Of Mosques and Cats: A Walk in Istanbul from the Grand Bazaar to Fatih Mosque

The first day of a 3 day exploration of Istanbul

Part Two: Never Mind The Rain, Here’s The Istanbul: A Walk Around Sultanahmet
Part Three: Hunting, Shopping & Fishing: A Walk in Istanbul from Galata Bridge to Taksim Square

If you are visiting a new place on a short break, and have an aversion to organised tours (as most street photographers surely have) it is a very good idea to do some research before you go. Skim through a decent travel guide to get an idea of where you want to go. If you are visiting a huge metropolis like Istanbul, and only have 3 days like I did, you could zone in on three areas you find of interest and dedicate one day to each of them.

And so it came to pass on the first full day in Istanbul, my mate Colin and I began to cover the ground we had roughly mapped out a couple of weeks before back home. Starting from our hotel, our intent was to visit the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) first of all and then make our way north-west towards Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii), taking in the sights and sounds along the way, of which there are many.

The Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)

The Grand Bazaar is rightly a major tourist attraction; an ancient proto-shopping mall of some 66 streets and four thousand shops. It’s definitely pleasurable exploring the bazaar, but from a street photographer’s perspective, there are better hunting grounds. The place has been so well-trodden by travellers wielding cameras that many of the shops now display signs asking you not to take photographs of their wares. That’s a bit like a herd of wildebeest planting a placard in the ground for lions to read saying, “We know what you are up to, but please don’t bother. We are tired of it and we aren’t actually that tasty.”

The bazaar is also well policed. This is generally a good thing, particularly to nullify any potential excessive hassle that holiday shoppers might be on the receiving end of. However, I can’t help thinking this has sanitized the experience to a degree. Walk around the outside periphery of the bazaar and you will see what I mean. That’s a more vibrant experience. In fact, from the moment we left the bazaar behind, it just got better and better.

Towards Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleyman the Magnificent featured large in my degree studies, presiding over the Ottoman Empire at it’s height. Stretching as far west as the city walls of Vienna (but never taking the city and thus experiencing his first defeat), his reign of the empire left a legacy of major reforms to legal, educational and political infrastructure that would last centuries. A visit to his mosque was essential. Strolling the streets north of the bazaar thronged with men pulling hand carts stacked impossibly high, we eventually left the melee behind into a more relaxed shopping street dappled with sunlight which soon gave way to residential properties. As the street began to drop on its inevitable terminus at the Bosphorus, we took a left, and there above us we saw the minarets of the mosque for the first time. It was one of those moments where your heart skips a beat. A little injection of adrenaline in the blood saw us knocking off the short climb to the mosque in no time.

Kittens

A coach tour was just leaving. Good timing; but before we entered the central courtyard we clocked some kittens curled up on a step. I heard myself go “aww!” Then I told myself that I didn’t like cats; that their fur makes my eyes sore, my skin itch and make me sneeze. I took a few snaps and moved on. Entering the central courtyard of the mosque I marvelled at the beauty of the architecture and felt soothed by the chilled atmosphere. And look, another cute cat!

Inside the mosque it lived up to its namesakes title; magnificent. Being between prayer times, it was pretty quiet with just a steady trickle of tourists on the entrance steps taking off shoes, putting them back on, and wandering the width of the mosque inside, staying behind the roped off main prayer hall. You are free to take as many photos as you like. The atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful, so don’t be rattling off 10 frames a second! Outside the courtyard, the graveyard and tomb of Süleyman the Magnificent are also worth a visit.

And so, to Lunch

Time does indeed fly when you are having fun. After a good spell at Süleymaniye Mosque my stomach began to rumble. Colin and I made our way along Süleymaniye Caddesi to an area of reasonably priced cafes catering for the student population of the nearby Istanbul University. The vibe around here was more youthful and energetic. We chose a cafe at the intersection of 5 narrow streets, expecting to see plenty of life passing by as we ate al fresco. Eating lunch and sipping Turkish tea and coffee we watched some workmen busy renovating a small old mosque opposite (possibly an old Byzantine church); one of them was putting a new wooden window frame in. It was skillful work.

