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Aya Sophia, Istanbul

Aya Sophia, Istanbul

In light of the ugly debate to the south, this seemed appropriate.

Taken at the Aya Sofia museum in Istanbul. First built around 500 AD, this Christian cathedral served as the central basilica of Constantinople. Following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the new rulers recognized the value and beauty of this place and converted it into a mosque.

Centuries later, in the 1930s, Turkey’s beloved Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared that the mosque would be secularized and converted into a museum. Christian mosaics (such as Mary and Jesus centred) that had been covered would be revealed alongside golden Islamic medallions honouring Allah and Muhammed. Essentially, the place would become a shrine to the country’s past – both Christian and Muslim, side-by-side.

Like another planet

Goreme, Cappodocia, Turkey, June 2010

Goreme, Cappodocia, Turkey, June 2010

One of my favourite things to do when I am travelling is get up early in a new place and go for a stroll. I think I take the most photos when I see something for the first time. I guess when you have fresh eyes, everything appears unique and surprising.

It was mid-June and we arrived in Turkey’s Cappodocia region at about two in the morning when our plane landed at Kayseri airport from Antalya. I was exhausted, although I did manage to get about 20 minutes sleep on the plane – despite the fact that it was full of babies who seemed to be competing over who could cry the longest and loudest.

We drove for an hour on a dark highway before we were dropped off at the Kelebek Cave Hotel in the town of Goreme. A tired looking man came and took our bags and led us through a courtyard to a giant cone-shaped stone cave. We climbed some steep stairs, opened a wooden door to a room that had been carved into the cave. An old painted cross could be seen across the ceiling.

Some background about Cappodocia: According to the good folks at Lonely Planet, this area was first settled by the Hittites in 1800BC, who were followed by the Persians, Romans and Christians. The latter group came to hide from persecution and left their mark by creating churches and painting religious murals within the many caves (many were later desecrated by Arab invaders). The region is unique for these so-called ‘fairy chimneys’ that cover the landscape; eroded rock formations with a porous interior that inhabitants could use to carve out homes, churches, underground citiies or, in modern-Turkey, hotel rooms.

After a delicious breakfast (one of the best on our trip), I set out on a town that seemed yet to be overwhelmed by its tourist potential. Of course, there were stores hawking postcards and generic memorabilia, but Goreme still seemed very authentic. I climbed a hill along a dusty back road and walked past a rooster (who ignored me completely) and an old woman who was sweeping off her doorstep with a hand-broom. She was covered completely except her time-worn face. I stopped and looked out at this town of sand-coloured buildings and stone fairy chimney dwellings jutting out and heard the call to prayer echoing from the central mosque.

I was very far from home.