Monday, April 14, 2014

Gateway to the East

This spring break, I embarked on an adventure much different from any of my past European travels. This was the first time that I have ever found myself in what might be categorized as an Eastern culture. It’s true that Istanbul, Turkey is often considered to be a city on the border—it’s not entirely eastern, nor is it entirely western. Just as the physical location of the city is split between two continents, so does the culture seem to be split between differing world views. The city is divided by a strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara called the Bosporus. It is this body of water that serves as the boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. It is pretty amazing to think that over the course of the weekend, I traveled back and forth from Europe to Asia a total of six different times!

The beauty of Istanbul
My favorite method of transportation to span the continents would have to be the ferry. For the mere price of 1.90TL (less than a dollar), you can enjoy a beautiful “cruise” across the Bosporus where you can experience the lovely blue-green hue of the ocean, the sunlight glinting off the domed roofs of the mosques, and if you’re really lucky, a dolphin swimming along beside the ferry. While I wasn’t lucky enough to see any dolphins, I did see a lot of jelly fish along the way!

Ferry on the Bosphorus
Another popular method of transportation is the Marmaray. This metro-like tunnel was actually built underground beneath the Bosporus. Speedy and efficient, the Marmaray is an excellent method of transportation as long as you don’t think too much about the fact that there are thousands of gallons of water, fish, boats, and everything else imaginable floating happily along above your head.

Before I get carried away and go into too many details about Istanbul, I want to start at the beginning of my adventure, which is actually the city of Antalya. Due to its lovely beaches, this port in southern Turkey makes a very popular tourist destination. It also makes a beautiful destination for an education conference with other teachers from around the world, which is why it was chosen as the venue for our 2014 global conference. The conference was an excellent opportunity for learning and fellowship, and not a bad place to take a little rest on the beach after a very, very busy third quarter of teaching at BFA.

Boats in downtown Antalya Harbor
One of the afternoon outings during the free time at the conference was the chance to take a cruise on the Manavgat River, explore the ancient Roman ruins of Perge, and dip our feet in the Mediterranean Sea. We also had the chance to taste some delicious Turkish-style ice cream, which is similar to American-style, except for the fact that it is much stickier, making it the perfect consistency to tease unsuspecting American girls by flipping it upside down right before handing it to the next customer. 
Jessica waiting for her ice cream
While Antalya was lovely, we didn’t get to truly experience Turkish culture until we left the resort and flew over to Istanbul. My housemate Johanna and I were able to stay with a friend who teaches at an international school located in the city. It was such a blessing to have a friend who can speak some Turkish and is well adept at navigating the public transportation system—a skill which was incredibly helpful since we were staying on the Asian side of the city and the majority of the tourist attractions are over on the European side.

The next three days in the city were a whirlwind of adventure as we spent our time exploring the famous Turkish landmarks. Some highlights were the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace and tulip gardens. Johanna and I were able to meet with two more of our friends—Karen who also teaches at BFA and Emma who teaches in Thailand.

My Istanbul travel buddies
To enter the Blue Mosque we had to remove our shoes and (since we are women), cover our heads with scarves. The Blue Mosque still functions as a place of worship, therefore it is important that those who wish to enter are respectful of the Islamic traditions. Inside was a soft red and blue flowered carpet as well as elaborately decorated ceiling and walls. In contrast to Christian churches, mosques are never decorated with images of people or animals. This is thought to be a distraction (or form of idolatry) and may take people’s thoughts away from worshipping only God. Therefore the art is mostly symmetric patterns, intricate mosaics, flowers, lines, colors, and ornate Arabic calligraphy—mostly selections from the Quran or names of important religious leaders, such as Muhammad.

Getting ready to enter the Blue Mosque
Although Turkey is not an Islamic State, they have had democracy and freedom of religion since 1924, about 90% of the population does claim to be Muslim. This being the case, the Muslim "Call to Prayer" can be heard loud and clear on almost any corner of the city. For those of you who are curious to hear this religious chant, take a look at the following video.

After the Blue Mosque, we went over to the Hagia Sophia. The history of this museum is perhaps the most interesting of all structures that we visited. Originally built as a Greek Orthodox church during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the year 537, the church remained a Christian place of worship all the way until the year 1453. In this year, Istanbul (then Constantinople) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Sultan Mehmed II was so impressed with the beauty of the building that he ordered the church to be converted into a mosque. The Christian mosaics and symbols were covered over with plaster and replaced with Islamic artwork. Sultan Mehmed also added other Islamic features, such as four minarets, which are the tall towers for sounding the call to prayer.

The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed for restoration and later opened to the public as a museum. Though a great deal of the Christian artwork was destroyed during the Ottoman takeover, some is still visible alongside of the Islamic art. In some cases, the Christian mosaics were actually better preserved because they were covered over in plaster. I was completely fascinated by this intriguing blend of both the Christian and Muslim art and culture. It is no wonder this beautiful structure is considered by some to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

Notice how Mary and baby Jesus are surround by symbols of Islam
Remains of a mosaic including Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist

The final big attraction that we saw in Istanbul was the Topaki Palace. This palace was first constructed by Mehmed II and was the home of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. A beautiful collection of rooms, gardens, treasures, and art this palace could only be defined as spectacular. Regretfully, we misread the closing sign and only had a little over an hour to explore the exquisite grounds, chambers, treasury, and courtyards. As you can imagine, this was hardly enough time to do justice to the 400 years of Ottoman royalty, but at least we were able to see a glimpse of the splendor.

Beautiful fountain in the third courtyard

Gate of Salutation

Observe the lovely statues surrounding the fountain

Enjoying the flowers in a nearby park

I have so much more to write, but I'm afraid that's all I have for tonight. There is more to come on Turkey, stay tuned for my next blog!



  1. Very nice! What spectacular views and great narration!

  2. Beautiful pictures and stories Ahna. Can't wait to see you again! <3, Dayla