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For the past 2 to 3 years my wife has wanted to spend Ramadan in Istanbul. For a variety of reasons we were unable to go. However, this year everything fell into place and we traveled to Istanbul and, as a family, experienced Ramadan in a Muslim country for the very first time.

In this blog post, I hope to elaborate on our experience and provide some general tips and travel advice for spending Ramadan in Istanbul. Primarily this is a reminder for myself (my wife has already started planning for next year) but also for anyone else looking to escape the UK with their kids and experience an unforgettable Ramadan.

 

Why Istanbul?

Firstly, although it is a holiday, the trip should not come at the expense of your Ramadan goals, targets and objectives.   I commonly take off some time from work during the later period of Ramadan as the month often catches up with me and i need some extra rest during the day in order to make the most of the odd nights.  Going away seemed like a good idea in order to eliminate some of that running around I often end up doing.

Istanbul is a great choice for anyone wanting to get away in Ramadan.  The temperature is comparable to the UK and the flight is relatively short at approx. 4 hours which is great especially if you are travelling with children.  Also the fasting day is a little sorter compared to the UK.

Worshipping is also facilitated in Istanbul. Whether that be the numerous adhaans in the background reminding you of prayer times, or the numerous mosque within walking distance of almost all locations.  They all accommodate women so finding a quiet spot for all the family to contemplate, reflect and recite is easy.

 

The logistics:

Flights

IMG_20160630_173458344The main airlines offering direct flights to Istanbul are Turkish airlines, British airways and Pegasus. All have their good and bad points and generally speaking Pegasus is the cheapest. However the best option, in my opinion, is Turkish airlines. They offer flights to both Istanbul Attaturk and Sabiha Gokcen and fly from various airports in the UK, you get a luggage allowance and is generally cheaper than BA. In addition you have enough entertainment in the plane to keep the kids occupied for the 4 hour flight. Also you have a halal meal, a blessing after my many Ryanair journeys. Regarding the price, it very much depends on when you fly. Naturally peak time (July onwards) is more expensive, but playing around with the dates could save you some money. By flying at the end of June and returning on a Monday, instead of the weekend, saved us around £150-£200.

Visas

Visits to Turkey require a visa. These can be purchased from Istanbul airport, or you could purchase an e-Visa online. We purchased ours online by visiting https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/

It is a painless process of filling in some online forms and adding payment details. The cost is calculated in US dollars and depending on the exchange rate is around £15. The advantage of purchasing the visa online is that is saves you from waiting around at Istanbul airport getting the visas, whilst your kids are moaning and whining in the background. The quicker you can get through the airport the better. Also the plan is to phase out buying visas from the airport.

Accommodation

I’ve lost count, the number of hours I’ve spent sitting behind a laptop with my wife looking at accommodation in Istanbul. Where do you stay?, What kind of accommodation?, What facilities does the accommodation need? These were questions my wife and I debated beforehand. The main problem was that we didn’t know much about Istanbul in Ramadan and hence were surfing in the dark.

My advice to anyone travelling to Istanbul for the first time is to stay within the old city or Sultanahmet district. It is the most central to landmarks and monuments. It is the tourist centre of Istanbul with numerous restaurants, cafes and hotels. In fact Sultanahmet is a world heritage site, meaning that the building of new accommodation is restricted in height. As a result there are numerous boutique hotels and apartments. Regarding the type of accommodation, we booked a 2 bedroom apartment. Given that half our trip was in Ramadan, self-catering suited us fine as breakfast was redundant and we would be out for iftaar.

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Kadirga Limani Ramp

Apartments often contain a kitchen area, ideal for feeding the kids that are not fasting. They also have a lot of space, ideal for escaping from the kids for a bit of ‘me’ time. Look out for other extras such as access to a washer dryer, rooftop terrace which may give you a nice view of the Bosphorus and also look out for supermarkets and other amenities in the area. Our accommodation gave us access to the communal gardens which was a nice safe area for the kids to run around and do a spot of gardening. One thing to keep an eye out for is the steep hills and roads around Sultanahmet. We stayed in an area called Kadirga Limani, the supermarket was a couple of doors away and our accommodation was about 5 – 10 minutes’ walk from the Blue mosque, albeit up a very steep hill.

