Istanbul, not Constantinople

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

After 3 hectic weeks of exploring new territory, seeing new cultures (well, for me anyway), and pushing experimental foodstuffs around my plate, Istanbul is certainly a welcome change. It is a major tourist trap with all modern day conveniences and luxuries, and whilst it inevitably lacks some of the charm and character of Syria or Egypt, it makes up for this by offering such luxuries as wine with dinner (only rank Turkish wine though, but it's a start) and actual real vegetables.

My group tour ended here on the first day, so I had 4 days to see as much as I could at my own usual frantic pace, interrupted only by my ongoing cursed stomach issue. There is a lot to see here, Istanbul was an ancient greek city state, and capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. There are relics and buildings dating back to each of these eras. It is also clean, safe, crazily expensive and completely overrun with tourists.

My complaints about the few tourist buses in Syria seem very trivial now. Visitng any attraction here involves queuing up for an hour or so in crushing, disorganised hordes of people. In the absence of any civilised queuing system, the only way to gain entry is to push past people. Luckily, the queuing was all worthwhile as the main attractions here are absolutely mindblowing.  The Hagia Sofia is the most impressive building I have ever been in. It is >1,500 years old and was the largest enclosed space in the world for over a thousand years, and its 30m high dome was the largest in the world. No amount of reading such facts and figures can prepare you for actually going inside though, it is an epic building, which utterly dwarves the hordes of tourists milling around inside. Even today it is an awe inspiring structure, but 1500 years ago when nothing had yet been built to compare,it must have been truly staggering.

The blue mosque, which is almost next door, is almost as impressive, but is 1000 years younger. What is lacks in terms of scale is made up for by the intricate and elaborate blue and white tiled interior, which makes it seem like you are inside a giant Chinese teapot. It is still a working mosque, unlike Hagia Sofia which is now a museum.

The Topkapi palace, a vast, sprawling complex of palaces, living quarters and harems is the third must-see site – it was the seat of power for the Ottoman sultans and their utterly insane practices. Every building here is ridiculously ornate, especially the Harem. This is where the sultan kept his army of young concubines, and it was run by a bureuacracy of black eunuchs. 

The best thing about Istanbul is that you can see these amazing sights and not have to compromise with food or accommodation as you do elsewhere in the middle east. The day I saw the above sights finished up in a pub watching the champions league final with afew of the local Efes beers. 

Now I am off to Lake Como for a wedding before heading back to the UK for a month to watch the world cup and prepare for my next trip, a 2 month trip through Africa starting in July.
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