So after less than a day of rest in my site after Christmas, I was back on the move – this time for a week long trip down into Turkey to the gigantic and ancient city of Istanbul (or Constantinople… however you prefer…).
The change was apparent as soon as we stepped off the bus as we tried to negotiate a decent cab fare – the first in a long series of haggling that would become one of the themes of the trip throughout the week. After a relaxing first night walking around the area of our hostel and settling down with a hooka, we got up and started to tackle the city. And when I say tackle the city I mean wander around aimlessly, stumbling on interesting things along the way. I usually prefer to explore cities by getting lost in them…
The first day we took a lot of pictures in the main square, which features 2 incredible buildings right across from each other…
On the left side stands the Blue Mosque – the crowning achievement of Sultan Ahmet and built by the same architects (apparently) that designed the Taj Mahal (a dubious claim, but interesting nonetheless). As you get closer and closer to the building, the scale becomes more and more apparent, despite the delicate appearance of its domes and minarets. The Blue Mosque is fully functional, and calls to prayer blast from the minarets 5 times a day – long drawn out wails that can be heard throughout the city. Inside, the floor is divided into two halves – one side for worshippers, and the others for those just passing through. Both sides seem to offer an equally impressive view of the interior of the mosque, which is decked from floor to ceiling in individually hand painted blue tiles, giving the building its nickname.
On the right side of the square is the gigantic Hagia Sophia (pronounced Ayasofia, and translated as “Holy Wisdom”) historically one of the most important buildings of Christianity before it was sacked and turned into a mosque by the Ottomans. Built over 1500 years ago when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire, the structure has been added on to over the years, allowing a visitor to peel back layer after layer of history. Standing in the great hall is a breathtaking experience, as one looks up into what was once the largest dome in the world until St. Peter’s was built about 1000 years later. The contrast on the inside is unmistakably apparent, as historians have started to uncover the early Christian frescoes and mosaics that adorned the ceiling and walls. Right next to these ancient paintings lie Islamic decorations and references to Mecca. In this way, standing in the Hagia Sophia not only serves as a reminder of so many great eras of human history, but also serves as a connection between two major world religions (often at odds with each other) – a very humbling experience indeed.
Also located on a far corner of the square is the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, a magical place of water underneath the streets of Istanbul. The huge room once served as the city’s water supply and dates back to the Roman times. This is evident in the 400 columns that support the arched ceiling of the chamber, which feature all 3 major Roman architectural styles – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Two of the columns stem from images of Medusa, turned upside down and sideways in order to negate the evil gaze. This is apparently to protect the place from harm. Apparently they have done a good job, as it’s still standing despite the chamber’s extremely fragile appearance. Recent renovations have placed a beautiful lighting system throughout the cistern, creating a mystical atmosphere as you walk around this amazing and ancient place.
The second day brought us to the famous Grand Bazaar, a neverending maze of corridors and alleys that spans an entire district of the city, all lined with countless vendors selling everything from scarves to carpets to drums. Of course, each one claims to have the best goods in the whole city, and of course this means that they want you to pay a premium for it. But then the fun starts… “For you my friend I give special price," and the haggling begins. Every interaction with the vendors is an intricate dance – wavering between too high and too low, until you land somewhere in the middle. I think I fared pretty well for myself, buying a Turkish drum and a scarf for myself.
The madness didn’t end there, however. We also made a stop at the Spice Market, which was even crazier than the Grand Bazaar in its vendors’ pleas for business and haggling. Smells ranging from the sweet to the pungent bombard you on all sides, as you walk down the great hall lined with mounds of herbs, tea, and Turkish delight. Regardless of the massive crowd, I made it out of there with a pretty good sampling of spices.
There were relaxing parts too, such as a stroll along the sea, and our exploration of the old Topkapi Palace. The confines of the palace offer the best views of the city and of the Bosphorus Strait, which divides European Turkey from its Asian side.
Upon leaving Istanbul, I realized that just one visit to this place is not nearly enough to absorb all that this place has to offer. The sheer size of the city alone (ten million… Bulgaria, by comparison, has a total of 7 million people in the whole country) is enough to make one realize that there are probably countless treasures hidden throughout… places that will never make it onto any map or into any guidebook. Our group found one such place, and its friendly owner treated us to an incredible New years experience... Dancing horo together with strangers and friends alike under the fireworks as the whole city rang in New Years is something that I will never forget.
The whole trip left a good taste in my mouth, and I definitely want to return not only to Istanbul, but also deeper into Turkey, a beautiful place at once Middle Eastern and European, and serving as the perfect blend of both.
Until next time…