Istanbul: Day 3

Istanbul: Day 3.  A day of marriage proposals.  Galata Tower, The Spice (Egyptian) Bazaar, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar.

So, I was sick for several days after Istanbul with the flu.  Been a while since I’ve had that and it’s about as fun as I remembered.  I really wished I was a little girl again, so I could lay on my parents’ couch, watch The Price is Right, and sip 7-Up.  I’m thankful that Meredith was willing to step in and help me.  She brought me crackers, ginger ale, and went on Tylenol excursions.  What a lady!

GALATA TOWER     Anywho, Istanbul was more interesting than the flu, so I’ll try to finish up writing about our adventures there.  On Saturday morning we got up and took a tram to a station near the Galata Tower.  Galata Tower was built in 528 as a wooden lighthouse.  In 1348 it was reconstructed in stone and called Christ Tower.  It was used for many different things over the next hundreds of years, including defense of the city, an astronomical observatory, a prison for Christian prisoners of war, a watchtower for fires, and a jumping-off point for Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi.  Rumor has it he was so entranced by da Vinci’s flying machines that he built his own “wings” and hang glided across the Bosphorous (more than 6km).

The tower is 66.9 meters (about 220′) high.  At its base the walls are 3.75m (12′) thick.  Tapering as they rise, they’re 20cm thick at the top (7.9″).  The tower is the oldest tower in existence that’s still open to visitors.  As a visitor, I can’t say that I felt very safe up there, but the view was nice.  It was fun to look across the Golden Horn (body of water) and see all the things we visited the day before.  It also became really clear to me why so many thousands of people die when there’s an earthquake in one of these towns.  The buildings are SO close together and so old and the streets are so narrow that there would literally be no place to hide from falling debris during a quake.  The safest bet seems like it would be to throw yourself in the water and swim as far out as you possibly could.  As we looked out, building upon building upon building stretched as far as the eye can see, in every direction.  It was kind of amazing.  I’ll put pictures in a slideshow at the end again.

After the tower, we decided to walk across the bridge rather than catch the tram.  (We mistakenly thought we had crossed the Bosphorous into the Asian side of the city and we wanted to see if there was a line delineating the two where we could take pictures.)  Lots and lots of men were fishing.  We didn’t see a single one who looked like they’d caught something, though!  I was really curious to see what kind of fish they were after.  Maybe next time.

Oh, I almost forgot.  At the tower, we met some other tourists who said they were getting out of town that afternoon “due to the holiday tomorrow.”  What holiday?  They told us there was a big national holiday the next day and everything would be closed down.  Huh.  This was news to us.  We asked a different tourist in the lobby on the way out and he said it was true, and that the holiday involved “sometimes sacrificing animals in the street.”  Ohhh.  O-kay.  Tucking that tidbit aside for the moment, we went on our merry way.

RUSTEM PASHA MOSQUE     After crossing the bridge, we wandered off to find the Egyptian Bazaar.  On our way, we found the Rustem Pasha Mosque.  I had written this mosque on my list of “things to see,” but Beth and Rachel weren’t too interested at first, so we didn’t make plans to go to it.  However, since we were in the area, they kindly said they’d check it out with me.  We found it just off the market and got there about 10 minutes before the noon call to prayer.  It has beautiful tile work and is a lot smaller and more intimate than the Blue Mosque.  I liked it.  I think Beth and Rachel did too.  It had a different vibe than the bigger mosque – it felt like an actual place of worship rather than a tourist attraction.  As you walk up the stairs (it’s on the second level, above a busy market street) the din from below gradually falls away until you step into a quiet, secluded courtyard filled with beautiful tile and plants.  The men working there didn’t speak much English but were very kind, loaning the other two girls scarves to cover their hair.  The only reason I had mine was because I figured I was going to freeze once the sun went down, and I wanted to be able to cover my neck.

Rustem Pasha Mosque.

