What I was expecting from Istanbul: incredible history; insight into Islam; insight into Turkish culture (which I anticipated to be an interesting mix of Asian, Middle Eastern, and European); great markets; good food. What did I find: all of the above beyond anything I imagined plus much, much more.
Where to start...I was in Istanbul for 5 days total over the weekends on either end of my trip to Athens. Overall, I had terrible weather, but there was one beautiful day, where I was able to take most of my best pictures. So, I'll start where I actually started in Istanbul. From the plane I was amazed by how many minarets there were rising above the city...it seemed like ever other block there was a big mosque with those twin towers used for the call to prayer. I was also impressed by the size of the city and its geography...straddling two continents. We flew in over the Black sea and right along the Bosphorous, the waterway that splits Europe from Asia; Istanbul sprawls at the southern end where the Bosphorous meets the Sea of Marmara. Once I hit the ground, the first stop after dropping my things off at the hostel was Hagia Sofia. I stayed at a great little hostel with an amazing view of this ancient structure, which was only a 2 minute walk away. Hagia Sofia is old...very, very old; construction started in 532 AD... finished in 537 AD. Nearly 1500 years old.... I was speechless and in awe.
Seriously, 1500 years old... and this building is HUGE! Originally, it was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, then a Catholic cathedral...then Eastern Orthodox again before serving nearly 500 years as an Imperial Mosque (hence the minarets, which are "relatively" new additions). Finally, in 1931, Attaturk proclaimed the structure as a museum, effectively ending feuds over which religion it belonged to. This building literally embodies the history of modern Istanbul (and Turkey): switching between religions and imperial powers, bearing witness to countless struggles and invasions, then being proclaimed secular and embracing a long history.
Hagia Sophia isn't the most beautiful building on the outside, but, as they say, its what is on the inside that counts. And man does it count... the interior is deceptively large and the central dome seems impossibly high. There is no doubt that this structure represents a marvel of ancient architecture and engineering. One of the most interesting aspects is the mixture of Christian and Islamic features...like the massive disks with key Islamic words and phrases and the Quranic scripture around the apex of the central dome (all written in Arabic script) and the various crosses that adorn archways and ceilings throughout.
I loved this feature, which I first saw here, but then noticed throughout my wanderings in Istanbul. These marble slabs have been chosen for their geometric patterns, then they were cut and mirrored (each symmetric piece is just two adjacent cuts of the same slab put side by side). It is so brilliant, such a simple technique to display the beauty of symmetry and geometry in nature.
The interior lighting was also spot on... setting the perfect atmosphere. This is also where I first started to appreciate just how ornate Turkish interior design is...this will be a common theme throughout this post.
It's tough to make out from this picture, but these columns are huge...it would probably take three people joining hands to get around their circumference. I loved the detailed decoration on the capitals.
Considering how old the place is, it really makes you wonder how they constructed that dome 1500 years ago...it is REALLY high and enormous. The Quranic scripture along the top really adds a nice effect to it.
Up on the second floor to get a closer view of the detail. It was quite obvious which sections had been restored and which were still waiting...from some of the more decrepit parts, it's amazing restorers had any idea what was there in the first place. There are also a few large sections of the structure that have been filled in with cement, which makes me wonder how well the building is actually holding up. Hopefully they have some good engineers working on keeping it up in as close to its original form as possible!
This picture gives a pretty good feel for just how big and tall this place is...those people look pretty small down there. The hike up to the second floor was neat too. Instead of the spiraling staircases I'm used to in large cathedrals, the way up was mostly a stone paved ramp through a dark passageway! It was pretty cool..
Detail of some of the Islamic features..and I'm not sure if the staircase and little turreted room on the left are Christian (I'm leaning that way though) or Islamic...like I said above, it's really neat how there is this mix of religious features.
Back outside...they were renovating the big park between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, which is kind of sad since I'm sure it is normally quite beautiful with the geometric walkways, fountains, grass and trees. Instead, it was mud, piles of construction material, and ugly fences.
After a nice walk through the maze of streets around it, I came across my destination for stop 2: The Grand Bazaar. There are signs in English to get you there from the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Blue Mosque, and I would recommend the walk. You pass by more ancient mosques and monuments along the way and start to get a sense for just how busy and alive Istanbul is. The Bazaar itself is a massive marketplace...a maze in its own right, all indoors. For anyone who follows this blog regularly, you know I love markets, and this one did not let me down.