If you are looking to be closer to the Bosphorus, then Sirkeci (between Eminonu and Sultanahmet) is a good option, although the area is a little expensive and many restaurants appeared to serve alcohol. If you are looking for modern hotels with all the mod cons and facilities, then Taxsim and Besiktas would be preferable, although you may miss out on the traditional Istanbul experience.

Personally I would love to live in Eyup or Fatih during Ramadan, purely for the atmosphere. But for a first time experience, Sultanahmet is an ideal base to explore from. Common sites to look for and compare accommodation are www.booking.com, www.lastminute.com, www.airbnb.co.uk and www.holidaylettings.co.uk .

Airport Transfers

There are plenty of options available online for airport transfers.  On average it costs around 60 euros for a return transfer from Attaturk airport to Sultanahmet.  Our flight arrived into Istanbul late and with there being 6 of us, a pre booked transfer suited us well.    We booked through http://www.istanbulairportstransfer.net  The 8 seater was very comfortable, with complimentary water and a map of Istanbul. We also had the option of paying the driver or via paypal.   Your accommodation may also offer you an option of an airport transfer. This is convenient, if not a little more expensive than what you might find online. For the brave, you could catch the metro or municipality bus http://www.iett.gov.tr/en/main/pages/access-to-airports/798. This will be a lot cheaper, although public transport can get very busy. Alternatively there are plenty of yellow taxis which are all metered.

 

Ramadan life in Istanbul

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Prayers at Sultanahmet mosque

Ramadan in Istanbul is a lively affair. During the day everything functions as normal in the tourist areas. Restaurants and shops are open serving food throughout the day. The tourist attractions are all open with the exception of Eid day. Unlike some other Muslim countries, you will be able to eat and drink without any trouble or hassle if, for some reason, you are not fasting. Having said that, we did not venture out too much during the day in Ramadan, preferring to lounge and read Quran in the comfort of our air conditioned apartment or the local mosque.

Something special about Istanbul is the sheer number of mosques within the vicinity. At fajr time, in our apartment you would hear 3 of 4 adhaan being read almost simultaneously to such an extent that it was difficult to know which one to follow. Unlike in the UK, where you are clock watching to know when to stop eating suhur, in Istanbul it is the pronouncement of the adhaan. During the Ottoman period men would beat drums on the streets to signify the start of the fast. You still see them in Istanbul today, although it is more symbolic. With my nearest mosque, literally 20 steps away, there was no excuse for missing the reward of praying in congregation.

Things pick up pace the closer you get to iftaar. We decided to break our fast in different districts each day. The 3 main districts we visited at iftaar were Eyup, Sultanahmet and Fatih.

Iftaar in Sultanahmet

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Picnic at Sultanahmet mosque

Iftaar in Sultanahmet is a family picnic affair. Families come and camp out in the nearest grass area they can find, open up the picnic basket and wait for iftaar. In the area there are various restaurants trying to tempt you and some stalls selling picnic food, like meze with bread, rice pudding and kofte. The district has an open market, similar to the German market in Birmingham town centre at Christmas. The whole area is bustling until the magrib adhaan, when you get the customary silence as people start eating. Breaking the fast and eating well appears very important in Turkish culture, to such an extent that the people will still be eating outside whilst the magrib prayers are being read. Once they have eaten, you find a queue at the wudu taps and people coming into the mosque to pray.

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Light show at Sultanahmet mosque

One beautiful sight in Ramadan is the lighting up of the Blue mosque between magrib and eesha. Every evening in Ramadan the blue mosque is lit up to enact a lightshow whilst a narrative plays on loud speakers outlining the history of Islam. The narrative is in Turkish and English, interspersed with nasheeds, verses of Quran and salutations upon the Prophet (pbuh). Everyone hangs around until eesha, when they make their way to one of the many mosques in the district to pray.

A point to note is the extended time gap between magrib and eesha. Magrib was about 8:30pm and eesha adhaan was about 10:45 pm. In the UK you just about have enough time to eat, possibly have a cuppa before you need to head off to the mosque. In Istanbul you have time to rest, relax and let your food digest before praying.

