Hitting the top tourist sites
09.20.2013 - 09.20.2013
We lose a few hours our first morning by checking out and changing hotels (further discussion under posting Turkey-hotels). That means we get a later start with our sight-seeing than we had hoped, and we have a lot to pack in one day: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome, and the Blue Mosque. In other words, the most popular tourist sites in Istanbul. We hit the ground running! Then again, make that standing…
We first have to pose for photos in front of the iconic landmark of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque. Our guide, Metin informs us that religious services are held in mosques on Fridays until mid-day, so we can't tour the Blue Mosque until the afternoon. That also means that the other bizillion tourists also in Istanbul will likely be crowding all of the OTHER historic sites, as well as jostling for a place in line at the Blue Mosque in the afternoon. Lesson learned: don't start a sight-seeing trip to Istanbul on a Friday.
Huge crowds are already milling around the Hagia Sophia across the plaza from the Blue Mosque. In light of the crowds, Metin wisely suggests that we start at the Basilica Cistern, only a block away. Today we are on foot exclusively, as everything we are to see today is located in the Sultanhamet neighborhood of Istanbul, also known as the "old city.".
A little background first:
The huge underground cistern was built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century to provide a reliable source of water for the Great Palace. It’s called the Basilica Cistern because the huge columns supporting its roof give it the appearance of a church or basilica. Its 336 ornate columns were removed from ancient pagan temples, carried to the site by the Romans, and reused as supports for the roof of the enormous cistern; Romans were some of the first recyclers of building materials. Full capacity is believed to be about 27 million gallons of water.
Who knew a cistern could be such a beautiful place?
It’s hard to believe, but as the city’s water supply became more sophisticated the cistern was abandoned and forgotten for several centuries. It was rediscovered in 1545 when local residents reported to a Byzantine scholar that they could retrieve water by lowering a bucket through a hole in their basement. Some people even caught fish that way. Carp are still present in its waters today.
We then walk only a block back to the Hagia Sophia, also called Ayasofya, meaning "church of divine wisdom."
Completed in 537 AD, this was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years, and is still renowned as an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture.
The massive domed roof is its hallmark.
Like most churches and cathedrals in Turkey, it was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. At that time, typical Islamic architectural features were added to the structure, such as minarets, mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), minber (pulpit), cordoned sections for women, as well as a loge for the Sultan. Some of the more famous mosaics are one at its entrance depicting Emperor Leo VI kneeling in front of Jesus and one at a side exit depicting Jesus flanked on one side by Emperor Constantine presenting the city of Constantinople, and on the other side by Emperor Justinian presenting the Hagia Sophia.
After the modern Turkish republic was established in the early 20th century, Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum and is now undergoing painstaking restoration to reveal early Christian frescos that were subsequently covered by Islamic motifs (thus the scaffolding that you see on the left).
It's strange to see Christian figures e.g. angels and the Virgin Mary, interspersed with Arabic writing and Islamic architectural features. Modern Turkey reflects a melding of Eastern and Western traditions and culture, so in a sense, this building provides an iconic introduction to the entire country.
Istanbul is located on a fault line and has experienced several major earthquakes in its past. The Hagia Sofia was damaged in some of these quakes, necessitating significant alterations to its structure over the ages. Metin tells us that in recent years all of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions have been evaluated and structurally reinforced to protect against earthquake damage. That explains the steel rods and beams that are seen in many of the historic buildings, including Hagia Sophia.
Apparently every tourist in Istanbul has decided to go to Hagia Sophia at the same time we are there. Consequently, it's very crowded inside and difficult to take many photographs. We stay a bit and then decide to head to Topkapi Palace.
On our way to the Palace we pass the beautiful fountain pictured below. By saying fountain, I don't mean a decorative pool with spewing jets of water, a la Disneyland. The historic fountains located throughout Istanbul were used as public water sources in earlier centuries. The buildings are often elaborate structures, usually with poetry or verses from the Koran inscribed above the water faucets. Sometimes the fountains incorporated refreshment stands that also sold other beverages. The one below, built in 1729 in Turkish Rococo style, is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Istanbul and sits just outside the gates to Topkapi Palace.
After passing through the outer walls surrounding the Topkapi Palace complex and the Palace's first courtyard, we arrive at the Gate of Salutations, and enter the Second Courtyard.
A little historical background on the Topkapi Palace, if you are interested....
The first palace was constructed on the site in 1478, and each sultan after the first has placed his mark on it, enlarging, redesigning, and modifying the palace to suit his taste. The actual palace complex is immense...actually a city palace that at its peak had a population of over 4,000 people, covering an area of 173 acres and incorporating open parks as well as countless structures. The photos below cannot begin to convey the enormity of the space.
Some of the more important spaces that can be toured include:
The Viziers Council Chambers
The Audience Chamber
Exhibition of Imperial Costumes
Exhibition of arms and armor
Exhibition of clocks
The Sultan's Privy Chamber
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in most of the museums contained within the palace grounds, so darn it, you just have to go to Istanbul yourself if you want to see the Spoonmaker's Diamond (86 carats, supposedly found in a rubbish heap) or the Topkapi Dagger (of movie fame), both of which are in the Treasury. Most of the photos that I take while at the Palace are of the incredibly beautiful Iznik tiles that adorn most of the walls. As a lover of ceramics and tile, I am simply blown away by the beauty of these tiles. (For more info. on Iznik tiles, read this on Wikipedia: Iznik ceramics ) Although the walls are a dizzying combination of patterns and colors that would make most modern day decorators cringe and run, it actually looks incredible and I find myself "ooohing" and "ahhhing" each time we walk in a new room. Enough with the descriptions. Here are the pictures....
