Posted by: vlibrizzi | November 16, 2009

Istanbul: Days 1 and 2–Byzantine Istanbul

On Thursday, C. and I flew from CDG to Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. We met some friends there and had an amazing time visiting the city, but since there was so much to see (and so much to write about), I’ve decided to write two separate posts on our trip. So here’s a rundown of what we did on days 1 and 2 in the old part of town:


Day 1:  Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, and Cisterns



On Friday morning, we met two of our friends (and a baby) on the roofdeck of our great hotel (Hotel Sebnem for a nice breakfast overlooking the Bosphorous. The sun was shining and the temperature was perfect, so we enjoyed our freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and turkish baked goods for awhile before embarking on our day in Old Istanbul.






First, we walked to the Hagia Sofia, the former church, turned mosque, turned museum. As soon as we entered, we were completely dumbstruck—the building was enormous and so beautiful! For almost 1,000 years — from its construction until St Peter’s in the Vatican was built — this was the largest church and the largest dome in the world.  Unfortunately, the dome was partially under restoration, but the rest of the building—with its perfectly symmetrical marble walls, columns taken from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World), and mosaic ceilings—was truly a sight to behold. 




With our tour guide (a really informative guy that we found at the entrance of the museum), we walked around the main level of the building. Our guide pointed out the distinct Muslim and Christian influences in the building. Just the name of the building itself is an interesting example of the blending of cultures: Hagia Sofia are two Greek words that connote “wisdom,” but the Christians called the place Saint Sofia, and the Muslims had a completely separate name for it. 



DSC_0184For example, in the photo to the left, you can see a mosaic of Mary and Jesus on the ceiling above the former altar, as well as two huge Muslim coins (in gold writing on camel skin) with the names of two important prophets written in Arabic. Amazing! You can see these clear influences throughout the building—on the mosaic murals on the walls, on the angels and Arabic writing on the ceilings, in the stained glass windows, etc. I’m not sure there’s another place in the world that has such an interesting blend of the two religions. 





From a Christian perspective, the most beautiful elements of the Hagia Sofia were the mosiacs on the second level. These mosiacs from the 6th century were so bright and detailed, and took up entire walls of the second floor. 

Unfortunately, there are only a few remaining mosaics in the building (at one point all of the walls and ceilings were covered with them or with marble). But, being able to see the few mosaics that remain, and then trying to imagine what the building must have looked like 1500 years ago, is completely mind-boggling.




After our visit to the Hagia Sofia, we walked over to the Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Sultans. The grounds of the palace are expansive, and we didn’t have the time to visit every building in the palace…but I think we saw most of the highlights. 🙂

We saw relics (the palace claims to house Moses’ rod, Abraham’s bowl, and John the Baptist’s hand, to name a few items), beautiful jewels (I don’t think I’ve ever seen bigger diamonds or gemstones!), and sumptuous thrones.




But, more than seeing all of the Sultan’s former possessions, I most liked walking around the palace and admiring the many views of the Bosphorous below. From walking around the grounds, one could easily understand why the Sultan chose this spot on which to build his palace—the views are amazing!

You can see the three of us ladies on the trip standing on an altar overlooking the Bosphorous in the photo to the left. 





As the sun started to go down and we began to get chilly, we left the palace and walked to the famous underground cisterns from time that the Romans controlled Istanbul (almost 2000 years ago!). 

The emperor Justinian decided to build this underground water storage in order to meet the needs of the nearby palaces (an aqueduct ran into Istanbul from 19km away). Now, the cistern is a tourist attraction and the Turks really play up the eerie, dark, dank appeal of the place. Tourists can walk around the underground maze of columns while getting dripped on by rainwater from above.


The builders used old marble columns from all around the area (think of it as the first recycling effort!), so the cistern has no two columns exactly alike. Most are Corinthian columns, but they are all a hodgepodge of different sized and styled columns. Some even have interesting stands. Take the one in the photo to the left for example: Medusa’s head tilted on it’s side holding up a column. 

That night, after resting for a bit at our hotel, we headed out to the trendy neighborhood of Beyoglu for a bite to eat. The restaurant that we had wanted to go to was full for the night, but the friendly waiter (all Turkish people were so friendly and helpful to us) recommended another restaurant down the road that served different types of fish dishes (fish in Turkey is so fresh and yummy!). We shared some raki (a strong Turkish drink that is similar to pastis) while we listened to some lively locals in our restaurant sing along to traditional tunes played by an accordian player.

Day 2: Blue Mosque, Bazaars, and Boat Ride of the Bosphorous


We began our second day by visiting the famous Blue Mosque. We had wanted to visit this mosque on our first day, but as we were entering the mosque at the end of the day, the call to prayer began (singing male voices on loudspeakers that call Muslims throughout the city to prayer five times each day) and we couldn’t enter the mosque since it was official prayer time.

One side note about the call to prayer: we were woken up each morning of our trip at 5 a.m. by the first call to prayer. On the first night, C. and I both thought we were dreaming, but then at around noon on our first day, the second call began, and the two of us realized that, in fact, we weren’t dreaming at 5 a.m. at all—the loud singing voices throughout the city were real.

So, instead of visiting the Blue Mosque on our first day, we visited the mosque on our second day. It is huge (with six minarets), and very ornate. The interior is completely decorated in tiles that were all once a beautiful blue, but because of earthquake destruction, the tiles are now no longer the same brilliant blue color. But, there is one section with the original tiles, so if you use your imagination, you can begin to try to see what the interior of this place must have looked like hundreds of years ago.  And even with today’s design it’s still pretty magnificent!



After our visit to the mosque, we walked down to the water to visit the many indoor (and some outdoor) markets in Istanbul. We started by visiting the Grand Bazaar (filled with painted bowls, Turkish trinkets, and beautiful glass lamps). We loved the lamps (photo to the left) so much that we stopped in a store and bought one to bring back with us the the U.S. 

In addition to the Grand Bazaar, there’s a leather bazaar, a book bazaar, a spice bazaar, and many, many more. The Turks clearly love to shop!


So after a quick lunch at a not memorable restaurant in the main bazaar, we walked to the spice bazaar to try to find some exotic spices and to try the famous Turkish Delights. I bought some local saffron, and all of us bought a box of the gummy, sweet Turkish Delights. We chewed our Delights for the rest of the afternoon as we walked around the city.




In the later part of the afternoon, we all boarded a boat to take a tour of the Bosphorous at sunset. Our tour lasted 1.5 hours and afforded us great views of both the Asian and European sides of the city. 

When it got too cold to sit outside on the boat, we went inside and warmed ourselves up with sweet apple tea (a Turkish specialty that reminded me of hot apple cider) as we watched the sunset. 

For dinner on the second night we ventured to another part of town (Istanbul is absolutely huge!) and had dinner along the Bosphorous at a restaurant called Abracadabra. We sat on the top story of a building and ate Turkish food with an eccentric twist. We shared anchovy ceviche (November is anchovy season in Turkey so it is on all the menus), octopus soaked in red wine, hummus and falafel, and a wonderful dessert of baked coconut and honey with bananas on top. The restaurant was very fun and the food was wonderful. It was the best meal of our trip! 



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