Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 8: Istanbul

I left the Golden Horn Hotel really early today, so I could spend some time taking pictures of Istanbul's pedestrian streets. İstiklal Avenue is located in the European side of the city of Beyoğlu, and is surrounded by numerous historical and government buildings, boutiques, coffee-shops, restaurants, libraries, bars, and night clubs. This crowded avenue houses some of the finest and most unique works of architecture.

(Istiklal Avenue)

After I finished taking pictures, I took the bus to the Taksim Square, where I was supposed to meet Adem for breakfast. I met him at Yorus Kale Café, where we were served a typical Turkish breakfast:

slices of cheese sprinkled with pepper and served with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and crusty, buttery bread rolls – pogaca. Not to forget some Turkish coffee.

During our breakfast, Adem told me that the headquarters of all the national newspapers and broadcasting companies were in either Istanbul or Ankara. Today around 2,000 newspapers circulate in Turkey. Adem was accepted as an intern at Feza Group that prints Islamic Zaman. “It is a very liberal daily that examines the controversial issues around the world,” - he said.

When I was watching the news (with English subtitles), Adem noticed that awhile ago most of the Turkish channels were illegal. This of course sounded odd to me, and I wanted to know more. He told me that the state founded the first broadcasting company in Turkey in 1964, and it monopolized both the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation up until 1993. After 1990, hundreds of illegal local TV and radio channels emerged. This naturally led to the amendment of the respective article of the Constitution, and the monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting was lifted. Today, there are 24 national, 16 regional and 215 local television stations – most of them have web editions, too.

After breakfast, we headed to the Golden Horn. This estuary is spanned by four bridges: the Haliç Bridge, the Eski Galata Bridge, the Atatürk Bridge, and the Galata Bridge.

We crossed the Galata Bridge and left the European side of Istanbul (Beyoğlu) behind. Then, we walked to Galata, which is located at the northern shore of the Golden Horn. This district is famous for its remnants of the medieval Genoese citadel of Galata. The greater part of this citadel’s walls were destroyed in the 19th century, and only some walls were spared by urbanization.

The Galata Tower is a stone structure that magnificently rises above the skyline of the Golden Horn since the mid-14th century. This 219 foot tall structure served as a fire lookout tower until the mid-20th century. Today, it holds a restaurant, a nightclub, and a panorama balcony on its upper floors. We paid 10 Turkish Liras to enter the tower (that's around 7 US dollars).

(The Galata Tower)


Hagia Sophia, an Orthodox patriarchal church in the Byzantine Empire converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Turks’ administration, was our next stop. Today, this beautiful architectural ensemble is a museum.

The east side of Hagia Sophia was very important for both Christians and Muslims. Christian churches normally face east, while Muslims pray, facing Mecca (or east of Istanbul). This is why the most impressive sights are assembled in the eastern nave of Hagia Sophia.
Most of this basilica’s interior is covered with marble and granite. The tall columns look massive, and weigh around 70 tons! The walls, decorated with gold mosaics and polychrome marbles, make the structure look bright and sunlit. In fact, light in Hagia Sophia reflects everywhere; this gives the effect of dome hovering above the nave.

After this awesome tour, we stopped at one of the nearby restaurants for lunch. Mediterranean shawarmas are delicious. I also had sherbet, a traditional Turkish drink made out of rose hips, cherries, and roses – it's my favorite now!

On our way back, we stopped by one of the internet cafes. Feeling homesick, I was tempted to skype my best friend back in the U.S. Apparently, they are very popular here, equipped with the latest versions of hardware and software. I don't understand the Turkish computer system. So, I had to ask the nearest attendant how to convert the programs to English. While he was helping me, he informed me that the number of internet users in Turkey has increased to 16 million recently. Internet usage here may not be as high as it is in the U.S. or other European countries, but it is somewhat steady.

