I got into Istanbul airport at about 4am.
I was stopping there before continuing my flight to the Gulf. I timed the flights so that I had ten hours to go round Istanbul. I booked the flight a week ago and simply didn’t have time to plan anything. So decided to go as the wind takes me. As a result, I was a bit nervous as I didn’t know what to expect.
I followed my instinct and this is what I saw.
When the plane landed I was eager to smell the air – I could smell the humidity but also a hint of hot air that had passed over deserts and through shrubs, pine trees and cities.
The airport was empty and the metro was closed for another two hours.
I waited for a while till I decided to take a taxi into town. Both I and the taxi driver were hunched over in the tiny taxi as we darted and swerved towards Istanbul on an empty motorway.
I was dropped off by the Sultan Ahmet mosque. I had heard that, like London, the old city (with the interesting sites) is actually quite compact, yet the rest of the city was an endless sprawl of concrete buildings and bright plastic multi-coloured signs.
Incorrectly, I had assumed that in Istanbul, 5am would be no different to 5pm. The city was deserted. I found it difficult to figure out where in the World I was: The streets in front of the mosque (towards the sea) were narrow, windy and cobbled and could’ve been from a seaside fishing village. Yet behind the mosque, inland, they were grand Imperial structures like in Vienna or Budapest.
It was still dark but the temperature was mild. Lamp lights caught a slight sea mist.
I decided to walk round the cobbled streets. The air here was decidedly coastal, being close the shoreline which I was trying to locate – until I heard a bark behind me, then two then I saw about six wild dogs pelting towards me. I detest wild dogs anyway but these weren’t the pathetic little mutts I had encountered in Morocco and India. These were the size of German shepherds bounding towards me with not another soul in sight. I paced round the corner hoping to get out of their territory. The dogs stopped at the corner and then grumpily trampled round in circles till they got bored and left.
I sneaked back up to the mosque and found an open door in the wall. It was almost time for first prayer (sunrise prayer, being the second) and the lights were on inside. The marble floors were wet and reflective and the yellow glow coming from inside the mosque looked welcoming. A few pious muslims were already making their way in. I decided to greet them with the Arabic as salaam aleikum rather than any Turkish (or English) phrases. Salaam, salaam they responded in a low, meditative tone. I wished to enter the masjid but didn’t out of respect and caution.
I headed towards Galata bridge. This bridges two peninsulars of Istanbul, but not the two contenants, that was in the distance.
As night sky received the first hue of orange light, I found the shoreline.
It was a glorious high tide, and a huge brightly lit ferry had the engine running, waiting for sunrise, ready to get going. The entire city was waiting for its sun and its people. I was completely on my own on the crossroads between Europe and Asia.
At 6am, I stopped by at a cafe filled to the ceiling with biscuits, pastries and Turkish delights. I ordered coffee and cheese borek – the fat and sugar filled me up and woke me up too. The waiters looked very european to me. There were also a lot of them and I wondered how the business could support so many staff from such a small enterprise. I wondered: A family business: perhaps better that all his sons have work than a few but well-paid.
Early morning, standing together on Galata bridge.
As the light brightened, people appeared. I carried on walking round the whole city for about eight hours till at last the missed-sleep caught up with me. I nodded off in a cafe then decided it was time to head back to the airport – onwards to the Middle-East.
Throughout history, Istanbul, geo-politically has always played a key role in world events and during tumultuous times. On the plane I was sat next to an English Mercenary who was tasked to protect the oil tankers around the Gulf peninsular, starting in Muscat. It was a reminder that we are indeed living in tumultuous times, and Istanbul is yet to wake up.