Saturday, May 23, 2015

Turkey Tour - Part 3: Istanbul

 Sunday, March 29
As the old song says, "It's Istanbul, not Constantinople"...and not Byzantium, or Byzantion, or Lygos, or any of the other unknown earlier names of this marvelous city, which has stood as a bridge between Asia and Europe for thousands of years. The earliest settlements unearthed under the streets of Istanbul date from 6700 B.C.!

The result of this ancient history is a city rich with art, architecture, and artifacts from the past...Egyptian obelisks, traces of Greek walls, Roman cisterns, Christian mosaics, and Muslim palaces and mosques.  Yet our first impression of Istanbul as we flew in over the Sea of Marmara was of a huge sprawling modern city, dense with apartments and office buildings spreading for miles across both sides of the Bosporus Strait.  The population of the city is well over 14 million people. (Mert, our tour guide, told us later that the actual number is closer to 19 million.)  But even from the air there were signs that we were about to enter an unfamiliar culture.  In place of our usual view of crosses atop churches and cathedrals were hundreds of minarets silhouetted against the sky.
Photo taken with permission from
Visiting Istanbul had been my dream for many years.  As a teacher of middle ages history, I had taught my middle school students about the fall of Rome, the rise of the Byzantine empire, with its shift of Christian power to Constantinople, and its eventual conquest by the Muslims in 1453.  The photos in our history textbook - rich golden mosaics of Byzantine emperors, elaborate Islamic artwork, huge domed buildings - all sparked my imagination and fueled my travel plans.  And finally we were here!

We had our e-visas, purchased easily online prior to our trip, in hand, and the friendly staff at Ataturk airport quickly moved us through the entry line.  We had arranged with our hotel to have a driver pick us up.  There were hundreds of drivers waving cardboard signs with arriving passengers' names, and we soon found ours was among them.  We were joined by four of our tour partners, four women from northern California, and we all chatted easily as our driver took us through the crowded modern city toward our hotel.  As we drove, we noticed a number of familiar names - an occasional McDonald's and Burger King - along the way.

Our driver skillfully navigated the narrow twisting streets of the "Old City," the primary destination for tourists to Istanbul, and we arrived at the Azade Hotel, a pretty little hotel overlooking the Bosporus.  The street just above the hotel was filled with restaurants, each with waiters standing in front calling to passers-by to come and view their offerings.  As we ate our seafood dinner, we had our first encounter with some of the millions of cats that make their home in Istanbul.  A darling little kitten quickly figured out that Rob was the most likely patron to give her a cuddle and some tidbits of fish.
The Azade Hotel
Our pretty hotel room
First meal in Istanbul
Joan at dinner
And Rob with his dinner guest!

Monday, March 30
Our tour group did not meet until the afternoon, so Rob and I had the morning to do some exploring on our own.  The breakfast room on the rooftop terrace of our hotel had a breakfast buffet including - along with more familiar offerings - cucumbers, olives, goat cheese, and a large block of real honeycomb dripping with golden honey.  This would become a common sight on our travels through the country...yum!

The daily breakfast honeycomb
The Blue Mosque behind us seen from our hotel rooftop terrace
And in the other direction, Hagia Sophia
Below our hotel was the Bosporus Strait
From the terrace, I was excited to discover that the Azade Hotel sits just a few blocks below the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, so as soon as we finished breakfast, we set out to see these beautiful buildings up close.
Our first good view of Hagia Sophia
I knew we would be exploring the interiors on our tour, so instead, we spent our time in a location not on the tour itinerary...the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground cistern built in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian.  The great chamber is an underwater lake below a forest of massive ancient columns stretching as far as we could see into the gloom.  We followed the long wooden walkways to the far corners of the cistern where there are a couple of special columns, famous for the two Medusa set upside down and one set on its side.  These were probably recycled from older columns and the meaning of the odd placement of the heads is still debated.  If you ever saw the old James Bond film, "From Russia With Love," then you have seen the Basilica Cistern.  One of the scenes in that movie was filmed here.  From Russia With Love
Inside the Basilica Cistern
Medusa Column 1
Medusa Column 2
The columns of the Basilica Cistern
Just outside of the Basilica Cistern stands a fragment of the Milion, or Million Stone.  It was erected in the 4th century and all distances from Constantinople were measured from this spot.
All roads lead to Constantinople!
For the rest of the morning, we wandered along the Hippodrome, the great rectangular park that lies by the side of the Blue Mosque.  This gave us our first (of many) encounters with the friendly, but persistent, merchants who approached us to either offer us a tour or to accompany them to their (take your pick) brother's, cousin's, uncle's carpet shop.  We declined the offers, but we did visit with some of the shopkeepers on the side streets and watched some of the women going about their daily business.
The Hippodrome - once a chariot race course for the Byzantine Empire