After the mosque, we went to the Spice Market/Egyptian Bazaar, which was only about 1/2 block away.  Whoa.  So many people, so many fun things to look at and smell!  I put a short (18 seconds) video clip up, taken while the call to prayer was going on.  Check it out.  At the Spice Market, the marriage proposals started pouring in.  They continued at the Grand Bazaar.  All of them for Rachel.  Ha!  I have to say Beth and I just laughed, but then we got smart and had her help us with the bargaining since the men liked her so much.  Besides marriage proposals, here are some of the other “come buy the stuff I’m selling” lines we heard:  “Let me sell you something which you don’t need.”  “Yes, please?”  “Yes, please?”  “Yes, please?” one time followed by, “No thanks, I’m just looking,” in falsetto after I completely ignored him.  Also common: “How can I spend your money? and the ever-present, “Where are you from?” followed in one incident by the seller pointing at Beth and me and saying, “You two, Germany; and you (points at Rachel), Paradise.”  Ha!  Most sellers responded quite well to good humor and jokes fired right back at them.

I really wanted to buy a leather-bound journal, but they were too expensive at the first place we saw them (40 lira each, a little more than $22) and the guy wasn’t willing to bargain with me.  After a bit, we saw another guy selling them.  He was younger, which was a bonus, as the younger men gave us much better deals than the old men.  I decided to turn the tables by asking him where he was from before he could question me.  After a few minutes, Rachel and Beth came over to help (they’d been looking across the way at scarves).  We got him to sell me two journals for 40 lira (total).  I was happy.

Rachel made a special friend at the Grand Bazaar.  He sold earrings.  They talked a lot about music and to be honest I tuned out.  (Like that pun there?)  Anyways, he gave her his card with his phone number and email on it.  Beth and I gave her lots of crap.  She was not impressed.  With either offering.  I can’t imagine why!

We did hear a few (not many) lewd comments in addition to the friendly ones above, but I’m going to leave them out.  Walking away from the situation was the best way to handle those, as the men can’t very well follow you, or they’d be leaving all their merchandise up for grabs.  Most of the sellers were quite flirty, I guess you could say, but only one or two were actually obnoxious.

The Grand Bazaar is HUGE.  Here’s a map.  It looks like a map of a small town.  It’s all indoors, which I didn’t know.  We’re pretty sure we only covered a small small corner of it.  I don’t know much on the history of it.  The Egyptian Bazaar’s construction began in 1597 and was completed 67 years later.  (Took that off a handy-dandy plaque on one of the walls.  Couldn’t find one at the GB.)

After the markets (the Spice Market was WAY more crowded than the Grand Bazaar) we got some supper.  I was tempted to stick with the chicken shish I liked so much, but I decided to be brave and try something new.  I wished I wouldn’t have.  Oh well.  The rice was good.  And so was dessert.  We went back to the same dessert and coffee shop we’d patronized the night before.  The same waiter was there.  At one point, I went to the bathroom, and when I came back Rachel was singing to him, embarrassing him to no end.  He seemed to like it though.  It was fun to see one of the men get embarrassed for a change.  Then we went home and went to bed.  Rachel had to leave on Sunday morning, so she packed up all of her stuff first 😦

Tomorrow’s post: Istanbul: Days 4 and 5 (final days)

Click on a thumbnail below to open a slideshow viewer.  Navigate with the R and L arrows (way to the sides of the screen).

Istanbul: Day 2

This is how we began our Friday:

Free breakfast on the roof of the Sydney Hostel, with a view of the sea (that you cannot see in this picture, but I promise it's there!)

Breakfast consisted of hardboiled eggs, bread and jam (strawberry, apricot, and sour cherry), cheese, sausage, apple/orange/lemon/or cherry tea and coffee, cucumbers, raisins, and olives.  I passed on the flesh I mean bologna-colored meat and olives.  The cheese was interesting.  It was super salty.  We decided it was probably cat cheese since we saw so many cats the night before.

After breakfast we walked to the Blue Mosque, the mysterious building from the night before.  It was amazingly easy to get to – we were so close to our hostel the night before when we were walking in circles around it.  We laughed about how it took us over an hour to find the hostel from the Blue Mosque the first time, and in reality it’s less than a 10 minute walk.

[I’m going to insert a photo gallery at the end of the post so that you don’t have to scroll through 30 images.]

