Istanbul springs to festive life after Ramadan sunset

  • By Rick Steves Tribune/Media Services
  • Thursday, September 9, 2010 3:33pm
  • Life

This year, August marks the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslim people fast during daylight hours.

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to devote themselves to God and self-discipline. For me, observing Ramadan rituals in a Muslim country is one of the great travel experiences.

Istanbul is more than 90 percent Muslim. My most recent trip here happened to coincide with Ramadan. During this time, the Muslim faith seems even more vivid and engaging.

It’s a struggle just to walk down the street during prayer time, as people spill out of neighborhood mosques, their carpets unfurled on sidewalks.

For the month of Ramadan, practicing Muslims refrain from eating, smoking, having intercourse and drinking (even water) from sun up to sun down.

When Ramadan takes place in summer, as it does this year, fasting is more challenging because of the longer, hot days. Still, people take it seriously. Once, while sucking sweet apple tobacco from a water pipe, I offered my waiter a puff of my hookah. He put his hand over his heart and explained he’d love to, but he couldn’t until the sun went down.

Not every Muslim fasts during Ramadan. For instance, exemptions are granted to young children, pregnant women, the sick and the elderly. Tourists will find restaurants and tea shops open throughout the day during Ramadan.

The happy, multigenerational partying that follows the breaking of the fast at sunset every night is a sight that’s not to be missed. After hours of not eating, people are ready to chow down.

Long lines stretching down the street suddenly mark restaurants that have been empty all day. The city comes alive with shadow puppet theaters, public concerts and traditional folk dances.

During the evenings, I find myself drawn to the rollicking food fest around the Hippodrome, a parklike square (formerly a Roman chariot racetrack) in the center of the Old Town.

The Blue Mosque’s courtyard turns into a huge market with religious books, computer programs and even teen wear for sale. Young girls make head scarves fashionable.

Sticky treats shine under swinging lamps. Turkish coffee burbles in copper kettles buried deep in red coals. Hourglass-shaped tea glasses are the perfect fit for Turkish hands.

Sleep is an afterthought during this time. After going to bed late, everyone is awakened before dawn by drummers going from street to street, reminding people to get up and have a small bite to eat — or at least a glass of tea — before fasting resumes at sunrise.

Visiting the Blue Mosque is a must, even outside of Ramadan. Before entering, you must park your shoes at the door and women must cover their heads. If they don’t have a scarf, there are loaners at the door. Muslims also wash their hands and feet at a fountain before they enter a mosque.

Inside, countless beautiful tiles feature exquisite floral and geometric motifs. Rather than saints and prophets, geometrical designs and calligraphy are used as adornment because Muslims believe the portrayal of people in places of worship draws attention away from worshipping Allah as the one God.

Muslims pray five times a day. According to tradition, the imam, or prayer leader, would climb to the top of a minaret (like a church’s bell tower) to call the faithful to prayer.

These days, the prayer leader still performs the call to prayer live, but loudspeakers at the top of the minarets amplify it. When this happens, practicing Muslims drop into a mosque, turn toward Mecca, kneel face down and pray to God.

After a short service of praise, workday life resumes.

Wherever I travel, having just a grasp of the dominant local religion makes the people and traditions I encounter more meaningful and enjoyable.

Like Christmas is a great time to experience the energy of a Christian culture, Ramadan is a vibrant time to be among Muslims.

E-mail Rick Steves at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2010 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Talk to us

More in Life

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay walks into the Prohibition Grille along Hewitt Avenue in Everett Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012 while reportedly filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at the Everett restaurant. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
Even more films and TV shows filmed in Snohomish County

Readers point out projects previously missed in this series, from reality television to low-budget indie films.

Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

15-month-old Kantu attempts to climb a pumpkin at Stocker Farms in Snohomish on Sunday, September 20th, 2015. Stocker Farms offers a U-pick patch, farm animals and a corn maze.
Best pumpkin patch in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

The city of Mukilteo is having a naming contest for its new $75,000 RC Mowers R-52, a remote-operated robotic mower. (Submitted photo)
Mukilteo muncher: Name the $75,000 robot mower

The city is having a naming contest for its new sod-slaying, hedge-hogging, forest-clumping, Mr-mow-it-all.

Local musician Alex Johnston, whose newest album "Daylight Fooldream" pairs with short film he made with help from his partner Mikaela Henderson, sits with his morning coffee on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Folktronica musician shoots 37-minute visual album on iPhone in Everett

Alex Johnston, 31, describes his music as ”if Coldplay and Bon Iver had a love child.”

Death of parent with child. Piece of paper with parents and children is torn in half.
Helping children cope with the hard realities of divorce

I’s important to set aside one’s feelings and find a way to make this challenging transition as comfortable for children as you can.

In Belgium, each type of beer has its own glass – whether wide, tall, or fluted – to show off its distinct qualities.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Bruges brews lift a weary traveler’s spirits

The Belgian city is a mecca for beer lovers from around the world.

Children’s author Barbara Herkert to lead Story Time at Edmonds Bookshop, Friday September 29th, 9:30-10:00 am!
Author to read her new kids book at Edmonds bookstore

Author Barbara Herkert will read “This Old Madrone Tree” Friday at Edmonds Bookshop.

Flowering knotweed Persicaria amplexicaulis firetail in the morning light.
Save for one infamous variety, fleece flowers are easy to fall in love with

This long-blooming, easy-to-grow perennial comes in many desirable varieties. But watch out: One is an invasive knotweed.

Can he get the fare difference refunded after he was downgraded?

American Airlines downgrades Thomas Sennett and his family to economy class on their flights from Boston to Phoenix. Why isn’t it refunding the fare difference?

Most Read