We arrived in Istanbul from Casablanca at 12:30 am on June 6th. We booked a room at the airport hotel since we got in late and the Sabiha Gocken airport that we flew into is quite a ways from the city center. As luck would have it, they messed up our reservation so we were upgraded for free to a suite. It was by far the nicest place we’ve ever stayed or probably ever will stay unless something like this happens again. It was definitely a nice way to start our time in Turkey. It was just a shame we weren’t there longer to enjoy it more. After some sleep, we got up and had an awesome breakfast at the hotel and then headed to the shuttle bus to Taksim in the center of Istanbul’s new town. It was about an hour ride and then another half our or so on public transit to get to our hostel in the Sultanhamet district of the old city. First impressions of Istanbul were first that it is huge (14 million people), but also very people friendly with great public transportation options (subway, funicular, light rail) and lots of streets that are pedestrian only. Even though it is so huge it didn’t feel overwhelming upon first arrival. We had no trouble getting around or finding where we needed to go. When we got off the light rail we were almost immediately greeted with views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and also by the sounds of some kind of international music festival that was happening in the park adjacent to the Hippodrome. After getting checked in to our hostel, we decided our first thing to do would be going to the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque was the first and only mosque we’ve actually been inside on our trip. There are many mosques in Morocco of course, but non-muslims are not allowed to go inside any of them. Going inside the Blue Mosque was a an interesting experience. The building is huge both inside and out and beautifully decorated inside with blue tiles and mosaics that give it it’s name. Jocelyn had to cover her hair and shoulders and we both had to take off our shoes upon entering and carry them around with us while we visited. The entire floor inside is covered with carpet and there were actually people there praying while we were there, which was interesting. As compared to the cathedrals we’ve been to, it was on as grand a scale as many of them, but felt a bit more comfortable to me, not as cold. The wall to wall carpeting helped, but it also seemed to be a place were people could just come and hang out. There was a library in one of the corners with people reading books as well as people praying in the center. The people praying in the center were all men, with the women’s area being a more private area on the edges with screens. One interesting thing that I learned is that men and women aren’t necessarily seperated for mysoginistic reasons. The reason is that Muslim prayer involves a lot of bending over and having men and women doing this together could be distracting for everyone. Women can pray in peace without worrying about someone staring at their ass while they bend over and men can pray in peace without being distracted by asses to stare at.
Our second day we started out at the Hagia Sofia. This is an incredible building that has been both an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and a mosque before being converted into the museum it is today. It was built in 537 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, making it almost 1,500 years old, which blows my mind. It was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453. The sheer size, antiquity, and beauty of the place is staggering. It was definitely one of the highlights of Istanbul for me. After the Hagia Sofia, we went to the Basilica Cistern, with is a huge underground water storage facility built around the same time as the Hagia Sofia. It is a really interesting place as it is underground for one, which is always interesting and it is built with recycled Roman columns from all kinds of different eras. There are even some fish that live in the two feet or so of water that sits at the bottom still. Finally, in the evening we took the light rail to the new city and Istiklal Avenue. This is the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife and it was a lively scene indeed. The street was filled with people and we even saw a wedding procession winding through the crowd playing drums and flutes. We had some dinner on the street Nevizade Sokak, which is a whole street/alleyway filled with restaurants one block off of Istiklal Avenue. The food was delicious and well priced and I tried the local libation called Raki that is similar to the Greek Uzo and a little like Jagermeister with a really strong flavor of Anise. They serve it with a bucket of ice that you drop in that turns it a cloudy color and dilutes the drink as the ice melts making it a little more palatable. After dinner, we sat down at a bar on the street and watched a couple of excellent guitar players/singers do their thing.
Our third day, the biggest thing we did was go to the Topkapi Palace, which was the palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 until 1856 when a new, European style palace was built on the banks of the Bosphorus. It was a really interesting place since each Sultan added to it over 400 years making for an interesting hodge podge of different architectural styles. The most interesting part in my opinion was the area where they keep some of the Sacred Relics of Islam. Since the Sultan was also the Caliph (spiritual head of Islam), many of these relics were sent to Istanbul. They include a piece of the prophet Muhammed’s tooth and lots of hair from his beard, Muhammed’s sword and bow, a signed letter from Muhammed, and keys and gutters from the Kabba in Mecca. They also claim to have Moses’ staff, king David’s sword, Joseph’s turban, and a pot belonging to Abraham, although the authenticity of these seems a little suspect to me. When you are in there, there is an Imam reciting verses from the Quran which goes on 24 hours a day and has been going non-stop for 400 years. We also went to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. The Grand Bazaar is a huge covered market that is a little bit like a shopping mall one would find in the US, although with a lot more character owing to it’s age. It is very touristy however without too many locals aside from the shop keepers. Around the edges however you can find more locals and we managed to find an area with silversmith shops where we saw some silversmiths at work making hand-casted silver items.
Our final full day in Istanbul we took a ferry up the Bosphorus strait which runs down the middle of Istanbul seperating Europe from Asia and connecting the Black Sea to the mediterranean. The cruise went all the way up the strait to the mouth of the Black Sea and to a little town called Anadolu Kava??. We went by the new palace built in 1856, the collosal bridges that span the Bosphorus (each one about a mile long), and Ottoman fortresses. The ferry stopped in Anadolu Kavagi for about three hours. We hiked up the hill to a castle overlooking the town that had great views of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus with the skyscrapers of Istanbul in the distance. We also had lunch where we tried the local specialty of fired mussels and Sea Bass.
Istanbul is truly an incredible city and definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. It is so ancient, yet so modern and vibrant at the same time. It really is an international city with people from all over the world mingling peacefully together. Everyone we met here was incredibly nice and hospitable and most spoke great English which was nice for us and a testament to the excellent education system they have here. I highly reccomend going to Istanbul to anyone, there is nowhere quite like it I don’t think, you won’t regret it. Pictures below.