Iftaar in Eyup

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Eyup Sultan at Iftaar

Iftaar in Eyup is busy, exciting and warm. It is similar to Sultanahmet only the area is much smaller and hence more densely populated. Eyup is not a touristic area; hence it is the local Turks you will mingle with. It has a more authentic feel; you are surrounded by shops selling mus’haf of Quran, prayer hat and hijabs. Amongst the hustle and bustle you can hear the recitation of Quran in the background. Eyup Sultan mosque is smaller and quickly fills up. However, area is allocated in the courtyard for spill over.

Eyup is about 6 – 7 km from Sultanahmet. You can catch the tram from Eminonu direct to Eyup. Alternatively a taxi should cost no more than 25 liras at peak time. Eyup has a fun fair feel about it. There are stalls selling candy floss, ottoman ice cream (dondurma) and balloons. In the UK we look forward to Eid in the Park. In Eyup it is Eid in the Park every day, for the whole month of Ramadan. As soon as you get out of the taxi, you are inundated with restaurant menus with their fixed price, fixed menu iftaar. There are plenty of places to eat and even if you don’t have a proper meal, people will feed you Turkish delight until you have your fill.

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Iftaar table at Eyup

A point to note, if you do want to have a proper meal don’t leave it too late. Many restaurants will require you to pay a deposit to reserve a table for iftaar and the closer you get to iftaar time the tables start to fill up. Some restaurants will shut up shop after they have served the iftaar and it may be more difficult to get food as the night progresses, until the restaurants open for the fixed price suhur. So if you want to eat, reserve a table, otherwise snack and soak up the atmosphere.

Iftaar in Fatih

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Fatih mosque complex

Fatih is the absolute opposite to Eyup and Sultanahmet. The atmosphere is more calm, relaxed and tranquil. Fatih Sutan Mosque is situated a small distance away from Fevzi Pasa Cadessi, a main road. This road is busy, littered with restaurants and designer clothes shops and women’s fashion outlets. But as you climb up the path to get to Fatih mosque the atmosphere starts to change. The mosque complex is more peaceful. There are still some families, but much fewer in numbers, mostly sitting on benches interspersed between the numerous stray cats. The courtyard of the mosque is even more peaceful, a handful of families sitting on picnic blankets waiting to break their fast. It is a time for reflection and contemplation, a rare moment in the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. It is advisable to bring a picnic to Fatih, as there are not many places to eat in the near vicinity of the mosque. I managed to buy some mamoul biscuits and other snacks from the local supermarket.

After magrib is an opportune moment to stroll through the streets of Fatih. There are people around and shops are open, but it feels like someone has pressed the pause button. The closest I can describe it is the feeling you get in Madinah after spending time in Makkah. Istanbul is a beautiful city to just walk through. Although there probably are some rough neighbourhoods, most areas you just feel safe walking through. A blessing in comparison to how you feel walking in parts of the UK, post Brexit.

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Taraweeh at Fatih mosque courtyard

Everything picks up pace towards eesha time. People come from various directions to converge at Fatih mosque. Again it is families. Women frequent the mosque just as much as men and children are equally as welcome. The men fill the main hall of the mosque and the women fill the allocated area. The women then fill the sides of the mosque courtyard and the children play and run around, either in the mosque or the courtyard itself. In the UK it is extremely difficult to find mosques that cater for families. Bringing children to the mosque is often frowned upon, especially by the elders. As a result, children do not gain a taste of the beauty that can be found in listening to the taraweeh. Although attitudes are starting to change, many mosques are hampered by a lack of space and facilities. Fatih mosque showed me that if you have space, children will keep themselves occupied, whether with a football or even on roller skates. It’s an amazing sight to see children making circuits around the wudu fountain. As for the taraweeh itself, the Imam’s in Turkey have their own way of reciting, sending peace and blessings on the Prophet (pbuh) after every interval. It was the 28th night when we were in Fatih and it is likely that they had completed the recitation of the Quran. The imam started surah Rahman in eesha prayers, continued to read it in taraweeh and finished it in witr. Afterwards you get the feeling that less is more.