Typical (though notably uncrowded) view down one of the passageways inside the Grand Bazaar. Merchandise lined thoroughfares like this shoot off in all directions inside...its like stepping into a city of goods and souvenirs. This is a good place to tell you about the carpet salesmen of Istanbul...if you spend any time, pretty much anywhere of interest to a tourist in Istanbul, you will be approached by gentlemen trying to sell you carpets. I had great success by being nice, talking to them while still going about my business (taking photos, walking my own way, etc.), and kindly BUT FIRMLY assuring them that I had no interest in buying a carpet. I had some great conversations with some genuinely nice people this way. They appreciated that I didn't ignore their existence or look at them like they were scum (which is the reaction of a lot of tourists after their 50th carpet proposition). Mind you, if you are looking for a quality carpet, Istanbul is the place to go...just remember to bargain and bargain hard! They will start at some astronomically absurd asking price and you should return in full with an offer for absurdly small amount...show them your marbles! Haggling over merchandise is a way of life in Turkey, but just remember that if you start haggling, you are expected to buy something!
If you're looking for cool souvenirs...this is the place to go shopping. Just remember to haggle! Things they have in abundance (meaning you can probably haggle some good deals due to competition) include: intricately painted plates, bowls, and towels, lamps, vases, pipes, coins, antiques, jewelry, and of course the ever-present carpets.
The Grand Bazaar is truly a maze...you quickly lose track of direction while perusing the various wares. It's all fine though. There are only a few exits, and when you find one you can orient pretty quickly outside using the big mosques or just asking.
The colors and sights in the Bazaar are really neat...this is surely a must see for travelers through Istanbul.
Between bazaars...I was amazed by how busy the streets were in Istanbul...there were hundreds and thousands of people everywhere and at all hours! I didn't feel alone anywhere outside...there were always people around. At times, particularly around the markets, it was somewhat overwhelming how many people were crowded around me. At other times, like when I snapped this shot here, things cleared up and I got to appreciate people just going about their lives and daily routine. I am particularly fond of the guys running around with trays of tea for people...literally running sometimes with these hanging trays loaded up with a dozen or more cups of Turkish tea...crazy. Also, I loved how people could wash outside of the mosques or just find some shelter from the rain in a doorway to chat with a friend.
Onto the next bazaar, the ancient Spice Bazaar. As the name might imply, this bazaar specializes in food, particularly dried ingredients, fruits, nuts, and spices. This is another indoor market and much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, though still quite large inside. As soon as you enter, you're bombarded with catcalls and propositions from sellers. Some of them have crafty or funny phrases (like hey, try some Turkish Viagara!) well others rely on their ornate and immaculate presentation with bright assorted dried fruits, sacks and barrels of dried ingredients and teas, and pyramids of spices in an array of oranges, reds, yellows, browns, and greens.
In addition to the colors and tastes of the Spice Bazaar, you're swept up in wave after wave of smells. One of the things I regret is not picking up some apple tea. This stuff looked like rat poison, but tasted like hot apple cider as soon as you mixed the little green/brown pellets in hot water. It was delicious stuff! The standard Turkish tea was delicious too...it is very strong as Western tastes go, and often there is a lot of sediment in the small, glass serving cups. However, when mixed with sugar to taste, I found myself downing cup after cup of the stuff.
In the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the old Ottoman Sultans. Built in the 1460's, this palace served as the heart of the vast Ottoman for 400 years. The Sultan lived a life of luxury while ruling the empire from here...with amazing food served from a massive kitchen complex, lush courtyards, ornate palaces, plenty of servants, and hundreds of concubines in the famous Harem. Today, the palace has an empty, haunted feel to it, though I can still highly recommend a visit, especially if you have a vivid imagination. I particularly enjoyed the armory, which showcased some incredible examples of Ottoman weaponry and armor. The religious artifacts were quite impressive too...the palace houses the sword and cloak of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.
I visited the palace on a cold, rainy day, and I can just imagine the sultan lounging in this room with a fire lit for warmth on just such a day...surrounded by his most beautiful concubines and nibbling on dried dates, pomegranates, and oranges. In another of the museums, they showcased some of the clothing worn by the sultans...everything was oversized and quite ridiculous looking. However, I bet it was really comfy...like over-sized silk pajamas.
Did I mention ornate decoration? They had a love for geometry apparently, and the tile work was just amazing. Be sure to look up close and appreciate the artwork on EVERY tile. I'm sure most of them were done by stamp, but some of the tiles were surely painted by hand...amazing.
In the Harem. I was quite disappointed that I paid extra to see this actually. The royal chambers, as they would be called in other royal palace museums, were mostly empty other than the odd bed or couch. Also, you can't go see the concubine area...just gaze back through their courtyard. Learning about the Queen Mother was interesting though...she was the Sultan's chosen concubine, essentially the Queen. She commanded a lot of power actually, which I found quite interesting...I'm sure there were a lot of intricate power struggles and love triangles (or higher sided polygons) going on with so many concubines all vying for attention and favor of the Sultan.