By then we are famished, so Metin leads us to a well-known neighborhood restaurant where we can rest our weary legs while enjoying some lamb kebabs. Sated and refreshed, we head to the Hippodrome after lunch.
Want to see an ancient Hippodrome, a 100,000 seat stadium where the Romans held their chariot races?
Me too....and I say that even after visiting Istanbul's Hippodrome. Or rather, what remains of it.
Unfortunately, practically all that is left of the ancient structure is a series of monuments that occupied the center line of the Hippodrome, encircled by the surrounding race track. And some of those monuments were ransacked and pillaged by the Fourth Crusaders when they paid a visit to Istanbul in 1204. Nice guys those Crusaders were (not)...
Fortunately, they left the Egyptian Obelisk standing. This beauty was carved in 1500 BC and stood outside Luxor, Egypt before Constantine brought it to his city in the fourth century. Speculation is that the present obelisk is only one-third of its original height. Two other Hippodrome monuments are nearby: a Serpentine Column and another column called The Constantine Column, which the Fourth Crusaders plundered, removing the bronze reliefs that covered the surface of the column.
Sigh...we leave, feeling slightly ashamed of the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity.
The Blue Mosque
Metin warned us it would happen, and it has: EVERYONE - every single tourist in Istanbul - has descended on the Blue Mosque now that Friday services have concluded and it is open to tourists.
Usually lines are not a problem at Istanbul's tourist sites if you have a Museum Pass or are led by licensed guide, such as Metin, who already has your tickets. Both of these methods usually allow you to directly enter without queuing. But not at the Blue Mosque. We almost give up hope of entering, as we view a line that seems to stretch for an eternity. It will be at least 45 minutes before we get in. One of us, who prefers to remain unnamed, suggests that we cheat by having each of us pretend that we have gotten separated from a tour group, and while trying to catch up to them, break into the line near the door to the mosque. This person also knows he will have a hard time convincing me to go along with the plan.
What can I say? I'm a moral person. Really I am. I want to do the right thing, and I hate cheaters who break in line. Ok, Ok....I confess. There's also that nagging fear in the back of my mind: what if I'm caught or discovered? Will I get arrested and thrown in jail? Hey, I saw the movie "Midnight Express" and I don't wanna go there....
I stand resolute. Nope, not going to do it. Nuh-uh.
It all works out.
As we search for the end of the never-ending line spiraling through and around the mosque's inner courtyard, one of Metin's old friends who works at the Blue Mosque spies him. They greet each other, and then his friend quickly opens the barricade and motions for us to move into the line of tourists who are preparing to enter the Mosque. Feeling a little embarrassed by our good fortune, I quickly cover my head with the scarf that I carry with me, and place my shoes in the plastic bag that is provided. (Note for female travelers visiting mosques: carry your own scarf, otherwise you are required to wear the scarf the mosque loans you, which countless tourists before you have worn )
If I thought the tiles at Topkapi palace were beautiful, this is Iznik tile heaven. Truly. Over 20,000 tiles adorn practically every square inch of this structure completed in 1616. In fact, the gorgeous turquoise and blue tiles are responsible for the Blue Mosque's name. Now I understand why there were always dark vertical lines across all of the photographs that I had seen of the mosque's interior: huge chandeliers, formerly holding oil lanterns, hang close to the floor and are suspended by countless cables from the high ceiling. I do my best to take photos of the striking interior, but am thwarted by the dim light, jostling tourists, and the chandelier cables.
After exiting the mosque we meet up with Josef, our driver, for a long trek through Istanbul's Friday rush hour traffic. As a result of our change in hotels we are staying for one night only at the slightly less convenient Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, before transferring to the Four Seasons at Sultanhamet for the remainder of our stay. Although changing hotels is always a hassle, this gives us the opportunity to see a different part of Istanbul, including boat traffic on the Bosphorus Strait.
A few facts on the Bosphorus:
The Bosphorus, along with the Dardenelles, is part of the "Turkish Straits," one of the narrowest international navigable waterways in the world. The 17 nautical mile long Bosphorus is 1.85 miles wide at its widest point and 0.38 miles wide at its narrowest point. An estimated 55,000 ships travel through it each year. Pilots are required on ships transiting through the Bosphorus due to its narrowness, several sharp turns which limit visibility, strong currents, and heavy traffic.
From our hotel room we watch a dizzying array of ferries buzzing back and forth across across the strait which separates the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Add to that all of the commercial boat traffic which is navigating through the strait to travel between the Black Sea and the Aegean or Mediterranean Seas, and you have a LOT of boats. Simply fascinating to watch.
That evening we enjoy dinner outdoors under the stars at the hotel's most excellent restaurant, and watch the changing colors of the fantastic light show on the nearby Bosphorus Bridge.