Travel – Selfie Tourism in Turkey

2014-10-03 18:45

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On a trip to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Istanbul, Grethe Koen found herself surrounded by tourists engaging in one of this generation’s less attractive habits: the relentless snapping of selfies

I don’t know if it was always this bad, or maybe I just don’t travel enough, but on a three-day trip to Turkey this month, I experienced an existential crisis about the true narcissistic mess that tourism has become.

We were at the Hagia Sophia, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful pieces of ancient architecture in the world. It’s a cathedral originally built by Emperor Constantius.

As my brother always says, religion gave the world two things: wars and beautiful buildings.

While being pulled along with the throng of tourists trampling through the Hagia, I found myself dodging people as they abruptly stopped to take selfies.

In front of a cathedral in Topkapi Palace – two teenage girls pouting in front of a smartphone.

On the steps of a mosque – a woman spread out like a beached mermaid, fluffing her hair in preparation for another picture. In the old circumcision room – a guy grinning for his tablet.

I started wondering whether travelling has become more about taking as many photos with your face in them than actually learning about the place you’re at, taking it in and absorbing as much knowledge as you can.

It’s a kind of vanity tourism, where visiting famous sites is like collecting Pokemon cards for your deck. It’s not about any real interest in the site, but more about being able to say you’ve been there and have a photo with your face in it to prove it.

I’m not religious, but I understand the meaning of sacred spaces. Last year, Rihanna did an impromptu photoshoot in a mosque in Saudi Arabia.

She was wearing top-to-toe hijab couture, but could she really be surprised that she got kicked out? In some places, you just need to put the smartphone, and your ego, away, and actually respect where you are.

Istanbul is one of those places. Here, you can see one of the rarest things – Christian and Muslim iconography side by side in the same buildings.

Jewel-encrusted Ottomon armour, every inch carved, etched and engraved with the most detailed patterning imaginable; mosaic-laden terraces and patterned ceilings, spaces once occupied by sheiks and courtesans.

This is a place where history seeps out of the walls, a place full of information and learning. And yet, this is a place where smartphones are continuously popping in front of pouted mouths and smug grins.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting proof that you were somewhere important. Nothing wrong with a pic here and a pout there. But along the way, be sure to take in the place around you.

The tapestry you’ll build in your mind, the remembrance of the smells, the heat and the people, will one day mean much more, and feel far more sacred, than those Facebook “likes” ever could.

SEE THE SITES Istanbul’s bigfour


Right next to the Hagia Sophia is this palace built for Istanbul’s conqueror, Sultan Mehmet. Here, Ottoman sultans swanned through the gardens and lounged in glorious mosaic-laden gondolas. Topkapi also has rooms that contain fine examples of gold clocks, armour and Qur’ans written in intricate calligraphy.


With more than 3?000 stalls and 50 entrances, this is one of the largest covered markets in the world. And it’s not going to be endless repeats of the same cheap Made-in-China bric-a-brac. Here, you’ll find hand-painted ceramics, tapestries, embroidered shoes and, of course, Turkish delight confectionery, all for dirt cheap. Just remember to haggle!


The best way to see Istanbul is from the water – namely the Bosphorus Strait, which forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. Book a trip on a cruise boat and sip Turkish tea while you take in the unbelievable views of the likes of the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Rumeli Fortress. The tours are relatively inexpensive and extremely relaxing.


Turkey is famous for its street food, and for good reason. You can’t walk more than a kilometre without coming across a street vendor. Istanbul abounds with colourful carts carrying freshly baked pretzels, pastries, roasted walnuts, falafel, meatballs and the ultimate ba

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