We must have still been riding the Metro from Ataturk Airport when the first shots were fired.
Daniel and I, along with our two friends, had just flown back into Istanbul after a wonderful four-night trip to Turkey’s southern and western coasts. During our first week in the city, we had completely avoided public transportation – a half-hearted attempt at mitigating the risk of terrorism by staying out of high-risk areas. With that in mind, I had wanted to get into the city center via privately operated bus – which happens to board directly in front of the international terminal, where all the violence took place just a few minutes later. Instead, we elected at the last minute to take the train.
The Metro ride was calm and uneventful. A young woman wearing a niqab sat next to me, and I exchanged silly faces with the toddler on her lap. An older man read a paperback novel. The European tourist across from me played on her iPhone.
We didn’t find out about the attack until an hour or two later. We were eating dinner and enjoying sweeping views of the city at a rooftop café in the Galata neighborhood – a perfect ending to a fantastic two-week trip across Turkey. One of our friends answered a phone call from home. I couldn’t hear anything the caller said, but I knew within seconds that something awful had happened.
Before our visit, I had heard Turkey described as a “land of contrasts.” The description is apt. It’s where east meets west, with Istanbul straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia. It’s a nation with a 98% Muslim population, yet a mostly secular government. It’s a modern country – but with a multi-thousand-year history of empires and dynasties. It’s an ally of democratic western nations, yet also a place where Twitter and Facebook were blocked for hours after this week’s terrorist attack to reduce the opportunity for government criticism.
We started our trip in Cappadocia (Kapadokya), a beautiful region of central Turkey famous for its cave dwellings, bizarre “fairy chimney” rock formations, and ancient underground cities. It was the ideal place to begin our travels – calm, scenic, and full of fascinating human history.
From sleepy Cappadocia, we flew to bustling Istanbul. The bus dropped us off in Taksim Square, one of the city’s most famous tourist and shopping districts, and we walked down the famous İstiklâl Caddesi, the area’s major pedestrian street.
“Wow,” I thought to myself immediately, “there are a ton of police here.”
At first, we wrote it off as just high-alert security. İstiklâl was the target of a bombing in March; it would make sense that they would have extra police presence. As we walked farther down the street, though, it became apparent that something else was happening. Each side street had a massive barricade flanked by a military-grade vehicle. Toward the south end of the avenue, the cops were lined up in riot gear: helmets, batons, and clear plastic shields.
“What the fuck is going on here?” we wondered nervously.
We didn’t put it together until we read the news the next day. What was the big scary threat to Istanbul’s major tourist area this time? Oh, of course: a few transgender people and their allies looking to march down the street peacefully. The following weekend would bring more of the same, with the city’s larger Pride parade dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets.
In spite of our rude introduction to Turkey’s modern human rights struggles, we greatly enjoyed our time in Istanbul, taking in all the major tourist sites – from the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia (once a church, then a mosque, now a museum) to the Basilica Cistern (the largest of many Byzantine cisterns beneath the city) to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the famous six-minareted “blue mosque”). We browsed the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, ate our fair share of dürüm and döner kebap, and explored neighborhoods on both the European and Asian sides of the city.
We happened to be in Turkey during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer. We eventually grew accustomed to the 3 AM loudspeaker call to prayer each morning, and we loved witnessing iftar, the breaking of the fast, each evening in Istanbul’s public squares.
From Istanbul, we flew south to the coastal city of Antalya, where 55 Turkish Lira each (~$19 USD per person) bought us a seven-hour boat tour of the coastline. We spent hours lounging on the boat and swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters.
We rented a car in Antalya and drove west to the ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city of Hierapolis, famous for its well preserved ruins and travertine terrace hot springs.
We drove farther west and toured Ephesus, the ancient Greek city on Turkey’s western coast near the modern city of Selçuk. At its peak, Ephesus was home to 250,000 residents, which made it the second most populous city in the Roman Empire. The ruins were awe-inspiring.
Finally, we ended our road trip in the coastal city of Izmir. Unexpectedly, Izmir had the most liberal feel of any city we visited, with locals wearing shorts and imbibing at sidewalk cafés even during the fasting month of Ramadan. From Izmir, we took an evening flight back to Istanbul.
On our last night in Turkey, as we learned about the murders at Ataturk Airport, I didn’t think much about how narrowly we had dodged a major terrorist attack. Maybe at some point in the future it will hit me. I was struck, though, by a deep sadness for the people here and the way this violence will destroy many of their livelihoods.
I thought about Mustafa, the proprietor of our hotel in Cappadocia, and how his 12-room hotel was already almost completely unoccupied during the heart of tourist season, even at the bargain price of $18 USD/night. I thought about all the tour boats in Antalya, most of which left the harbor 90% empty. I thought about the restaurant owner in Sultanahmet who brought us free apple tea and baklava and begged us to write reviews on TripAdvisor. “Last year, we were full. This year…” he said, motioning toward the dozens of empty tables lining the sidewalk. He shook his head.
Sadly, I don’t think one TripAdvisor review will do much to right the trend of declining tourism in Turkey, but I will say this: Yes, Turkey has its issues – no doubt about it. But it’s a fascinating country full of beautiful scenery, unreal ancient history, and kind people. It’s remarkably affordable, and it’s well worth the time to visit.
I couldn’t agree more with this assessment from American travel writer Rick Steves:
“In light of Tuesday’s terrorist attack…, I would not fault someone for thinking now is not the time to vacation in Turkey. But personally, I would travel to Turkey tomorrow with no more concern than if I were traveling in the USA.
Should I react by not traveling there and, in doing so, contribute to Turkey’s economic hardship? Is traveling there after the recent bombing reckless from a personal safety point of view? Should I embolden the terrorists by reacting the way they want me to? How you answer depends on your perspective. But I choose to answer with a hearty ‘no.'”