On our last day in Istanbul, we finally made it inside the famous Hagia Sophia. Prior to planning this trip, this famous building (once a church, then a mosque, now a museum) was one of the few tourist sites that I knew about in Istanbul. It was absolutely clogged with tourists. Because of this, and perhaps because it is no longer used as a house of worship, Hagia Sophia lacked – for me – the serenity of the mosques we had visited in the previous days. Hagia Sophia was also undergoing some interior renovation, which probably contributed to my feeling underwhelmed by it. I felt like I became a tourist automaton – shuffling from view to view, pointing my camera where others were pointing their cameras.
There were several mausoleums for sultans’ families on the grounds of Hagia Sophia. We were much more taken by these tiny architectural beauties.
After this visit, we crossed the Golden Horn to the New District, taking the Tunel Funicular up to Istiklal Street, a pedestrian and tram thoroughfare that was lined with major retail stores, a couple of churches, some consulates, and an elite and grand high school. We stopped in a few shops and also at a century-old Catholic church (brand-new by Istanbul standards).
Our last stop in the New District – before backtracking the way we came – was Taksim Square and the Republic Monument. The Monument depicts Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, as a military hero on one side and as Turkey’s first president on the other. We had read about Taksim Square’s historic role as a location of rallies and also read of the violence there on May 1, 1977 that had led to the deaths of over 30 people (the exact number is disputed). The day we were there, it had just the normal foot traffic of a significant site in a busy city. As of today, of course, Taksim Square has returned to the international headlines. I don’t have to have visited a place to feel concern for the people who live there, but my visit to Istanbul has definitely added an extra layer to that concern.
After lunch at a waffle bar, we went back to the hostel to gather our things, and then took our last ferry ride across the Bosphorus. We sat at tables in the below decks with other passengers. An older man sitting across from us asked where we were from. When we said we were from the United States, he showed us the front page of his newspaper; it showed a water cannon blasting Turkish protesters. In his limited English vocabulary (still better than our small collection of Turkish words), he tried to express his feelings about the state of Turkey’s democracy. We could only respond inadequately with sympathetic looks, and he concluded by saying “thank you, thank you.” He was quiet for a bit and then repeated to us “Turkey – no democracy”, and then stopped again with a “thank you.”
The trip by public transport to the airport was long, but we finally made it. Our flight to Amman was shared with a sizable group of Americans on a Holy Land tour. From the Amman airport, we took a cab to the nearby town of Madaba, which was to be our home base for the Jordan trip.