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Entries in Call To Prayer (1)


Sounds of Istanbul: Call To Prayer

This  is the second in a mini-series of posts covering sounds I recorded at various places in Turkey in the fall of 2011. Check out the previous post to hear my recordings of para-motorists in the coastal town of Ölüdeniz.

Toronto, the city I call home, is always boasting that it is the most multicultural city in the world. Just about every country and culture lays claim to it's little section of the city. For instance, I live in Greek Town... which is just north of Little India and to the west of Little Ethiopia. In fact, in 2006 the census found that just over half of the residents of Toronto were born outside of Canada. I've been immersed in this cultural mish-mash all of my adult life, and I find when I'm traveling in other parts of the world that I'm somewhat prepared for what I encounter.  Turkey was another story - my recent trip to Istanbul threw me for a bit of a cultural loop.

The city is amazing.  My wife and I navigated our way surprisingly easily through endlessly sprawling neighborhoods where everything seemed to be pulled out of distant history, from the cobblestone streets to buildings six and seven hundred years old.  In North America almost nothing is older then a few decades.  We tear things down as fast as we put new things up; it's impossible to appreciate any kind of history. But in Istanbul you can feel it.  

Wikipedia lists the city's population as just over 13 million but we were told many times by the locals that the population recently topped 15 million.  There were crowds everywhere we went: the streets seemed to be boiling over with the kinetic energy of all those people.  It felt like every new neighborhood, street and alleyway offered up a new source of adventure.  Overlooking all this activity were the hundreds of mosques. It seemed like there was one on every block.  And several times a day all these mosques suddenly pipe up with the Islamic call to prayer, broadcasting over the city from loud-speaker horns set high up on the minaret towers.  You can usually hear the call to prayer coming at you from multiple mosques in all directions.

The first call to prayer is early in the morning.  There were no easy sleep-ins for us vacationing tourists when the first call blared out before 6 a.m. 

In Toronto, I live a couple of blocks from a large mosque but there are no amplified calls to prayer in my neighborhood, so I had no previous experience of this practice other than in the movies.  I became interested in the variations of the calls; some were extremely monotonous, sounding to me like the vocalist was simply going through the motions.  

Downer Call To Prayer by azimuthaudio

While other mosques featured soaring renditions.  

High Call to Prayer by azimuthaudio

I found myself traveling around the city with my portable recorder always within reach so as to capture as many different versions of the call to prayer as possible.  The frustrating thing was that I was always missing the first few seconds of the calls because they would catch me off guard and I would rush to power up my Sony D50 as fast as possible.  As a result I have only the last three quarters of many, many of the calls from various places in the city.

We were leaving Istanbul the next day, so I decided I had to make it a priority to get a call from start to finish. I asked some locals if they could tell me exactly what time the calls happen and was directed to a website where you can type in where you are in the world and it will give you an exact schedule of when the calls should ring out.  The times would have been something like this:  5:51 a.m., 7:29 a.m.,12:09 p.m., 2:31 p.m., 4:49 p.m., and 6:22 p.m.  We didn't have much time to spend in town before heading to the airport, so I decided that the best plan would be to get up really early and get the very first call of the day. Another advantage, I figured, would be that it would be nice and quiet so early in the morning - no traffic or crowd noise to get in the way of my recording.

My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. and I headed out into the darkness of the empty early morning.  I made my way to the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known better as the Blue Mosque built in 1609. I hunkered down on a bench near one of the high minarets that surround the mosque, where the loudspeakers are mounted.  I started recording about 10 minutes before the posted time - there was no way I would miss the beginning of the call this time.  While I was waiting a stray dog trotted up and settled in for a lie-down against my feet. As long as he agreed to be quiet, this was okay with me. Then a man appeared and came over to where I was sitting. He tried to explain to me that the mosque did not open for many hours; he seemed very confused when I tried to explain that I was not waiting to enter the mosque but only to record the sound of it.  I guess he assumed I was a stranded tourist with no place to sleep but this bench, because he then kindly listed off some some hotel recommendations. During this whole exchange I just kept thinking the call to prayer was going to start and he'd be talking all over it. Finally he gave up on me and left me to wait in peace, which I did for what seemed like a long time.

View of the Blue Mosque while sitting waiting for the first call to prayer of the day.  

More and more time passed... but the call never rang out.  After about 40 minutes I finally gave up and got up to head back to my hotel, tired and frustrated.  To my surprise, the dog who had been at my feet this whole time got up and followed me.  As the two of us sauntered back through the city suddenly the all the mosques started belting out the early morning call to prayer.  At first I heard only faint distant mosques but in a minute all the ones nearby started up as well.  Despite my hours of preparation, there I was, scrambling again to get the recorder powered up and missing the beginning of the call.  Argh!!  

Defeated, I continued my walk back to the hotel, with my new canine friend alongside.  As we turned a corner onto a new street we came upon a whole pack of stray dogs scavenging in the garbage bins.  My buddy snapped into action and charged the pack of smaller dogs, chasing them away, barking the whole time.  Well, what do you know? I was still rolling and got the whole thing. It was not the sound of Istanbul I had set out to capture, but nevertheless, a unique snapshot of this surprising city. If you listen really closely, in the background of the dog barks there is a distant call to prayer.

So I never got an authentic start-to-finish recording of one of the calls to prayer. The calls are actually made up of repeated phrases so I can build full versions by repeating the phrases I did manage to record... but still I feel like I have some unfinished business in Istanbul... And next time I'll be sure to check that it's not the last day of daylight savings time causing all the clocks to change by an hour so I end up setting my alarm to go off at the wrong time!!


One extra little thing I really fell in love with in Istanbul - I saw these street signs all around the city:

At first I thought maybe there was some kind of national hatred of jazz musicians, but I did manage to figure this one out: "No honking of car horns in this area!"