Waking up on Day 8 after our through-night travelling found us in the bright and bustling city of Istanbul. The Antea Palace hotel welcomed us downstairs with a varied breakfast, and we made quick work of the choices available, preparing then to set out to the larger sites within the city – the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Grand Bazaar.
Walking a short distance up the hilly streets found us in the main square of the old city district – an open air museum of sorts for the historical wonders of Old-Constantinople. We had a brief look into the Sultan Ahmed mosque but found it to be shut for prayer time, so could not venture into the main prayer hall. We then walked further north, where the Hagia Sophia in some respects faces off with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This was well timed – the noon prayer had just begun, and soared through the old city, with the Mosque following the lead of the Hagia. The scale of these 2 buildings given their age was incredible. The Byzantine Empire that built them truly showed its prosperity.
With this scene in the background, we tried to get an interview completed with Omeed our resident cameraman. Setting up the shot and rattling off the first couple of questions went without a hitch, then along came the good cop – bad cop routine. At first the officers passed without incident, giving us a subtle acknowledgement and moving onward through the park. As we were filming the shifty eyes could be seen on the take as we watched the officers pass. A few moments later and the super-cop arrived. This cap was not only more laid back, but clearly in charge when it came to matters of dead cat microphone covers (a microphone wind protector) and 3-legged tripod stands. It seems in Turkey with the current pro-government drive, the law enforcement is rather edgy with anything that looks remotely like a TV camera crew and news broadcast team. We packed up without incident and moved up to the Topaki Palace Gardens to try our luck there. We approached the thick stone arches and were funnelled through the security check. Spotting the restaurant on the left, we decided upon a quick lunch, which turned out to be a long lunch with full waiter service. We attempted another camera shot in the Palace Gardens but again were stumped by the security guards and moved back to the Hagia Sophia.
Utilising a business card we had picked up from a tour guide- Omer – we agreed on a 30-40 minute tour of the massive former Mosque and Orthodox Church. It was beautiful, in its own warn and layered-history way. This and the former churches dated back long before anything remote resembling medieval or even kingdom-era Britain, with the first flying buttresses for example – 10th Century AD, preceding gothic churches by hundreds of years.
After a satisfying tour through history we said our goodbyes to Omer and headed back to the hotel, to drop kit off and return out for dinner and possibly a Turkish bath session at one of the oldest baths in Istanbul – built in the 1700’s. Unfortunately, the baths were closed, so we headed down the road to an open-air restaurant overlooking the main square. Returning to the hotel a second time, we finished the TV interview in the hotel room, and then made the slightly risk-taking decision of going to Taksim Square and watch the pro-government demonstration. By this time the crowd who had been there at midday had returned home, but there were still a hardened crowd of 2-3000 people – flares, flags, and a definitive song and video playlist of hardened pro-government broadcasts. Our minds were somewhat shocked into this atmosphere of ultra-patriotism – people utterly gripped in the emotional waves pumping through the screens, the presenter’s speeches and the video messages. We stood, somewhat neutral to the surrounding crowd, trying to appreciate what was happening; we Brits are extremely comfortable with things now going so well in government circles. An e-petition here, a small protest there, some disgruntled mumbling over a coffee or a beer. This was beyond anything we expected, and yet a very unified, positive atmosphere was found, with people happy that their photos and a video of them was being recorded by us – clearly foreign and taking these images elsewhere. Opinions on the actual background story aside, we all had an experience to remember – a demonstration on a large scale, connected to much larger protests across the country.
Drained from this sea of emotion, we took a taxi back to the hotel, somewhat dizzy from what we saw, and made a sort plan of what to do tomorrow.