Reflections on Istanbul’s Culture and Geography

Istanbul culture

In many ways, Istanbul has fascinated me for years. From its name change to its history of embracing democracy and secularism, Turkey has been what I read about in college and high school for fun.

When the opportunity arose for me to travel to Istanbul for a study abroad experience while in college, there was no second guessing or time for consideration regarding other cities I could live in. That same night I submitted my application, I was determined to go to Turkey!

Turkey is by all accounts a Muslim nation, but its democratic secularism makes it something you’ve never quite seen before; at least I hadn’t. By the time I traveled to Ataturk Airport I was already familiar with much of the Middle East.

I had been to Israel and Morocco, my dad had been stationed in Saudi Arabia, and I had been studying Middle Eastern policy and relations in college. Even though part of my study abroad program was a class on Turkish culture and history, nothing really painted a true picture of what Turkey was truly like.

I will admit that I had prepared myself for a strict Islamic nation. I was ready to cover my hair out of respect with a purple scarf I brought. I was also prepared to perhaps have comments made about me in a language I didn’t understand, since I was a woman with tattoos, unmarried, and traveling.

I had mentally prepared myself for the cultural misappropriation and stereotypes associated with the Middle East, which couldn’t have been further from my positive experience in Istanbul. I was completely shocked when I arrived to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where our hotel was located, to discover a shopping mall with American brands.

Maybe I was completely fixated on Turkey’s past when I arrived, but within minutes I was pulled through a modern and progressive present that was nothing like I had expected. History, museums, fascinating culture, and beautiful mosaics aside, Turkey is a very unique place.

I had mentally prepared myself for the cultural misappropriation and stereotypes associated with the Middle East, which couldn’t have been further from my positive experience in Istanbul.

Yes, it is a secular nation, but Islamic values are heavily woven into its everyday life. As you travel through the city you will hear the calls to prayer, something so amazingly beautiful and awe inspiring that you can’t help but just stop what you are doing in that very moment and take it in.

culture Ess Mckn circawanderlust

It took me about four days to notice that the tourism workforce (those in the hotels, restaurants, museums, etc.) is usually comprised of men. Traditional gender roles are very much so the norm in Turkish culture.

As you travel through the city you will hear the calls to prayer, something so amazingly beautiful and awe inspiring that you can’t help but just stop what you are doing in that very moment and take it in.

You have this city, that is culturally Muslim located on both the European and Asian continent; a country that was founded in the 1920’s, with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Roman Empire.

Istanbul is, in every way, a city unlike any other. Experiencing tourism in Turkey is a once in a life time opportunity. You have the ability to go into the sultans rooms at Topkapi Palace, which is completely intact.

Unlike the other castles and palaces of Europe, which are little more than empty rooms with grandeur that your imagination must paint for you, Turkish Royal homes look as if the family just left to grab a gallon of milk. Everything is as it was, impeccably curated.

culture Ess Mckn circawanderlust

It is strange too, as a tourist, to see Turkey’s young history. Before the Republic of Turkey, the Rumi Calendar was in use. So, as you walk through old cemeteries you see dates which don’t quite match up; for example, a tombstone marked with a birth date of 1325 and a death date in the 1930’s.

However, Turkish people are more than happy to explain to you how the math works with the conversion of calendars, just as they are happy to share so many other aspects of their enticing culture with you.

Istanbul is, in every way, a city unlike any other.

My trip to Turkey is to this day one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I highly recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to visit, do so. After all, you can go to Asia and Europe all in one day without even leaving the city!

Turkey has found a way to keep its historic and religious identity without being completely oppressive in the eyes of the Western World, making it one of the most amazing and unique places I have ever visited.

Ess Mckn

Ess Mckn

Ess Mckn is the co-founder (along with her husband Tim) of Circa Wanderlust, a blog for history loving travel junkies with a penchant for old brick buildings and adventures as well as travel advice and tips. Ess and her husband often take their two dogs on their one-weekend- at-a- time explorations and can be found on cross country road trips in search of the best hole in the wall BBQ joints and scenic backroads when they aren’t travel abroad. Her hope is to inspire others to travel in their own back yard and abroad through stories and pictures that chronicle their travels. You can follow their adventures at @circawanderlust on IG!

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