Through the Eyes of an Educator: Istanbul, Turkey

I had no idea I’d ever get to visit Istanbul. Turkey was a place in the text books that showed up a few times in a New York Global History year nine class when it wasn’t even Turkey. Justinian’s rule of the Byzantine Empire and construction of the Hagia Sophia get a few minutes of the curriculum and about half a page. The Blue Mosque often appears in photographs showcasing its significance in size, beauty, and religious observance. Year ten students relate to the words of the They Might Be Giants’ song when they find out that ‘Istanbul was once Constantinople’ and work to uncover the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire’s reign. For all intents and purposes, unless there’s unrest in the present, Turkey’s past doesn’t get immense focus. I certainly never even thought I’d get to visit.

My husband often mentions Turkey and the importance it has for Australians. Each year, in April, many ANZACS flock to Gallipoli to pay their respects to fallen soldiers of World War One. It’s a meaningful learning experience, trip, and war memorial observance journey all in one. He regularly talks about his past visits to a few of the well-known cities of Turkey and was able to make those black type-faced paragraphs come to life for me-I wanted to go and experience it for myself. I’m now one hundred percent certain that the chapters don’t do it justice.

Divided by Bosporus River, Asia sits on one side with Europe on the other. It’s ever present that this is the world’s center divided. History teaches that before Istanbul, the city was Constantinople. And even before that, when the Roman Empire was divided in two, this city was the capital of the Eastern half. Every step in Istanbul is actually walking in the steps of history and so many who came before us. This is a beautiful land filled with colorful carpets and characters and flavorful foods and tempting aromas. Walk down any street and your soul is fed in more ways than one. To be here is to journey back in time. The mysticism of Istanbul floods the cobblestone streets of Sultanahmet, the Old City. Turn down any street and you can find a hidden gem of a café. Near every major attraction there are vendors selling delicious smelling treats, some specific to Turkish culture. Stop by any bakery window and you’re bound to find colorful and exotic Turkish delight (my husband’s favorite). The Old City has much to offer and heaps to teach.

 

Turkisth delight, Istanbul

 

Sultanahmet, The Old City, is where the likes of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, and Basilica Cistern are located. Just minutes from the Bosphorus River, this small section of Istanbul is aflutter with life at all hours of each day. Locals and travelers alike fill the halls of the Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia. Queues form, photos are clicked, and hot drinks are savored. Here, the pigeons flock to the lady outside of the Spice Market who hands you feed when you hand over some cash. The faces may vary along with religions and ethnicities, but most are here for the same reason: to take in the sights and sounds of Istanbul’s heritage. I had no idea I’d be so taken with this city. As the magical aromas danced off the vendor’s carts and hawkers questioned, ‘so I heard you say you wanted to buy a carpet’, travel made this city come alive for me and I was hooked.

 

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

 

Food is a huge part of Turkish culture. Each morning at breakfast we were met with an overflowing buffet of pastries, cereal, yoghurt, and one of our favorite treats from Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, a borek. A traditional Turkish flaky pastry filled with delicious goodness, my tummy was satisfied daily! There were traditional treats everywhere and even being a vegetarian wasn’t difficult. Turkish kebabs are readily available. If you’re a fan of hummus, babaghanoush, or yoghurt sauce, this place is heavenly! We even came to realize that the Iskender Kebab that the husband regularly orders in the states is named after Alexander (the Great). Just another way that even food teaches around the world. Aside from the tasty bread (that was basically the size of our heads) provided at most meals, my favorite, is the gozleme. Again, it’s something that I’d tried at the Queen Victoria Night Market in Melbourne, but here it’s truly authentic. Considered a Turkish pancake (picture a quesadilla), this dish is pure deliciousness. There are a few restaurants where the women who pull and roll the dough sit by the window enticing onlookers into the place. You watch as they quickly pull the dough, roll it into a tight ball and then cook it on a flat surface until it flattens and bubbles, ready for its additions. With many choices of filling, even vegetarians had a fair share of choice and throughout my journey, I happily ate a few of them. Grilled vegetables, potato, or feta and herbs-each one was more fantastic than the next. Served with guacamole, yoghurt sauce, and harissa, the flavors burst in my mouth with each bite.

 

Gozleme, Turkey

 

Ladies making gozleme, Istanbul

 

As it is when traveling, even street food is different. While in Rome there’s gelato, in Paris, crepes, Argentina, empanadas, and India, samosas, Turkey has its own delicacies to pick up on the go. Many places have corn on the cob heated to perfection or chestnuts actually roasting over an open fire. The part that made me smile the most: Turkish bagels! Although so many think New York when hearing bagels, originally, bagels came from Eastern Europe - so it makes even more sense to find them here. What’s a Turkish Bagel? Instead of a schmear of cream cheese, all those who purchase one find a delectable layer of Nutella (hazelnut chocolate spread) between two signature circles. And of course, pass any window of a small or large bakery and the colorful array of small squares catch the eye. Covered, filled and incorporated with nuts, fruits and sweets, fans of Turkish Delight never want to leave.