 

Eid in Istanbul

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Eid Prayers at Sultanahmet mosque

Our plan was to experience both Ramadan and Eid in Istanbul. The Ramadan days would be spent resting and reading and the days after Eid spent sight-seeing and visiting the other attractions.

So what is Eid like in Istanbul? Well the first thing to note is that the government announced the day of Eid prior to sighting the moon. They appeared to have based this upon calculation of when the moon will be born as opposed to, what the saying of the Prophet (pbuh) states, the actual sighting. I remember speaking to the manager of our apartment, ascertaining what will happen on Eid day and him telling me “Eid prayers tomorrow will be one hour after the end of fajr” and then realising that they are not waiting for the moon sighting.

As the actual new moon was not sighted we ended up keeping the full 30 days of Ramadan and hence celebrated Eid on a different day to the rest of Turkey. With most, if not all, the mosques being state sponsored this will present a problem when it comes to praying Eid prayers. It is reminiscent of a government that does not refer to Islam as a criterion for all its actions and highlights the need for a single Islamic leadership for all the Muslims.

However, we ventured out on Turkey’s Eid morning to see how the end of Ramadan is celebrated. The Eid prayers appeared to be a lively affair. We arrived at the blue mosque when the prayers had just finished and people were exiting the mosque. People were embracing, hugging, engaged in small talk, sharing sweets. One random stranger even gave my children some Eid money, making them very happy.

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Eid money

As for the atmosphere during the day, I can’t say much as we went back to our apartment. I imagine in the main areas most shops will be open and in the evening, when we broke our fast, everything was as normal in Sultanahmet square. One point to note, museums and other tourist attractions are closed on Eid day.

Our one regret is that we never got to truly experience Eid in Istanbul.

 

Sight-seeing and tourism

There are so many mosques in Istanbul, but each one has a story to tell.

First you have the iconic Sultanahmet mosque, or Blue mosque which is directly facing Hagia Sophia. This is the mosque you see in the background of all those pictures your friends and relatives have shown you over the years.

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Suleymaniye Mosque at Jummah

Nearby there is the district of Suleymaniye, named after the Khalifh Suleyman al-Kanuni (Suleyman the Magnificent) This area houses the Suleymaniye mosque, the largest mosque in Istanbul. In fact, historically, it was more of a complex, with a hospital, soup kitchen, library, school and much more. It was built in 1557AD by the famous ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and the original structure has survived the numerous earthquakes that struck Istanbul, without a single crack.

Then you have the district of Fatih, named after the conquerer of Istanbul, Fatih Sultan Mehmet (Muhammad al-Fatih). This district contains Fatih mosque and the tomb of Muhammad al-Fatih.

A little further there is the district of Eyup, where you will find the tomb of Abu Ayub al-Ansari (ra).   Abu Ayub al-Ansari was one of the companions of the Prophet (Pbuh) who died during the original conquest of Constaninople in 674AD.

Then you have Ortakoy mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus, Rustum Pasha mosque with its distinctive, blue tiles. Even the mosque 20 steps from our apartment, Sokullu Mehmet Pasha mosque has some significance. Firstly it was built on kadirga ramp and secondly it is claimed to contain some pieces of the black stone above the door.

All this forms a fraction of our Islamic heritage. When you look at the havoc and destruction in the Muslim world at present, it is hard to imagine that we had a glorious past. But we did, and Istanbul gives an indication of what we can achieve if we once again make Islam the centre of politics in the Islamic world.

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Harem at Topkapi Palace

There are many landmarks in Istanbul, all of which are sign-posted. My advice would be to get a good travel guide to give you some idea of what there is to see. A trip to Istanbul is not complete without paying visit to Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was the residence of the ottoman khalifs for 400yrs   and has now been converted into a museum. The palace is vast and will take a whole morning to explore and also contains some sacred relics attributed to the Prophet (Pbuh) and the sahabah (ra). Make sure you pack some food and some water as the restaurant in Topkapi is fairly expensive. Expect a 500ml bottle of water which costs about 0.5 lira in the supermarket to cost over 3 liras in Topkapi palace. The entrance fee to Topkapi is 40 liras and visiting the palace harem requires a separate ticket costing 25 liras.  There is an additional charge for a guided tour and rental of audio guide headsets.

