This blog title is still a misnomer, since having just arrived in Alanya today, I will leave a description of the town and my lodging until the next post, instead focusing on my last week and a half divided between Istanbul and Ankara. Despite misfortunes on both ends of visiting Istanbul, traveling in this city was a spectacular experience. Unfortunately, my flight into town was delayed by five hours due to problems with half of the bathrooms on my plane forcing us to return to Toronto, in my mind a terrible decision despite the relative comfort of the Toronto airport. This delay on my flight (which was already coming in later) caused me to miss our group’s tour of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, the crown jewels of Istanbul and definitely a major disappointment. Still, an early morning run later in the week at least got me good outside views of these impressive monuments (and some weird looks from commuting natives), and Istanbul is so full of sights that each of the other days was quite enjoyable as well. A visit to the Dolmabahçe Palace and a cruise up the Bosporus to an ancient Byzantine castle reinforced the immense historical value of this center of two great empires, while seeing the sight of last year’s major protests, Taksim Square, and a visit with an NGO focusing on women’s rights was a reminder of the challenges still facing Turkey (shopping at the crowded Grand Bazaar reminded me why I hate visiting overly popular locations). Istanbul is a marvelous if contradictory city, sprawling over hundreds of square miles on two continents, with 15th century Ottoman mosques side-by-side with 20th century apartment blocks and skyscrapers still under construction, and despite its diverse heritage, arriving on Victory Day showed it has quite a lot of patriotism. While parts of Istanbul were reminiscent of other European cities or New York (including the crowds, traffic, and terrible drivers), the minarets (and their calls to prayer), veiled women, and few English speakers outside the tourist districts definitely show that despite almost a century of Westernization, Istanbul is still more Middle Eastern than European. After six days we moved onto Ankara, but that was also the time that the intestinal problems common to travel in less-developed nations started to appear. I was the unlucky first one to get sick, and on our tour of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul, I vomited all over one of the holiest sites in Orthodoxy (luckily, it was on the stone floor where it was easy to clean instead of one of the priceless relics). Most of the group also got sick in the subsequent days, though not in such a mortifying fashion, but this ailment certainly detracted from a couple days of the trip.
Our next destination, Ankara, though it had many similarities to Istanbul (poor urban planning, the same three types of restaurants, ongoing development), had a very different atmosphere. Located in the center of the country, the natural landscape of Ankara resembles Utah or elsewhere in the Western US, with arid scrublands and dry, still heat, in comparison to the remaining verdant forests that surround Istanbul with its humidity and sea breezes. Most of Ankara is unfortunately fairly ugly, with sprawling rows of identical apartment blocks randomly punctuated with hotel towers and construction sites. While Ankara’s history dates back to pre-Roman times, it remains much fewer traces of its historical past than Istanbul, save for the impressive citadel in the center of the city. However, the tree-lined streets and small parks of Ankara were an improvement over the urban barrenness of Istanbul, a contributing factor to the latter’s Gezi Park protests. We only spent two days in Ankara, visiting the aforementioned citadel as well as Ataturk’s Mausoleum, an edifice that fittingly seems to combine the monuments of the National Mall for a man who is revered in Turkey as if he was the combination of all the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan in America. His image is ubiquitous; one could even make a scavenger hunt out of trying to find his picture in every Turkish business or home. The mausoleum also includes a small but well-done museum of Ataturk’s military career and reforms (which for a military history buff like myself was very exciting), and is guarded by the elite of the Turkish military. As the capital of Turkey, Ankara also served as a fitting place to discuss Syrian refugees with representatives of the UNHCR, and Turkey’s application process to the EU with a member of the EU’s delegation in Turkey. We may not have had homework, but class topics were definitely a large part of these tours. In both cities we met Georgetown alumni for dinner, and in Ankara an evening at a bar with one of these alumni was a great time that definitely gave a fascinating perspective on Turkey’s current situation from someone who knows the country well.
Despite flight delays, illness, and long days of travel, the beginning of my study abroad journey in Istanbul and Ankara was everything I could have hoped and more. I regret that my lack of knowledge of Turkish kept me from getting a full experience of the cities (though noticing the high number of Arabic loanwords and use of Arabic script made me hopeful that choosing to forgo learning Arabic by choosing this program over Jordan won’t mean a complete end of my Arabic studies), admittedly if I didn’t have to eat another pide, kofte, or kebab for a month I would be grateful, and by today I was looking forward to unpacking and relaxing without constant tours, but I will definitely return to both of these cities at a later date since there is so much more to see (and much more that I did and didn’t include in this post. Stay tuned for next week when I can give a picture of my new (and amazing) accommodations and experiences in Alanya, as I settle in with classes and weekly routines.