The exotic city of Istanbul is fascinating for so many reasons, but especially for how it has successfully sustained its diversity of cultures and religions for 1000s of years. Rick and Wendy were there for 4.5 days, so the photos and descriptions below are just some of the highlights!
On day one, they briefly touched down in their small but lovely Armada Hotel–with turtles in the lobby’s fountain–in the old Sultanahmet section of the city (Asian side of Istanbul). Then the Walleighs walked down to the Eminonu area for a 1.5 hour boat ride on the Bosporus. This cruise provided a different perspective since one could see both the Asian and new European
side of Istanbul. The cruise was also a glorious introduction to this magical city on their first evening.
Both close-up and distant views from the Armada hotel’s rooftop—i.e., the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia and old-fashioned, local neighborhood—were a lovely backdrop to each morning’s fabulous buffet breakfast, which included fresh honeycomb, honey, fruit, and yoghurt. After breakfast each day, Rick and Wendy headed out to nearby sites.
Topkapi Palace and Museum
They toured Topkapi Palace with Mahmet, a local guide who led them through the many buildings and courtyards, mostly built by the Ottomans from the 1400s through 1800s. Both with their guide and on their own, they saw some incredible, artistic details in all areas inside and outside the palace, such as the Royal Circumcision Room and spa in the harem. Everywhere they turned there was amazing beauty: carved doorways; cabinets with inlaid mother-of-pearl; intricately painted ceilings; rooms covered with gorgeous Iznik tile; colorful stained-glass windows; and often a combination of all of the above. There were multiple buildings of the Topkapi Palace’s Archeological Museum with a huge range of treasures, e.g., pre-Arabic/early Orient artifacts, several Treasuries, Throne Room, and the Necropolis of Sidon. Among the beautifully carved sarcophagi was one that for a time was thought to be that of Alexander the Great, but is actually that of Mazaeus, a Persian nobleman and Governor of Babylon. On view also were ancient mosaics and friezes as well as statues and busts of ancient people, kings, animals, etc. The Mosaic Museum displayed ancient floors and walls, reconstructed like Humpty-Dumpty from 1000s of tiles, with beautiful scenes such as warriors killing a tiger, peasants toiling, and a legendary griffin.
Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia and Basilica Cistern
Perhaps the most famous symbol of Istanbul is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque. Its many turrets and dome are visible for miles. The interior is as impressive as the exterior. Inside, the awesome size of the sanctuary is matched by the beautiful stained glass windows and detailed, painted ceilings. Even with the crowds, the colors, size, and light create a feeling of inspiration.
The glorious Aya Sophia (aka Hagia Sophia), formerly a cathedral, became a mosque that is filled with tourists every day that it is open to the public. Since Islam forbids the display of people, Muslims plastered and painted over the old icon frescoes, which were only rediscovered in 1948 under many layers. Instead, the mosque is decorated with gorgeously intricate designs of stained glass windows, walls of marble and elaborate symbols of each Sultan.
The Basilica Cistern was constructed in approx..500 C.E. to be the main water storage for Istanbul, connected via aqueduct to the water source 20km away. Though now mainly a tourist stop, the cistern’s architecture is quite impressive for its time, including the 330 columns holding up this city-block-sized, many-arched underground cavern. Huge carp swim in the remaining huge pool of water which still fills the building a few feet deep.
The Grand and the Egyptian Spice Bazaars and street sites
The Grand Bazaar was quite a contrast to the Topkapi Palace, Aya Sophia, and Blue Mosque. The Walleighs were amazed by the constantly moving crowds as well as the labyrinth-like interior. It seemed to be a huge labyrinth of painted, arched hallways filled with a wide variety of products such as painted plates, gold jewelry, ceramic and glass hookahs, and Turkish lutes (aka “ude” pronounced OO-dah).
The indoor and outdoor Egyptian Spice Market is foodie heaven. It smelled wonderful, looked tempting, and was definitely oriented to local shoppers, like Boston’s Haymarket. There were cases of local cheeses, every imaginable kind of dried fruit/nuts/olives, as well as meats and other household items. Vendors piled colorful pyramids of spices; pastries and baklavas; local honeys; baskets of strange teas; herbs and plants for cooking; and candy called Turkish Delight. This unique Turkish candy is not the chewy jelly found in the U.S., but is a wide variety of different nut-filled and fruit-flavored deliciousness.
In between all the sites were street vendors, cafes, and shops of all kinds along Istanbul’s intriguing streets, such as boat-cafes along the Bosporus, a small old mosque, a cafe with hookahs, and food sellers. Even the street food for sale, e.g., pomegranates, grapes, and hot chestnuts, seemed artistically laid out. A cute young street vendor sold Wendy Dondurmasi or “stretchy” ice cream along with entertainment.
The hard-to-find Old Synagogue is now a museum
The old Jewish synagogue in Istanbul is actually located in the “new city” but is very difficult to find. Apparently because of bomb threats in recent years, there were no signs. And local people couldn’t seem to direct Rick and Wendy to it. There was only one small sign of the Zulfardis Synagogue above its door. The sanctuary, the holy ark with centuries-old torahs, and seating layout were all old-fashioned. The history of the Jews in Turkey was outlined through many photos and descriptions. Starting almost 800 years ago, the then-current Ottoman Emperor encouraged Jews to immigrate to Turkey and Greece to escape the Spanish persecution and eventually Inquisitions. In about 1987, the synagogue was converted to a museum after the last wedding was performed.
Unusual small but gorgeous mosques
The most famous Ottoman Sultan is Suleiman the Magnificent whose vision influenced architecture and art for centuries. His key architect was Sinan who during his 60-year career built almost 100 structures for Suleiman, such as Sulimanye Mosque, Sulieman’s Tomb and the tomb of Hurrem, Suleiman’s #1 wife. She supposedly was the model for Scheherazade in the Tale of Arabian Nights.
Wendy’s favorite mosque was the Rustem Pasha, built for a Grand Vizier and his wife who was the sultan’s daughter. It is small but the inside walls are decorated with the most amazing blue-patterned Iznik tiles. When they first arrived, Rick and Wendy were two of less than ten people, all sitting quietly enjoying the peace and harmony. Within 15 minutes a large group arrived, which quickly dissipated these feelings so they left to walk back up the hill to the Armada hotel. But those 15 minutes of hushed peace in the beautifully tiled mosque remained with Wendy for many days, whenever she closed her eyes.