Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul, Turkey

I’ve had a fascination with Sufism since I first learned of it. Interestingly, I was reading the poems of Rumi, way before I ever knew what a Sufi was.
I thought they were beautiful and ephemeral and spoke to what I felt was true. At the time, I was deep into Taoism and the Tao te Ching and I was amazed that this Persian poet had captured the essence of the Tao so well.

Later, through my brother, I met a profoundly interesting man, Sharif Baba. Sherif Baba is a Turkish whirling dervish. He was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having zickers in the basement of a tea house called Silk Roads. He liked my brother and the three of us connected well in conversation both at the tea house and in the house where Sherif Baba was staying. I would say that in the short time I knew him, I picked up some of the most interesting pieces of spiritual wisdom that I have come across. Probably the most interesting thing was that God needs to be taken with a sense of humor. As Sharif Baba said “All the buses lead to the same bus station.”

You can learn more about Sharif Baba at http://www.sherifbaba.com/

It was at this time I discovered that my favorite poet was the founder of the most important sufic order. I began reading a lot and fell in love with Sufi parables and realized that while this was definitely Islam, it was all inclusive Islam. I asked Sharif Baba why whirling was important and he told me something like this

“The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”


Needless to say, my mind was blown as I immediately saw the truth in his statement. Like the Hindu story of the blind men who are arguing over what an elephant looks like based upon which part they touched, humans argue over what God looks like based on which part they’ve touched or been told that others touched. It was around this time that I truly became a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God. The reason was simple, I recognized that there is no choice in the matter.

As I have said before, being a Muslim shouldn’t be about the pillars, not about the Quran, not about fasting, not about anything except that understanding, that submission, that recognition. Don’t confuse the forms with the reality.

So, needless to say, I was excited to see dervishes whirling in Turkey. It is only in the west that we call them Whirling Dervishes, they call themselves the Mevlevi Order and they were founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. Yes, that’s the same Rumi. The basic tenets of the order are tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment and while I’m still failing pretty hard on all those counts, I recognize that my life would be better if I had stronger versions of all three.

Essentially, the zicker (rkir) is a religious ritual which is a prayer to Allah (aka God and many other names). The basic idea is to let go of ties to the forms and to merge with the totality of the divine. Music and dance are an integral part of this.

The Mevlavis played a huge role in Turkish culture in music, art, calligraphy, dance, poetry, and religious thought.

We went to a refurbished Hammam and we sat in an audience. There were clear signs not to take pictures since it was truly meant to be a religious experience. There were also signs not to applaud and not to speak during the music and dance. It seems that I was one of the only ones who read them though. Pity.

The dervish pictures in this post are from internet sources.

For the most part the audience was respectful but we had three Russian Israeli’s (Israilis who spoke Russian) next to us who spoke in loud voices, cracked jokes, and took pictures during the entire thing.

It was an incredibly moving performance even with the distraction. It brought tears to both of our eyes. The whirling of the dervishes was mesmerizing and the music was trance like and completely divine. Most of the crowd stopped applauding and talking and looked as moved as we felt. Not those three next to us though.

When we left, we were surprised to see that they were staying for a second performance.

A short version of Istanbul’s long history

Istanbul

(I wrote this back in 2010, but happily share it again – though President Erdogan has moved the city backwards by a lot since I wrote this – it’s a shame, he’s sold the collective property of the Turkish people to his capitalist buddies, re-Islamicized society, and gone to great lengths to undo the amazing work of Kamal Ataturk)

Istanbul, Turkey is a city of neighborhoods and timelessness. It is a place that is utterly modern and yet so steeped in historical places and persons that it defies any attempts at placing it as a city of a specific time or civilization.

The first city was founded by a guy named Byzas about 700 years before Christ. The Delphic Oracle in Greece told him to start a city in a place that was ‘opposite and blind’. They called it Byzantium and figured everyone else must have been blind not to see this spot, since on the opposite side of the Bosporus there was a city in a less perfect spot.