Shops along the Hippodrome
Turkish candies and pastries were on display in many shops.
We watched this woman weaving a Turkish carpet in a shop window.
Piles of Turkish Delight!
These women were preparing pastries for their restaurant.
Rob discovered this pomegranate juice stand in front of the Blue Mosque.
The pomegranate are squeezed with a strong press.  This quickly became Rob's favorite treat!
We were disappointed to learn that the Archaeological Museum was closed on Monday, but we discovered a lovely park next to it.  Gulhane Park was originally the outer garden of the Topkapi Palace.  From the Alay Pavilion, sultans could sit in comfort and watch the ceremonies and goings-on in the gardens.  The tulips were in full bloom and we were surprised to learn that tulips originated here, not in the Netherlands!
Fountain on the grounds of Gulhane Park
Tulips and daffodils outside the Archaeological Museum
Joan in Gulhane Park
Rob in Gulhane Park
The Alay Pavilion where sultans once sat
After our morning walk, we enjoyed a light lunch of a meza (appetizer) sampler plate then returned to our hotel to meet our tour guide and fellow travelers.
The food in Turkey was fresh and delicious.
Rob had no trouble finding good vegetarian options.
Tour travel partners are always "pot luck," but we hit the jackpot on this tour with 24 interesting, friendly, curious travelers...and not a single grump in the bunch!  Our tour guide, Mert Taner, quickly earned his reputation as a walking encyclopedia on all aspects of Turkey.  We have learned to expect that of a Rick Steves guide, but Mert was also charming and funny.  He has a unique personal history that made him especially knowledgeable.  His mother is Jewish, his father is Muslim, and his M.A. degree is in the history of early Christianity!  What a perfect guide to help us understand the complex history of this region!
Our tour group sets out on its first adventure.  Our guide, Mert, was fabulous!

Rob tests his tour earbuds.
Mert handed us each a little radio set and earbuds, which made it easy to hear his explanations while wandering around looking at the sights. Our first stop of the tour was the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and their harems.  It sits on a promontory just behind the Hagia Sophia with beautiful views of the Bosporus Strait below.  Just outside the walls of the palace is one of several beautiful public water fountains erected for the population by the Ottoman sultans of the city.
Public Water Fountain outside the walls of Topkapi Palace
The back side of Hagia Sophia is also right outside the walls of the palace.
The palace grounds are filled with large buildings built around several open grassy courtyards, each with a different purpose.  We walked through three of these and then into the rooms of the palace.
The grand entrance into Topkapi Palace
The first courtyard of Topkapi Palace
Tulips and Hyacinths in the Tokapi gardens
An inner courtyard of the palace
An Ottoman imitation of a European palace
A palace pavilion
Inside the palace rooms, every possible space of the walls was elaborately decorated with arabesques, floral designs, and Arabic calligraphy, often in gold.  It was almost overwhelming as the eye is drawn from place to place trying to take it all in.  We ended in the chambers of the harem where we learned about the lives of the women and the eunuchs who guarded them.  The mother of the sultan had great power in choosing the favored few who became the consorts of the sultan and lived in their own nicer apartments in buildings overlooking the crowded rooms of the harem.

Even the fireplaces were elaborately decorated!
A divan for members of the harem

The Sultan's throne room

We learned so much history that is was hard to retain it all, but one story remained in my memory due to its gruesome nature.  One of the sultans, Mehmed II, decided the best way to ensure his reign was to have all of his brothers killed.  This began a pattern of fratricide.  This eliminated the problem of rivals for the throne...but it also meant that it wasn't always the most capable brother who ruled.  However, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful empire in the world for centuries, having conquered the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire.

After our tour, we stopped in the Palace CafĂ© and enjoyed tea on the patio looking across the Bosporus at the Asian side of Istanbul, then continued with a walk around the old city. 

