Where North Means West

I am directionally challenged. If you asked me to face north on any given day I would likely point up, unless it is sunrise or sunset, and then I'd at least have a little help. So to be in Istanbul, where I was told the north part of town is the most "Western", the south part of town is Europe and across the water to the east is Asia, it is safe to say I wasn't sure which continent I was on during my time there. Whatever direction I faced, though, there was a epic amount of culture, thanks to the city's strategic location and storied past. 

The Blue Mosque of Istanbul. 

We saw many of the classic sites in Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium none of which disappointed and all of which shed light on just a few chapters of the city's history. To begin, we saw the awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Or I should say that we heard it first as the call to prayer warbled into our hotel room early on our first morning (and the second morning and the third morning...). Minarets, the towers of a mosque, puncture the skyline throughout Istanbul but those of the Blue Mosque are unrivaled in the city. The mosque was built in the 17th century by Sultan Ahmet to rival the Hagia Sophia, and naturally, the creation was named after him (Sultanahmet Camii) but was given the name the Blue Mosque for the thousands of blue-hued tiles that decorate the interior. Since the mosque is still used as a place of worship today, all visitors must meet the standards in order to enter. That means long pants (or skirts), shoulders covered (down to the wrist for women) and head coverings were required for women. You also have to remove your shoes. I don't know how many visitors the mosque receives in a day, but it is certainly enough to make the air smell faintly like a locker room. Odor aside, the interior of the mosque is stunning. Gilded Arabic writing of holy verses, soaring ceilings, and of course, blue tiles make it a beautiful place to worship.

Inside the Blue Mosque. It doesn't look very blue here but it's quite lovely! 

Literally across the way from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, which was built by Emperor Justinian in 523 AD and finished just five years later. Considered the Vatican of the East for nearly a millenium, it is still the Byzantine Empire's singular greatest architectural achievement. The Hagia Sophia - Aya Sofya, meaning Divine Wisdom in Turkish - exudes ancientness. Many guidebooks tell you to look up - the structure is so tall that Notre Dame would fit under its roof of golden mosaics and stark white marble, and the innovation of the dome's architecture is astonishing for the time period. There were some miscalculations, though, as the dome collapsed more than once and had to be rebuilt. The ground floor also holds its own secrets. I watched dozens of visitors breeze right past a placard of a roped off area to the side. The circular stones inside didn't seem special, but in fact it was the place where emperors were crowned. In 1453 the church was converted into an imperial mosque thanks to the Ottoman takeover by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, whose was impressed by its beauty, and it remained a crucial place of worship for about five centuries. 

My camera could never do the Hagia Sophia justice. Not many could.

You can still see some of the conversions of it from a church to a mosque. For example, the nave of the old church now has a mihrab that sits oddly off center in order to direct worshippers to Mecca. The faces of the seraphim frescos were also covered up to adhere with Islam's art culture which only allows for geometric shapes, calligraphy and florals - no human or animal forms are represented. Though much of the golden grandeur was lost, the place is well preserved enough to imagine that Emperor Justinian might have proclaimed "Solomon, I've surpassed you!" (so the legend says) upon opening its doors. Simply put, the Hagia Sophia is among the more astonishing places I've seen, and thanks to its conversion to a museum in the 1930s you don't even need to take your shoes off to enjoy it. 

"I've got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name." Taylor Swift's hit song has nothing on Empress Zoe. This mosaic shows her husbands - I put it in the plural due to her multiple (monogamous) marriages. Instead of redoing the mosaic with the face of her new betrothed, the artist simply redid the name and title over the man's face - you can see how it the work looks a little sloppy above the man's head.

We have seen many ancient sites and evidence of old traditions on this trip, so I was grateful to be in Istanbul for the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. During this time Muslims fast from sunup to sundown in an effort to understand the struggles of their fellow (poorer) man. I've heard the first day of waiting for Iftar (the time of sundown when the fast can be broken) is the hardest. In Istanbul we saw many picnic tables, chairs, food and gift stands set up in the center of town, ready to celebrate the start of Ramadan. The tables and chairs were all empty during the day because of the fasting, but once the sun began to sink people poured in from everywhere to break the fast together. Restaurants around this main square, called the Hippodrome, were packed, and all of the tables showed families clustered together with their meals untouched on the tables.

Enjoying the city is an understatement! The Blue Mosque is in the background. 