Kalenderhane Mosque and More Kittens

As we settled the bill at the cafe, the call to prayer started, blasting out of loudspeakers placed at intervals in the streets. Kalenderhane Camii was just a street behind where we had been dining, so we decided to check it out and observe the locals making their way inside. As we loitered outside a young chap came up to us and in English told us there were some very photogenic kittens huddled together half way down the steps. Colin obliged with a few frames. I was kittened out however. Then an older bloke approached us and politely told us in a combination of Turkish and hand gestures which I translated as, “Sorry lads, it’s prayer time, so you can’t go in, but you are very welcome to come back later.” We decided to press on towards Fatih, our final destination.

Roman Roaming

The next hour or so I must have been ‘in the zone’ because it flew by pretty quickly. We wandered past a huge Roman aqueduct (Valens) and through a couple of parks before ascending the hill towards Fatih. We took a few images of people resting in the park and interesting passers by. The feel of the streets changed again. This was a more devout and traditional part of city reflected in dress and general atmosphere.

The Fatih Mosque

Dhuhr prayer had not yet finished when we reached ‘The Mosque of the Conqueror’. Women were gathered outside, talking to friends and neighbours while waiting for their husbands to come out of the mosque. I took one or two images shot from the hip. I was very aware that I was in a more conservative area, and I did not want to offend anyone by brandishing my camera too obviously. Then a trickle of men began to appear. Prayer must be over. We made our way to the main entrance and waited for the mosque to empty; and waited, and waited, and waited. Men, old and young, in traditional and modern dress, poured out of the mosque and down the steps. A couple of kids were shouting their wares; water and some kind of newspaper. Some men stopped to chat and shake hands before moving on. The scene reminded me of a stadium emptying after a football match. Then I realised being Friday this was the big holy day for Muslims. This was Jumu’ah, not Dhuhr prayer, and it was very well attended!

Finally, the din of footsteps, chat, and hawking subsided and we were free to enter the mosque. The air inside the main courtyard had that post event comedown atmosphere. A few men were still praying or rolling up their mats and making their way out. A few women had arrived to sit for a while. One was feeding her baby. Yes, there were cats too. Two feral looking boys (not cats) were having a right ding dong with each other. When it came to blows a local got between them and gave them a finger pointing lecture. Taking my shoes off before entering the mosque I made a pigs ear of things and found myself standing on a bare marble step in my socked feet instead of the carpet. A man pointed out my misdemeanour and cut me some slack when he realised I was a foreigner.

Entering the mosque proper we were greeted by a smiling young boy who gave us each a small piece of paper with a hand written list of website URLs in English. It was unexpected and charming. I placed the list in my camera bag. We stood a while taking in the place. After a while we were approached by a mosque official, who asked us if we had any questions about the mosque or Islam. He told us about the history of the mosque; building commenced in 1473 on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles (which housed the relics of 5 saints). Destroyed by an earthquake in 1766 it rose again, and has very recently undergone restoration. He was almost eager to illustrate the common ground and heritage of Islam and Christianity and I could see he was somewhat troubled by the skewed view of his faith by some westerners and spoke of the appropriation of it by terrorists.

He lead us into the prayer hall and the three of us stood where the Christian altar would have been; I reflected on the pitiful sight of begging Syrian refugees that I had seen in the city earlier that day, and the war raging in their country and in Iraq, not an awful long way away. The walk that day had started as a journey of discovery of Istanbul, and it culminated in me discovering something about myself. The visit to the mosque forever blew away, like useless tumbleweed in a desert breeze, a small amount of prejudice I had lurking in a dark corner of my heart. It changed me, and for the better. It’s not faith per se that screws up the world, but people who can’t see any other point of view, and are keen to impose their way on others. Therefore, to conclude with the unlikely mash up of words from R.S. Thomas and Bono, I invite you to live large, dream small, and beware of small men with big ideas.

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