Every town had at least one. You could sit, half indoors and half out, and sip cup after cup of Turkish tea. Sugar was the only optional addition - no cream, lemon, etc. You stirred the sugar cubes with a tiny metal spoon and watched the men at the tables near you. A lot of farmers, I think. Absolutely no women present. Ever. Except for me. That was a little weird sometimes. I ended up putting on a sweatshirt one day - it was 90 degrees outside.
Neither Oliver nor I had ever been to a Muslim country. We weren't quite sure what to expect. I packed a scarf and Oliver made sure to bring socks (Were bare feet in a mosque offensive?) Within an hour of landing in Istanbul we were on the road, off to see the rest of the country. The first thing that struck me as we drove out of the city: minarets. Everywhere. On every hill, sometimes multiple minarets to a mosque. These tall, sleek towers contrasting so beautifully with the domes they were paired with.
Down in Mediterranean Turkey, things could get a little touristy. It took work to escape the hordes of British and German tourists. Sometimes entire towns had to be avoided; no pizza, please. Or apple pie, or knockoff designer bags. When we got off the beaten path though, things got good fast. Pinara, for example. Pinara was a kingdom of ancient Lycia, built up on a mountain with the tombs of its rulers carved into the rock. The ruins of Pinara today are visited by few, on account of them being pretty difficult to get to. We had the place to ourselves. We scrambled over boulders, climbed into empty tombs, and walked until the sun beat us back to the shade of the exit. We could see the snows of Baba Dag in the distance when the clouds around it cleared.
The Aya Sofia
It has many different names. Aya Sofia, Hagha Sofia, Haghia Sofia, Sancta Sophia. Whatever. I had heard of it, and knew that it was generally thought to be one of the world's most beautiful buildings. I had no idea. Seeing its exterior for the first time, not expecting it... it took my breath away. I can't explain what it was that made it so beautiful, though I suspect there is some sort of mathematical, architectural explanation. And the inside! A perfect symbol of Istanbul, with marks left by different conquerors. Byzantine Christian mosaics, 19th century Muslim caligraphy. At this moment, sitting in my living room and typing up this blog entry... I wish I could somehow get there again. Today.
I generally prefer small towns and countryside while I travel. You can't go to Turkey and NOT go to Istanbul though, so we made space in our itinerary for a few days in the city. I wish we had made more. I could have spent a week there, maybe two. It's difficult to explain; if you have the chance, please go there and see for yourself. You won't be disappointed. When I close my eyes I can still see it - the hills, each crowned with a mosque. The seagulls. All those cargo ships on the Bosphorus.
Istanbul was the perfect end to our trip. It took every experience from the previous two weeks and magnified them. The best way to illustrate this: every city, town and village we stayed in had a mosque. We heard the calls to prayer several times each day. The calls to prayer never failed to give me a little thrill; I sat perfectly still each time I heard one and listened. In Istanbul, where there are something like 3,000 mosques, the calls to prayer overlapped. From our hotel we could hear a dozen of them, bouncing off each other and echoing against the hill behind us.