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Istanbul Travelogue — Minarets and the Moon


The concept of expectations – realistic, unmet or absent, has been much on my mind lately. Facebook memes, self-help books, a well-paid therapist and well-meaning friends – all have helped to make “detachment from outcomes” my quarterly psychological goal, the ultimate objective being my evolution to a fully-functioning adult complete with healthy relationships.

I’d spent the summer looking forward to a September photography workshop in Istanbul with the wonderful folks at Great Escape Publishing, and of course I had some expectations. Istanbul (“Stanbul” to locals) is a complex, densely populated city of 14 million and ranks as the sixth most-visited tourist destination in the world. The dichotomy of ancient and contemporary is apparent from every angle and in every layer. The Tram rumbles above the subterranean 6th century Basilica Cistern; modern trade shows run in Sultan Ahmet Square, next to the 3500 year-old Egyptian Obelisk of Thutmose III.

Mevlevi at the old Sirkeci Train Station, once the terminus of the Orient Express

Where the Byzantines got their wate


The city is famously the bridge between Europe and Asia. As the seat of ancient cultures, it possesses art and architecture of historical and religious significance. It has Whirling Dervishes, Byzantine mosaics and the Grand Bazaar. Turkish baths, Turkish Delight, Turkish rugs and Turkish rug salesmen.

Turkish Delight and more Turkish Delight

13th Century Rumeli Fortress, built in four months. 20th Century Bosphorus Bridge, built in three years

Turkish rug salesman


I experienced these all, and yet none of it was as I expected. But because I’ve been working on this “detachment from outcomes” project, I found that I was able to receive Istanbul’s gifts with the upturned hand of a Sufi Mevlevi.

Of course, it didn’t start out that way. My first expectation was completely blown.Because it’s Istanbul, you know, not Constantinople.

And now that that’s out of the way….


It seems I’ve become fixated by the the moon…

…so I was giddy with anticipation of its full showing on our first night in the city. Our hotel, the Armagrandi Spina in the “Old City” of Sultanahmet, was situated between the Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque)  and the Hagia Sophia (no matter the spelling, it’s pronounced AYA). My friend Sharon and I arrived a few days in advance of our group and found our room clean and comfy with an enviable view.

View of the Blue Mosque from my BED

The first of many, many, many staircases

Despite of the fatigue of 20-plus hours of travel, we dumped our bags and hauled our camera gear up the steep, winding staircase to the hotel’s rooftop deck and its breathtaking vista.

Hagia Sophia at sunset, from the roof of the Spina Hotel


In the world of photography, timing is everything, and I was determined to capture the evening’s full, shining moon rising behind the minarets of the Blue Mosque. We sacrificed supper in lieu of setting up our tripods. The sun cast a tangerine glow on the Hagia Sophia, we stopped down our exposures for dramatic silhouettes of the Sultanahmet Camii, as the adhan  – the Muslim call to prayer – rang out from its minarets like ancient and exotic music.

Blue Mosque in silhouette

But where was the full moon? I’d performed my due diligence – moonrise should have been upon us. The sun was doing its job, but where was my minaret shot? Photography (and science) 101 – turn around and look in the other direction.

The full, glowing moon was rising behind me, over the modern, industrial skyline along the Bosphorus. I checked my disappointment. I was on a rooftop in Istanbul, witnessing gorgeous light and life below me, watching a huge, orange moon ascend over an ancient hub of transport. I chalked it up to inattention to detail, and we moved on to the other delights the city had to offer, before giving in to fatigue and a deep sleep.

First night’s dinner….


The adhan on the first morning after my “disappointing” moonrise was a sweet wake-up call, even though it was 5:30 a.m. and we’d had a long day of travel. I lay in bed, listening to the plaintive wails from distant mosques, the crackle of the speaker at the Blue Mosque before the loud ring of the call’s discordant and weirdly beautiful tones. What a privileged place to be. I considered climbing to the roof with a cup of Turkish Tea and my laptop.

But I was stopped by the view out my window.

Moonset over the Blue Mosque


I laughed at my previous evening’s ingratitude, and from that point on, I was sharply aware of what I might have missed for the looking elsewhere – the sounds of the music from the Hamami Cafe below, the calls of seagulls and swallows, the arguments of men over whatever men argue over, the pre-dawn rolling clatter of garbage cans over cobblestones in this infinitely clean city. The charm and vibrance of the locals, the cats, and the delight of the locals at the cats. The food, the wine, the youth; the urgency and ages-old awareness of this city’s place in history.

You may feed me, but you shall not touch me….

Hagia Sophia – 6th century floor, 21st century feet

View  from the Galata Tower of the Galata Bridge and Eminonou ferries


On the last night of our trip, our group enjoyed a farewell dinner on the roof of the Adamar Hotel. We listened to the prayer call play against the bellow of cruise ships turning out of port. At twilight, the swallows wheeled overhead, and as we watched the lights come on on the Bosphorus Bridge, a show of fireworks began above it. One of our group members remarked, “How very lucky we are, to be able to do this.”

Across the Bosphorus

Bosphorus Bridge and Hagia Sophia


For seven days, I had the good fortune to experience the life and energy of this thoroughly modern mecca, and I barely scratched the surface of one tile in the Sultanahmet Camii. I saw the moon gleaming with the memory of history as it rose behind the Bosphorus and set behind the Blue Mosque. But to glows across the canyon in my back yard and shimmers with infinite quietude over the still and wild Willapa Bay. It doesn’t matter which landscape it lights, or whether you expect it or it simply surprises you with its face.


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