And so it went until 196 AD when the city was destroyed and rebuilt and named Augusta Antonia. Personally, I think Byzantium sounds better. It stayed a Roman City and in 330 AD it was renamed again, the more familiar sounding Constantinople after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it his capital. Later in 537, Emperor Justinian had the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia) built and it remained the largest Christian church for 1000 years.
In 1451, the chariot races at the Hippodrome came to stop when Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman’s conquered the city and turned the Ayasophia into the world’s largest mosque. He also had the Topkapi Palace built. Sutan Ahmet later built the famous Blue Mosque.Istanbul

After picking the wrong side in World War II, the Turks struggled to get their independence and Mustapha Kamal (Attaturk) moved the capital to Ankara so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable by sea. This left Constantinople as Istanbul. (That’s Istanbul not Constantinople) The city was a bit of an aging and decrepit place but in the past four decades she has undergone some massive beauty treatments and is now once again the Paris of the East.

Frankly, I like Istanbul better than Paris. Like Paris, Istanbul has been the home of writers, painters, great intellects, and radicals. She’s a city I’ll gladly pay for again and again.

Aesthetic Feasting at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

In 2010, my wife and I were married in Morocco – two months later we took our honeymoon trip to Turkey. At the end of our trip, we were again at the Ayasofia Hotel where we had begun it. 

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Checking into the Ayasofya Hotel, we found ourselves with one last day ahead of us. Hanane was exhausted but there were a few things I still wanted to see before we left Turkey.

I walked up the street past the Blue Mosque and across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts while Hanane showered and took a nap in our big plush bed. The museum holds a wealth of Turkish and Islamic art from the Ottoman and Seljuk periods along with beautiful pieces and implements from as early as the 8th Century A.D.

The museum building itself is the palace of Ibrahim Pasha which was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s own architects. Ibrahim Pasha was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier from 1523 to 1536. The building has elements which date back to 1500.
Ibrahim was choked to death and his wealth taken by the imperial government when after the Sultan’s death he voiced support for the wrong prince. That’s why I usually don’t pick one Prince over another.

The museum is filled with Turkish carpets, illuminated Qurans, calligraphy (at which the Ottomans excelled), carved and inlaid wood, glass, porcelain and stone treasures. I went through quicker than I would have preferred but felt that this was more of an exploratory mission.

The Turkish ethnographic exhibits were interesting though quite a bit like modern life in rural Morocco, I saw many things that are used daily in the house of my in-laws laid out as museum pieces.

I would have enjoyed lingering but a Canadian film crew was there and had set up some very hot lights for a TV shoot in that section.

A modern Turkish arts section in the front was small but had an interesting exhibit of claiigraphic embroidery which I enjoyed a lot.

While I was out I booked us seats at a Whirling Dervish performance. Originally, I had thought we might be going to Konya to see the real thing (no admission and not really for tourists) but since we hadn’t I thought it would be a shame to leave Turkey without seeing the whirling dervishes for which the country is famed.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open from 9 to 5 (closed Monday). Admission is 10 Lira.

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet in Istanbul, Turkey – #flashbackfriday

Blue Mosque IstanbulOn our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.

The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.

In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.

As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.

Blue Mosque Istanbul

The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.

Blue Mosque IstanbulWhen the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.

The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.

Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.

 

Cold Turkey – Back in Istanbul Unexpectedly!

