“Istanbul was Constantinople / Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople / Been a long time gone, Constantinople / Why did Constantinople get the works? / That’s nobody’s business but the Turks”
They Might Be Giants
Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire until 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was founded and changed the cities’ name to Istanbul. Fun fact: the capital of Turkey is and always has been Ankara. Contact me directly to send my cut of your winnings at all future jeopardy, pub quiz and trivia games.
For a city of 9 million (20 million with suburbs) the first thing that struck me about Istanbul is that it did not feel nearly crowded enough. Where were all the people? I expected a chaotic, squished to sardines, raw city but found spacious streets that were refreshingly unhumid, filled with tourists and locals but not overflowing. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a calm city, always look both ways before crossing the road (especially one-way streets).
The first day I arrived there was a large Pride parade with copious amounts of police to monitor the parade, which had the potential of turning into a protest. There are many Pride parades worldwide at this time of year but unfortunately it coincides with Ramadan. I heard from one Turk that he thought the parade was disrespectful of the holy month since many interpretations of the Quran call homosexuality a sin and a crime. With the huge crowds expected and extensive police force setting up I decided to steer clear, but it ended as peacefully as it started.
Ramadan is a Muslim holiday that is observed by fasting each day for an entire month, no food or water, brushing teeth or smoking. During the month observant Muslims eat after sunset and stop before sunrise, after 7pm and before 3am. Employees start work later in the day and break their fast with friends and family in the evening. There were large, community dinners every night in Taksim square for people to eat their first meal while listening to live music. Every year the month of fasting moves forward 11 calendar days so in a few years it will be in winter instead of summer. I met a few Muslims who were observing Ramadan and they didn’t mind answering my questions, nor did they ever complain about fasting for a full month. Apparently the first few days are the hardest but then it got easier as your stomach shrunk, and eating watermelon helps keep you hydrated for longer.
The celebration of Ramadan is one of the 5 pillars of Islam which are the essential components of being Muslim. The other 4 are that there is a God and Muhammad was his messanger, give to the poor, pray 5 times a day, and make a pilgramage to Mecca. Ramadan is a time of reflection and Muslims are supposed to focus more on Islam by abstaining from eating during the day. Although Istanbul is a Muslim city it is still quite secular; there were many locals eating and drinking during the day, and some women covered their heads but others did not.
Although I am not Muslim and didn’t celebrate Ramadan, I still enjoyed visiting a few of the many mosques. They are unlike any other house of worship with huge domed ceilings and carpeted floors. At the entrance everyone removes their shoes to put them in little plastic bags to carry into the mosque. As a woman you must cover your hair and both men and women have to cover their shoulders and knees (and everything in between). In case you forgot to cover up, there are shawls and scarfs that you can borrow from the mosque. Inside there is a separate section for tourists to walk back and forth through the mosque, taking pictures or just sitting for a moment to take it all in. Most of the mosque is reserved for those who are praying, men in the front and a partially enclosed section in the back for women.
In the end, my favorite part of Turkey wasn’t the ornate mosques or the streets whose incline rival those in San Francisco. It wasn’t haggling at the Grand Bazaar or having a beer at a rooftop bar on Istiklal. The best part was drinking freshly squeezed orange juice for a lira ($0.50), inhaling too much baklava, and chowing down on a fresh fish sandwich while families gathered to break their fast (and their teeth if they got too many fish bones). As with most places I have visited, I wish I could have seen more but I know I’ll be back someday, at the very least to try out a Turkish bath.