Friday, May 17, 2013



Our plan of action for Monday was to visit the Topkapi Palace and the spice market. Being that the palace is the number one attraction in Istanbul, we decided to visit it first thing in the morning.

On our way to the palace we walked right passed the Blue Mosque and noticed that the lines were short. Thus we made a short detour to take a peek - specially since Elliot and I happened to be wearing long pants (required for entry).

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque (the real name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is an enormous building, flanked by six huge minarets (highly unusually for mosques). It was built in the early 1600‘s and is known as the Blue Mosque because of the extensive use of blue Iznik tile in the interior.

A sample of the Iznic tile 
Inside the mosque

The chandelier and the prayer area of the mosque

Huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the main dome. They are beautiful but the wires used to hang the chandeliers, to me, detracted from the overall affect. Regardless, it’s easy to see why this mosque is considered to be one of the great mosques of the classical period.

After our brief visit, we walked over to the opulent Topkapi Palace, a set of buildings composed of a primary residence, the state treasury, an audience chamber, a library, an imperial treasury and the more infamous harem.

Entrance to the Topkapi Palace

This was where Ottoman Empire sultans lived since the 15th  century. At one end of the palace were superb views of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Asian side of Istanbul. Even though there were a number of displays of furnishings and very glitzy royal jewelry, a dagger, a Koran and a huge diamond, overall, I felt that the displays lacked the ability to convey the feel of the lives that these people lived - and all the plotting and scheming that reportedly went on in the harem between the concubines and their children.

On of the rooms in the Harem

Within the confines of the Harem

The dormitory court of the concubines

A living room in the Harem

Meeting chamber 

Audience chamber where the sultan listened to requests from guests

The terrace

After our tour of the Palace we walked through the spice bazaar - it’s more of a bazaar for everyday locals and was fun. It’s smaller and more manageable than the Grand Bazaar and has more everyday types of items, including freshly ground Turkish coffee.

The spice bazaar
Apricots and figs filled with various nuts 
An herbal-organic shop

Spice shop

Meredith and Elliot stopping for a pose when crossing the Galata Bridge

A view of the Galata Tower 

A quaint neighborhood near our apartment

The following day, we headed for the Hagia Sofia, another good site to do early in the morning because of crowds. A massive 1600 year old building, it went from being a church to a mosque and today, because of Ataturk, is a museum. (We never realized until we visited Cordoba, Spain a few years ago and saw its stunning mosque/cathedral, just how many houses of worship have changed hands from one religion to another).

The main hallway in the Hagia Sofia

Looking inward to the main interior of the mosque

The main dome and chandeliers

The De√ęsis mosaic dating back to the mid-1200's

Completed in 360 A.D , it was a Christian cathedral until 1453. It is generally considered to be the very best architecture of the Byzantine era, particularly its massive dome. The interior is adorned with mosaics and huge marble pillars. Standing inside it, it has a cavernous, yet splendid feel.

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and the sultan ordered the church to be rebuilt/converted into a mosque. From then until 1931 it was a mosque, until Ataturk had it made into a museum.

Although it looks like a traditional mosque (unlike the one in Cordoba), there are some peculiar remnants left from its days as a church. Upstairs, for example, there are well preserved mosaics of Christian scenes. Walking through the mosque really gives one a sense for the history that has taken place within its confines.    

After our visit to the Hagia Sofia, we strolled through Gulhane Park and had tea just under the Topkapi Palace. The teapot was a typical Mid-Eastern style one with a small pot of strong tea sitting on top of a large teapot of hot water. You place a little of the strong tea in a cup and mix it with the hot water from the other teapot. While sipping our tea we enjoyed the splendid views of the harbor below.

Having tea and enjoying the view at Gulhane Park 

Afterwards, we walked to the nearby Archaeological Museum. What we had thought would take one or two hours took over three hours - and even that wasn’t doing it justice. The main museum has a large collection of sarcophagus, tombs, statues, coins, seals, decorations, parts of temples, an obelisk and lots more. On the second floor there is a treasure trove of artifacts from early civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt dating back thousands of years and progressing through the Bronze Ages and Iron Ages.

Some of the sarcophagus had detailed reliefs on them depicting scenes of historical events. What also caught my attention was that I had not been aware of the knowledge base and technical know-how of the people in the Bronze and Iron age. Five thousand years ago, people in this area were forging such things as bronze daggers, figurines, cooking utensils and more. Admittedly, my ancient history has some major gaps that need filling.

A sarcophagus from an Egyptian king around 500 B.C. 

The sarcophagus of Alexander the Great

Bronze daggers

Bronze candlestick from the 4th century B.C.

The bust of Greek poet Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos around 630 B.C.  

On our last full day in Istanbul, we ventured back to the Grand Bazaar for some carpet shopping. All you have to do is look into the direction of a storefront to gain a store-owner’s attention making it a little tricky if you want to first window shop.

Eventually, the four of us ended up at the same, dusty little shop sipping tea and having two gentlemen haul out carpet after carpet, until we each settled on a kilims (a thinner, woven type of carpet). After a little bargaining we settled on a price, shook hands and were the new proud owners of kilims.

