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San Francisco? Sydney? Paris? No, the Most Beautiful City in the World Might be Istanbul
But we definitely have Mosque Fatigue.
Here is something I didn’t expect to say about Istanbul: it just might be the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited.
And, yes, I’ve been to Phoenix, Arizona.
Sorry, Phoenix. I kid.
Seriously, I’ve seen a lot of beautiful cities: Paris, Sydney, Quebec City, Lisbon, Rome. And for more than twenty years, I lived in Seattle, no slouch itself in the looks department.
Maybe it’s partly a question of expectations, but Istanbul more than compares to any of these places.
Like Rome, Istanbul was originally built on seven hills, with an important religious structure built atop each one. But the city has since grown massively, across the Golden Horn estuary, as well as the Bosporus Strait to Asia. The Asian side of Istanbul now makes up 97% of the city, and it’s got plenty of hills too.
All those hills, and all that water, make for a stunning setting.
Then you add the architecture, which is ancient and beautiful, especially in the Fatih district or “Old Istanbul.” Domed mosques rise up all around with their minarets rising even higher to pierce the sky, adding an almost dreamlike quality to the place.
And like any major urban area, there are high-rises, usually in pockets here and there. But they never dominate the skyline or turn the streets into canyons like New York or Toronto. It’s a much more gentle, human-sized skyline, and I love it.
There is one caveat to this: there are large parts of the city we have not yet seen and where millions of people do live in “gecekondu,” or shanty towns. Like many cities, its beauty comes with a darker side.
Istanbul is also a city of remarkable color and vibrancy.
In Fatih, where we spent the first ten days, everywhere you look something bright leaps out at you: windows filled with bejeweled Turkish lamps, ice cream vendors wearing their red and gold vests and caps, and beautiful rugs and textiles piled up in front of shops.
Ironically, the bright colors of the city are a bit at odds with the Turks themselves, who have so far struck me as somewhere between very reserved and outright dour, something reflected in the way they dress.
Mexico or Brazil, this ain’t.
Indeed, seeing a colorful shirt or dress is fairly unusual. Perhaps that’s partly because so many women — who normally tend to wear brighter colors than men in most countries — often wear dark head coverings and dresses for reasons of religious modesty. (And you also see many fewer women out and about than men, which is a whole other kettle of fish.)
We arrived at our hotel for our first ten days here, planning to rent an apartment later, and with the exception of the woman who cooked our breakfast, no one was what I’d call “friendly.”
When we checked in, this is what we did not hear: “Welcome to Istanbul! We’re glad you’re here because we’re desperate to have guests again! Here is a list of things to do!”
This is what we did hear: “Show me your passport, and I’ll give you your keys.”
Almost no one smiles at you in the streets and except for merchants trying to get you into their stores, no one even really looks you in the eye. One night Brent tried to order some takeaway for dinner, but it took him five minutes to get anyone in the restaurant to even look at him.
I’m embarrassed to admit I still drink Starbucks, even in foreign countries, so I’ve been to Starbucks all over the world. The baristas are usually incredibly friendly, smiling, if not outright inviting you to their college graduations.
Here in Istanbul you’re grateful just to get your coffee.
Brent doesn’t find the Turks especially dour. On the contrary, he thinks they are acting completely appropriately, with everyone minding their own damn business. He likes it that way. Keep in mind he spends all his time chatting up Istanbul’s many cats that largely ignore him, so there’s that. He also tends to dour colors himself.
And even I agree there are exceptions among the Turks. Take Ramazan, the man who runs the rug shop next to our hotel.
If you’ll recall from my post last week, most rug vendors are, uh, very aggressive in trying to get you into their shops. But on our first night here, Ramazan welcomed us to Istanbul and suggested we try his favorite kebab restaurant.
Over the next week, he greeted us each time he saw us, always giving us some sight not to be missed. (Everything he suggested was well worth seeing.)
One afternoon, he invited me into his shop for tea and showed me his rugs, even though by then he knew we were digital nomads and had no place for a rug.
I don’t mean to be unduly critical of Turkey or the Turks. We Americans can certainly have our own off-putting qualities to foreigners. If Turks are terribly reserved, we Yanks can be obnoxiously outgoing. Or at least some of us can, as Brent might point out.
Like, say, me.
Now let’s talk mosques.
If you’ve been a tourist almost anywhere in Europe, you probably saw a lot of cathedrals.
In fact, by some point in your trip you’d probably seen dozens of them. And then maybe there came a moment when another one appeared and you thought, Kill me now, I can’t bear to go inside another cathedral.
Even if it was the Cathedral at Chartres.
The scientific term for this is Cathedral Fatigue. There’s also something called Castle Fatigue.
Here in Istanbul, it’s known as Mosque Fatigue.
It can feel like there are mosques on every corner. And I don’t just mean rinky dink little local mosques. I’m talking about spectacular mosques all over the city that everyone says you have to see.
Of course, there’s the world famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, which literally sit across the same plaza, squared off against each other like prize fighters.
Other famous ones include Ortakoy Mosque, Fatih Mosque, and Beyazit Mosque. All hundreds of years old and stunningly beautiful.
Then there’s Suleymaniye Mosque.
Many locals told us it was the mosque we had to see — that it’s as beautiful as the Blue Mosque but much less well-known.
I didn’t want to go. I had a bad case of Mosque Fatigue.
But I’m really glad we went anyway.
The mosque itself was built for Sultan Süleyman I, also known as Süleyman the Magnificent. I don’t know if the man really was magnificent, but his mosque sure is. The interior domes, arches, windows, and even the carpet are just stunning.
Also magnificent was the young Muslim woman who spent fifteen minutes explaining various aspects of the mosque.
Take a look at the windows in the picture below:
Our guide explained how the windows in most mosques represent the different stages in a person’s life. The windows at the bottom represent a person at birth. Since Islam has no concept of “original sin,” the windows are clear and pure.
The next windows up represent childhood, and they’re the most colorful, full of life and exuberance.
The next row is adulthood, which is still colorful, but tempered a bit.
The fourth row is maturity, which is more focused, more muted, but filled with clarity and wisdom.
The top row is death, and the windows show a return to purity.
And the dome directly overhead represents the afterlife — heaven.
I’m not religious at all, but I found this a lovely and profound way to represent a human’s life.
Our ten days in Fatih seeing the sights were wonderful, if a bit exhausting. Now it’s back to our normal lives as digital nomads.
That means we’ve moved from our hotel in Fatih to the other side of the Golden Horn. We’re now staying in an apartment just off of Istiklal Street, truly one of the most charming neighborhoods in which we’ve ever lived.
I have a feeling our experience over here is going to be pretty different, so stay tuned next week for details on that!
Got any thoughts or questions? Leave in the comments and I’ll address them next week!
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)