On the terrace of the Palace Cafe

Sogukcesme Street - famous for its 19th century homes.
We ended our walk back in the Hippodrome, the immense area in front of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque that had been a chariot racetrack in the Byzantine times. It still contains the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius built in 1450 B.C., the Roman Walled Column dating from the reign of Constantine , and  the Serpent Column, a portion of a bronze column that was made from the melted down weapons of defeated Persian soldiers. All of the columns begin well below the current street level, probably indicating the level of the original ground of the area.
Massive Hagia Sophia
And the graceful Blue Mosque
Mert and our group in front of another of the public water fountains.
The medallions in the ceiling of the fountain reflect the alliance between the
Ottoman Empire and the Prussian ruler.

The base of the Roman Walled Column

The Serpent Column

The base of the Obelisk of Theodosius
We ended the day with our first group dinner in a restaurant sitting above the ruins of the Palatium Magnum, the great palace from the Byzantine period. It has not been restored like the Undergound Cistern we saw this morning, but it was still impressive, with ancient brick walls under massive arches that had allowed it to continue standing even through the earthquakes that rattle this region. It was a fun evening, with a chance to get to know some of our new tour friends.
The ancient walls of the Palatium Magnum, the palace of the Byzantine Emperors.
Inside the ruins of the Palatium Magnum
Rob is delighted with another beautiful vegetarian offering.

Tuesday, March 31
Mert posted our daily itinerary in our hotel lobby.
We woke to dark cloudy skies, but they didn't stop us from a full day of adventures. Mert led us via a shortcut from our hotel through a tunnel to the Blue Mosque. Our early start meant we were the first people to arrive, and it was nice to see that beautiful place in peace. We had an orientation in the courtyard and learned about the six minarets, which were a happy mistake. Most mosques have only two but the architect misunderstood the direction to build a tall minaret and built six. Naturally, when the great mosque in Mecca was built, it had to add a seventh in order to be grander than the Blue Mosque.
A model of the Blue Mosque in the inner courtyard

The ablution fountains where the faithful wash before entering the mosque
The inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is “new,” having been built in the 17th century. We women all covered our heads and we all took off our shoes (carrying them in plastic bags), then we entered the mosque. 
We respectfully covered our heads before entering the Blue Mosque
Plastic bags were provided for us to carry our shoes.

Our group gathers in the Blue Mosque

The immense center of the mosque.  The men pray in this area
while women pray in a room on an upper balcony above this room.
The mosque contains a huge open space, with gorgeous stained glass windows that were made in Murano, Italy which Rob and I had visited in June. The walls were highly decorated with tiles of floral designs.  Many of the designs were in blue shades, giving the Blue Mosque its well-known name.  In fact, the name turquoise derives from the Turks' use of the color blue!  Calligraphy filled other spaces. The dome is huge and supported by four "elephant leg" pillars, enormous columns. Mert said that it is believed that standing under the dome will be the safest place in Istanbul in an earthquake.

Calligraphy becomes a work of art in Islam
Murano glass windows

Rob stands next to one of the four immense elephant pillars.
Mert gathered us all in an alcove where we sat while he gave us his Islam 101 lecture. Much of it, such as the Five Pillars of Islam, was familiar to me because of teaching seventh grade history, but I learned much more. (I rather regret not still being a history teacher, as I could have made my classroom so much more interesting with all I have learned and seen here.)  Mert's lesson was fascinating.  There is so much fear in the western world about Islam due to the terrible acts of the terrorists, but we saw a very different Islam here in Turkey.  Mert believes that Islam will, within a short time, go through its own reformation and enlightenment. 
Our teacher, Mert, gives his "Islam 101" lecture

