(This post was originally published on my personal blog, Of Postcards & Ink, between 2015-2016.)
When people have asked about my travels and have heard that I planned to spend a week in Turkey, their response has generally fallen into one of two categories: (1) “Oh my goodness, Turkey will be amazing! I wish I was going to Turkey!” or (2) “… wait, you’re going to Turkey? Are you sure that’s a good idea? Isn’t it really dangerous there?” (the latter of which is usually accompanied by a look of mingled apprehension and alarm). With those two polarising attitudes swirling around in my mind, I arrived in Turkey last week with a great eagerness and desire to explore a culture that I hypothesised to be vastly different from its Western European counterparts, tempered by a lack of any particularly clear idea of what to expect.
Equal parts invigorating and dizzying, spending a week in the cities of Istanbul, Ephesus and Cappadocia has allowed me to scratch the surface of what is a country brimming with stories of joy and sorrow; creativity and ingenuity; and victory and defeat. In my mind, Turkey will always be associated with memories of an energy, colour and vibrance that was perpetually thrumming and dancing through the air. It’s safe to say that I’m incredibly thankful for the adventures that were had in this corner of the world.
Our first morning in Istanbul began with a traditional Turkish breakfast laid out across multiple tables for us to sample and enjoy. Ranging from rolls of fresh bread, fruit and honey, to marinated olives, eggs and cheeses, the spread of Mediterranean flavours and textures made for a delicious start to the day (Australian cafes, please get on that ASAP!). After enjoying our meal from the rooftop terrace of our guesthouse which boasted a view overlooking the surrounding coastline and the Blue Mosque, Isa and I made our way to Istanbul’s infamous Grand Bazaar, preparing ourselves for what would most accurately be described as “Courtney and Isa’s Great (And Quintessentially Touristy) Turkish Scarf/Harem Pants Hunt”.
Walking into the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar was like stepping into kaleidoscopic maze of colours, sounds and patterns. It was in the hustle and bustle of these marketplaces that I felt like I got the first taste of the vibrance that weaves itself through this country’s culture and the energy that dances through the Turkish air. As we wandered through the endless corridors lined by vendors selling their wares and shamelessly calling out to catch your attention, it was easy to get lost with our eyes fixed upwards, frantically trying to catch a glimpse of every single hanging lamp, cashmere scarf, woven rug, handmade bar of soap, selection of tea leaves and patterned piece of ceramic on display. After resisting the temptation to continue venturing deeper and deeper into the bazaar’s maze of paths to the point of no return (seriously), Isa and I left the bazaar with our carefully selected scarves in hand and intense experiences of haggling with emotionally-exploitative Turkish vendors in our back pockets.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sampling some obligatory grilled meats, authentic Turkish delight (Edmund, I still don’t think it was worth selling your family and soul to the White Queen for, but I’m infinitely closer to understanding where you were coming from now), baklava and Turkish tea, as we wandered through the city’s bustling streets. With full stomachs and our spontaneously-purchased matching harem pants in hand, we then made our way over to the famous Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. As we explored Hagia Sophia in particular, I found myself experiencing a strange sense of inner conflict as we were faced with architecture and art that had originally been created to depict key figures of the Roman Catholic tradition, but which had since been adapted to emulate the trappings of an Islamic mosque after the defeat of the Romans at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. For me, that blatant appropriation was quite a confronting example of the complex political and religious history that ties the fabric of Turkey together. Walking into the Blue Mosque was also an incredibly unique experience, as we witnessed people of the Islamic faith undertaking their rituals of worship and prayer. For someone who has grown up in a predominantly Anglo-Christian environment and whose understanding of Islam has largely been shaped by books/talks written from a Christian perspective and brief conversations with Muslim peers, it was certainly an insightful afternoon.
With only one full day at our disposal, I felt like we weren’t quite ready to leave Istanbul when we did. Having only scratched the surface of this beautiful city’s culture, food, people and places, I’d really love to return someday.
The next leg of our journey took us to the much smaller city of Izmïr and to our delight, we stepped off our flight to be met by our waiting hotel shuttle (Istanbul, you’ll have to redeem yourself next time ‘round). We were even more pleasantly surprised when we found out that the owner of our guesthouse, accompanied by his girlfriend who was originally from Prague, had actually driven out to the airport to pick us up himself! From there, the hour-long drive through the countryside and along the stunning coastline of the Aegean sea (!!!) to Selçuk was filled with friendly conversation, a round of French Jazz songs (when our hosts found out that we were both studying in France), Passenger’s latest album and attempts to learn a few essential Turkish phrases; the last of which proved to be a lot harder to master than Italy’s “prego” and “grazie”. It was quite a breath of fresh air (both literally and figuratively) to escape the traffic and crowds of Istanbul and be able to spend some time in this quieter and more rural area of Turkey.
For those of you who have been asking me about my travels, you’re probably sick of me harping on about the warmth and hospitality that we encountered in Italy and Turkey. As someone who spent five weeks travelling from city to city without a place to really call home though, being welcomed, cared for and shown love by people who were effectively strangers is something that I really cherished throughout my time exploring Europe. Our most unique experience of that generosity in Selçuk took place when our hosts decided to take a bit of a driving break after forty minutes spent in the car and pulled over to a tea house run by one of our host’s relatives on the side of the highway. Complete with picnic benches covered with brightly coloured tablecloths, hammocks hanging from gumtrees and giggling children running along the grassy paths, there was something unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful about being treated to glasses of traditional Turkish tea and freshly cooked gozlëme on that warm and breezy afternoon. After spending some time relaxing there, we hopped back into the car and proceeded to our guesthouse, which was situated right at the foot of the hill where St John’s Basilica and Castle complex stood in Selçuk.
Our days in Selçuk were spent marvelling at incredible views atop hills, writing postcards, walking through the ancient streets and architectural remnants of the town of Ephesus, enjoying traditional Turkish three-course meals and watching the sun dip its head beneath the clouds from the rooftop of our guesthouse. The ancient city of Ephesus was what had drawn us to this part of Turkey and it certainly did not disappoint. As Christians, the joy that we experienced in visiting the ancient city was more profound than the excitement we felt when exploring the cities of Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum. In Ephesus, we were captivated by a much deeper sense of awe, as we were able to physically visit a city that was so strongly associated with the Biblical account of the early church and the incredible reality that Jesus’ death and resurrection invited us, as Gentiles (non-Jews) to be adopted into God’s family and enter a relationship with Him, where we, as His children, could call Him our Father. Ephesians has always been one of my favourite books of the Bible and being able to walk through the streets of the city where God used Paul to bring the good news of Jesus to a lost Gentile people was a privilege, indeed.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV)