The biggest holiday in Turkey, or bayram, presented a great travel opportunity. Even within a self-imposed eight-hour bus ride from İstanbul one is spoilt for choice: on the Aegean the historic battlefields of Troy and Gallipoli and the organic island of Gökçeada, on the Black Sea the fairytale towns of Safranbolu and Amasra.
Everyone agreed these were all good options.
“But the bus tickets will be sold out,” they said.
“And the hotel prices will be inflated,” they added for good measure.
“It will be better to stay in İstanbul,” was the general consensus.
So I decided to spend my holiday in İstanbul, with a focus on exploring by water: across the Bosphorus to Asia, into the Sea of Marmara to another of the Prince’s Islands, up the Golden Horn, and down the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.
At the Kabataş terminal I jumped on the first boat for Asia: Üsküdar. A working neighbourhood with a long conservative history, the stars on the map all indicated mosques. I decided to connect the stars and make my own walking tour.
When I first landed, I wasn’t sure where I was on the map, and neither was anyone else. I finally oriented myself with Mihrimah Camii (mosque) built in 1547 by Sinan for the eponymous daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent. One of the outbuildings still houses a shop selling honey by the comb. Almost directly across, the courtyard of Yeni Valide Camii (1710) named for the mother of Sultan Ahmet III, was a quiet contrast to the busy six-lane street. From there it was a twisty walk down to the mini Şemsi Paşa Camii (1580), with the waters of the Bosphorus lapping right at its gate.
I walked along the Bosphorus with groups of fishermen, families and friends looking at Europe. Around the bend the view of the Maiden’s Tower, an ancient lighthouse and customs post, was a great spot to pause for a warming glass of çay.
I could not locate another small mosque up the hill on my map, and it was only with the help of three passersby that I found my way through a cemetery to Sakarin Camii. In 2009 it became the 1001st mosque built in İstanbul, and it was the first one in the world designed by a woman, Zeynap Fadillioglu.
Located amongst the tall green trees of the Karaca Ahmet cemetery, Sakarin Camii is modern, traditional and peaceful. The symmetrical courtyard of dark wood and stone were so beautiful I wanted to see inside.
“Please respect the traditions of the mosque,” read a bilingual sign at the entrance. As I craned my neck for a view past the wall of dark wooden cubbies for shoes and glass shelves with stacks of colourful folded scarves, a man in a suit appeared. He said something in Turkish, and we stared at each other until I admitted, “Sorry, I don’t speak Turkish.”
“Women pray upstairs,” he said, and I felt too awkward to do anything but go where he indicated.
Two larger areas branched off from the top of the stairs. There were women praying on the right side, so I went left. The thick carpet looked clean and bright; on this level books were piled on the glass shelves. I sat on a small stool and marveled at the airy chandelier. The tops of the domed walls were large windows with views of the birds flying in the trees. It was easy to appreciate the appeal of this lovely place: respite from the bustling city, space for quiet reflection and contemplation.
A woman sank to her knees in the soft carpet near me and silently began her prayers while her preteen daughter fidgeted. Through the privacy screen I saw a father do the same below while his small boy ran laps around him.
I collected my sneakers, retied my scarf and walked downhill past the illuminated minarets of Çinli Camii (1640) and Atik Valide Camii (1583).
In no time I was back on the Bosphorus, admiring its distant bridge lit up in blue as the lights of Europe got closer.