We were eager students.
Turkey seems to have already succeeded at this. The country is proud of its secular stand toward religion. Their constitution demands a separation of church and state. We saw a variety of women in the city throughout the day…from those dressed in completely modern styles all the way to women in burkas, completely shrouded in black from head to toe, including a gauze veil over their eyes. I asked Mert about it, and he said the burka is illegal in Turkey…for citizens. But because of their tolerance for other beliefs, they do not forbid visitors from wearing whatever they choose. He also mentioned that Turkey hopes to stand as a model for tolerance in the Muslim world and that they worry about the rising tide of fundamentalism.
Women in modern clothing
Women in scarves
The rare sight of women in burkas
We walked across the square to the massive and ancient Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom. It was built as a Byzantine Christian Church in the 4th century, so it contains some beautiful old mosaics that were preserved in the upper galleries. The Ottomans converted it to a mosque in the 15th century, so there were some interesting tweaks made to the building - the addition of calligraphy and Islamic arts, and the altar begin slightly moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.  The building itself is immense.  If I remember correctly, it was the largest building in the world until the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome almost 1,000 years later!
Our group walks from the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia
These flying buttresses pre-date the famous ones at Notre Dame
Our goup gazes up at the ancient mosaics in the entry hall of Hagia Sophia
Ceiling in the Hagia Sophia entry
Mosaics in the entry hall
The vast interior of Hagia Sophia
Beautiful columns of Hagia Sophia
The Christian era pulpit
When Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque,
he original Christian altar was moved slightly off center so that it now faces Mecca
Ataturk was horrified by the state of the building in the early 20th century. He had it restored and maintained as a museum, so visitors can now see both of the great ages of the building - Christian and Muslim. Rob and I walked up the big stone circling ramp to the upper galleries to view the Christian mosaics, then we exited the building into the pouring rain. 
Christian mosaics sit between Muslim medallions under the great dome of Hagia Sophia.
The Christian mosaics were once plastered over when Hagia Sophia was converted
to a mosque.  They have been restored.
Mosaic in the upper level of Hagia Sophia
Mosaic in the upper level of Hagia Sophia
Rick Steves jokes that this infant looks like "Chucky Jesus"
Mosaic in the upper level of Hagia Sophia
After a little free time, we rejoined the group at the appointed meeting spot and got on our bus to head across the Galata Bridge which cross the Golden Horn to the “new” city of Istanbul.  

Like many cities in Europe, Istanbul has a long pedestrian street, Istiklal Avenue.  I love these walking streets, lined with shops, cafes, and street entertainers.   Rob and I browsed the shops where I found another beautiful scarf, then we returned to meet our group at the Pera Palace Hotel, which was built in 1892 to house the travelers on the Orient Express.  It had been visited by many dignitaries over the years, including Agatha Christie.  who wrote "Murder on the Orient Express" in this hotel. 
Roasting chestnuts for sale on Istiklal Street
The modern shops of "new" Istanbul
Even this area had streets filled with open air markets.
Fresh fish are easy to find here, as Istanbul sits by the sea.
Local women do their shopping on a side street.

The grand Pera Palace Hotel
Our next stop was the tiny but stunning Chora Church tucked away in an old neighborhood outside of the city walls.  The church building itself, built in 1077, is under renovation, but we got a tour of the first hallway which is devoted to mosaics of the life of Mary. as well as a second room that was covered with frescoes, rather than mosaics. 
We walk toward the Chora Church under its protective cover.
The Chora Church sits in an historic old neighborhood of Istanbul.
We learned that. although the story of Mary is quite short in the Bible, it is described in much more detail in the apocryphal gospel of Jacob and in the Qu'ran.  In fact, the Mary mosaics in the Hagia Sophia had not been plastered over by the Muslims because she is also important in their religion.  Mert related the stories told in each of the mosaics as we craned our necks upward. My little photos don't do justice to this gorgeous little church, but here are some of the many highlights.

In the room of frescoes

There was a little bazaar outside of the church.  Rob and our tour mate Dave enjoyed finding some warm woolen hats on this overcast and chilly day!
Rob gets in the Istanbul spirit!

The final stop of the day was another of my "bucket list" destinations - the famous and centuries old Grand Bazaar.  In my imagination, I had always pictured a huge square filled with outdoor stalls, so I was surprised when we entered through one of the 24 entrance gates and found ourselves in the main "highway" of a huge covered bazaar, a street that stretched as far as the eye could see and lined with literally thousands of stalls and shops selling everything from gold jewelry to designer handbags and shoes to ceramics to foods to tourist trinkets.  Dozens of other lanes equally filled with colorful items branched off from the main artery. Rob and I bought a ceramic vase for our pottery collection from our travels... but I was very disappointed when the shopkeeper would not barter with me. I had looked forward to bartering as one of the thrills of the Bazaar, but Mert says the old ways are disappearing as Turkey becomes more modern. There ARE still places where you can barter, but some of the vendors now just sell with a fixed price. Although the bazaar building itself was awesome and ancient, I was surprised by the modern wares being sold everywhere.