The ancient Roman Valens Aqueduct. I just stood and stared at this...anything built by the Romans just amazes me...especially so far from Rome! This was built in the 4th century AD, with construction ending in the year 386. Now taxis drive through it along one of the Golden Horn's major roads...incredible.
Seemingly endless walking...that well-describes my adventures around Istanbul. I found myself crossing the bridge over the Golden Horn many times, going back and forth between ancient, Sultanahmet, where I was staying in a great hostel near the Hagia Sofia, to the newer Galata district, which is the true heart of modern Istanbul. No matter the time of day, there were fisherman on the bridge, hoping to catch enough to support their families for the day. It was particularly busy at night, and they had small fires going to cook and keep warm. The ancient city made for an incredible backdrop to this ancient way of life.
The floating restaurants on the Sultanahmet side of the bridge, just up from the ferry port. These of course specialize in fresh fish dishes...and the house specialties consisted of a whole, small fried fish with greens on a fresh piece of bread. It was absolutely delicious and so fresh. The fried fish had a perfect flavor of the sea fortified with the salty, savory flavor of the fried skin. It's really a neat form of street meat, well, dock meat actually. You just walk right up to the dock, order your food, and the guys on the boat cook it up in front of you and hand you your sandwich, rocking and swaying with the waves all along.
Looking down at the floating restaurants and one of the great mosques from the Galata Bridge. I can highly recommend getting out over the water for some incredible views of Istanbul by night.
On the much more realistic (i.e., lived-in, less-touristy) Galata side of the Golden Horn. First thing I stopped to enjoy was the bustling fish market, displaying the bounty of the Bosphorous.
On the much more realistic (i.e., lived-in, less-touristy) Galata side of the Golden Horn. First thing I stopped to enjoy was the bustling fish market, displaying the bounty of the Bosphorous.
Along Istiklal Caddesi...this promenade was one of my favorite places in Istanbul. It is very modern, showcasing the more European side of modern Turkey. With everything from posh cafes, nightclubs, and designer stores to things more along my preference like dive pubs and live music, authentic restaurants, and plenty of bookstores, Istiklal Caddesi draws in Istanbul's citizens by the droves. That is one of the things I loved about it; it is absolutely perfect for people watching. Even on the cold, rainy evenings when I was there, this place was hopping. I even got to see some pretty massive demonstrations, protesting the modern government that is involved in a dubiously shady power grab at the moment. The government allowed the protests, fortunately, though their presence was made well-known. Riot police in full armor and armed with assault rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers (probably with tear gas or baton shells) were out in force when I saw the protest march. Istiklal Caddesi ends at Taksim Square, a massive interchange and park that is the center of the modern city; it was there that the protestors organized and started the march, down Istiklal Caddesi and Galata Hill.
Tucked away down and off a brightly lit market alley off Istiklal Caddesi is this gem, Nevizade Sokak. This place was wall to wall restaurants, mostly seafood oriented and all Turkish! Seek this out if you want to eat like a local; the place was packed. Citizens of Istanbul seem uber-social, and I was amazed at how many people were enjoying raki (an anise flavored spirit) and/or beer with their meals or the all-important and ubiquitous meze, or small appetizer samplers. No meal, or social drinking for that matter, is complete without several plates of meze, which can be anything from fresh or pickled veggies to small, fried fish to cheese and hot, stuffed filo pastries.
On the way up Galata Hill toward the Istiklal Cadesi...the walk is great, with plenty to see along the way including some great bars, cafes, street food, and art shops. I particularly liked the fresh fruit/juice shops along the way. Nothing like some fresh-squeezed (literally pressed right in front of you into your own cup) orange or pomegranate (or even better, mixed orange/pomegranate...they thought I was crazy, but it tasted incredible!) juice to regain some energy from the climb up the steep road.
Now, a brief tour of some of the foods I found and tried in Istanbul. Ah, yes, first and foremost, the kebap. Whoever was the culinarily brilliant soul who first decided to take thin slices of meat and fat and sandwich them alternatively onto a massive vertical spit, which is then rotated around with a heat source at one side. The slow cooking process blends fat and lean together into a homogenous and delicious chunk, and the heat roasts the outer surface to a crispy golden perfection. This is then sliced off by the chef and served up with salad either over rice or on a fresh piece of flat bread. Top it off with yoghurt sauce and devilishly spicy, small pickled peppers, and you have yourself kebap. Did I mention this is really cheap too? You can fill yourself easily for US$3-4. Not bad.