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Museum card venues

One way to bring the cost down of entrance fees is by purchasing a Museum card. The card costs 85 liras and allows you a single access into various museums within Istanbul over a period of 5 days after first use. You more than make your money back by visiting Topkapi, the harem and Hagia Sophia. The card can be purchased in advance or at Topkapi palace itself, just remember to go early to beat the queues take some photo ID.  Children under 12yrs are free, but you may need to show some ID for the older looking ones. They do not allow buggies in most exhibition halls so it is useful to have a sling to carry a younger baby.

An advantage of the card is that it allows you to jump the queue of people buying tickets. During peak season, queues for the museums can get long especially tiring in the heat. Some of the museums, although free with the card are probably not worth the visit. The science and Islam museum is fairly technical and will most likely bore your children. However, the Turkish and Islam Museum give a chronological history of the various dynasties in Islam and significant artefacts of each generation, including old copies of Quran and old word portraits praising the Prophet (Pbuh). Definitely worth a visit, and free with the Museum card.

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Ortakoy mosque from the Bosphorus cruise

A cruise of the Bosphorus is also a must and a bargain too. In and around Eminonu, vendors will try and sell you tickets to a ‘private Bosphorus cruise’ charging anywhere from 15 to 25 euros. You could try them out and see, but most likely ‘private will involve sharing a boat with around 100 other people. The national ferry company in Istanbul is Sehir Hatlari they offer a short cruise, long cruise and evening cruise. We brought tickets for the short cruise at the bargain price of 12 liras per adult, discounted to 9 liras with the museum card and 6 liras per child over 6yrs. The short cruise was a total of 2 hours up the Bosphorus.  The ferry departs once daily for the short cruise at 2.30pm and is a nice break from the city. Tickets are purchased from the Sehir Hatlari ticket office in Eminonu and you can find out more, including travelling to Princes Island from http://en.sehirhatlari.istanbul/en

Whatever you decide, there is plenty to keep you busy in Istanbul. Plan your days and try and combine attractions, especially if you are fasting. For example after visiting Suleymaniye, walk to the grand bazaar and exit in Beyazit square to visit the mosque. Whilst waiting for the Bosphorus cruise you could pay a visit to the spice bazaar. Galata tower can be combined with Taxim or Domabache palace. Try and get the balance between the historical sites that you would like to see and what your children would find fun.

 

Eating

Part of holiday fun for children is also eating and trying new foods and Ramadan is no different. We stayed in self catering accommodation. Regarding food, everything you find in the UK is available in Turkey, including some brands that you find in the UK, albeit at premium prices. The fresh fruit in Turkey is amazing, especially the cherries, peaches and melons. Fruit is seasonal and not imported, so what you get will depend on the time of the year. In the supermarket, everything is in Turkish, so it can be trial and error what you buy. On our first evening I went out to buy some milk and came back with what I thought was milk, but actually Ayran (lassi type yoghurt drink). Eventually I discovered that milk is called ‘sut’ and is often in uht cartons. Having said that you might want to pack some of your children’s favourite foods and some other bits and bobs.

Our accommodation provided us with an electric hob, kettle, toaster, microwave and small fridge freezer. Cutlery was limited as were cups and plates, although the manager did provide us with some extra. You might want to consider taking some disposable cutlery, plates and cups, although they are also available at supermarkets. Taking a picnic basket, blanket and other materials would also be useful if you plan some outdoor iftaars.

Iftaar, as previously mentioned is either a picnic outdoors or reserving a table. We did both, and in my opinion our best iftaar experience was sitting in the courtyard of the blue mosque with some fruits, various meze, dips and bread. Whatever you decide, you need to be prepared and not just turn up and hope for the best.

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A Simit stall

Turkish food is quite varied. The staple street food is simit, a bread brought from street stalls for 1 lira. The summer months also bring you corn on the cob, either boiled or roasted, costing a maximum of 2 lira. Both simit with chocolate or cheese spread and corn are good, cheap options for keeping the kids quite if they are not fasting.