At one end of the square there was a small continent of military personnel and a cannon set up, which went off at the precise time of the sun setting, and then the meal commenced. This event was was reminiscent of a festival, with camera crews covering it for local news and what I believed were local government and religious leaders giving a speech before the meal. After enjoying the festive air for a few moments, Jonathan and I had our own meal on a rooftop terrace with a view of the Blue Mosque, which I am proud to have learned faces east to Asia - and points to our next adventure. 

The courtyard in front of the Blue Mosque welcomes visitors.  


Such a simple name for a complex city. As Morocco's cultural and spiritual center, Fez was a must-see on our list, particularly because of the medina (an old walled part of the city - common in many north African towns). The Fez medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the closest I've come to stepping back in time.

Donkeys, mules and handcarts are the main means of transportation in the medina. 

For starters, there are no cars in the medina. They simply wouldn't fit in the narrow, winding alleys. If you're thinking of tiny European cobbled streets, cut them in thirds, and that's about the average width of the alleys in the medina (or so it felt to me). What it lacks in roadways, it makes up for in traffic. The "streets" (if you want to call them that) are typically congested with shopkeepers, errand boys, donkeys, cats and, of course, tourists. There is a constant din of haggling during the day as shoppers bargain for their treasure. Here's a incomplete list of what you can buy in the medina:

clothes (traditional and modern), shoes (new and the ones straight off a seller's feet), wedding  decor and dresses, trinkets, headscarves, jewelry, tea, coffee, spices, produce, meat (up to and including camel meat from one specialty butcher), leather goods, metal goods, pots, pans, all manner of cooking utensils, copper sinks (for the kitchen and otherwise), books, electronics, furniture, antiques (real and not). 

The only camel butcher in the medina, as far as I know. 

The size of these stores range from smaller than your master bedroom closet to surprisingly spacious. There are also food stands, restaurants and tea houses in the same range of sizes. And remember, all of this business is done without a cargo loading area. I stepped aside in the alley for more donkeys to pass than I did for elderly people. 

One of the wider alleys inside the medina. 

Personal affairs are also conducted differently there. For example, the best source of neighborhood information comes from an unexpected place: the baker. Every neighborhood baker becomes this source and confidant because every family kneads their dough at home and brings it to the bakery to cook. So, it becomes the one place everybody visits daily, and subsequently, gossips daily. If a family is looking into a potential marriage for their child, the baker is often still the person they ask about the other family to see if it is a good match. 

Aside from gossip, the medina is also home to a gorgeous mosque I was only allowed glimpses of (non-Muslims are not permitted to enter) as well as many former schools, or medersas.  Other hidden gems included our accommodations. We stayed in Fez for a few nights in a beautifully restored guest house, or dar. These guest houses operate much like a bed and breakfast, only you wouldn't see a charming farmhouse or an elegant Victorian home on the outside. In the medina, there's no room for that. Instead, you're more likely to roll right past it because their entrances look just like the rest - guarded by a heavy, creaky wooden door. But stepping inside felt like walking into an oasis among the madness of the old city. The guesthouse, Dar Serrafine, had a beautiful inner courtyard that opened up to the sky and a rooftop terrace to view the medina. In the midst of donkeys, hand carts and people shouting, the dar was somehow insulated from it all, a place where it was just quiet enough to hear the birds. 


An old medersa, now a small museum. 

Buying linens in an artisan shop was a much better experience than being haggled on the crowded streets.

Leather goods are still made in the traditional fashion at this tannery in Fez. 

Inside the courtyard of a a large guest house and restaurant.

This is madness. This is the medina.  

Turn 180 degrees around from the view of the medina and this is just on the other side of the hill.

We're flying around the world.

But first, let me tell you where (and why) we've been of late. Last October, Jonathan and I began learning Portuguese for our upcoming move to Brazil. He is part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, which is allowing us to embark on an exciting journey of learning a new culture by spending a few years in South America. So, last fall we began an intensive language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. We spent countless hours together learning Portuguese, but we also enjoyed the beauty of the area. We settled in a sweet little cottage in the ever-charming city of Carmel and explored the California coast whenever we could. After months of work (and a decent amount of play) we graduated from the language school and said farewell to California in May. Since then we've spent some quality time with family and friends and are just days away from embarking on our most ambitious travel yet: circling the globe. Jonathan and I have always been passionate about traveling and experiencing life in other lands, so to begin our new life in Brazil, we figured we'd see as much of the world as we can!  We started in Los Angeles in May and headed to the East Coast of the US, but the real fun begins next week when we touch down in Morocco. From there, we will keep working east to eventually touch back down in Los Angeles. I plan to continue writing here as we experience new sights and hope you'll join me for the road ahead!