For those of you who guessed where last week’s photo of the shark urinal was in a restaurant in Istanbul, well done! For 6 days I got to spend time with friends and family visiting Istanbul – one of my favorite cities. Why? It is full of life; it is truly where East meets West in architecture as well as food and drink; it has a rich history; the shopping is amazing; the people are wonderful.
Istanbul has changed over the 30 years that I have been going to visit the city. (Next week will be some restaurant reviews to entice others to go to Istanbul.) It has gotten bigger, more populated, and more conservative than it used to be. Thirty years ago it was not as cosmopolitan either. It had Western architecture mixed with the Eastern older structures and Ottoman buildings, but now in parts of it one could be in Paris in an elegant restaurant and many people speak English now which is very helpful for those of us who don’t find Turkish an easy language to learn. Now there are more extremes than I first noticed – more Westernized and yet more conservative Islamic attire with women being veiled or with headscarves to cover their hair.
There are many areas of Istanbul, but the most well known is the Golden Horn where some of the most famous sites are found: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Roman Cisterns, and the Sultanahmet Mosque (also called the Blue Mosque). Hagia Sophia started life in the sixth century as a Greek Orthodox Church and in 1453 was converted to a mosque. Ataturk decided it should be a secular museum. Interestingly the church was built atop Roman ruins and stands today where two prior churches had been built and destroyed. It has the second largest dome in the world according to the facts listed by the museum (the largest is the Pantheon in Rome). Recently, the Turkish government ordered the demolition of three skyscrapers to preserve the Istanbul skyline and view of Hagia Sophia.
Topkapi is the palace that was finished in the 1460s and was the home of the Ottoman Empire and was the residence of the sultans and wives until 1856. It is an amazing compound with gardens, religious relics, and beautiful jewels, swords, and exquisite views of the city. It really takes multiple trips to uncover all the nooks and crannies. If you are going, remember it is closed on Tuesdays.
Another of my favorites is the Roman Cisterns. On a hot day it is the coolest place in Istanbul. As The Guardian says:
The city’s most unexpectedly romantic attraction, the Basilica Cistern, offers an insight into the complicated system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul from Thrace (an area of the south-east Balkans now constituting Turkish land n the European mainland, and a chunk of Bulgaria). Constructed in the sixth century and then forgotten for centuries, the cistern that once stored the water has been fitted with lights and music. Fish flitter around the bases of the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Don’t miss the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column, proof that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as little more than reusable rubble.
The last structure in this area is the Blue Mosque built from 1609 to 1616 that is open to visitors to see the beautiful tile work using the pattern of tulips in more than 50 designs. It is still a functioning mosque so women must cover their heads and wear “appropriate dress,” i.e. nothing above the knee and covering the shoulders. The building is also unusual in that it has six minarets whereas most mosques have four or less.
All of these sites are within walking distance of each other but cannot be easily seen in one day so plan for two.
Next week: Shopping and restaurants!