Crossroads Tour: A Holy Place – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

Today’s lesson is that one cannot always rely on maps. There is construction at the Galata Bridge and I cannot follow the waterfront through to the ferry dock for the Golden Horn. I am lost. The sun is intense today and I sit down on the curb, pulling my shawl over my head for shade. After a few minutes, I notice a parade of people on the other side of the street. I look up and see that directly across from me is a blue and white sign marking the ferry dock for the Golden Horn! So I guess I’m not lost after all.

I cross the street and watch where a crowd of mostly East Indians are scrambling over piles of broken concrete that are doing their very best to disrupt the pathway. I scramble behind them. When in doubt, follow the crowd, chances are that they’re seeking the same destination as you.

I find the ferry ticket office and ask for a round trip fare, following along with the game of pen and ink charades the ticket officer is drawing on his desk pad to make sure we are both talking about the same thing. He gives me two brass tokens, one for each way. I pop one into the turnstile and wait inside the building.

The Golden Horn is a four mile long natural harbor which served as the main commercial port for Constantinople during the Byzantine era. The Byzantines protected the port by blocking it with a huge chain, which was only breached twice…once by 10th century Vikings, and once again during the Fourth Crusade. In 1453 Sultan Mehmet bypassed this chain by dragging his ships from the Bosphorus, overland on greased logs through what is now the New District, and launched them back into the Golden Horn, in the space of a single night. It made him the stuff of legend.

A short ferry ride crisscrosses the Bosphorus to a large bay near the northern end, where I get off the ferry and walk to the funicular. I wait in line for about an hour for a six person tram car that takes a very short ride to the top, and drops us off at a cemetery. (The header photo for this page is the view from the tram car.)

There is an entire city up here! There’s a bus. And shops. And restaurants, all perched on top of this nearly vertical cemetery which is filled with some of the most beautiful stones I have ever seen. I turn north, passing another restaurant, and more graves marked by carved headstones and blooming iris. And now I’m in a residential district. I ask a passerby for directions and he tells me the mosque is in the opposite direction. It is nearing sunset and I’m worried that I won’t reach it before I’m denied access due to evening prayers.

I follow the pavement and see a red sign that looks out of place, and turn onto the path. There’s a group of people waiting at the top, near a gate. Thinking I have arrived at the mosque, I pull my shawl over my head and find a place to stand. I see a group of women and try to move closer to them, but the air is thick with emotion and so I keep my distance. Then I observe a cluster of men gathered off in the trees near a grave. Women start to stand up and kiss each other. I start to back away as I realize these embraces are not in greeting, but in comfort.

I have arrived at a funeral…

I exit as discreetly as I can, thankful that I did not intrude on them to ask directions. After several more minutes, still surrounded by graves and the people visiting them, I see the minarets of a mosque. I pass a young boy wearing the circumcision clothing like what I saw in the shop windows the day I visited the Grand Bazaar. I turn the corner and into a courtyard, surrounded by shops and filled with people. A few steps further brings me face-to-face with a pair of bridal couples who have just exited the Eyup Sultan Camii.

Eyup Sultan Camii

The Eyup Sultan Camii is the first mosque ever built in Istanbul and is considered the city’s holiest religious site. It was built on the place where Ayyub El Assari (called Eyup Sultan by the Turks), standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died during the siege of Constantinople in 674-78. The story relates that he was buried where he fell and this mosque marks that spot. It is an important destination point for Muslim pilgrims, and many bridal couples come here for blessings before their nuptials.

I see a long line of people carrying bottled water and take-out meals. Two men are handing out programs, so either there’s a wedding, or prayer is soon to begin. I find a place to stand near the wall where I can watch unobtrusively. I see women enter a stairwell and take off their shoes. The staircase leads to an enclosed walkway with stained glass panels, stretching over the courtyard. I follow the women in, remove my shoes, cover my head, and walk up the stairs.

There are women praying in the walkway, facing the stained glass on the eastern side. Through the clear windows to the west, I look down into the courtyard where the mealtime pandemonium is starting to subside. I sit down on the floor next to the wall, pulling my shawl to cover my arms, and tugging my skirt to cover my legs. I continue to observe. A few women alternately stand and kowtow. One is on her cell phone. There are children running everywhere. Two other women sit with a prayer book in their lap but do not seem to be referencing it as they converse with each other. To my left, an alcove where women are sitting with heads covered, but not in prayer, or in fact in any form of obvious activity. The imam’s call to prayer has begun…

I don’t know how ling I have been sitting here. Finally, my curiosity takes over and I quietly move into the alcove. And then I look up.

I am standing inside the women’s gallery of Eyup Sultan Camii.

The wall in front of me is an iron screen, separating the women’s balcony from the men in the main mosque below. I sit down next to the screen, and peer thorough. An imam is preaching, breaking his pace frequently with sips from his water bottle. Men are sitting on the floor all helter-skelter. There are water bottles, cell phones, papers and books near some of them. Some of the men are trying to control small boys. Unlike the women who are physically engaged in prayer, the men are not following the same patterns of standing and kowtowing.

There are doors in the screen about the size of a child’s face, one is open and hung with a string of green prayer beads. It’s a perfect camera shot that I do not take. I put my camera away and listen to the imam. After a while, the men join in as a chorus. After a few more minutes I depart, moved by the experience of witnessing a prayer service from behind the screen, at sunset, at this most holy place in the city. 

I walk back to the brick road and am surprised to find that within a few minutes I arrive at street level. Had I known that I would have never waited in line for the funicular.

Travel tip – save yourself the wait for the tram and just walk up the hill. At the top, head south to get to the Eyup Sultan Camii.

I cross the street and walk back to the ferry dock, slip my remaining token into the turnstile and take a seat in a nearly empty ferry station. It is a 45 minute wait for the next ferry and people slowly fill the station. Finally, the incoming ferry docks and offloads, and we push and prod each other through the double doors like so many cattle, across the rough wooden gang planks, to seats for the sail home.

We are halfway down the Bosphorus when the sun sets the sky on fire, reflecting on the waters and turning the Horn golden. The sight of it takes my breath away, and I watch until the gold fades to bronze, and then copper, and then to dusky steel.

It’s a long trek from the ferry dock back to the Sultanahmet, and it is well past dark when reach the Hotel Han. I find Cihan at his usual post. “Choose please,” I say to him with all the energy I have left. I am ushered inside when the weather turns cold and I am seated at the Captain’s table, where Baha joins me for a dinner of lamb on a bed of pistachios and cooked greens, rice, fries and yogurt, accompanied by a glass of Yakut wine. I relate the day’s events, and thank him for sending me on this quest. “Only Allah knows when weddings and funerals will occur,” he responds.

Upstairs, I pack my bags. Two days remain and I may need to look for another suitcase tomorrow. I have an appointment at the hamami tomorrow at 9:30, and then I plan to see the palace of Suleyman the Magnificent, and Barbarossa’s tomb, and the Galata Tower if time allows. 

I arrived here, wanting to leave immediately. Now I do not want to leave at all …

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