In the internet cafe, a group of highschoolers caught my eye. Crowded around one of the computers, they were cheering and clapping their hands. When I came closer, I realized that they were watching a football match. Football is the national sport of Turkey. You probably remember that in the 2002 World Cup Finals, the Turkish national team finished in third place. In 2008, their team reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Euro 2008 competition. Today, the national team is considered to be very successful and has a lot of fans among the Turkish people. Football is clearly one of the most popular and favorite sports here. Typically, many children grow up playing it.

I was planning on resting up for my trip to Tehran, but Adem talked me into going out with him and his friends. Istanbul is beautiful at night!

(The Bosphorus Bridge)

(Istiklal Avenue at night)

It is also famous for its nightlife. We ended up going to Sortie, a nightclub on İstiklal Avenue. It was a very interesting experience. Turkish nightclubs, like most other European nightclubs, play a lot of techno. I made a short video, the quality isn't great, but it will give an insight. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 7: Istanbul

Today began my adventures in Istanbul! I flew into Atatürk International Airport early this morning and checked in at the Golden Horn Hotel. It's not a very attractive place but it has the best rooftop view in the city, which turned out to be awesome for pictures.

I was feeling a little lonely after such an awesome day with the UNC group yesterday, but I knew I would be meeting with Adem in Istanbul. He was an exchange student at Carolina during the fall 2009, and we took Electronic Journalism together. Adem is a senior journalism major at Koc University, and he lives in Istanbul. He offered to be my guide and show me more of this wonderful city!

There are tons of mosques, churches, palaces, synagogues, and castles in Istanbul. I visited the far end of the Golden Horn or Halic, which is translated as the bay of Istanbul. It is located on Bosphorus strait and separates the old part of Istanbul from the new one. It is next to the Eyup neighborhood and Eyup Sultan Mosque, one of the most famous monuments in Istanbul. The Eyup Sultan Mosque has drawn many Muslim pilgrims here. On the cliffs above the mosque is the teahouse of Pierre Loti, which has the best view of the Golden Horn (which is also the name of a nearby estuary, not just the hotel I am staying in!)

After much picture taking, I was starving. So Adem and I went to the Hamdi Et Lokantasi. I love this picture of us! The kebobs at Hamdi were amazing. The restaurant was right across from the Sultanahmet Mosque, which I had to check out. The Sultanahmet Mosque was built in the beginning of the 17th century by Ahmed I. It is also called the Blue Mosque because of the interior decorated with blue Iznik tiles. It has a madrasa-mausoleum complex, a prayer hall under a large dome, and an open courtyard. In mausoleum, there are the tombs of the Sultan Ahmet, his wife, and his three sons. This mosque has several gates and is surrounded by six minarets with balconies in them. The prayer-callers used to go there five times a day to announce calls for prayers. It was beautiful.

I asked Adem where else I should go. He recommended that I take the Istanbul Metro to the Istanbul Modern Art Museum since I love photography. There is a new exhibit there called "Way," in which Murat Germen has taken pictures of how we travel, by air, sea, and land. It was truly unbelievable. I spent most of the day there just looking at the photography. I had never heard of the artist, but his work was outstanding. It is really eye-opening to see art in other cultures. Germen's work gave me some ideas for taking pictures of transportation, so after I left Istanbul Modern, I went in search of the perfect setting. I got a few ocean shots and one of the street:

At the exhibit I met a local man named Feyyaz who was a fellow photographer, and I was excited to ask him lots of questions about Istanbul. I wanted to get a picture of him, but I was too far away from the hotel and couldn't go back for more film! I was so upset. We chatted a little about the exhibit, but I really wanted to know about the government structure of Istanbul (I have always privately wanted to be a big Washington DC hotshot, but I really just don't have it in me!). He told me about the government here in Istanbul. The mayor governs the city and the province of Istanbul. The president of the republic appoints the mayor. Istanbul is currently divided into 12 districts (kazas). The Turkish Minister of the Interior appoints the heads of the kazas. The government distributes funds to each of the districts for transportation, water, roads, and other services.

Feyyaz explained that Istanbul is an Islamic nation with a secular government. The mosque and state are almost completely separated. People that live here are encouraged to follow their religion with their hearts and not by government regulations. What a beautiful notion.

