When you travel as much as we do, you can size up a new
place pretty quickly, and sometimes, you fall in love immediately. On our first evening in the beautiful city of
Istanbul, we walked over to the Hippodrome in the center of Sultanahmet (the
Old City) to get our bearings. The
Hippodrome is a large plaza-like square with a few well-positioned historic monuments
and artifacts in-and-about the open spaces.
|The Hippodrome in Istanbul at Night|
|The Blue Mosque at night|
|Hawking snacks (similar to soft pretzels)|
on the Hippodrome
To back up for a moment, we flew 1-½ hrs. on Turkish Airways from Bucharest to Istanbul. This was our first experience on Turkish Airways (voted the best European airline). Since our flight was an hour late, we can’t say we were overly-wowed by Turkish Air, but we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a light lunch enroute; the crew really had to hustle to feed the whole plane on such a short flight. The arrival process once on the ground was lengthy – first we had to buy a Turkish sticker visa for $20 (literally a supplemental sticker placed in the passport), then wait in a long line at Passport Control, and finally hunt down our bags at baggage claim.
|Outside our Sultans Royal Hotel|
Our hotel was ideally located just a short walk from all the top sights. As youngsters, both of us had been intrigued by the 1964 movie “Topkapi,” a caper about the theft of the famous jeweled dagger held in the Topkapi Museum; so, it seemed like a good starting point, since the Topkapi Palace complex was within walking distance. Every tourist who comes to the old city visits Topkapi, so we knew we needed to start early to avoid the hordes. We got lucky; given that it was a Sunday in November, the crowds were not all that bad.
|Bed of the Sultan inside|
the harem at Topkapi Palace
Interestingly, this society had no rule of primogeniture (where the firstborn son succeeds his father and inherits everything), so the Sultan could pick any one of his sons as his successor. This meant that the harem was a hot spot of intrigue. Every wife wanted her son to become Sultan, thus ensuring her position as powerful head of the harem. Along with her unique task of sparingly divvying out the women to the Sultan, mom also owned lots of property and her own personal treasury, probably making her, in some cases, more powerful than the Sultan himself!!
|Gorgoeus tiles and windows in a courtyard |
inside the harem at Topkapi Palace
The true highlight of Topkapi was the Treasury building
where Anne became emotionally inebriated at the sight and size of the
emeralds. Emeralds, emeralds, everywhere
– encrusted in the handle of the famous Topkapi Dagger and also just piled loosely in
bowls behind glass cases. We concluded
that the need for these jewel-laden thrones, drinking cups, headpieces,
weapons, and other vanities formerly owned by the sultans were a kind of “over-opulence
on steroids” that could not be understood by us, or the average man.
|Famous emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger|
A bit of history about Topkapi before we go any further. In 324 AD, Constantine conquered the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and immodestly renamed it Constantinople, transforming the city into the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city and claimed it for the Ottomans. He built Topkapi as a fitting palace for (as he described himself) “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.” It was positioned on a stategic high-point overlooking the intersection of the Sea of Mamara, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus. A sultan could see enemies coming from miles away!
The Blue Mosque is only open at certain hours for non-Muslim visitors like us, but we eventually managed to get in. The interior is impressive with lots of blue and white tile, stunning stained glass, and a light airiness resulting from some 260 windows. It was also fascinating to watch the male worshippers in kneeling position, praying silently and touching their foreheads to the floor. Not to be disrespectful, but Anne was somewhat distracted by the “foot smell” – reminded her of the time she and son Ben stayed overnight at the Franklin Institute with a couple hundred Boy Scouts!
Another interesting fact is that you can shoot pictures
anywhere you want in this famous landmark.
The Muslims really don’t have a problem with that, even tho many are in
the midst of prayer as you shoot. As a
former Roman Catholic, Frank, thinks it would have certainly been an “attention
getter” to the priests and the congregation if hordes of non-catholic tourists poured into a
Sunday Mass and started walking around the church indiscriminately taking photos anywhere they wanted.
Haaaa! The pope would probably have them
|Airy opulence inside the Blue Mosque|
Aya Sofia was our favorite of the top three sites. This site goes under several differently spelled names, depending on which tour guide you have in front of you (Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sofia, Agia Sophia, Aya Sofia, etc). We waited in a long line to enter, but once inside, the crowds seemed to dissipate, giving lots of space to all.
The sheer size of this worship space and the giant dome overhead are
simply overwhelming. When you see it,
you understand why Aya Sofia is considered one of the greatest buildings in the
world. Aya Sofia is also special because
she was once one of the most important churches in the Christian World, and
even though the church was converted to a mosque, both Christian and Muslim
elements remain. Christian seraphim
(angels) overlook leather wall-hangings covered with Arabic writings. And the lacy platform where the Sultans once
worshipped sits below mosaics of Jesus and Mary. The whole effect was somewhat of a hodge-podge of "Christian meets Islam", but yet very peaceful and
|Overwelming interior of Aya Sofia|
The city of Istanbul has so much to offer, and we only scratched the surface. Another place of note is the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling maze of 400 shops. To be honest, we were disappointed in this shopping extravaganza. Too many aggressive sales people and everything was frankly overpriced; you really have to haggle (and even then, you still probably get the short end!). We much preferred the shops near the Hippodrome where the prices were actually lower (and no haggling required).
Although you have to admire some of the sales spiels these guys come up
with. One vendor invited Frank into his
jewelry shop saying, “Come in and buy something for your lovely angel!” (as he pointed
to Anne). Another guy wanted to sell Anne
a rug, but she politely and firmly said, “No thank you, no rug for me.” To which the vendor quickly responded (pointing
at Frank), “Why not? He’s the one who
will be paying for it!” We had to laugh
at their tenacity and humor.
|All kinds of "bling" at the Grand Bazaar|
|Old City Wall in background; 500-pound Cannonballs|
in foreground mark the former road to Rome
|Dome inside the Chora Church|
|Remarkably well-preserved mosaics|
in the Chora Church