Thursday, June 23, 2011

Finals and Turkey

The past few weeks have been pretty intense. I went through my last round of finals, turned in my thesis, had an amazing time in Turkey with a bunch of friends I've made here, and, unfortunately, have started to say goodbye to friends returning home already.
After finishing and turning in my last paper for Maastricht University, I went to snowworld with my favorite North Americans here in Maastricht, Chris from Canada and Larissa from California/Breda Netherlands. I hadn't made it to the Alps or Pyrenees to snowboard, but I made it to Snowworld in Landgraaf the Netherlands in June to snowboard! While it was a very small place to hit the slopes, it was still a lot of fun. Never before had I taken a bus in shorts/short sleeves to go snowboarding or been able to see people outside picnicking, so it was an interesting experience to say the least. It was also a fun way to say goodbye to Larissa who left for summer break with her parents in California. After my fun day in Snowworld, I worked to finish up my thesis before leaving for Turkey.

Again, I was lucky to be able to catch a cheap return flight, this time on Pegasus airlines though, not Ryanair. I left for Turkey on Saturday June 11, right after the last day of finals week. I turned in my thesis the day before leaving and so was able to relax and have fun the entire time we were there. The first stop was, predictably, Istanbul. We had 4 real days in Istanbul before heading to Izmir, the second largest city in Turkey, to visit our friend from Maastricht University who lives there.

Istanbul immediately hit me as a city of contrasts. Of course, it's the only city to span two continents, but I really did not realize how diverse it could be. Parts of the city look like any modern skyscraper ridden downtown I've seen in the US or Europe, while others reminded me of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Not only were the buildings, architecture, and urban design diverse, but the people and atmosphere was also vibrant and changing. Here, it was difficult to tell who was a tourist and who was a native because of the great diversity in not only appearance but also behaviors. What was most impressive, though, was the atmosphere of the city. All day and night people would be out in the streets enjoying life. Even late at night you'd see older men sitting around drinking Cay (tea) and playing Backgammon or Chess and presumably discussing politics (since the elections happened while we were there). Along side them, in a bar or restaurant, you would see young people having a few drinks and listening to music. The entire city was always alive. Not to mention the wonderful food we were able to eat everyday. Although, after awhile I was ready to get away from eating so much meat.

Aside from the way the city felt, it was of course amazing to see some of the more amazing monuments left behind in the city. On the first day we took a Bosphorus cruise to get an idea of the city. This cruise gave us an idea of how vast the city was, and also some of the differences between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Further, it helped us see some historical monuments that otherwise would have been almost impossible to reach. This day we also checked out the New Mosque, near the take off point for the cruise.
The next day we checked out some of the more famous sites, the Grand Bazaar, The Spice Bazaar, the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar was much less interesting than the Spice Bazaar and the streets between the two, because it was just too touristy. In the streets between the two Bazaars and the Spice Bazaar you could find places where there were actual locals shopping and negotiating. That made it much more interesting to wander around and explore.

They Hagia Sophia was both impressive and unassuming at the same time. The history of the building itself was amazing, from being a church to being destroyed and rebuilt to being converted to a mosque. I am fairly certain it's the only place in the world where you can see a mosaic of the Virgin Mary between the Arabic Calligraphy for Allah and Mohamed. At the same time, the inside of the building seemed a bit desolate and empty. In this way it was unassuming, with so much empty space both inside and on the walls. It also made you wonder what it had looked like before being converted into a Mosque and having all of the Eastern Orthodox ornamentation taken down or covered up.
The Blue Mosque was very impressive with both it's size and the intricacy of the tiles inside as well as the beauty of the park surrounding the building. It was also interesting to be inside an active mosque, unlike Hagia Sophia which is basically a museum now.
The last day in Istanbul we split up, some of us went out to check the old Roman walls while others went shopping. The Roman walls were interesting due to the fact that they were so old and surrounded the entirety of the city 2000 years ago, but were also sad because you realized how poorly the Turkish Government has preserved some of it's historical monuments. The walls and areas surrounding it obviously weren't preserved at all. They were surrounded/covered by trash and seemed to have a vagrant camp set up inside, with nobody seeming to care.
From here, we went to what, to me, were the two most impressive monuments in the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace.The Basilica Cistern was, even though it is technically just a place where water was meant to be held, an impressive look into the Roman era. The cistern was built with amazing precision, with each column exactly as far from each other column and each line of columns, whether straight or diagonal, in a perfect line. Further, it was interesting to just try and figure out where each column came from, as each was obviously plundered from other temples and buildings spanning the Roman (and possibly Greek/Hellenistic?) empires. The cistern was really an unexpected surprise.

The Topkapi Palace had the most incredibly views of Istanbul from atop a hill whereby you could see Europe and Asia and the entire city. The building itself was impressive, but the views were breathtaking. It is an impressive example of the strength and wealth of the Ottoman Empire.

After these few tiring but fun-filled days in Istanbul, we took the night bus to Izmir. The bus was pretty awesome, with personal TV's (although everything was in Turkish) and free food/drink service. Although it took over 8 hours to cover basically the same distance as St. Louis to Chicago. Once we arrived though it was fun to see our friend and experience a much less touristic city.

I was surprised first that Izmir seemed actually less conservative than Istanbul. I thought it would have been the other way around, but Izmir seemed more "western" than Istanbul did. It also had an impressive waterscape and was another massive sprawling city. It did not seem to have as many beautiful buildings as Istanbul but had just as much exuberant life. Unfortunately, they did not plan the waterfront very well, and almost the entire coastal area is surrounded by 5 story cement buildings, which takes away from the beauty of the bay. Either way, it was still a nice city to wander around, especially with friends.

The last big adventure we made was to Ephesus. I have to say, for me this was the highlight of the trip. First, just how huge the city had actually been was impressive. Walking through the old Roman streets, but seeing both Latin and Greek inscriptions as the city had been an important point for both groups at different times was impressive. Walking down the streets I wished I could go back and see the city when it was thriving. It must have been breathtaking to see the then port city in full function. Also, it was impressive to see the church where the Third Ecumenical Council as held, the city where Cleopatra and Marc Anthony spent a year, where her sister died, where St. John and St. Paul lived and possibly wrote their Gospels. I mean the history in this place was amazing. I still am not sure I fully grasp how important that city had been, but I am glad to have been able to go and see what's left of it.

After returning from Turkey I took a few days to relax, tie up some lose ends with my thesis, and hang out with friends before they take off. Yesterday was another friend's going away party and there are a few more this weekend. Now I am lucky enough to only have to worry about what to do with my remaining time here in Europe.