I had so much fun today learning about everything, and can't wait for a great day tomorrow!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Day 6: Jerusalem

Today was exhausting but I got to see a lot of really interesting things. I woke up early because I knew I had a very full day ahead of me. They are all on a Jewish pilgrimage to the holy land. It is interesting how Jerusalem is divided up. Like I explained yesterday, Jerusalem is everyone’s sacred land, so it has been divided into four quarters. I met my new friends in the Jewish quarter. There are two gates into the Jewish quarter, one by the Western Wall (Kotel) plaza called Dung Gate and the other is called Zion Gate. I actually made some cool friends who also go to UNC by running into students wearing UNC t-shirts at the Western Wall. I ended spending the remainder of the day with this group. The Western Wall, called Kotel or the Wailing Wall, is really cool to observe because so many people put little notes with prayers, wishes, and desires in the cracks of the walls.

Many people will come up to the wall and kiss it or put their hands on it as they say a prayer.

The wall is important to the Jewish community because it is the only remaining standing structure from the Second Temple after the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E. It built to be a means of protection around the temple. After my friends had finished their prayers, we went to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Cemetery. My friends told me that every person in Israel must serve in the IDF after graduating from high school. I was shocked to find out that women are required to do so as well. However, men have to serve for three years while women only have to serve for two. As a result, all adults know what it is like to serve in the military, and Israel always has a sufficient army. Because of the huge number in the military, the IDF has created a cemetery for all those who die while in service. Personally, I find cemeteries to be unnerving, but I managed to take a few good photos.

After we finished at the cemetery, we got on a bus to go out towards the Dead Sea and Masada. Although there is a cable car that will carry you to the top of the mountain, we all decided to hike and get our exercise. At the top of the mountain are the ruins of King Herod the Great’s palace. Some of the walls and paintings have been restored but it is absolutely beautiful to walk through and see a great view of the Dead Sea from high up on the mountain. After photographing as much as I could, we began our hike back down the mountain to the Dead Sea. This sea is located between Israel and Jordan. It is called “dead” because it is so salty that it cannot support any life. The salt will keep you afloat if swimming in it. We waded out into the water to experience this floating effect. It was cool to almost sit on top of the water. After playing in the water for a little bit, we started to cover ourselves in the mud of the Dead Sea because it is supposed to be great for your skin. Kind of like going to a spa!

After sitting out in the sun for a few minutes, we got back in the water to try and rinse off. Along the shore there are several showers to wash the mud and salt off. I went over to one and pulled the handle down but the water smelled horrible and burned a little. I found out soon after that the showers are sulfur showers to help get the caked mud and salt off of your body. Once all my friends and I were all clean, we got back on our bus and headed back towards the city. I am exhausted and have had a full day! I can’t wait to see what Istanbul has in store for me tomorrow!!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 5: Jerusalem

After a good night's rest, I woke up early the next morning to catch the Turgoman Garage bus to Taba, the location of the southern border crossing between Egypt and Israel, via the East Delta Travel company. Known to be unreliable, the bus broke down twice, delaying the arrival of my destination. Finally we arrived at the Taba Bus Station. At the border, I was required to buy an exit stamp. From there, I took the Jerusalem bus, number 444, which runs alongside the Dead Sea.

After arriving in Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, I caught a bus to the Caesar Hotel, via the Egged Bus Cooperative, the second largest bus company in the world.

It handles most of the local and intercity bus service throughout the city. Buses, taxicabs, and private cars are the only transportation options in Jerusalem. Although, the Jerusalem Light Rail, a rail-based transit system, is currently under construction.

At the hotel, I brought my luggage to my room and had lunch there. I had falafel, hummus, pita bread, and a Turkish salad, all typical foods of Jerusalem. I learned that this multicultural city is home to European, Ethiopian, Medditeranean, and Middle Eastern foods.