Entrance #1 of 24 into the Grand Bazaar
The main artery of the Grand Bazaar
One of the many hallways in the maze of Grand Bazaar shops
One of the many glittering displays of gold
Handbags, scarves, ceramics...every imaginable item you could imagine was on sale here.
Tea services were common here.
Colorful light fixtures
Tourist ceramincs
Another hallway of the Grand Bazaar
Scarves and shawls were on sale everywhere.  Beautiful and inexpensive!
These are the Evil Eye pendants we saw all over Turkey.  (Our bus driver even had a big one hanging in the bus.)
In Turkey, it is known as the Nazar Boncugu and is meant to protect you
from evil thoughts, such as jealousy, that might be directed your way.
Rob and I found our way out of the maze and walked back to our hotel via the tram tracks that we knew led back to the Hippodrome. Along the way, Rob enjoyed petting more of the hundreds of cats that prowl the city.  We were surprised by the number of well-fed and pretty cats we saw everywhere. We learned that Mohammed had loved cats, as did Rumi, the Sufi mystic.  Because of this lucky heritage, the cats of the city are cared for by the people who set out food and water.  There were also lots of stray dogs, many of whom had tags in their ears to indicate that they had been spayed or neutered and had their shots.  A very enlightened approach to animal care!
The cats of Istanbul are well cared for by the local populations.
Rob pets one of the cats in the Istanbul streets.
Some of the many tagged dogs we saw playing in Istanbul. 
Rob discovered this cat inside Hagia Sophia!  They truly are everwhere!
This cat is napping outside of the Chora Church
Cats seen along our walk home from the Grand Bazaar
Cats lounging on the window sills of Istanbul buildings

Wednesday, April 1
Today, we woke to sunny skies and loaded up the bus for our departure from Istanbul.  Our bus driver, Nihat, drove us along the massive medieval walls of the city for one more Istanbul stop, the Spice Market.  I liked this even better than the Grand Bazaar. Shop after shop filled with bins piled with colorful, fragrant piles of ground spices, candies, nuts, peppers. Heaven!  We bought some spices, some teas, and some real Turkish Delight (several flavors). Unlike the little jelly squares that we find in the U.S., Turkish Delight is formed into bars and you cut it into the little squares when you are ready to eat it. All of our purchases were vacuum packed for us so we could take them through customs.
Out tour group loads up the bus to depart from Istanbul
The city walls of Istanbul
The Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent sits above the Spice Bazaar
Entrance to the Spice Market
Some of the piles of spices in the Spice Market
The spice market was filled with teas, candies, soaps, and many other items,
as well as spices.
Rob makes our purchases.
Dried fruits in the Spice Market
Tea sets
Natural sponges hang above piles of Turkish Delight
We walked across the parking lot to our waiting boat for a leisurely cruise of the Bosporus, the narrow strip of water that separates Europe from Asia. We rode along the European bank of the strait first, with Meet on the loudspeaker describing all the sights.  Finally, about 10 miles from where the Bosporus meets the Black Sea, we turned back and glided along the Asian side of the strait.
Some of the hundreds of ferry boats that take commuters between
the European and Asian shores of Istanbul
The Galata Tower sits about new Istanbul
The crowded hills of European Istanbul
One of the beautiful buildings along the shore
Along the shores of the Bosporus
The bridge connects West with East - a bridge from Europe to Asia
This yacht was used by Ataturk
The Turkish flag high on a hill above the Bosporus
Rumelihisari is a fortress alongside the Bosporus Strait.
It was built by Sultan Mehmed II in the 1400s during his seige of Constantinople.
He eventually succeeded in conquering the city and stating the Ottoman Empire.
A small palace on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait.
When we disembarked, Rob and I stepped onto Asian soil for the very first time.  Mert stood on the embankment interviewing each of us on how it felt.  It felt exciting!  This is continent number five for us and I look forward to visiting all seven eventually! 
Allen tells Mert how it feels to arrive in Asia.
Our first photo on Asian soil.
Farewell to Istanbul!  This visit was much too short to see all that the city has to offer.  Rob and I look forward to returning again one day!