Istanbul: life on the edge
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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As I mentioned in the entry lead-up I had no idea what to expect of Istanbul. It features prominently in world history - particularly in the period of the late Roman empire when it became its eastern capital (named Constantinople back then) - and it has always lain on the precipice between east and west, so it has been the strategic focus whenever the sophistication of Europe and the immense wildness of Eurasian plain collide.
All that results in a place with so many personalities that it's hard to know how to begin describing it. So let's just say that while it certainly retains the Middle Eastern flavour it's well on the way to European sophistication as well - adding eastern spice to an otherwise thoroughly modern western city. After four days in town I'm happy to say that I like it and feel very comfortable here. And although I feel like I'm being taken for a ride on the prices I'd say I'll be coming back again in the near future.
So what's it all about? This entry will cover the major attractions around town while the next will have to cover sights further afield. Whilst there is a lot to see and do here (my mate Olof lived in Istanbul for two years and 'only saw 10% of it'), many of the big ticket attractions are centrally located and can be done in a short, sharp burst of expended energy. As the ladies out there will appreciate, it all depends on how much shopping you do really!
The Blue Mosque, dating from the early 17th century, is one of the big tickets and probably the most picturesque of the central sights. It's a striking collection of slender minarets and bobbling half domes set amongst gardens and fountains. Very nice indeed. The large number of minarets is unusual apparently - I heard that the architect wasn't great on Turkish and mistook the word 'gold' for 'six', so the benefactor got a few more minarets than he bargained for. Woopsidoodle. Still, the result is very pleasing on the eye at any time of the day...
Internally it is pretty impressive too. Light cascades through stained glass windows which combines with blue tiles inside to create and a funky luminescent aura that actually gives the mosque its name. That architect seems to have been an accidental hero all round.
Across the way is another heavyweight attraction - the Aya Sofia, or 'Church of Holy Wisdom'. Emperor Justinian ordered its construction in 532 on the site of an old basilica that was burnt down in a revolt. His aim was to build the grandest church in the world and for more than 1,000 years it was definitely the largest in Christianity. I can see why - it's an absolute monster!
From a long reception hall, the entrance to the inner sanctum actually has nine separate doors. The centre one was reserved for use by the Emperor and each successive door moving outwards was reserved for high ranking bigwigs. The general populace could only enter through the furthest doors from the centre.
Inside it's just as grand with ornate paintwork and mosaics, columns and arches, gilded everything and plenty of stained glass to illuminate it all. The result is a giant cavern in which even the large amount of tourists you're likely to encounter if you visit knock about, like rocks in a hollow log.
Considering that the church was converted into a mosque once the city was taken by Mehmet the Conqueror in the late 15th century, it is surprising to find a dozen or so dazzling mosaics around the site. Most of these are located on the upper gallery level so maybe they were plastered over or just couldn't be reached. Whatever the case it is an impressive collection that my camera couldn't quite cope with, excepting the photo of JC below.
Onwards and westwards to the hippodrome, the elongated semi-circle of an ancient racetrack in Roman times and now a collection of obelisks and columns surrounded by a drag-strip. I love the Egyptian hieroglyph numbers that adorn the piazzas of Rome, so it was great to see another one swiped from some hapless site down south and dragged across the Med to Istanbul. Lord knows why they don't ask for these back - it's pretty obvious where they come from. At least they get the attention they deserve in these cities.
Just across the road is the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum that I accidentally paid for (thinking it was something else). Housed in an impressive palace that is an excellent example of 16th century Ottoman architecture, this is where you come to see wall to floor Turkish carpets, glazed tiles, religious carvings, giant candle sticks and most importantly, the beautifully bound and illuminated Korans. Downstairs I also found my first Yurt of the trip (see above right), which are only called that on this end of the Eurasian plate. Whilst they are similar these definitely look a little different to the Mongolian 'Ger' counterparts I'm more familiar with...
$10 entry for a dank Cistern! 'This had better be good' was all I could say to the ticket seller. Even though it is a little expensive I wasn't to be disappointed. The Basilica Cistern adjacent to Aya Sofia and under the grand arch that all distances in the Eastern Empire used to be measured from has aged well over the years and been tastefully redecorated for the modern age, with mood lighting and spooky music to enhance the experience.
The cistern is quite extensive and was designed to supply the city with water in both times of peace and also of siege. Dark fish swim about nowadays, eating from some undetermined food source, and for some reason the builders used two large Medusa heads in the construction of the columns. One lays on its side, the other upside down. Those crazy Romans - very bizarre.
Finally, because the clothes I've been travelling in are starting to resemble beggar's rags it was time to check out the famous Grand Bazaar and possibly pick up some replacements. Mystery had also mentioned that things like towels, leather and shoes are also good value here so the thought of stocking up for the future was in the back of the mind as well. It was time to go shopping!
The Bazaar is pretty grand - a Middle Eastern version of a giant shopping mall, cleaner and more tastefully executed than in other capitals I've recently visited. Some things are cheap, others not but in the end I came away with about 9KG of stuff I had to post as well as new jeans to replace those I'd worn through and shoes that will relegate my stinky old pair to the bin. Successful all round and somewhat therapeutic - Istanbul is a bit of a rest stop after all!
Next entry -> Palaces on the Golden Horn and boats up the Bosphorus
You need to have a lot of spare money and time on your hands to come up with one of these.
Some would say you need to be a few ants short of a picnic too.