After I ate, I went to visit the oldest part of the city, the Old City. This area is the heart of the Jerusalem in the realms of history and religion. Covering 220 acres, it is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. Having history that dates back over 3,000 years, the Old City still remains inhabited and alive.

Next, I visited the the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founded in 1925. It has been ranked among the top 100 schools in the world. I saw one of its major assets, the Jewish National & University Library, which contains over 5 million books. Jerusalem's several prestigious universities offer courses in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

The night soon came and I headed back to my hotel to await the next day in the city of Jerusalem.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 4: Cairo

All that tourism yesterday really wore me out! Regardless, I woke up ready to see more of this fascinating ancient area. The first thing on my agenda for today was to find out about the local government. A good friend of mine from college works at the U.S. Embassy here on Lazoughli Street and he lined up an awesome tour for me with the governor of Cairo, Dr. Abdul Azim Wazir, pictured below (at right).

Dr. Wazir and I walked around for a while and had a cup of tea in Khan El-Khalili, a six hundred year old bazaar!

First, the governor told me about politics in Cairo. He, along with the Popular Assembly, which is half elected and half appointed, rule the municipality, which has only had local autonomy since 1950. We also discussed his thoughts on the current and future state of the city. One problem he mentioned to me was that shanty towns are being constructed in the Mansheyat Nasser district, which are unsafe and bad for the city's image. Below is a picture to show you guys how decrepit and run-down they are.

To alleviate the problem, the governor plans to take legal action against these squatters. Another issue he mentioned was pollution. Cairo is home to over 20 million residents and is growing rapidly. There are over 2 million cars on the streets, many of which do not pass modern emissions standards, so air pollution is at an all-time high. The sewer system is deteriorating as well, leading to water pollution. Dr. Wazir said projects are currently being put in place to make Cairo a safer place to live. After our chat I took a stroll by myself and I noticed once again just how bad some of the environmental issues that the governor mentioned in our conversation are. With smog that bad, the health issues in the area and the number of deaths each year from pollution that I mentioned yesterday is not surprising, although still very sad. Here is a picture I took of the smog over Cairo.

The second half of my day was spent exploring the nearby Great Pyramid and the two smaller pyramids at Giza, the only Ancient Wonder of the World still in existence today. I have taken many pictures in my time as a photojournalist, but nothing compares to seeing the pyramids in person. The Great Pyramid was built over four thousand years ago as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu and took over twenty years to build. My tour guide was very knowledgeable and gave lots of interesting facts about the pyramid. It was the tallest man-made structure for 3,800 years until 1311 A.D. when the Lincoln Cathedral in England was built, and it is estimated to weigh somewhere around 6 million tons! There is no longer much treasure in the pyramids due to looters and robbers, but historians guess there must have been an incredible amount of gold and valuable goods buried along with the royalty buried there. Enjoy the picture of the Great Pyramid, I'm gonna rest up for my journey tomorrow to Israel!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 3: Cairo

So this morning’s flight was way too early but it so nice how Royal Air Maroc offered direct flights from Casablanca’s CMN to CAI, after all it was already 5 and a half hours. Well I finally made it and although I was exhausted I couldn’t wait to hit the city! I mean it has so much to offer being the largest city in Africa, I just couldn’t decide what to do first. Stepping out of the airport I immediately felt the rush of the desert like heat and was thankful I brought sunscreen, but was ready to explore. Prior to my trip I booked a room at a local inn. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this lovely "antique" hotel was in the middle of Coptic Cairo. This means it is in one of the oldest areas in Cairo, the original site of the Roman-built Babylon. There is no air conditioning in the middle of the summer. Call me spoiled, but I’d like to see the city and not die of dehydration. Luckily, my parents wired me some money to the Egyptian National Bank and I got to book a room at the Nile Hilton, Cairo’s first modern hotel. Anyways, after dropping off my bags I took to the streets, just me and my camera

Cairo International Airport

Egyptian National Bank:

Nile Hilton:

First stop: Sharia Tahrir Street! After passing the Arab League building, I headed straight for Midan Tahrir, the Liberation Square. This used to be the center of Cairo, but now it is just a crowded area. The amount of traffic was insane! I realized that this traffic is a major factor in the smog above the city, causing tens of thousands of deaths a year due to air pollution. Heading east, I went to the Midan Falaki Square where there is a local food market. Like other markets in Egypt, it was outdoors and run by families selling everything from bread, fruit, to cheese. My favorite treat was the mango flavored ice pop called Squizz. Then I went to the north side of the square where I got to relax and have a Stella, a local beer, and play a game of chess.