We are shown stacks of carpets

Looking down one of the many corridors

Our new friends after sipping tea, finding what we liked and striking a bargain

Everybody's happy

The older area of the Grand Bazaar

You say you want a light? We have good prices for you.

In the evening we met Meredith and Elliot’s friend, Kate and her mom, Liz, at their hotel for drinks and mezes (the Turkish version of tapas). The hotel had a rooftop restaurant that afforded grand panoramic views of Istanbul - surely a great way to end our visit to this vibrant and multifaceted city.

Meredith, Kate and Elliot

On the day of our departure, Meredith and Elliot packed up early and left for the airport to fly to Izmir and onward to Cesme peninsula for a little beach time. Diane and I packed afterwards, had our last Efes beer a bit later and closed the door to Istanbul.

Our last sunset in Intanbul

Tuesday, May 14, 2013



Fishing off the Galata Bridge 

It was an hour by plane from Cappadocia to Istanbul. We took an airport shuttle to central Istanbul and then got a taxi (a metered one) from Taksim Square to our Airbnb apartment. What should have been a five minute cab ride took thirty minutes and the meter kept raising the fare. Diane began to yell at the taxi driver that he was just driving us around and around. He claimed he was taking us around a construction area and heavy traffic.

Although the meter displayed $40, after we got our bags out of the trunk, I handed him the equivalent of $10 in Liras and left him shouting at us as we melted into the crowd. Welcome to Istanbul!

After a short walk, as planned, we spotted Meredith and Elliot waiting in front of the Galata Towers. The tower is a tall, cylindrical structure with a cone on top and easy to spot from far away since it’s well over 200 feet high. What a great reunion it was to see them both in this unique and historic city.

We met the owner of our apartment in front of the building on a street full of electric supply stores. In the doorway of the building, a friendly Turkish fellow had a fruit and vegetable stand - that should make shopping for food a little easier, I thought.

The following day we made plans to visit the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and a few other sights. The walk across the Galata Bridge was colorful. Lots of people fishing, catching tiny fish that they seemed all too happy to catch.

At first glance, the Suleymaniye Mosque was very impressive with its large courtyard, four minarets (only sultans could build mosques with four minarets), lots of marble with an understated and delicate interior. Built for the Sultan Suleyman, the architect, Mimar Sinan, probably was considered to be one of the most talented of his time. He rose from the military ranks by constructing fortifications, roads, bridges, aqueducts and more and became the chief Ottoman architect. Today there are nearly fifty mosques just in Istanbul that were designed by Sinan.

Suleymaniye Mosque courtyard

Inside the Suleymaniye Mosque

The bazaar was colorful, busy and filled with the exotic aromas of spices as well as sweet smells from the colorful Turkish delights (candied sweets). With varied stall sizes, vendors were pitching everything from gold, silver and copper items to antiques and new electronics. There were carpet and fabric vendors galore. I’m reasonably sure one could have found anything of interest or need at the bazaar. It reminded us from our days in Iran, when on the weekend we would head out to the Tehran bazaar.

The Gand Bazaar

Spice vendors
Spices, nuts and sweets

An assortment of Turkish delights - figs filled with nuts 
Unfortunately, I started not to feel well, and after seeing the mosque and a little of the bazaar, I headed back to our apartment for a little R&R. Diane, Meredith and Elliot continued on, later coming home with some treasure troves.

On Sunday morning we took the tram across the Galata Bridge (crossing the Golden Horn) to take in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. This is where most of the tourist attractions are clustered. We headed to the Hippodrome. Although today it is no more than a elongated square, in the Byzantine days it was a place where horse racing occurred, a place where emperors would go watch race spectacles from special their boxes. Today all that is left from all that are two obelisks and a serpent column.

The two obelisks 
Next we walked to the underground Basilica Cistern. It’s an impressive, illuminated 6th century cistern not only because of its size but its architecture. Built by Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D. when Istanbul was known as Constantinople (Byzantine Era) to serve his palace. As you walk underground, you immediately notice the lit rows of huge marble columns. It’s quite a sight.

The lit columns in the cistern 

At the bottom level, there’s a walkway going through it, with more than a foot of water in it (with carp). At the far end of the walkway there are two statues of Medusa, one of its side and the other upside down. No one knows why they’re not right side up.

Statue of the snaky-haired Medusa

Eventually the cistern was abandoned and then rediscovered centuries later when someone noticed that local residents got their water by lowering buckets into holes in the floors of their houses.

From the cistern we made our way back to the Galata bridge and had a fish sandwich from one of the semi-permanently docked boats. It was crowded with locals with some tourists partaking in the culinary delights. It was a tasty meal that could have been a little better if the bones had been removed.

This boat where they cook the fish

After lunch we took a bus to an area north on the Bosphorus called Bebek (Elliot had been told by a friend that it was a nice area to walk around in). Although Bebek is an attractive bay that lies right along the Bosphorus, we found it to be extremely busy with cars and people. It is an affluent area, so there were lots of people trying to rub elbows with the Ferrari driving folks. We soon tired of the scene and headed back to our corner of Istanbul.