Istanbul: the final days

Before I write the last Istanbul post, I’m going to throw a question out there about the flag counter I have installed on my site – It says I’ve had 246 visitors, but according to my wordpress stats, I had 324 visitors this week and there have been 2,123 overall.  I don’t know which one to believe… does anyone know?  It’s bugging me!

Okay, moving on.  Rachel left on Sunday, after admonishing Beth and I to photograph any and all sacrifices of animals that we saw in the streets (due to the holiday).  Before this, however, she made sure to stock up on as much Turkish Delight as she could carry, especially the pistachio kind.  Umm, umm!  Deeelicious.  She was our supplier the day before, preventing a lot of Hanger from happening while we shopped.  Thanks, Rachel!

When she left, Beth and I walked around looking for sacrifices.  Finding none, we looked for an open museum.  Failing at that as well, we stopped in a shop to look at the funny but strangely comfortable Turkish pants.  I’d purchased a pair the day before, with help from Rachel’s haggling skills.  (The poor guy working in that shop was defenseless!  He got so flustered.  He ended up desperately yanking a mannequin off the wall and stripping it bare after he couldn’t find the same pants in his racks of merchandise and Rachel declared that we were leaving because he was too slow.  When we finally paid and left him alone, he made us promise to tell his older brother, who was watching the stuff set up outside the shop, that he did a good job.  Too funny!)  Anyway, we looked at some other pants, somehow striking a good deal without Rachel.  We had to promise that we wouldn’t try to return them later (or something, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about) and we had to be quiet about how much we paid as there were two other older ladies in the shop at that time.  Older ladies must be better marks.  Huh.

Then we ate lunch.  We were the only two in the restaurant.  I thought it was a little creepy.  I felt like the waiter guy was staring at us the whole time, and not in a friendly manner.  He sat facing us a few tables away and messed around with his laptop the whole time we were eating.  I was glad to pay and get out of there.

MUSEUMS:     After lunch, the museums opened (1:00 b/c of the holiday).  We went to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts first.  The museum has sections for Calligraphy and Manuscripts (beautiful!!), Damascus Documents, Carpets and Rugs, Woodenware, Metal-Glass-Ceramics, Stoneware, and a few others.  I really wanted to see the ceramics since we didn’t get to see the ones at Topkapi Palace.  There weren’t that many of them.  Overall, the pieces (not just the ceramic ones) in the museum were nice.  I thought a few of the “restoration” jobs were a bit out of place, however, and I wasn’t totally convinced that preservation is a main focus of this particular museum.

From here we went to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.  There are three buildings: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, Museum of Archaeology, and the Museum of the Tiled Kiosk.

The Museum of Archaeology “houses over 1 million artifacts that belong to various cultures collected from Imperial territories.”  The Museum of the Ancient Orient houses a lot of Egyptian artifacts.  I was surprised at the geographic area represented in this museum.  It was different than what I think of when I hear the phrase “Ancient Orient.”  I think I maybe just don’t know enough history?  The Tiled Kiosk museum was exactly what I thought it would be though!  Lots and Lots of tiles and other ceramics.  Small but nice.

After the museums, we walked to the Blue Mosque to see it at twilight.  Then we ate, packed, and went to bed.

LAST DAY:     On our last day, which was really only a morning, we walked to Suleymaniye Mosque.  It’s supposed to be the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul.  We were a little hesitant to walk there because we had a hard time judging distances on our maps, and we didn’t want to miss our flights.  But we made it quite quickly.  It’s near the University, so it’s fairly easy to find.  (Note: The university is walled off, so you can’t walk through it.  There are guards at the gates!)

The whole way there I was telling Beth how I wanted to buy another cup of freshly pressed pomegranate juice before we left.  I’d decided I was willing to pay up to 7 lira for it.  There was a young guy (15, maybe?) selling some right outside the mosque, so after paying to use the disgusting bathrooms (which were made more repellent by the presence of fake flowers tucked all over the place), we stopped to get some.  Imagine my delight when the response to “how much?” was “1 lira”!  I almost felt bad giving him just one when I was prepared to pay so much more.  The guys selling it outside the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque charge 5 and the restaurants are sometimes even higher.  So we sipped our juice as we walked back to the tram line.  We stopped at a little man selling scarves on the street.  Good thing we’d finished our juice because he gave us hot chai tea.  So we carried that to a courtyard outside the university where we drank it and chatted.

Soon enough, we had to go catch our tram to the airport.  We got there with what we thought was plenty of time (over 2 hours) but the line for passport control was, well, out of control.  We both made our flights though.  What a trip!  Here are some pictures:  Click on one to make it bigger and open a slideshow viewer.  Navigate with the left and right arrows on the far edges of your screen.


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