Liberation Square:

Midan Falaki Square:

Squizz ice pop:

Stella beer:

As the afternoon faded, I walked downtown and enjoyed the sunset along Talaat Harb Street where I passed the infamous Groppi’s tearoom and Cinema Mar Girgis, a movie palace built in the 1930s. Although I enjoyed the stroll, I was getting hungry again and definitely wanted to see what Cairo’s nightlife had to offer, so I went to Alfy, also known as Al Alfi Street. It kind of reminded me of Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street with all of its restaurants and bars. I couldn’t decide where to eat so I asked a young boy where I could find the best Cairo had to offer. He told me to go to Alfi Bey where I enjoyed delicious classic Middle Eastern dishes in a comfortable atmosphere. I thought the menus were hilarious with their purposefully misspelled items, which the waiter so sweetly translated for me. I highly recommend this place to tourists.

Groppi's Tearoom:

Cinema Mar Girgis:

Al Alfi:

I thought I’d be able to go out and explore some more, but that early flight really did me in. So I headed back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep, but am really anticipating tomorrow’s festivities. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to learn more about this amazing city! But so far it has been a fantastic experience!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day 2: Casablanca

Today was very exciting! Even though I went to sleep early last night, I still woke up feeling exhausted this morning, but I couldn't waste such a beautiful day!

A little boy I met who let me ride his scooter:

I took so many pictures today, filling up almost 2 memory cards. The sights in Casablanca are more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I took a mini-tour around the city to see some of the well-known sights. I saw the King Hassan II Mosque, Notre Dame de Lourdes, and the Mahkama du Pacha! I was walking down the street and overheard a man telling his children that the King Hassan II Mosque was the largest mosque in Casablanca. It looks like it could hold more people than our football stadium! At first I was surprised at its size, but then I realized that its size is necessary. Since Morocco is the the fourth most populous Arab country, Islam is one of the main religions. Sometimes, I forget how diverse the world is, because I do not know many people who practice the Islam faith back at home. Now I am surrounded by thousands of Muslims and my perspective is broadening. Although the Islam religion has the largest following, I heard that the Jewish community still exists in Morocco. Alas, they are diminishing in population. I guess a mix of religions just isn't too prevalent in some countries.

Here are some shots of the King Hassan II Mosque. The 2nd picture is of the inside.

I also went on a tour of an university in Morocco. If I lived in Morocco, I probably would have attended this college. Coming here makes me wish I had considered going to colleges overseas. The University Hassan II is extremely beautiful, but because I am biased Carolina is prettier. The University Hassan II is one of the top universities here in Morocco where educational standards are steadily improving. The people on campus are very proud and excited about how Morocco's literacy rates are drastically improving. A statistic that I was informed of during the tour was that literacy has improved by 30% between 1994 and 2007.

University Hassan II

I think my favorite sight of the day was the Notre Dame de Lourdes. The stained glass windows took my breath away. The sun filtering through them lit up the room with rainbow spectrum of colors.

The previous picture is an outside view of Notre Dame de Lourdes. It is huge. I thought this was a very ancient building, but the brochure I picked up said that it was constructed in 1956. Contrasting to the King Hassan II Mosque, this is a catholic church. At first, I was surprised to find this church in a predominantly Muslim city, but there are approximately 20,000 Catholics living in the country. This religious denomination has long been accepted in Morocco for long time. The Notre Dame de Lourdes Church is evidence of Roman Catholic presence in Casablanca.

Tomorrow, I head out to Cairo!