BLUE MOSQUE: The Blue Mosque’s real name is Sultan Ahmet Mosque.  It was built over a period of 7-10 years in the first quarter of the 17th century by Sultan Ahmet I, who died before it was completely finished.  The building has four large half-domes that meet one larger central dome.  Multiple other small domes are also present.  Huge columns support the four corners of the biggest dome’s connections.  These columns are aptly referred to as “elephant feet” because they are so large.   The mosque earned its nickname from the 20,000 blue tiles that decorate its interior. *

The mosque is unique because it has 6 minarets (towers).  They are used for the call to prayer, which happens 5x a day.  In the olden days, I guess someone must have climbed up there to call them out.  Today they have speakers wired up.  Effective speakers.  Very effective speakers.  Let’s just say that no matter where you are in the city, you will not miss the call.  But anyway, the minarets.  Most mosques have 4 or less of them.  When the Blue Mosque was built, the only other mosque in the world to have 6 was the one in Mecca.  Apparently there was a bit of an uproar, so the Sultan sent people to add a seventh to the one in Mecca.  That mosque currently has 9 minarets.  *

After removing our shoes and covering our hair we wandered around the interior of the mosque for a time.  The sensation of space in there is incredible.  It’s easy to see why domes and high ceilings are so common in places of worship.  Part of you just feels like it’s soaring up toward heaven.  I also really enjoyed the light.  There are hundreds of windows all over and light pours in through all of them.  I didn’t much care for the low-hanging chandeliers though.  I’m sure they have a purpose but to tell you the truth (I’m about to reveal my ignorance, I’m sure), I thought they were super annoying because they impeded the view of everything else.  Moreover, they were so low that they halted your feeling of ascension into space.  Maybe that’s the point.  At any rate, I wasn’t a fan.

The interior of the mosque is covered with geometric, calligraphic, and organic motifs.  They’re beautiful.  I couldn’t help but pity the people who had to install all the tiles though!  Setting tile on ceilings and walls is not my idea of a good time.  After we finished looking around, we walked across the hippodrome to the Hagia Sophia.

HAGIA SOPHIA: The Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, is a former Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum.  Its name means Divine Power or Holy Wisdom.  Prepare to be educated.  Here’s what the leaflets from the museum* state:

The current [there were 2 other earlier churches on the same site previously] Hagia Sophia was built by the two then prominent architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, by the order of Emperor Justinian I.  The construction that lasted 5 years long began on Feb. 23, 532.  1000 masters and 10,000 workers were employed and the church was inaugurated on Dec. 27, 537.

The ceiling mosaics decorated with floral and geometric motifs are the original ones made in the 6th century, but other mosaics with depictions were made after the ending of the iconoclast movement.

After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Fatih Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.  According to some historical documents, the church was in ruins.  However, after the conquest, not only it has not been destroyed, but it has also been preserved in the best manner since the present day, thanks to strengthening and renovation works.  Furthermore, with the addition of structures in the Ottoman style, the building continued to be a sacred space and a place for worship.

107 marbles and columns which were brought from different places of the Empire (Marmara Island, Teselya, Egypt, Iasos, Mora, France, Tunisia, Egriboz) were used the building and ornamentation.  All the surfaces except marble surrounded walls are ornamented with fine mosaics.

Seraph - a 6-winged angel. He's my favorite mosaic. His face was uncovered in 2009.

As we walked around, I kept trying to imagine building something this size in 532AD.  Pretty astonishing.  The dome is so high that the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside of it.  Unfortunately there’s another low chandelier hanging from the center, just like the Blue Mosque.  I very much enjoyed walking around and looking at everything though.  It’s really cool to think about how many other people that building has seen.  One solitary person visiting it or worshiping there seems pretty insignificant, but when you add everyone up over 1500 years, it’s easy to tell that the structure has been well-loved.  Worn marble clearly delineates paths through the doorways; it traces the repetitive action of doors scraping open and closed; it highlights the common places where countless humans have touched bases of columns.  It’s pretty neat to wonder about all the lives that have stepped across or caressed those exact same spots.

Hagia Sophia worn threshold

After the Hagia Sofia we were famished.  We decided to eat at Dervishes, which is just down the street.  We chose a table and ordered our food.  Presently, we were asked where we were from….

Before I finish this particular story, I have to tell you a different one.

The night before, we had had a discussion on Turkish men.  We were trying to figure out if we were going to have problems with them being too forward and demanding.  I told Beth and Rachel that they didn’t need to worry – I’d just put on my “neutral face,” which is how I look when I’m not experiencing a strong emotion of one kind or another.  Just neutral.  For some reason it seems to scare men away pretty easily and frequently makes people who don’t know me think I’m PO’ed.  They didn’t believe me.

Okay, back to lunch.  We told the waiter we were from America, telling the truth this time.  His response was, “Oh, but I didn’t think so.”  We asked why not, and he said, “Usually your people are so happy and smiling.  But you (looking directly at me), you are not.  You seem so sad.  Why?  You not like Istanbul?”  I laughed and assured him that I did.  When he left, I got to childishly remind the other two about our “neutral face” conversation.  Ha!  I’m going to put a picture of lunch in now.  There will still be a gallery at the end!

lunch at Dervish's with fresh some fantastic freshly pressed pomegranate juice

TOPKAPI PALACE: After lunch we trekked down to Topkapi Palace.  Of the three places we’d been so far that day it was my least favorite.  It’s a huge complex.  The architecture is beautiful, as we were coming to expect.  They had some neat things to look at (lots of old metalwork, religious relics, inscriptions on stones, and clothes).  However, their rooms with the ceramics were CLOSED.  I was so disappointed.  Jona and Janos had told me that the palace’s collection of Chinese porcelains is spectacular.  Istanbul (Constantinople) was a major part of the Silk Road.  Because of its location and its wealth, some truly amazing collections were built up.  I was really looking forward to seeing them.  I guess I’ll just have to go back, huh?

The palace has a section filled with religious relics.  I thought it was curious how many of them I identified with.  I didn’t know that Islam also uses the Old Testament, like Christianity and Judaism.  Topkapi Palace claims to have the sword of David, a bowl used by Abraham, Moses’ staff, and a piece of St. John the Baptist’s skull.

BASILICA CISTERN: We stopped at the Basilica Cistern when we were done at the palace.  You have to go down a ramp and then some stairs to get to it.  Along the way are signs telling you not to stop and take pictures.  I kept wondering what they were talking about.  Then we went through the door.  I stopped in my tracks.  I distinctly recall saying, “Oh!” and then wanting to stand there for a little bit.  The pre-training kicked in though, and I robotically moved forward, down the remaining steps.  Here’s what the sign at the entrance says about the cistern:

Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinianus, the most prosperous period of the East Roman Empire, the cistern Basilica is 70m in width and 140m in length.  The dome, covering an area of 9800m2, is supported by 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows each consisting of 28 columns placed at 4m 90cm from one another.  The capitals of these 9m high columns are a blend of the Ionic and Corinthian styles with a few exceptions which are in the Doric style and not ornamented.  The cistern is surrounded by a 4m thick wall of brick and the mortar used in construction is very special and water-proof.  The water reserved in the cistern was transported from the Belgrade forest which is 19 km away from the city.

Water was brought from the forest via aqueducts, also built on the order of Emperor Justinian I.  He was quite the guy, wasn’t he?  The water was (as far as I know) used for all manner of things in the city.

After the palace and the cistern we scoped out the historical Cemberlitas Hamami (Turkish bath).  We snagged a few fliers on their services and read them while eating supper at the Cozy Restaurant and Cafe, on the main drag of Istanbul’s historical district.  Like all of our other meals, it was delicious!  I had chicken shish for the second night in a row.  We got dessert at a little coffee/pastry place later.  It was really tasty too.

TURKISH BATH: Our last activity of the evening was going to the bath.  We went to the previously mentioned Cemberlitas Hamami, which was built in 1584.  We each signed up for the bath, a massage, and a facial.  They gave us plastic tokens to redeem for each service.  After paying, we were ushered upstairs into a changing area, where they handed us towels, black disposable swimsuit bottoms, flip flops, and a scrubby cloth that looked like an oven mitt.  We weren’t quite sure what to do with the black undies at first, because they came in little pink sachets and we didn’t know what they were.  (We didn’t know if we were supposed to open them or bring them with us to the bath.)  If there had been a video camera on us trying to figure out this whole process (our experience lasted 2 hours) I bet the footage could have won America’s Funniest Home videos.  Three clueless Americans trying to figure out the Turkish bath.  Pretty funny!

When we were finally changed and wrapped up in towels we were shown back downstairs.  A lady came and grabbed Rachel’s hand.  She took her bath token and brought her behind a door.  Steam came out and we could see that it was the bath area.  Because she hadn’t taken my token or Beth’s token, we weren’t sure if we could go inside.  We stood there awkwardly until a girl who was sitting on a bench waiting for her massage told us we could probably go in.  We told her that a lady had taken our other friend’s token and brought her back there, but she hadn’t taken ours.  The girl said something like, “She took your friend?  You should go inside for sure!”  So we did.  They took our tokens at the door but didn’t tell us what to do.  Rachel was already laying on the big central marble slab.  It’s cut into an octagonal shape, and one woman lies on each segment of the octagon.  We figured we should probably lie down on it too.  But there weren’t any spots!  So we had to stand there for a few minutes until some opened up.

I was too tall for the slab, so when the woman behind me was getting scrubbed, her washer-lady kept patting my feet and gesturing for me to scoot forward.  That caused the lady in front of me to pat my head and motion for me to move backward.  I ended up deciding to lie there diagonally.  After getting scrubbed down, I was led to a low fountain.  I sat on the edge while the lady washed my hair.  She rinsed it with buckets of fairly cold water from the fountain, one after the other after the other in rapid succession.  It got to a point where I didn’t have time to breathe!  Thankfully she finished before I hyperventilated.  I got to go to a hot tub after that and warm up.  It was nice.  After soaking for some time, we got out to get out massages and facials, which were in a different room.  The masseuses were much kinder than the wash ladies.  I hate to say it, but I think if we had been Turkish, we would have gotten treated a little bit better during the first half of our bath.  It was still fun though.  We were all glad we went.

When we were all finished, we wrapped up in warm dry towels and went to a sort of relaxation area, filled with couches and tables.  We sat and sipped apple tea and water.  Then we went back up to our lockers, dressed, and headed off to our hostel for a good night’s sleep!

If you click on one of the thumbnails below, a larger slideshow will open up – move through the pics by clicking the left and right arrows (way off to the sides).


Istanbul: Day 3.  A day of marriage proposals.  Galata Tower, The Spice (Egyptian) Market, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar.  If you’d like to read Beth’s account or see her pictures, visit


Istanbul: The First Night

After hearing some horror stories about women traveling in Turkey, I was a little afraid to go to Istanbul.  I’m so glad I did!  It’s an amazing conglomeration of sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and marriage proposals.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone out there, and I’d love to go back some day.  My friend Beth and I started planning our trip a month or so ago.  Beth lives in Germany right now and since we haven’t seen each other in a while (a few years?) we decided to meet up while we’re on the same continent.  One of her other friends, Rachel, also joined us.

The trip to Turkey was quick and easy.  I hopped on a Turkish airlines flight from Budapest and a couple of hours later it landed in Instanbul.  I got to sit in the exit row, which was nice.  It was a bit weird though, because there weren’t any windows and I didn’t have a seat in front of me.  They fed us well too, which was completely unexpected.  On a 2-hour flight in the US you might get water or OJ or coffee or maybe pop and pretzels if you’re lucky.

Description from the menu (yes, they handed out menus), "French green bean in olive oil, Grilled chicken medallions with mustard curry butter and ratatouille tomato rice, Plum cake, Ovenfresh bread." Pretty fancy, eh? I thought so! Please note how my legs are stretched alllllllll the way out. Ahhh! So nice!

So, once I got over the surprise pleasure of “free” food and scarfed it down, it was time to land.  When I got off the plane I wasn’t sure what to do because I was supposed to meet Beth and Rachel at the Starbucks on the International Arrivals level.  I had no idea where that was and I couldn’t find a handy-dandy map anywhere.  So I started asking questions.  Finally I was told to go through passport control.  I bought my visa ($20 US) and got in line.  It was long.  There was entertainment provided, however.  A little boy was being quite naughty, running away from his mom and grandpa.  First he ran to the left, out of the box full of switchbacks everyone winds through, so his grandpa had to duck under the railing and chase after him.  Unfortunately, he was a cute little guy and it was pretty funny, so lots of people (including me) laughed… encouraging him.  Whoops.  He proceeded to run away from them several more times, only these times he ran forward, past the passport checkpoint.  His mom had to keep running past the booths to grab him and get him behind the line.  They eventually made it through though.  I hope they went directly to a park, without passing go.

Beth and Rachel were waiting outside the doors you spill out of into a concourse.  It was a relief to see them.  We hit up an ATM for some lira and then went to the metro.  Their metro and tram stations are nice because they have helpful people stationed at them.  We had to ask how to work the token machines.  Why are they always so non-intuitive?  It seems like no matter where I’ve been in the world, it’s always a battle to figure out how to get the right ticket or token for the ride.

Anyway, we worked it out and rode to a different station where we got on the tram.  We got off at Sultanahmet, which was the closest stop to our hostel.  Sultanahmet is the area with most of the major tourist attractions.  It’s home to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, Basilica Cistern, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and a famous spire that I can’t remember the name of right now.  Topkapi Palace and the Archaeology Museum are very near as well.

It was dark even though it was only about 5:00pm, and we wandered around for quite some time.  We kept seeing all these cool buildings lit up but we had no idea where we were, so we didn’t know what we were looking at.

"Guys, I'm pretty sure that's something that's probably on the map." "Yeah, but which one?"

There were lots of people on the street but we didn’t know if it was okay to talk to them or not.  We’d read that it’s safest to just ignore all the men who approach you there.  And it was only men who were coming up to us and asking if we needed help.

Rachel and Beth trying to read a map on the iPhone. We eventually gave up and switched to an old-school paper map.

Too bad cats can’t speak, because we saw hundreds of them on the streets.  Okay, maybe not hundreds, but dozens probably.  We finally found a policeman and asked directions.  He pointed us down a little street.  So we wandered in circles in a different, less monument-filled area for a while.  Then we asked some German tourists (who were all over, btw – half of Germany must have been in Istanbul this weekend) and then we asked a Best Western doorman.  And then we found it.  Sydney Hostel.  Home Sweet Home.

The guys running the hostel are really friendly.  They showed us our room, which stank to high heaven.  We had three beds and a private bath.  The beds and bathroom were clean, despite the noxious smell.  We opened the window, dumped our packs and went to find supper.  We ate at a place just up the street from our hostel.  It was delicious.  Sitting outside on couches blasted by powerful heaters, I think we all could have fallen asleep quite easily.  Our server was very friendly, like all of the men we met there; his first question for us was, “Where are you from?”  Every man we came into contact with there, all weekend, asked us this question.  We didn’t know what to do at first, so Rachel said we were all from China.  After some more questioning she said we were all from LA.  (Untruths, all of it, FYI.)  Pretty soon, our food came and we chowed down.

At the restaurant near our hostel. Food has never tasted so good! Rachel had lamb, Beth had ?, I had chicken shish. It was my favorite meal of the weekend.

We accepted some free apple tea after our meal but declined on the offer of a turn on the hookah or water pipe.  Ha!

Apple tea "on the house" after our meal. Apple tea is big - they serve and drink it everywhere. It's not very 'tea-like' - it's sweet and more like apple Tang.

Paying the bill. Turkish restaurants frequently give you your check in a funny treasure box. You put your money inside and give it back.

After eating we went back to our lavender-walled and styrofoam-crown molding room at the hostel, planned our next day, and crashed.

Next post: Istanbul, Day 1 (I know, I know, I lied on my post yesterday and said that would be today’s post.  Sorry!)

Contents: More cats, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, “Your People” conversation, Basilica Cistern, and a Turkish bath…