It’s 12:15 on a Friday afternoon and the mid-day call to prayer (ayzan) has just begun.
Almost simultaneously the muezzins (the person who sings the call to prayer) in every mosque, camii (pronounced jam ee) as it’s called in Turkish, in the city join in.
A tour guide told me there are 3000 mosques in Istanbul and each has at least two minarets with loud speakers, so it can be an amazing sound when you’re on a balcony over-looking half a dozen of them.
Ayzan is very melodic and the muezzin’s voice will move up an octave or two (if he’s good) during the two minute song.
When the call to prayer happens, which it does five times a day seven days a week, any music on the street, in restaurants and in taxis is turned off.
Just before the song of ayzan starts men start to crowd into the mosque courtyard to wash their feet before they file into the camii. Every mosque has a foot washing place; men sit on a marble seat and in front of each is a tap.
This guaranteed water supply is very handy whenever the city turns off the water to do infrastructure maintenance.
Because Camiis are domed buildings there are no walls, only giant pillars, so they`re incredibly spacious and can hold up to a couple of thousand people give or take.
But Friday noon is when everyone usually goes so most mosques are filled to capacity and mats are laid-out outside to catch the overflow.
Anywhere there is free space is game, be it sidewalks or courtyards. Seeing hundreds of men praying on mats on the sidewalk is quite a sight, and I can see why for some it would be intimidating.
Women have a private place for their ablutions and they have to pray behind a screen in the back of the mosque.
At first I thought this was quite sexist, but now I see the logic behind it. The muslim way of praying involves bending over and touching the head to the floor so their face is near the other person’s feet.
I wouldn`t want some strange man looking at my backside when I pray! This is also a good reason why clean feet are important!
If you ever travel in Turkey make sure your hotel isn’t next to a camii.
It may be very picturesque but trust me, you’ll get a rude awakening; the first call comes at dawn so what sounds exotic at noon is not so nice at 6 a.m.
Though Turkey is a muslin country it’s a secular state and in some ways remarkably liberal.
One of the most famous and best loved entertainers is a drag queen, and on the streets of Istanbul you may see a punk or transvestite walking by a women dressed head to toe in black, or a woman wearing a headscarf with 5 inch stilettos on her feet. In a café there will be the religious and non-religious smoking nargile, a water pipe with scented tobacco. On flights from Tehran women go into the washrooms covered up and come out dressed to kill.
It’s a cliché that Turkey is a crossroad between east and west but like most clichés, it’s true.
Stephanie Coe is a North Islander currently teaching in Turkey.