And then there’s the drink. Two hot drinks from Turkey are known the world over. Both served in tiny cups with even smaller handles, Apple tea and Turkish coffee are the drinks of choice. The apple tea is exactly as it sounds and tastes similar to a squeezed green apple in a cup. It’s hot liquid with a tinge of color and is as ever present in Istanbul as hot chocolate is in Brussels. The coffee, well, that’s another story. For those who are not fans of strong espresso, Turkish coffee is not for you, however, most things are worth a try once at least. As ubiquitous as Starbucks in the United States, café after café line the streets of Sultanahmet filled with passersby sipping their coffee either planning their next move or taking in the sights as they watch the world go by.

 

Apple tea, Istanbul

 

In just over two days, we learned so very much. Whether you’re ‘playing tourist’ or acting as a local, there’s people watching to see, culture to experience, and knowledge to gather everywhere within Istanbul. Spend five minutes or five hours in the Grand Bazaar and sensory overload explodes. Vendors hawking, people purchasing, food sizzling, and a colorful array of carpets, trinkets, and characters adorn the aisles of this huge marketplace. Closed on Sundays, this massive structure exudes the essence of Aladdin. Although prices are a bit higher inside the bazaar than out on the street, it is still an adventure of maths, sociology, religion, culture and anthropology combined.

 

Dried flowers and spices for sale, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

 

Religion is showcased in the stunning beauty of the Blue Mosque in the center of the Old City. According to history, the Blue Mosque got its name from travelers. Both men and women must be fully covered to enter (free attire inside if necessary). Women must have their heads covered along with clothing to wrist and knees and men must be covered from waist to ankles. Shoes are placed in a plastic bag and carried inside the building. Movies and television just don’t do it justice; the inside of the Blue Mosque is even more stunning in person. In existence for over four hundred years, the colors within the stained glass, paintings, and carpets are still brilliant. If you’re looking for more information, there’s an Islamic information center off to the side of the floor with clerics available to answer any questions you may have regarding the religion, history, or the building itself. Perspective, thought, focus, understanding, and connection are words bantered around the room as onlookers catch a glimpse of worship that takes place the world over. Although a place of religious observance for some, for many others it’s a visit that won’t soon be forgotten.

 

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 

If you’re looking for a bit of history about the Byzantine Empire or even if you just find yourself singing the lyrics to the They Might Be Giants song regarding Istanbul and Constantinople, there are places to feed your brain and echo your words in the Old City. Between the Basilica Cistern and the Hagia Sophia, you can find marble and stone, water and light and walls that share stories of old. The Basilica Cistern is a woven maze of underground caverns, magical lights, cool dripping water and Medusa heads in an underground water system built by Justinian in 532. Lined with wooden platforms, visitors wind their way amidst cool wafting air and dodge droplets of water to watch light dance and wonder at architectural design and construction of so long ago that seems still to be far ahead of its time. For even more detail, take the guided audio tour to fully step back in time into the land of the Byzantines. And then there’s the Hagia Sophia. Pronounced Ava Sofia (in Turkish), the name translates to Sacred Wisdom. Covered in chapters of Global History in New York, standing on this sacred ground was far more real to me than it ever was in the history books. Built by the Roman Emperor Constantine and finished by Justinian during his reign, the marble and stone radiate wealth, strength, and power. With well-kept tapestries of over four hundred years floating overhead, incredibly high ceilings, and majestic artwork, this building that was once a church today is flooded with hundreds of visitors daily. There’s a video detailing the development and history of the building to watch and hidden crevasses to find when you head upstairs for a better view of the site. Islamic calligraphy and religious artwork are visible from every angle. Standing on the center floor, it’s almost impossible not to feel as if you’re a part of living history. No matter how good the author, that’s rarely a feeling gathered from a textbook.

My husband always knew he wanted to go to Turkey, yet the feelings weren’t as strong for me. After only a short visit to Istanbul, I’m already ready to return. Informal education smacks you in the face moments after stepping off the plane and the lessons learned stay with you for a lifetime. If I close my eyes I am back in the midst of the spice market with noise, aromas, colors and life all around and a smile that doesn’t wane. This is Istanbul.

 

 

 

 

Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.
 
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert

 

 

 

 

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