After 5 years of dreaming, 7 months of planning, 5 days of packing, and 17 hours of travel, Sean and I finally arrived in Istanbul on Saturday, September 21. The timing was unfortunate — protests in Taksim Square and the possibility of military action against Syria prompted several worried pre-trip phone calls from my mom — but we were undeterred.
We spent our first 5 nights in Turkey at the Hotel Seraglio in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul.
When we arrived, we were treated to what seems to be the traditional Turkish check-in process. The details varied slightly with each hotel, but the scenario always included warm greetings, glasses of Turkish chai, and a relaxed sit-down chat with friendly hotel staff.
From the window of our room, just over the rooftops, we could see the dome and 3 of the 6 minarets of the Blue Mosque.
For perspective, here is a wide-angle shot photo of the Sultanahmet neighborhood, taken from the top of the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn. The Blue Mosque is easy to spot because of the unusual number of minarets — 6 in all. Our hotel was on the far side of the mosque.
Our first evening in Istanbul, we wandered up the hill to the spot where the Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque face each other across a plaza. The night lighting of the Ayasofia reminded me a little of Cinderella’s Castle, but that did not detract at all from the gut-punch of standing for the first time between two of the buildings that have defined the skyline of Istanbul for centuries.
Turn in place 180 degrees to see the Blue Mosque, with its slightly more sedate lighting.
I loved our neighborhood in the Sultanahmet, especially at night. Shops were open late, colorful wares spread out on the sidewalk. Glass mosaic lamps were sold everywhere, and lent the streets an exotic air.
By our first evening in Istanbul, it was clear to me that I had not left nearly enough room in my bag for purchases. Next time I will bring an entirely empty suitcase and a roll of bubble wrap.
To begin our first full day in Istanbul, we headed back up the hill to explore the Ayasofia. This massive building is one of those places that reminds me just how new are even our oldest American landmarks. Wikipedia can do a much better job of filling in the historical details (search for Hagia Sofia, an alternate spelling). Suffice it to say that the original building at the core of the current structure was completed in year 537 by Emperor Justinian, back when Istanbul was Constantinople and part of the Roman Empire. Even by year 537, the site had already been used for two older churches, both destroyed.
On May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II and his Ottoman Army conquered Constantinople, legend has it that the first place he went when he entered the city was the Ayasofia (then called St. Sofia) to claim it for the Ottoman Empire, kicking off its new incarnation as a mosque. Even half-filled with scaffolding, the interior is cavernous.
Inside the building, now a museum, gorgeous Islamic medallions and Arabic script live side by side with the remains of Byzantine mosaics of Mary, Jesus, and John.
There are several of the delicate golden mosaics, installed when the Ayasofa was still a cathedral, but this one is probably the most famous.
Despite heroic preservation efforts, the Ayasofia shows her age.
The stones of the Ayasofia have seen their share of feet.
The Sultan and his family could watch services in the mosque from this private viewing pavilion.
The Ayasofa, like all mosques, has a place for men to bathe their feet before entering to pray.
We spent hours in this beautiful space, and even at the end of our two weeks in Turkey, it remained one of the highlights of the trip.
After leaving the Ayasofia, we explored the Basilica Cisterns deep underneath the Sultanahmet. Also built by Justinian (or more accurately, by thousands of slaves), apparently these Cisterns were forgotten for centuries. They were rediscovered by accident after many Istanbul residents living above found that they were catching fish in their well buckets.
Later on that day, we explored more of the Sultanahmet neighborhood. Street vendors squeezed fresh pomegranate juice using a press attached to the cart. No need for a 14-day juice cleanse when you can drink a cup of this stuff and realize the same benefits in about half an hour. I’m convinced I’ve discovered the secret to Ottoman might: antioxidants!
I’m not sure what the official story is, but I suspect pomegranate juice might have been the inspiration for the crimson color of the Turkish flag, which can be seen flying absolutely everywhere in the country. You are unlikely to forget which country you’re in. No hill or building or rampart goes unclaimed.
Even on the most modern street corner, I could tell I wasn’t in Austin anymore. City buses sported glossy ads for head scarves. Even this very traditional style leaves a lot of room for self-expression.
A woman weaves a carpet outside a souvenir shop.
One clear sign that I was in a foreign land was the perceptible absence of regulatory bubble-wrap. The Turks obviously don’t worry about lawsuits the way Americans do. Steps are inserted into sidewalks higgledy-piggledy wherever they are needed, with no regard for height or depth or symmetry of any kind. The proprietors of at least one store had obviously tired of watching tourists face-plant in front of their shop (or maybe they were just tired of people bleeding all over their carpets).
Exploring nearby Çemberlitaş, we stumbled (not literally) on another gorgeous mosque lit by the late afternoon sun. The light made me think of a Maxfield Parrish painting.
Lured by the beauty of the light, we wandered past the mosque into the streets near the Covered Bazaar, which was closed. We ventured down an unfamiliar street, possessed by the sudden urge to find our way to the Golden Horn.
A friendly banner bid us ‘Hoş Geldiniz’ (‘welcome’) into a neighborhood with very few tourists. We worked our way down the hill towards the water.
We found the entrance to the famous Spice Market, and poked our heads in.
This was definitely not the place to let out one of my earth-shattering sneezes.
Finally, close to sunset, we found the Golden Horn, alive with golden evening light and ferryboats. Across the water, the Galata Tower provided a view of the sunset to a group of lucky tourists.
The wide-angle shot included earlier was taken from the top of this tower.
We walked along the lower layer of the Galata Bridge, filled with people, commerce, restaurants, and smelly garbage.
I have no idea how polluted the waters of Istanbul might be, but these locals did not seem worried.
Returning on the upper level of the bridge, we watched the sun set over Istanbul.
We weren’t quite brave enough to buy one of these fish wraps, but I was pretty sure the fish came straight from the hooks of the fishermen lining the rail.
We took one last look back before heading home to our hotel. The plan for tomorrow: Topkapı Palace and the Harem!