Bosphorus CruiseSometimes life is filled with the best kind of surprises. I got a call last week from a friend in Istanbul who needed a bit of help with a tourism project. She asked if I would be willing to leave Morocco for a few weeks to come to Turkey – those of you who know me, know that my answer was most definitely “Yes. When do you want me there?”
I was thinking it would be in a month or a few weeks but instead she answered – can you come this weekend? I checked with my wife and she gave the green light – after all, it is work and not just cheap holidays to Turkey, but in fact it is always a pleasure for me to come to Turkey.
turkey holidaysIn particular, Istanbul in Winter is a magical place. The crowds are smaller, the city is still completely and overwhelmingly exotic and for me – going to Istanbul is like going home to Bellingham, Washington or Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s nice to go home now and then.
And best of all, nobody asks me if I’m Muslim, if I pray, or if I know the shahada. Nobody looks at me like I am a demon as I order a beer. Nobody cares what I do – they are too worried about what they are doing – unless the two merge and I look like I might buy a carpet, but they rarely take me for a buyer.
Turkish HolidaysAs I walk around this city during the time I have off from the tourism projects, I remember why I fell so deeply in love with this place. It’s cold, but I don’t mind in the least. It’s not as cold as the inside of our uninsulated concrete house in Morocco.
Jumping on the ferry and going across the Bosphorus, walking across the Galata Bridge, seeing the crowds marching through the city carrying their football club’s banners in the hopes that their fandom will bring a win, drinking raka with fish (rakabalik!) and struggling to get my Turkish to come back as an amused shopkeeper smiles at me in approval for even trying.
Winter Turkish HolidaysThe smell of the Bosphorus, the smiles of Turks passing by, the sounds of the traffic, the slightly worried looks of tourists as they are herded into souvenir and carpet shops and the sound of wheelie bags being dragged across the cobblestones. All of these things make me love this city. Maybe I can figure out how to stay this time – maybe I can get my wife and daughter here for good. Maybe I can find a place to rent in Kadikoy and a job to supplement my writing income.
Turkish winterI’m working on buying a small house in Morocco to turn into a writer’s residence and that we can stay in when we go to visit my wife’s family. I’m trying to get my wife a resident visa so she can live in the United States – but that’s for her – I want to live in Turkey. Oh, I’m so happy to be back in this, the queen of all cities. The most magnificent city in the world.
 
Turkey holidaysFrom Sultanahmet to Taksim – the fresh yogurt and cheese, the smit (like pretzels and bagels had a baby), kebab shops, doner, and the wonderful melody of Turkish language. Restaurants galore, coffee shops (even Starbucks and I’m happy to see it), grocery stores you can wander through isles, book shops, cinemas, cafes, and so many language schools because all the Turks want to learn English right now.
If you’d like to visit Turkey or Istanbul, contact me using the form below and I will gladly hook you up with the right people, companies or destinations and any advice I can provide.
[easy-contact]
 
 

Hotel Ayasofya – Top Suite – End of trip luxury

Back in Istanbul, we once again caught the ferry to the Sultan Ahmet and walked from Eminonu to the Hotel Ayasofya. It was early, but the guys told us that they would have our Suite ready for us by 10:00 AM and that we could go downstairs and enjoy the complimentary breakfast.
It’s funny to come back to a city you’ve visited during travels in which you’ve seen nothing but new places. The sense of being home is something truly comforting and strange because really, as in our case, you might have just spent a few days there and still feel a stranger except since you are returning from places that are all new, you lose that sense of being a stranger…can that possibly make sense?
Tourism, Istanbul, Ayasofya Hotel
Anyway, it felt nice to be back in Istanbul and back at the Hotel Ayasofya. The breakfast was as wonderful as we remembered with the plumpest, most delicious dried figs I’ve had just about anywhere and some lovely Turkish cheese and yogurt.
Suite, Istanbul, Great hotels of the World, Hotel Ayasofya
After breakfast our suite was ready and the bellman led us up to the room. Once again we had complete luxury. A massive private balcony looking out over the Marmara Sea and the old city walls of Istanbul. A salon, a big ultra comfy king sized bed, Ottoman furnishings, slippers, robes, and yes…another jacuzzi bathtub!
Istanbul, city walls, ancient house
We do alright traveling on the cheap! It’s really a matter of choosing where to suffer and where not to. As I said before, I don’t like to suffer at the end of a journey nor at the beginning. During the middle, I don’t mind a bit. If you think about it, it makes sense. The two things you usually know are when you will arrive and when you will leave. Book a hotel for those nights and play everything else by ear.
So anyway, we’d slept badly on the bus and spent a lot of the night in the Ankara Otogar, but somehow that was all behind us as we put on fluffy white robes, room slippers, and lounged on our big balcony at the Hotel Ayasofya.
I heartily recommend the Hotel Ayasofya. The top suite is worth the price and whether you book it at the end or the beginning of your trip, a stay at Hotel Ayasofya is worthwhile. It is situated near all of the attractions of Sultan Ahmet, has a top notch staff that is friendly, helpful, and ready to go the extra mile for you, and it’s the kind of hidden gem luxury that you will remember for years to come.
the streets of Istanbul
To book a room at the Hotel Ayasofya you can go here.

