Source: Wikipedia)

I sat down and counted recently; how many countries have I visited, and how many cities? I’ve never done this before, and I’ve never viewed arbitrary numbers with any importance. But just for curiosity’s sake, I did it. And I surprised myself. Twenty five different countries, and over a hundred cities later, it turns out, I’ve covered a lot of ground.

So when I say that Istanbul, Turkey is my absolute favorite… well, I like to think that has some weight.

Three years ago, I had an intuition that I needed to visit Istanbul. I was teaching English in South Korea, had a few open weeks in the winter, and I was playing around with ideas. The caveat was that it also needed to be a place my mom was willing to go—this was my pre-move-to-Germany mother. After some convincing, slash sending of low crime statistics, beautiful photos, and bringing up the fact that this would be the only time she’d get to see me all year, somehow I got my mom on board for a week in Istanbul and four days in Cyprus, to visit some of her friends. She’d never internationally traveled outside of a group or with my dad to Paris, so it was kind of a big deal.

Best intuitive feeling, ever.

Fast forward three years. My friend Lauren and I were planning a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan and Antalya, Turkey, and she brought up a desire to see Istanbul. I wish I could say I was gung-ho at the very mention of Istanbul, but that would be a lie. We already had plans to fly mid-trip, a thing I usually don’t do, and the thought of another round-trip plane ride in the middle of our ten days in Turkey sounded like a lot, especially to a place I’d already been. But it was a priority for Lauren, and it was cheap, so I agreed.

That’s how we found ourselves in the greatest city in the world, three days after a bombing targeted to a bus full of police, which killed 12 people, and two weeks before the devastating Ataturk Airport bombing (which, I’ll mention, we didn’t fly in or out of during our trip). It was also the very beginning of Ramadan and when the sun went down, the city was full of life and laughter, despite the increased police presence.

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Within minutes of walking through the historic district on the way to the hostel, my adoration for Istanbul hit me full force. Much of what we did, I had done before, but it didn’t bother me to do it again. And this time around, I had a fancy camera. Our weekend visit coincided with three other friends from the States, by chance, so our group of five, plus various international tag-alongs from the hostel, was a very different experience from the time I spent with my mom a few years prior.

I can’t explain, exactly, what it is about Istanbul that makes my heart sing so loudly, but I’ll at least give it a shot. In no particular order, the gems of Istanbul:

  • The call to prayer, ringing out in unison, all over the city. Different mosques have different singers, which cover different areas with distinctly middle eastern music, several times a day. Maybe I’m just a musically attuned person, or maybe I like the regular reminders that I’m not at home, or maybe it’s something subconscious and unable to be explained. Regardless, when the call to prayer begins to cover the city, I smile.
  • The winding streets and old architecture. The homes are old, some are taken care of, and some aren’t. Regardless, the abundance of porches, red roof tiles, colorful (or plain) tiled exteriors, numerous tiny mosques with comparatively tiny minarets, and the endless details on doors, windows, and everything in between make for an interesting walk, no matter where you go. Many parts of the city also wind in strange directions, making it easy to get lost—a good or bad thing, depending on your mindset.

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  • Cats, cats, and more cats. I dedicated an entire photoessay to cats last time I was here. I could easily do it again, but I’ll save you the cat overload and include just one picture.

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  • A bazaar of bazaars all over the place. The Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the local bazaar, a bazaar on the Asian side of the city, and I could go on. Shopping in Istanbul is a treat.
  • Can you believe I’ve waited this long to mention the food? Me neither. As a lactose-sensitive person, it was surprisingly easy to eat literally everything, because so much of it was made using goat cheese. Honey, fresh bread, olives, hummus, tomatoes and cucumbers, and Turkish Coffee were all regulars at the breakfast table. Spiced meat, rice, vegetable heavy combinations and baklava all joined the spread, later in the afternoon. Istanbul is also a great place for fish, or fried fish sandwiches if you’re on a budget. I could eat Turkish food until I exploded. Then I’d put myself back together again, and do it again.

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Despite the increased violence this year, the hostel was full, but it was very evident that tourism was suffering. Souvenir shops were mostly empty and the owners were extra aggressive (or insistent, in the more polite cases) in trying to drum up business. As much as I wanted to help, there was simply no way I could singlehandedly prop up the entire tourism economy of Istanbul, and so it was with a twinge of sadness that I passed by numerous under-frequented shops on my way around the city each day. This meant I was also able to haggle down to obscene prices for certain things, though, and when shopping at the Grand Bazaar, I took full advantage and walked out with some serious steals.

I can only imagine what tourist season looks like now, after not only an international airport bombing, but the attempted military coup and the iron fist being clamped down by the president. It’s a city that’s been through a lot in its over 2000 years of existence, including two name changes, four empires, and more than the average city’s share of strife, chaos, and change. I’m optimistic that the recent waves of unrest will be just another notch in a timeless city’s belt. I’d like the chance to return for a long while, maybe a chance to live there for a bit, or at least the chance to visit and walk through the historic areas again, then along the water, then across the bridge with the drifting smell of the sea. But if this marks the beginning of a long stretch of violence, I’m at least grateful to have been there twice. That’s more than I can ask for, when the world is proving to be uncertain and unpredictable, but always bittersweet.