An Armenian in Istanbul

Written By: Catherine Vitale

When my husband asked me to accompany him on a business trip to Istanbul in December of 2011, I must admit I did hesitate slightly, but then responded with a wholehearted “Yes”. During that hesitation two thoughts quickly passed through my mind – the movie “Midnight Express” and my father. Not that the two are related, but the former left a scary and lasting impression, and the latter, because his mother was Armenian, and I remembered his stories about the horrible atrocities that were committed against the Armenians by the Turks over a hundred years ago. I certainly sympathized with him and, while proud of my Armenian heritage, I was anxious to visit Turkey. I told him that the genocide was a long time ago and things were certainly different now.

I have traveled quite extensively, but my travels to Eastern Europe and the Middle East were quite limited. Since my husband’s company had already chosen the hotel, The Four Seasons Bosporus, I concentrated on “Things to see”. A few close friends had visited Turkey and returned with rave reviews regarding the food and beauty of the beaches, but the reviews were mixed on Istanbul. Aside from the Blue Mosque, I was starting from scratch so I turned to the internet, where I learned there were over 3000 mosques in the city, most of which you could not enter unless you were a Muslim, which I was not – my paternal grandfather was Italian and I was raised Catholic. I also learned that many Saints and Apostles were born in Anatolia, now part of The Republic of Turkey, and that most of the churches and monasteries were converted to mosques. Walking the streets and hearing the haunting “call to prayer” five times a day was a constant reminder that I was in a nation of Muslims, ninety-five percent of whom were adherents of Islam. Currently, seventy-five thousand people in fourteen million were Christians.

Getting to Istanbul was an easy flight from Zurich, Switzerland – where were had been living at the time. As the plane approached Istanbul, I was stunned by all the minarets – the tower of a mosque – whose literal Arabic translation is “lighthouse”. This is what they were – beacons to the city. Upon landing at Atatürk Airport, I was surrounded by a diverse and eclectic population – young kids in ripped hip-hugging jeans, the ubiquitous iPhone in hand, older women in head-to-toe black, and some in a variety of headscarves. It could have been any number of cities in Europe.

The short ride to the hotel was brief and interesting – the taxi driver spoke perfect English as he proudly pointed out the sights of his city. We passed skyscrapers encroaching on ancient ruins, sixties-style architecture amidst high-rise luxury condos, and crumbling city walls that led to the sea. I was anxious to drop our bags at the hotel and start exploring. The Four Seasons Hotel was originally an Ottoman Palace, managing to retain all of its grandeur but with an understated class. It’s sprawling and manicured grounds sat on the shore of the Bosporus, the silver streak of water that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. We were on the European side – across the water was Asia.

With so many mosques, I felt cheated that I would not be able to see the interiors, but at least that I would be able to visit the Imperial Sultanahmet Mosque, or “Blue Mosque” as it was commonly known, named for incredible interior of blue and white Iznik tiles (the town from which these beautiful tiles were produced from the 14th to 17th centuries). The mosque was built in the early 17th century by Mehmet and was now a museum, and thankfully open to the public. That would be my first stop – after a light lunch. If the hotel restaurant was any indication of the local cuisine – I was in heaven. I have always loved the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean” diet and was thrilled with the fresh-made hummus and crisp flatbread (which I enjoyed as a kid at my grandmother’s). I devoured the incredibly succulent olives, sprinkled with local herbs, and the delicate babaganoush that didn’t sting my tongue. I couldn’t name a couple of the beautiful fruits that seemed to grow bigger and juicier this side of the Atlantic.

My husband had arranged for a private guide, as he did not want me roaming the city on my own. I did feel extremely at ease, but was thankful for the knowledge and kindness of my guide, Ahmed. He picked me up at the hotel but insisted we stop for tea at an unassuming “diner-style” restaurant. I did not want to be rude and say that I was already full from too much hummus, so I walked into the restaurant and accepted the tea that he ordered from the counter. Tea in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is an event – amazingly fragrant yet delicate mint leaves are steeped in extremely hot water and mixed with sugar. The art of pouring the tea into beautifully painted tiny glasses is a thing to behold. It is meant to cool one from the hot, dry desert, but on this cool, damp day, it was perfect.

We left our glasses on the counter and I headed toward the exit. Ahmed called to me and motioned up a staircase. I hesitated for a moment, but trustingly walked up the stairs to the second floor of the restaurant, finding it completely empty. I turned to Ahmed who simply pointed out the window. There in all its glory was the incredible outline of the blue mosque – its multiple minarets reaching toward the matching sky, which was gray. I gasped and Ahmed laughed. Out came my camera and I began snapping furiously through the not so clean restaurant window. Ahmed apologized for the detour but said it was by far the best view of the mosque in the city. I thanked him and we were on our way for a close-up.

Once inside, I was amazed by the enormity of the structure. I had been inside many cathedrals, from St. Patrick’s to St. Peter’s – but the unfamiliar structure was overwhelmingly cavernous. The gaping interior was a mosaic of achingly beautiful blue and white tiles, the intricacy and craftsmanship was hard to fathom. One could spend hours here, simply absorbing this tile castle. Since I only had four hours with Ahmed, he was anxious to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible. I asked him what was next on the agenda.

It was the Aghia Sofia – the incredible interior of this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum stole my breath and my heart. The Greek translation was Holy Wisdom. From the time it was dedicated in the year 360, it served as the Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II demanded its conversion to a mosque in 1453, which it remained until 1931. The wonder of it was its huge dome, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. When it was converted, the bells, altar, and silver iconostasis were removed and unfortunately all the mosaics were covered over with plaster. Thankfully, the first Turkish President transformed it to a museum in 1935. The World Monuments Fund did a painstaking restoration. This revealed the most exquisite gold mosaics and frescoes that hadn’t been seen for hundreds of years. The gold tiles seemed illuminated, and gave off an otherworldly glow. The religious images and icons of my youth came alive to me and I was mesmerized. I wanted to stay here as long as I could. Normally I viewed the sights of my travels through a camera lens, but not here – I had no desire to lift my Nikon. I just wanted to stare at these magnificent images and who appeared to return my gaze.

I heard the call to prayer from the thousands of minarets throughout the city, and on cue, the men got down on their knees and put their foreheads to the ground toward Mecca – I was a Catholic among Muslims and an Armenian in Turkey and we were all just people enjoying the beauty and peace of a holy place.

Note: To this day, there are no formal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia.