Turkey – land belonging to the Turks – a melting pot of history, religion, invasion, earthquakes, volcanoes, offers the traveller a diverse experience like few other places in the world.
Nestled in the top right corner of the Mediterranean basin, the land known as Anatolia is the crossroads between East and West, Europe and Asia, Christian and Muslim. In addition, a major shipping route between the Black sea and the Mediterranean passes right through the heart of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and one of the most important historical regions over the past 2000 years.
Our journey began in Istanbul, home to 16m people, 20% of the Turkish population. Modern Istanbul sprawls 60km on either side of the Bosporus Strait, the bisected city having a European Side and an Asian Side. The European Side is historically the wealthier area, and this holds true today. This side has more of the tourist sights, hotels and other amenities, and was where we spent most of our time while in the city.
The first thing we noticed driving in to the city from the airport was that the price of gas is $2.50 a liter, the most expensive gas in the world (according to the Turks). A more pleasant surprise was that the city was in bloom, with thousands of tulips flowering all over the city. Tulips originally came from Turkey, and are an important symbol to Turkish Muslims, as Allah written in Arabic looks like a tulip. The tulip is used to represent Allah in mosques and feature prominently all over the city. However, like a lot of other inventions, some one else has perfected the art of growing tulips (the Dutch) and most of them are now imported from Holland every year.
We had 4 days to explore Istanbul – two at the beginning of the trip and two at the end of the trip. Mondays saw many of the attractions closed, so we had to plan carefully to make sure we saw the main sights on the days that they were open.
Our first stop was the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar bills itself as the world’s oldest and largest covered shopping mall. Although not the largest in area, it has the most number of shops with over 3600 stores crammed into a miniature town of narrow streets and alleys. There are a few main themes of stores within the bazaar – carpet and kilims, jewelry, leather goods, clothes, food (sweets such as Turkish Delight), and bath supplies such as towels and soaps.
Every interaction with a shop keeper lead to a “Where are you from?” question within the first 10 seconds, which Peter interpreted to mean that the base price of whatever they were selling would be adjusted by the answer that you gave them. We later found out that wasn’t the case, but that the cousin or friend that they knew may live close to you, and therefore, shipping of the carpet or whatever you purchase could be easily facilitated. We soon overdosed on free samples of fresh Turkish Delight, and ended up buying a bunch for snacks. The crowds on the Saturday afternoon, and the small spaces, combined with jet lag saw us take refuge at an outdoor café, where we enjoyed some Turkish tea and people watched.
The Grand Bazaar was part of a mosque complex, which had a market, bath houses, schools and mosques.
We walked around old Istanbul near the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia (the oldest Church built in the 6th century AD), taking it all in, and visiting countless outdoor markets checking out the various souvenirs on sale. Every country has its top 10 souvenir types that are sold everywhere and Turkey was no exception. In addition to the carpets, scarves, kilim wall hangings, a popular souvenir was soaps and towels used in the Turkish baths. We decided to check these out in their proper setting, and finished our day with a traditional Turkish bath at Cemberlitas Hammam, a 500 year old bath house near the Grand Bazaar.
The Turkish bath is a gender segregated experience. You change and wear a towel and go into a sauna or hot room to heat up and get the sweat flowing. After 10 to 15 minutes (or longer if the place is busy) you go into the bathing area, and lie on a hot marble slab. The bathing attendant then proceeds to scrub you vigorously using what feels like a 400 grit sandpaper, and then you are covered in a lathering soap bath which feels like a bubble bath without the water. Turn over and repeat. Rinse off, and then shampooed with a vigorous head massage. Depending on the bath house, there may be a Jacuzzi or cold pool to go into after you are finished the bath. We opted for the extra oil massage, and so had a 20 minute massage after the bath.
Having managed to stay awake through all of that, we headed to the hotel and had a fairly decent sleep.
Turkey is a secular Islamic country in much the same way that we live in a secular Christian country. However, the main difference is that in Islam, there is a call to prayer 5 times per day, with the first one being about 45 minutes before sunrise. Depending on the time of the year, and your location relative to the time zone boundary, the first call to prayer can be quite early – in our case it was around 5am.
We put in a full day of sightseeing the second day, visiting Hagia Sophia, the church built in the 6th century AD, which was then repurposed as a mosque in the 15th century until it was converted to a museum in 1931. This is one impressive building – the only Church we had seen to rival its grandeur was St. Peter’s in Rome.
The inside is a mixture of Christian iconography and Islamic/Arabic words and patterns, with stained glass windows for full effect.
Mosques do not have any iconography, and so the Christian icons had been covered up while the building was used as a mosque. However, they have been restored to their original state, and so the building is a mixture of Christian frescoes and Islamic tiles/Arabic inscriptions (all paying homage to the same God). The immensity of the building made the crowds inside seem insignificant.
