Dispatches from the Istanbul Airport

The Call to Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome

The Call to Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome

Istanbul actually has two airports: Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, about which I know nothing, and Atatürk Airport on the European side of things,* in which we’ve spent a substantial amount of time, all told.

Let me set the stage. We left our Valencia apartment Thursday around noon, Loquita and Ninja and I contriving to person-handle three big roller bags and a large box. Down the nine short sets of stairs we tried variations on gravity-assisted descent (bag lying in sled position, legs wide, leaning back, anchored to the banister, hoping both to prevent dislocating anything and to make the turn at the landing). The box I simply hefted, trusting that being able to see while walking down stairs is overrated.

On the quarter mile walk/drag to the metro we managed not to run anybody off the sidewalk. Getting all of us and the bags through the briefly opening narrow barriers to the subway platform was not as complicated as that logic problem involving the goat, the tiger, the cabbage and the canoe, but we did take the time to devise a strategy, and it worked well both getting in and getting out.

Murphy’s Law was suspended on our behalf as we headed for the airport ticket counter: the interminable line was not the one we needed—ours was just on the other side of it, and mercifully short. We gratefully surrendered all the big bags, and walked away with just our backpacks, looking for the line for the first of many security checkpoints between us and home.

You’d think it wouldn’t make sense to be heading due east for nearly four hours, when home for us is almost eleven hours in the other direction, but we had our reasons, only one of which was economic. We figured, if you have a chance to go to Istanbul, why not?


Sultan Ahmet Camii, also known as the Blue Mosque

The first time we were in Istanbul, I was nonplussed to learn that we needed a visa for Turkey even though we were in transit to Spain, because we flew in one day and out the next. Luckily, this lack was not going to result in us doing any eyewitness research into the legendary Turkish prison system, but instead could be remedied at a little self-service kiosk that took a credit card. Also luckily, the visa obtained then took care of this stopover as well, so we joined the mongrel hoards weaving their way toward passport control.

This situation, with hundreds of people waiting together, seems like it could be an excellent setting for some sort of flash mob. I don’t know how such things get started, but the presence of so many border security officers, and the knowledge that irritating someone who might then refuse to ink and stamp his official seal in my passport made me think that this was not the time to experiment. We waited quietly, shuffling forward.

The next step in our journey was to find a destination I only learned about a few days earlier. The Turkish Air flight from Boston to Valencia was considerably cheaper than others we looked at, even after paying for a hotel, but I learned that in some circumstances you don’t even have to pay for the hotel.

Those were our circumstances, so we made our way to the Hotel Desk, where we had been assured we could get a voucher for a night’s stay. When we got there we found, if not a cast of thousands, at least a substantial throng of people. Back and forth between the stanchions (I should come up with a name for this dance figure we’re getting so good at), we finally showed our boarding passes, and were told to go “over there” and wait. Over there was a loungy place with at least a few comfy chairs scattered among the non-comfy.

Our short layover in Turkey did not allow us time for any real seeing of sights, but there in the Starbucks Lounge at Atatürk Havalimani (Turkish for airport), I feel we got a taste of what I hope one day to hear in person—the Muslim call to prayer.

The man at the counter came out from the office with his hands full of boarding passes and printouts, and raised his sonorous voice in a wail of “Hotel Passengaaiirzzz!” We gathered from all directions, and listened intently as he began to call out names.

It seemed a real possibility that I might not recognize the sound of my own name in his accent, so I concentrated. As he made music out of name after name, sustaining the last syllable, I imagined the sounds as part of the müezzin’s chant† calling the faithful to their five obligatory daily prayers. Fanciful, I know, but trust me when I say his voice made them sound like something entirely other than a list of names belonging to scores of bedraggled international air travelers.

I wished I had had the opportunity to compliment him on his performance, but it was not to be. Ours were not among the first “call to Hotel” names, though among the lilting sounds of the second call, I managed to pick out syllables familiar to me, and we heeded the summons. Our müezzin had his hands full of more than just boarding passes and vouchers, and I couldn’t imagine getting his attention long enough to make “Gee, your voice is beautiful” sound anything other than very strange, so we just maintained our spots in the scrum and prepared to be shuttled.

Between that point and the present moment, when we’re home and have nearly emerged from the sodden jet-lag feeling, there are a few longish stories I could tell. Instead, I give the merest hints about the three extra security checks at the gate the next morning (including a body search and a request to prove that my laptop was functional). If laptop and passport were sentient, they’d certainly be suffering from friction burns, so often were they pulled out and shoved back in. We spare a few seconds to consider Loquita’s suitcase/duffle hemorrhaging on the carousel (clothes rescued, bag replaced, happy, if delayed, ending).

Now featuring "expanded access." That big opening used to be the bottom seam.

Now featuring “expanded access.” That big opening used to be a bottom seam.


You can listen to an example of the call to prayer here, complete with translation.

We hope that if and when we’re next in Istanbul, we’ll have time to see some of the amazing places we’ve only seen in pictures. If you’ve been there, what do you recommend?


Hagia Sophia: once basilica, then mosque, now museum


*File under Oddities of Internet Searching: In my research on Istanbul, the result proclaiming that Istanbul is the only city in the world that lies on two continents was followed immediately by the result, “list of cities spanning two continents,” including Atyrau in Kazakhstan, Orenburg and Magnitogorsk, two Russian cities divided by the Ural River, and the Egyptian city Suez. There is some fine print: Suez is a man-made situation, and not everyone agrees about the boundary between Europe and Asia, so some folks would disqualify the Ural River cities. I assume someone has a beef with the Kazakhstani city as well, though no one mentioned details.

†Müezzin is the Turkish spelling for a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque. I wonder if it’s ever a part time position? Could my guy concern himself with helping people find both hotel rooms and spiritual enlightenment?

[Images from wikiart.org, wikimedia commons, and hagiasophia.com]

4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Istanbul Airport

  1. I do love travel stories! Especially to places I’ve never been. Too bad your “stay” in Istanbul was so brief. We have a great picture of ye eldest son in Orenburg, one foot in Asia and one foot in Europe, arms thrown wide, one hand holding a Book of Mormon to preach to two continents at once. A different kind of call to prayer, I suppose! Glad you made it home with everything & everyone intact, and a bunch of new memories to boot.

    • Fun to realize that I know someone who’s been to one of those multi-continental cities. I’ll have to stay alert to see if I meet anyone with experience in the others.

  2. The Topkapi Palace is a must see–with a tour guide and, of course, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are incredible. The carpet stores are hard to miss–really, really hard to miss, no matter how hard you try. The whirling dervishes were interesting, but maybe it’s enough to know they exist. Walking around the markets is fun, as is searching for the best Turkish Delight. Some of the other culinary delights to look for: fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and crepes with halvah. Taking a river cruise is about 5th on the list. And yes, the call to prayer is cool–very, very cool. I hope you get to go back there sometime, even for a day or two!

  3. Pingback: Mind Stretch: Dust in the wind | Lori Notes

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