August 26… The topic for today is… First Impressions of Istanbul's Culture

We have now spent two full days in Istanbul and have already discovered many differences in the culture and customs of this remarkable city. The following paragraphs describe my first impressions of this very unique European city.

As soon as we walked out of the taxi and into the blazing heat we knew this place was different. We went into our small hotel room and absorbed the cool air into our parched skin. The relief of the air-conditioning must have really distracted us because we forgot to look out our window. As I peered through the tiny opening I suddenly forgot about the refreshing air that surrounded me; all of my senses were completely focused on the enormous mosque that lay in my line of vision. It was a breathtaking structure framed by six huge minarets (pillars) that are supposed to lift your eyes to heaven…it works! This beautiful mosque is formed by two major domes and four smaller ones on either side; together they form the magnificent structure. The complex carvings on the minarets and golden steeples on the black capped domes highlight the beauty of the masterpiece. Leading up to the major dome are stair-like structures that guide your eyes into the sky. We heard that at night the blue sky shimmers on the stone creating a bluish effect inside and out. This effect gave the mosque the name "Blue Mosque." I gazed out at this slice of heaven not believing that it could become even more beautiful at night. I quickly unpacked now extremely excited about the adventures that lay ahead in this city.

We walked outside and now believed our books which said that Istanbul's population was 99% Muslim. I wasn't scared. I was excited. The atmosphere was very different with women wearing scarves over their heads sometimes with only their eyes showing. We were uncomfortable in the heat, but just thinking of how hot all of the women dressed with layers of scarves must be made us feel lucky. I wanted to wear my own scarf but was reassured that this would be unnecessary. I still had the urge to fit in with their culture as I don't like being recognized as a tourist. I don't like being looked at as a rich spoiled American. I wanted to be part of their culture and religious customs and not just watch and learn about them. With this thought in mind I walked casually down the narrow street our hotel was on. I wanted to look like I knew where I was going but found this to be very difficult. I was in the middle of Turkey and how could I feel so comfortable in a country bordered by Syria, Iraq, and Iran?

We walked off of the narrow street and into a square we later heard was used for chariot races during the Roman Empire. In the center was a big stone obelisk with Egyptian hieroglyphics carved down it. People were walking casually around a four thousand year old structure. We finally got through the square after being stopped by a couple of people trying to sell us things and made our way to the Blue Mosque. We walked through an archway and into a pretty stone courtyard just outside the mosque. Here we saw people washing their bodies with water from some small fountains. We later learned that cleanliness was a big part of the Muslim religion. We decided not to go inside of the mosque because my shoulders weren't covered. I was a little disappointed but decided this left another adventure and thing to look forward to tomorrow.

We then walked into another square with tons of colorful plants and flowers. On the benches were Muslim families eating corn on the cob together and paying very little attention to their incredible surroundings. Surrounding them were not only pretty flowers but also a wonderful view of the blue mosque on the right side, and on the left the Aya Sofya, a reddish colored mosque. In the distance were other beautiful mosques and palaces; was this just the normal atmosphere and surroundings they had everyday? It sure wasn't normal for me! I looked around and took in all I was seeing. We had read so much about each of these sites individually but never realized how they were all strung together around one square. It was something completely different after seeing so many cathedrals…we were now viewing religious places for a different group of people. The mosques had a very different effect-their enormous domes and minarets gave the square an almost spooky effect. To go along with this I was surrounded by a new group of people. They were all walking slowly and gracefully in their scarves and religious outfits. It almost felt like they were stepping in unison! This was different but once again I was not scared. I was excited. All of these wonderful things were just waiting for me-I couldn't wait till tomorrow to explore them. We were so absorbed by the beauty that we forgot we were hungry. We decided to leave the exploring for tomorrow and have a nice dinner at our hotel. As we walked away from the square I felt as if I was walking away from a dream-a very pleasant dream.

When we got back to the hotel we were told at the front desk that dinner would be served on the top floor. When we stepped off the elevator and into the open air we knew there was no chance we would eat inside. To our delight we were going to eat at a table overlooking the city. On the right side was an enormous harbor releasing boats into the Sea of Marmara. We were told that many of the big boats were carrying oil to the Black Sea. Also on the right side were some of the palaces and mosques we read about. To the left was the square we were in earlier. It was not dark enough yet to see the stone of the blue mosque shimmer, but even without this effect it was a beautiful sight. Behind the hotel was the modern part of the city. We could clearly tell the difference between the two areas and I felt very happy to be on the older part of it. We began to eat and watched anxiously as it gradually got darker.

Suddenly we heard something. I immediately got up and listened. Someone was chanting something very loudly inside the blue mosque. As I began to listen more closely I noticed that other people were reciting something more softly. I listened for a couple minutes in confusion and then suddenly realized why these people were doing this. They were praying. I suddenly remembered that in the Muslim religion you are supposed to pray five times a day--one of the prayer times was at dusk. As I began to walk around I realized that the prayers were coming from many different directions…different mosques. There was praying from all different directions. People were all kneeling in different areas but in the same direction. They were all facing their holy city of Mecca. There are 12 million people in Istanbul and to think of all the people praying at the same time was unbelievable. I listened to the chanting as I watched the sky turn into a magnificent reddish color. It was an amazing atmosphere to be a part of on my first day in Istanbul. I went back to the table and ate my meal focusing completely on the sky gradually turning to a bluish color. I now knew why the impressionists liked to paint the same thing at different times of the day. Every fifteen minutes brought a different effect to the sky and buildings. By the time we had finished dinner the sky was completely blue. We could now see how the Blue Mosque got its name. The bluish shimmer I had been anxious to see the entire day was now surrounding me. It was not just a shimmer; it was a glow.

I overlooked the entire city I had just set foot on and the thing that stuck out in my vision the most was the glow of the Blue Mosque. We went back into our room and got ready for bed. I took my last look at the mosque and fell into a peaceful sleep only disturbed by sudden bursts of excitement about the adventures that lay ahead.