Istanbul is a city of change. Its name has changed as the empires and republics it was home to rose and fell. Asia changes to Europe when you sail across the Bosphorus Strait which cleaves the city in two. What changed for me during my visit there was my view of travel, my first step away from conventional tourism, strengthening my fascination with foreign lands.
I had been standing in the Ayasofya Meydani, the Hagia Sofia looming above us on a warm day in June, the second day of my class trip to Istanbul. When it was time for lunch, I watched my peers walk eagerly towards the nearby McDonalds. To my mild surprise, I realized that I felt disgusted. They were going to eat the same crap they ate at home, and they were doing so eagerly. I looked to our tour guide Mahmoud, a man who had lived in Istanbul all his life. I asked him if I could join him for lunch, and he promised me the best kebab in the city. He and I, along with a few others walked down Yerebatan Caddessi past restaurants with neon signs and waiters calling from the porches to a tiny shack of a restaurant tucked between a grocers and a souvenir shop. Mahmoud greeted the owner by name, and we ordered the signature dish. After recovering from the foodgasm it gave me, I made a decision which has stuck with me on my travels; to only eat where locals eat if I could possibly help it. Over the next few days Mahmoud took us to his favourite eating spots, where we experienced all manner of culinary extravagances, from intestine sandwiches to Lahmajun, with Baklava for afters.
Then there is the mosque in the picture. I am not by nature a religious man, but this mosque in particular moved me. Its name is Rüstem Pasha, it is not a big mosque, but it’s in full use, no sign of weariness its 500 years can be seen in the tessellations of its walls. The simplistic and beautiful geometric arts which adorned its walls seem to capture the complexities of the world in a way which the stained glass pictures of my childhood never had. The ezan announced the call to prayer and wound its way through the streets in a passive, romantic way. Rüstem Pasha is a famous mosque, attracting tourists for its distinctive tiles, but nonetheless, people filed in to pray, a moment taken out of their lives to be pray, be thankful and worshipful for the life they received before moving on with their business. It was a tiny but important part of everyday life and I found myselfthrilled that I got to experience it.
I realized the joy I got in experiencing the everyday culture of Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia is mighty and breathtaking but it’s a world heritage site, it’s a hyperbole of the lives and history of the people of the city, whereas Rüstem Pasha is a functioning, living mosque with pretty tiles and Qurans offered to its guests at no cost. The Grand Bazaar sells trinkets made in China, but my intestine sandwich was something authentic. We weren’t eating it because that was how a guidebook said Istanbul should be, but because of how Istanbul was.
Gilbert K. Chesterton once said that, “A traveler sees what he sees, a tourist sees what he has come to see.” Being an ignorant 15 year old, I hadn’t heard this quote, before I arrived in Istanbul but it was nevertheless where I realized the beauty Chesterton’s words it contained. Feel free to fly into the city and experience the Hagia Sophia but you won’t know what Istanbul is really like until you’ve experienced it the way it’s citizens do.