One day is never enough for Istanbul.
After I finished my Topkapi Palace tour, I went looking for a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor that was a 10 minute walk from the racetrack. It took me through the Kumkapı district of Istanbul’s Fatih district, up and down steep streets lined with colorful houses and the Sea of Marmara appearing and out of sight.
In this case, the place where I wanted to have lunch was closed. Luckily another restaurant a few doors down was open and I ventured inside. At the aptly named Istanbul Anatolian Cuisine, I had a light but tasty meal of grape leaf dolma and hummus. While I was eating, I chatted with the owner, who was from Diyarbakır. We discussed the impact of the pandemic economy on the restaurant industry. Got some great advice on historic sites to see in Diyarbakır, where I was planning to go next week. Her cat, Jessica, would drop by every now and then while they served me free baklava and tea.
Finished lunch, I left. At the end of the street, I came across a pleasant surprise in the form of a building I had planned to visit, the Little Hagia Sophia. About as old as its larger namesake, it was converted into a mosque around 1500. The courtyard next to it, once a madrassa (an educational institution), is now a shady tea garden. The surrounding area is lined with private residences, boutique hotels and a few cool cafes; it’s good for a leisurely walk. I walked slowly through the streets, making an exploratory detour every now and then before returning to my hotel in time for curfew.
The next morning, just before sunrise, I left the hotel for a leisurely stroll through the city. I decided to go see the Galata Tower. The early morning devotees returned home after prayers. Following the tram path to Eminönü where the ferries dock, I crossed the bridge. A misty outline of the city emerged above the water, and you could make out the shapes of one or two landmarks. Right next to the bridge on the left, I stopped at Has Simit Evi for a coffee and a quick bite. Slowly chewing on a cheese bun, I watched the baker remove the freshly baked, hot simit from the oven as the whole place filled with the aroma of baked goods and the soft sound of the tram whistling in the background. .
With a welcome dose of caffeine, I continued towards the tower. I had my first experience of the day with the steep streets of Istanbul. The space between the windows above me was filled with drying clothes. Some proudly declared the neighborhood’s allegiance to a favorite football team in the form of huge flags. Finally, I came across the Galata Tower. Nestled high and imposing among a dozen buildings, it was framed against the sunlight. I took several photos, glad I caught it without hordes of people crowding around its base. Then it was time to retrace my steps. The last of my bread was given to the seagulls on the deck, and I arrived at the hotel in time for breakfast.
Al Fin, the Church of the Holy Wisdom
Later in the morning, I met my guide at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. Although it was quite early, the great hall had already filled with tourists sitting or strolling on the thick green carpet inside. The cacophony of voices in a hundred different languages did not tarnish my first experience inside one of the world’s greatest monuments. After my guide left, I spent most of my time walking through the walls and ceilings, trying to absorb every detail in depth: the mosaics that had not yet tarnished in gold, the towering pillars of stone, cascading chandeliers and huge black discs mounted high with the golden names of Allah, Prophet Muhammad and the four Caliphs. It was an exhilarating experience. I only regretted that the upper rooms were closed for renovation and inaccessible to tourists.
The Byzantine Emperor Constance commissioned the Hagia Sophia as a church. It had undergone several reconstructions over the centuries and many changes of function. For the first 900 years, it was the central church of the Greek Orthodox faith under Byzantine rule. It briefly came under Roman control and, two centuries later, it was renovated into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror. It was then that the minarets were added to the building. In 1934 it was declared a museum by the father of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And in July 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned it into a mosque again. Reflecting on this turbulent history, I tried to imagine what it looked like as a museum. I wondered how the people of Istanbul felt about the change.
When the adhan was called for the midday prayer, attendants politely asked tourists to walk to the back half of the main hall as worshipers gathered forward. I followed other women to the section reserved for the faithful. It was wonderful that my first congregational prayer in Turkey took place in Hagia Sophia.
After the prayers were over, I went out to meet my guide for the third visit I had booked as part of the Basilica Cistern package. However, I was informed that the tank was closed indefinitely for repairs and that I was offered a tour of the racetrack instead. Unfortunately, this information had not been shared at the time I made my reservation. Although disappointed to miss an important show, I had no choice. Then I returned to the hotel for a late nap and that evening had dinner in one of the charming cafes that dot the surrounding streets. Then it was again at Hagia Sophia for isha (night prayer). My main goal was to visit the mosque at a quieter time when there were probably no tourists, and the effort paid off. Although I forgot to bring my hijab, an outside vending machine provided a disposable gown with an attached liner for only 20 TL ($ 2.30).
This time I found the hushed domed room, largely empty, making it appear larger than before and bathed in the golden light of so many chandeliers. After the prayers were over, I stayed awhile, just sitting on my side and collecting my thoughts. It was good exercise, and I felt rested as I made the short trip to my room for the night.
The next morning, I woke up long before dawn. Slowly emerging from a haze of sleep, I realized I was going to be leaving Istanbul in a few hours and I made a spontaneous decision. Dressing quickly, I went to Hagia Sophia again, this time for fajr (morning prayer). I reached him just as a little congregation was getting ready, and we prayed together. When I got out, the sky had already started to clear up, so I decided to explore the Fatih district. As it was Monday, the streets were busy even then; I had to make my way through the early morning commuters and breakfast spots opening their doors for the day.
Without choosing a route, I followed the road that went down from the Hagia Sophia and I ventured into the street that seemed interesting to me. I mentally noted which restaurants and shops looked inviting, so that I could stop by on my next visit. Every once in a while, lying next to a fancy clothing store or behind a candy store, an old building peeked through, and I remembered how Istanbul was where the cosmopolitan collided with it. ‘former. It made me think of Rome, where every corner and every random street reveals an old building or a historical monument; a living museum in itself.
Walking down a street just off Ankara Street, I came across Marmara Pastaneleri, a bakery with a welcoming interior that has just opened. I ventured inside, took a look at the treats on display, and made up my mind. I ordered a small cheese and spinach börek and a dark chocolate cookie with coffee, all brought to my table with a friendly smile. I still remember the taste of this cookie in all its cocoa goodness. If you are in Fatih this place is worth a visit. Before I left, I noticed what looked like a huge hand pie nestled among the savory pastries. I was told it was a borek chicken; how was I supposed to resist that! It would make a great snack for later in the day.
Happy with my shopping, I practically returned to my hotel, where I left a few hours later. Next on my route was Bursa, and I decided to go there by ferry.