We were in Istanbul for a brief two-day visit, one of many stops on a cruise of the Mediterranean. We frankly didn’t have high expectations for the city before arriving in the Bosporus, but we quickly learned that Istanbul is one of the most amazing cities in the world.
One of the moments that transformed our visit into a favorite travel experience was our time spent at the Blue Mosque.
Istanbul’s skyline is dominated by two important buildings, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. While the Hagia Sophia is no longer used for religious purposes, the Blue Mosque is very much an active place of worship.
Approaching the Mosque with the throngs of tourists, I had no intention of staying for the impending afternoon prayer. Rather, I was just curious to tour the building and take note of the rich and vibrant interior design. Our traveling companions though insisted we stay and curious about the experience, we acquiesced.
It was my first time attending a Muslim prayer service and I was nervous. I don’t know why I was anxious, maybe it was my preconceived notions, the fact that I’m American, or what, but I was extremely hesitant. I also had no idea what to do. The front prayer area was roped off leaving a middle section in which visitors had congregated for the service. I noticed several other tourists taking a seat on the floor waiting for the service to begin and I followed suit.
The muezzin’s chants bellowed from atop the Mosque and you could hear the amplified voice reverberate throughout the nearby neighborhood. I’ve heard the call to prayer many times, but it was my first time experiencing it from within a Mosque. The muted chant acted as a siren’s cry, with dozens of men responding by dashing through the doors of the Mosque, removing their shoes and proceeding to the prayer area.
The imam led the service, but I have no idea what was said. I was more interested in watching the people and their responses. After just a few minutes the imam had finished, led the penitent throngs through a series of prayers and that was it. All in all it had lasted barely twenty minutes, a remarkably short time from someone who comes from a Christian background.
We shuffled out of the Blue Mosque along with the hundreds of worshipers, looking back at the intricate beauty of the edifice itself. At first I wasn’t entirely sure what I had accomplished or learned by sitting through the service. I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t understand anything and no one volunteered to help clarify anything we witnessed. But in the days and weeks that followed, I found myself thinking back to that day more and more often.
Whether I realized it or not, that brief service helped me grow intellectually and emotionally. I was nervous about it because I had stereotypes in mind and was frankly worried about the unknown. Living in Washington, DC especially, the daily news is filled with the dangers of Muslim extremism found in mosques and madrasses around the world, and that was the image I allowed to color my traveling experience. By seeing how normal and even boring the service was, it humanized an entire city for me, making it more personal and instantly more relatable.
People ask me why I travel abroad so often and why I don’t just spend my time touring around the U.S. instead. It’s a valid question really, I haven’t spent as much time traveling around my own country as perhaps I should. But the foundation of my wanderlust isn’t just to go see cool new sights and eat delicious foods, it’s an intellectual exercise. Traveling, for me at least, opens a vast classroom giving me opportunities to learn about people around the world that no other resource can offer. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but visiting the Blue Mosque was a quintessential travel experience for me and defines the importance of creating unique travel moments.
What have been some of your keystone or important travel moments/revelations?