Arriving at the Hotel Ayasofya in Sultanahmet, Istanbul

One of my hard and fast rules (which I often break anyway) about travel are that a journey should begin with a small amount of luxury so that you can get your head on straight in a new place and end with a lot of luxury so that you have something to look forward to during the privations of hard travel. On this trip, I picked the ideal hotel in Istanbul to start and finish with: The Hotel Ayasofya in Sultanahmet.
Ayasofya Hotel in Istanbul
We arrived at the Hotel Ayasofya in Sultanahmet a little after 4:30 am. It’s owned by Turkish/Australian partnership. During our stay we met with the wonderful Australian partner, Gaye Reeves who has worked tirelessly to turn it into one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. Centrally located near the Blue Mosque and all of the major attractions, the Hotel Ayasofya is the perfect place to stay.
If you had seen it back in 1980, you wouldn’t believe it is the same place (just for reference, I didn’t see it in person back then). Originally built in the 19th century in a classic Ottoman style, the private home was allowed to fall into neglect and disrepair. By 1980 it had become derelict. After ten years of painstaking restoration in the original style, it was opened up as a hotel in 1990. Sumptuous rooms, plush classic furniture, and gorgeous decor combined with an attentive staff and the best complimentary breakfast we found anywhere in Turkey, this was a wonderful place for us to begin our Turkish adventures.
Rooftop Terrace in Istanbul, Hotel luxury
With a traditional Turkish atmosphere, gorgeous views of the Princes Islands in the Marmara Sea from the rooftop terrace and a location that allows for easy exploration of the hippodrome, the Ayasofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bizarre, and the many museums of Sultanahmet.
Historic Istanbul Hotel
Not that we took advantage of all of that within minutes of arriving before 5:00 am. What we did do was shower, turn on the air conditioner, see what channels were on the TV, and then go to sleep in the amazingly comfortable bed and linens for five hours. After that we woke up and had breakfast with Gaye who was kind enough to help us out with suggestions for our trip and who even typed up an itinerary based on our conversation complete with personal recommendations and contacts in the places we wanted to visit.
We were so impressed with the basic room we booked for our first night that we booked the top suite for the last night of our trip so that no matter what privations we might suffer on the road, we could know that our last night would be in the total and complete luxury that the Hotel Ayasofya offers.
To arrange a stay at the Ayasofya Hotel you can book directly
Kucukayasofya Caddessi,
Resit Sok Number 28
in Sultanahmet
or
you can call them at
(90) 212-516-9446
To find out about rates and the various accomodation options you can visit their website at http://www.ayasofyahotel.com.
I can tell you in brief that our return to the Ayasofya was even better than the first night, but I’ll give you the details about the luxury of the top suite in due time.
Istanbul Hotel, Luxury Sultanahmet

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul

Our flight from Casablanca landed about 50 km from Istanbul in the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. It’s not nearly as convenient as Ataturk Airport but it services a lot of discount airlines such as Air Arabia. While not a huge airport, it does have a lot of domestic and international flights coming in and going out.
Since we hadn’t checked any bags, I was hoping we could get through customs quickly and be among the first one’s there. Of course, it didn’t work out like that because I forgot to stop and buy the $20 tourist visa required of Americans. Hanane got through and when it was my turn the immigration agent sent me back down the hall to the visa agent. Where I got one of Turkey’s new visa stamps. It turns out they don’t like foreigners to work there for 90 days, take a ferry to Greece, and then come back so they’ve started a new policy that allows a multiple entry 90 day visa which says clearly that the visitor is not allowed to work. After it runs out you can renew for 45 days, but then you can’t renew for 180 days. It’s an attractive stamp in my passport.
vias afor Americans in Turkey, visa for Moroccans in Turkey
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, cheap airlines, Istanbul, Turkey, cheapo airlines
how to get from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet in Turkey
Shuttles at that time of the night average at 30 Euros per person. A taxi is 85 Euros. The one I’d arranged was supposed to be 10 Euros each. I hired the freelancer for 20 Euros each
transport from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet
If you arrive at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport during normal hours you can take the HAVAS airport bus for 10 lira to Taksim and then take a taxi for less than 10 lira or tyhe funicular or tram for 1.5 Turkish Lira to Sultan Ahmet.

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