Turkish cuisine involves kebabs and a mixed grill is a good choice when you want to try a bit of everything. Most food comes with bulgar wheat or rice. It is worth experimenting with the variety of kebabs. Iskender kebab is doner meat on a bed of tomato soaked bread with thick, creamy yogurt. If you are feeling brave you can try cig kofte, which is basically a raw mince mixed with bulgar and spices.  The amount you eat will depend on how brave you feel and whether your digestive system can handle raw meat. Otherwise you can always stick with Burger King, KFC or Dominos.

Whilst in Turkey it is worth trying the Turkish cuisine. For the kids there is pide, a type of Turkish pizza and durum which is wraps. Then there are pancakes, which are more like a stuffed paratha. Kofte kebabs are famous. In Sultanahmet there is a restaurant called Sultanahmet koftecisi whose origins can be traced back to ottoman times. During Ramadan, at iftaar time the queue is reminiscent of the Next sale. They have one main dish which is kofte kebabs served with bread and a bean salad called piyaz. Other restaurants have fixed dishes which are visible through the restaurant window. It looks like a buffet, but instead of getting to try everything you point to a dish and they plate it up with some rice and bulgar. Prices are reasonable and you get to try something different and more authentic. If only they would let you have a spoon full of everything.

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The main dessert in Istanbul is Turkish delight (Lokum) and Baclava. Price and quality vary and it is worth spending that little extra and visiting a shop like Haji Beckir, Hafiz Mustafa or Osmanlizadeler for a one off treat.

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Hafiz Mustafa Turkish Delight stall at Sultanahmet market

Ice cream is readily available from stalls selling a scoop for 1 lira, to the more expensive shops like Mado selling a scoop for 3-4 lira. Traditional Turkish ice cream is called dondurma. You can spot it by the seller who will often be wearing a traditional waistcoat and hat. It looks like sorbet, but has a slightly elastic quality due to the presence of Mastic gum (damla). Keep an eye out for damla in ingredients for desserts; it is an acquired taste, one we didn’t acquire.

Beyond that there are many milk based puddings. Sutlac is a baked rice pudding and Tavuk gogsu is a dessert made from minced chicken breast, boiled in milk and sugar, and then chilled. It sounds strange and has as elastic texture, but the kids seemed to like it.

Alhamdulillah, the food is halal and it’s worth experimenting. My wife and I have made a mental note of the food that we want to try or eat more of, if we go back again such as Iskender kebab, ottoman cuisine, borek and kunefe.

 

General tips

Due to the lack of English amongst the people, it is useful to learn a few phrases and learn the basic numbers. It will come in useful when the shopkeeper says ‘bes lira’ and you pull out a 50 lira note. At least the currency is not in the millions as it was on my first visit to Istanbul.

Be aware of the random dogs just roaming around the tourist areas of Istanbul. Although most of the time you find them lying around soaking up the sun.

The further you move from the central areas, the better exchange rate you will find. Even walking up the road you will find a change in exchange rates. At the airport, the exchange rate appears good, but they add a commission. Beyond that, you can use cashpoints.

Finally don’t be afraid of the selfie stick. Istanbul has to be the selfie capital of the World. Everywhere you look people, old and young are taking selfies and are holding selfie sticks. You can buy them everywhere and we ended up buying one of some random man for 5 liras. Embrace the atmosphere, buy a selfie stick and snap away.

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Final thoughts

Istanbul is a city of great heritage and culture. It formed the centre of Christendom, was the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate before Attaturk seized power in 1924 and founded modern day secular Turkey. During the secularisation of Turkey, public manifestations of Islam were banned. The Arabic script replaced with Latin letters, hijab was ridiculed and banned in public life, adhaan was outlawed in Arabic and rewritten in Turkish language. This created a polarised nation.

However, when you walk through the streets of Istanbul, you are enamoured by the Islamic heritage, the mosques and buildings adorned with Arabic script and verses from the Qur’an. When you walk through the streets in Ramadan you are taken aback by the powerful adhaan bellowing from the minarets in the Arabic language. That is the lasting memory of Istanbul.  A warm city, with even warmer people all tightly bound together with Islam.

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