As this was the center of the Roman Empire for many centuries, complex infrastructure was built to supply fresh water to the city from the nearby Belgrade Forest. The aqueducts delivered the fresh water to the Basilica Cistern, a vast underground reservoir covering just under 10,000 sq meters, built in the 6th century AD supported by 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns, spaced just under 5m apart. The cistern is made of walls approximately 4m thick. Some of the columns had carved Medusa heads oriented at 90 degrees or 180 degrees, and therefore rendered harmless to look at, as you would not be turned to stone.
We walked around the tourist area of the old city bounded by the Grand Bazaar, the Topkapi Palace, and the Cistern at the end of the Seraglio Point. Between the flowers, the clothing, the buildings, food, spices and souvenirs, there was a feast for the eyes from small kitschy key rings to massive mosques covering all shades of colors and textures. Added to this was the mix of locals (women) dressed in conservative Muslim black dresses, and even burqas to tourists wearing loud clothing and shorts, and everything in between. The large crowds facilitated anonymous photography of people and resulted in some excellent candid shots of people in a wide range of settings.
Topkapi Palace was built in the middle of the 15th century by Mehmet II as his personal palace. This was a top tourist attraction, and very crowded. We followed the hordes trough the various pavilions, looking at jewelry and other artifacts from the Ottoman Empire. However, the building that most intrigued us was the Circumcision Room.
Muslim princes weren’t circumcised until the age of 6. The ritual was part of the Islamic tradition focused on cleanliness and purity, took place in this room. The main feature of the room today is the elaborate tile work, which served as prototypes for other pavilions in the complex.
The morning of the first full day of our G Adventure tour was spent visiting the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome and the Suleymaniye Mosque. The Blue Mosque was built in the early 17th century and designed to be larger than the Hagia Sophia. It also has 6 minarets, which was seen as a hostile act by the religions leader in Mecca. The Blue colour comes form the Iznik tiles that adorn much of the building. We walked inside, and looked at the intricate tile work on the walls and inside the domes. The carpet has repeating patterns orienting the worshipers toward Mecca. Even an important mosque like this remains quite understated by Western Church standards in deference to the absence of iconography in Islam. Personally, I was underwhelmed, when comparing it to the inside of the Hagia Sophia, but that is likely my cultural bias.
The hippodrome area is the remains of a stadium that used to exist on the site. The main artifact still standing is an Egyptian Obelisk built in 1500 BC, and brought to Istanbul by Constantine. The obelisk is only one third of its original height.
The Suleymaniye mosque is one of the most important mosques in the city, and was built by Sinan, the Imperial architect in the 15th century. Sinan is responsible for the designing and building of over 130 mosques and 200 buildings and was the most important architect in the Ottoman empire. Much of his work still stands today.
That was the end of our first portion of our stay in Istanbul. Our bus left Istanbul and headed to Ankara.
We returned to Istanbul a few weeks later for the last two days of our holiday.
Our fellow travellers had recommended a boat trip in the Bosphorus. We signed up with Istanbul Walks for a full day tour that included the Golden Horn, the southern end of the Bosphorus and the Dolma Bache Palace, as well as the Rustempasa Mosque. This mosque has an excellent display of Iznik tiles on the walls, some of which have been removed for preservation and replaced with more recent copies.
We did a quick tour of the spice market, but were told that the locals buy their spices from the vendors that are on the outside of the market as the prices are cheaper.
We then headed for the dock to get on the boat for our 2 ½ hour tour of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait. This really gave us a feel for the “old money” in Istanbul. We passed by a variety of Consulate Houses, which were former ambassador residences from the time that Istanbul was the official capital of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the estates of local wealthy businessmen, and numerous ex-palaces from the Sultanate days of the Ottoman empire. The main cruise terminal is located on the Golden Horn. During the peak of the cruising season, as many as 9 cruise ships can be docked at one time. This is potentially and extra 50,000 tourists arriving into the city on a given day. Overlaying this opulent landscape were the multitude of mosques their minarets punctuating the skyline of the city, like a series of exclamation marks on the horizon.
We had lunch on the Asian side of the Strait, and then headed up to a high look out point over the city, before heading to the Dolmabahce Palace, on the European side.
This palace was built in the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire was in decline. Our tour consisted of the portion of the palace reserved for men, and then took us into the harem (hidden section) reserved for women. The immensity of the rooms, and the size of the handmade carpets was incredible. A portion of the palace was used by Ataturk as his residency during his presidency, right up to his death in 1938. As the palace is built on reclaimed land, most of the columns are wooden, made to look like marble, in order to limit weight of the building.
This would be our last night in Turkey, so we finished off with a Turkish bath. We should have splurged at one of the oldest baths in the city, but instead went for a more local experience to finish up this most diverse and historic trip.