Destination: Istanbul, Turkey
Number of Days Spent: 4 days
Where we stayed: Hotel Atlantis - 40 euros including a great traditional Turkish breakfast & wifi (plus a very friendly staff & the little old breakfast lady was super sweet - you couldn't ask for a more convenient location in Sultanhamet)
Best restaurant: The hotel breakfast served as lunch as well, keeping us going for most of the day! Tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh olives, sheep's cheese, eggs, fruit, yogurt & fresh bread. It was all excellent! We also enjoyed the fish sandwich at the docks for 4 lira ($1.25)!
Best of: As they have for over 500 years, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque stare each other down as a testament to two of the greatest Empires in history - the Christian Byzantine era and the Muslim Ottoman era. The city also marks the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. No where else screams crossroads of the world quite like Istanbul.
Worst of: Rejection...we were rejected from the Syrian consulate when we applied for visas. Apparently they will not issue them to Americans any longer (unless the application comes to their Washington, DC location).
Most Memorable: Sipping on cay (tea) and puffing on a nargileh with all of the locals!
Useful Tip: If you are taking a bus out of town anywhere in the country aside from north, hop on a boat and cross to the Bus station on the Asian side. Nearly all buses pass this station an hour after leaving the main bus station. An hour of sitting on the bus and we were still looking at the Blue Mosque across the river.
Istanbul (Constantinople) is steeped in history. The city sprawls out from the Golden Horn, a natural harbor lying on the Bosphorus Strait which separates Europe from Asia. This location provided a strategic position for trade along the silk road and flourished over the years as a result. When the Roman Empire was divided into East and West, Istanbul became the capital of the West (Byzantine) Empire that lasted for over 1000 years until the Turks and the Ottoman Empire conquered the city giving rise to the Sultans in the mid 15th century. Today's Istanbul, while no longer the capital of an Empire, remains the cultural heart of modern Turkey. The end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. Out of the Christian realm and into Muslim territory. Churches are replaced with Mosques, mini-skirts for hinjabs, and one can feel the beginnings of the Middle East without officially leaving Europe...welcome to the crossroads of the world.
Emperor Justinian, a devout Christian, built the impressive Hagia Sophia, one of the most recognizable images of Istanbul. It's located in the heart of the old district of Sultanhamet. Built nearly a thousand years before its neighbor, the Blue Mosque, the cathedral represented the largest church in the world at the time. The interior domes and walls were all decorated in ornate mosaics, golden crosses and other precious relics. After the Ottoman takeover, the Sultans had the church converted to a Mosque. The massive, black medallions with arabic script are a 19th century addition. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey, the mosque was designated a museum as it remains today. All that remains today of the Christian history are a few of the mosaics, still quite impressive given the age and history, and the structure itself - really the highlight of the visit. It's worth a visit both during the day as well as all lit up at night.
Across a well manicured and attractive park from the Hagia Sophia lies the Blue Mosque. The conquering Sultans wanted to build a monument that rivaled and surpassed Hagia Sophia, even choosing a sight for their new masterpiece within gazing distance of the famed monument. While it is debatable on whether or not they succeeded there is no denying that the Blue Mosque is a sight to behold in its own right. The blue interior (hence the "nickname" Blue Mosque, the real name is after the Sultan who built it) is a dizzying spectacle of Islamic design.
Just outside the Blue Mosque lies the remains of ancient Rome's greatest spectator sport - The Hippodrome. Chariot races, much like Nascar and Formula 1 of today, were a huge draw. All that is left of the racetrack today are three unique obelisks. The most impressive of the three is strangely the oldest, an Egyptian obelisk with all the hieroglyphics still intact. While the site is just a quick stop between major sights, the real interesting thing is where the bases of the obelisks stand today in relation to the ground. All three are set in a "hole" nearly 15ft (5m) below the street. Here, you get a sense of just how many layers upon layers of culture, history, civilizations are here.
Speaking of layers, the Basilica Cistern, just across the street from the Hagia Sophia, is just one more example. Discovered only recently by locals living on the hill above, the massive cistern is from Roman times and stands as testament to how advanced the Romans were for their time. Legend has it that the citizens living on the hill were catching fish by lowering a bucket into their basement floor. Once the sight was excavated, it revealed a huge room with over 120 columns residing in a shallow pool. Today, the site is magically lit up and despite the crowds of tourists, provides a welcome calm to the chaotic seen above. in the far corner of the room sits two Medusa heads serving as a base of two columns.
Few places on Earth exude extravagance quite like Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for over three hundred years. The complex takes up the best chunk of land in Istanbul, overlooking the mouth of the Golden Horn as well as the Bosphorus Strait. To see everything in the complex takes a half a day, and one could spend the entire day here meandering around the grounds. The highlights of the main complex include an impressive collection of jeweled knifes and rings and a special room with some strange religious relics - including a strand of Mohammed's (PBUH) hair and a footprint by the same. Even more impressive, and with lots of "if only these walls could talk" moments is the Harem, or private quarters. It was here that the Eunuchs and Concubines resided along with the Sultan and his family. Eunuchs were male servants who had been "fixed" to put it bluntly while Concubines, were, well, you know. The concubines were always of non-muslim descent since it is against Islamic law for Muslim women to be enslaved, generally being taken from Eastern Europe and Greece. It wasn't all bad however for the concubines. If they were to have a son, he could potentially be the next Sultan and the mother would become one of the most respected women in the Empire. Since there were no "first born" rules, the seat was up for grabs and there were many competitors at times. One Sultan had 120 wives and over 130 children! While the concubines could "climb the ladder" sort of speak, the Eunuchs didn't have many chances to, but were still trusted the most by the Sultans...seeing as how they posed little threat.
A little bit of shopping was in order after viewing all of those historical sites! What better place than Istanbul's Grand Bazaar & Spice Bazaar! You can buy anything at these bazaars and the surrounding area, from clothes, tea cups, spices, belly dancing costumes & even Turkish viagara! Bargain very hard, the prices in this famous market are a bit outrageous compared to the rest of the region! In fact, if you intend on traveling further afield to places like Urfa (far south of Turkey) or other less visited large towns, save your Lira for there. All the same, it's a one stop shop for just about anything you could ever want.
Tired from shopping, a fish sandwich by the docks was the most fitting way to end the evening. These sandwiches are fried up and served off of boats on the Bosphorus and are a steal at 4 lira each. Aside from the sandwich, it was fun watching the "kitchen" boob up and down in the wake of the harbor traffic wondering how they stopped from chucking on our sandwiches!
A bit out of the way but still an interesting sight is Chora Church. One of the few churches that remained a church after the Ottoman conquest, Chora houses some great mosiacs and frescoes on it's walls and ceiling. We got a little lost trying to figure out the bus and winding streets around the church. Fortunately, a sweet old man came to our rescue and gave us a map of the neighborhood, pointed us in the right direction, and wished us a warm welcome to his city.
On our walk back from Chora we passed by the Roman aquaducts, some of the best preserved in the world. They also serve as a great fusion of past and present as a major highway winds through the arches.
After our long walk we rewarded ourselves with a bit of chai (tea - 1 lira) & nargile (Turkish water pipe - 10 lira) at the tea house located near the university! We settled in for several hours observing the scene, watching the locals consume copious amounts of tea and smoke apple flavored tobacco for hours on end! It was a fitting way to end our time in Istanbul, a city that has changed so much and yet, so little over the years.