Istanbul, Turkey

[ 3 ] July 14, 2011 |

A Whole New World

With an unofficial population of 16 million residents, Istanbul is Europe’s largest city topping London by nearly 4 million residents.  It was once known as Byzantium during its pagan days, then Constantinople as it emerged as the capitol of the Roman Empire, and finally Istanbul during the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.  Straddling two continents (Europe and Asia), this dynamic modern city was nothing what I expected.  It’s surprisingly secularized despite being 98% Islamic.  The people are shockingly friendly.  Overall it was an exotic experience like no other.

July 4th in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia:  Our first stop in Istanbul was the Hagia Sophia, probably the most venerated church outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Hagia Sophia (meaning the Church of Holy Wisdom) was by far my favorite site in Istanbul.  Originally established in 360 AD, it was the site of the first official Christian Church of the Roman Empire at the time when the Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.  After the first two churches we’re destroyed by fires, Emperor Justinian commissioned the construction of the present structure which was completed in 537 AD.   Aside from its historical importance the structure is an architectural marvel.  Supported by four arches the interior dome spans an area so large it can house 7,000 parishioners and was the largest dome and church interior in the world for 1,100 years until the completion of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1626.  With the alters of most Christian churches facing East and Mecca conveniently only 9 degrees off a direct east line in Istanbul, most churches in the city where converted into mosques following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.  Being the largest and most important religious facility in the Roman Empire, the Ottomans were quick to adopt the Hagia Sophia as the official church of their Empire as well.  Fun fact, the traditional multi-domed architecture of most mosques as we know them today around the world all emulate the original design of the Hagia Sophia.  Also since no faces are allowed in Islamic art, at the time of conversion from church to mosque, all the Christian mosaics where covered up with layers of limestone plaster.  Little did the Ottomans realize that limestone was a perfect preservation tool for these mosaics and they are just recently being uncovered by the museum staff.  In short, this is no doubt my favorite historical and architectural site I’ve encountered on our journey thus far.  If you are ever in istanbul, please don’t miss this one.

Outside of the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Mosaic (Notice the Globe in Angel's Left Hand - Eastern Church Believed World was Round in 600 BC)

More Ancient Mosaics

One of the best parts of our Hagia Sophia experience was randomly meeting a fellow Penn ’04 grad and her husband who now live and work in Mumbai.  We had such a good time we ended up hanging out with for them for the next couple days and are looking forward to seeing them again when we make our way through India.

Penn Friends

Blue Mosque:  Known to tourists as the Blue Mosque, the real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque built by the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1616.  It sits only a few hundred meters from the Hagia Sophia and was built to be the first “imperial mosque” built under his purview – whatever that means.  Built with six minarets, many worshipers refused to go to this mosque when it was initially opened out of respect for Mecca since the official mosque in mecca at the time only had six minarets as well.  So many people refused to go in fact that the Sultan paid for another minaret to be added to Mecca which solved the problem.  While the Hagia Sophia has long been a museum, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still an active mosque.  Being the first active mosque we’ve ever been to it was certainly a new experience but one we we’re looking forward to.  We we’re a bit nervous about making sure we didn’t violate any customs or rules but once we’re inside our hesitation went drifting away.  We both removed our shoes and  Al was given a blue scarf to cover up with.  Both men and women we’re inside praying.  Women had on various styles of clothing.  Some had on full black burkas with only eyes exposed.  Others had on colorful scarves with completely modern outfits.  Our favorite part was meeting two young boys about 4 years old dressed in elaborate outfits.  Apparently it was some sort of circumcision ceremony similar to a Jewish Bris.  Poor kids.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque)

Up Close at Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Alison Under Wraps

Interior of Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Circumcision Celebration - These Kids Have NO Idea What's About to Happen

Underground Cistern:  After Hagia Sophia we made our way across the street with our new friends to check out an underground cistern dating back to the Byzantine times.  Just one of dozens of cisterns built around the city, they were initially constructed so that the citizenry would have access to water during times of war when the city was under siege (apparently this happened quite often).  Interestingly they would keep fish inside the cisterns as a way to tell if the water had been poisoned – if the fish we’re alive they knew the water was safe to drink.

Byzantine Era Underground Cistern Below Istanbul

Medusa Head in Underground Cistern

Topkapi Palace:  Our final historical stop was a visit to the Topkapi Palace, the royal palace of the Ottoman Empire. A massive facility occupying nearly the entire tip of the golden horn (the horn shaped landmass making up the ancient part of the city).  With troves of tourists at the palace, we fled to the least occupied part of the complex we could find and found ourselves at the Sultan’s private quarters and Harem.  One of the most elaborate and ornate parts of the entire palace it was well worth the visit.  After the Harem we cued up to see the treasury, the equivalent of the crown jewels of the Ottoman Empire.  With our stomachs growling we promptly made our exit and and a b-line to the nearest cafe.

Ottoman March in front of Topkapi Palace

Stained Glass Windows at Topkapi Palace

The Sultan's Harem at Topkapi Palace

Not Constantinople:  If you happened to be a kid growing up watching cartoons in the 90′s you’ve probably seen this little piece of Americana.  While completely random, I couldn’t resist sharing the clip with you.  For some reason my memory of it dislodged when I landed in Istanbul and I couldn’t get the tune out of my head the entire trip.  Enjoy.

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Category: Blog, Destinations, Featured Posts, Pat's Blog, Turkey

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  1. A Warm Welcome – Mumbai, India : Here's 2 Now | February 11, 2013
  1. Arjun says:

    Pat and Alison,

    Thanks for including us in your blog. We had a fantastic time hanging out with you both as well and look forward to your India visit!!!

    Cheers,
    Lav & Arjun

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