It was apparently chestnut season while I was there...these vendors were all over the streets, roasting fresh chestnuts in their shells til they burst open...filling the air with an incredible aroma. I had never eaten fresh, roasted chestnuts before, and they made an awesome, warm snack for wandering in the cold, damp weather.
A fruit and juice stand. This was one of my favorite things about Istanbul for sure...they love their fruit there. I had soooooo many cups of fresh pomegranate and orange juice. They had heaps and heaps of the fruit too...it was incredible.
Breakfast at the airport, from left to right: fresh honey comb, smoked meat, apricot jam, fresh olives in oil and spices, salami, fresh tomato and green peppers, fresh goat cheese, bread, more cheese (from a cow this time), a hard boiled egg, apricot juice, and a cup of Turkish tea. The breakfast at my hostel consisted of most of the same things, though they didn't have any meat. Note how FRESH everything is...and the tastes all went with it...amazing. I particularly loved the honey with bread and the tomatoes, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and goat cheese...sooooo good together.
Turks have a very, very serious obsession (addiction?) to sweets. Turkish delight shops are not only found all around tourist-oriented Sultanahmet (and in the airport), but they are all over the more local parts of town too.
OK, enough food...back to the sights. This is the Blue Mosque, named not for it's exterior, but the blue tiled interior. Unlike many of the mosques I've seen around the world, Istanbul's mosques are open to everyone, Muslim or otherwise. The Blue Mosque was the first mosque I've ever entered, and I was floored by its beauty, both outside and within.
I spent the good part of a late afternoon at the Mosque, just soaking up the atmosphere and taking advantage of the incredible architecture and lighting.
Inside, I was quite literally rendered speechless. There is a separate entrance for non-Muslims, and all visitors must remove their shoes and put them in a bag before entering. Inside is split between a portion to worship, and a portion for visitors. I couldn't believe the lighting inside, it was so bright, and the tile work and painting was so intricate. I sat on the floor and just stared at all the features for about an hour or so. It was so peaceful and quiet inside too...so much brighter than so many cathedrals I've been inside. The architect and master builder of this mosque did an incredible job at building a structure that seems to transcend human limits.
Just absolutely beautiful...
The Blue Mosque has six minarets, the same amount as the Grand Mosque in Mecca, one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world. Supposedly, this was seen as almost insulting to Mecca, though apparently, the Ottomans somehow justified it, and the minarets remain.
Outside all of the mosques were taps and basins for worshipers and the public to wash themselves (primarily, feet, hands, and faces). I think it is a testament to the religion that it is a fundamental practice for the mosques to provide that for people.
Walking along the ancient hippodrome. The obelisk seen in the forefront is from ancient Egypt; it is just a few centuries shy of being 4000 years old. The Column of Constantine is in the background and the Serpentine Column, a relic from Ancient Greece and 2500 years old, is also there, though not visible in this picture. Just think of how many people through the ages have looked at those same monuments...unbelievable.
Inside the Kariye Museum: an old, old church that has been graced with a plethora of intricate, detailed, and beautiful mosaics.
The church is bigger than I had expected, and there are many, many more mosaics than I anticipated too. I can highly recommend this visit...it's hauntingly beautiful yet somewhat peaceful inside. The mosaic of Christ at his mother, Mary's funeral, which is in the central room, is particularly touching and deep.
Crossing the Bosphorous on the ferry provides great views of the city, and a chance for some bird watching too, all while enjoying a nice glass of tea.
I took the ferry to Uskudar, which has a great market and plenty of local shopping opportunities, including many gold stores. I'd never seen so much gold displayed before...quite beautiful when you see it all together like that...kind of makes you appreciate why it has always been considered so precious and so many wars have been fought over it.
Back to food again, Turkish "pretzels"...really just dough rings with soft center and dark crust covered in sesame seeds. In the background is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge spanning the Bosphorous and joining the two continents.
A view across the water at the enormous Topkapi Palace complex. The series of domes and chimneys sticking up on the left of the outer wall were the kitchens...seriously, they don't mess around when it comes to food in Turkey.
My last day in Istanbul, I was treated to a snow shower. I took this picture from the great, interior thankfully, rooftop bar and lounge on the top floor of the hostel (really a serious perk of the place...it has to have one of the best views in Istanbul). I doubt many visitors get to experience snow in the city...it was pretty neat. So overall, I loved Istanbul. I can't wait to go back to the city and get out and explore the rest of Turkey. The people were exceptionally friendly (just remember, be friendly but firm when dealing with sellers), the sights were incredible, and the food was delicious. What more can you ask for?