I am so glad that we had the chance to visit this amazing city. With current world events, virtually every major cruise line has eliminated Istanbul as a port of call. When we visited, there were some people on the cruise that chose to stay on the ship rather than taking the chance of being the victim of terrorism. In the month prior to our visit, there had been bombings and protests in the capitol city of Turkey, Ankara. This was a very long way away from Istanbul, so we were not too concerned. It is very sad how much has changed in less than a year.
Istanbul is a very unique city in that part of the city is located in Europe, and part in Asia. The commercial part of the city is in the European portion; the Asian portion is predominantly residential. Although there is a strong Muslim influence in Turkey, it is a republic, and is a secular nation. Historically, the nation is about 3000 years old, originally known as Lygos. The Greeks took over in the 7th century BC, and then the Romans occupied the city, which became known as Byzantium. In 330 AD, Byzantium became Constantinople, which was the capitol of the Roman Empire. The Muslims took over in 1453, and it became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire. The republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and the capitol was moved to Ankara.
The weather today was deceiving. When we got up, we went out on the balcony to watch the ship dock. It was warm and sunny, so I dressed for the weather. By the time our tour started, it had become cold and windy; I had a cold, miserable day! Fortunately, I had brought a pashmina to use as a headscarf, so I was able to use it for warmth as well.
On the upside, we had been on several tours with the same group of people, and were getting to be friends with one couple in particular, Zahra and Amin. By the time the Mediterranean portion of our cruise was done we were on all except for one tour together! One of the reasons that we like doing independent tours is that you are much more likely to see the same people over and over again, and lasting friendships develop.
Our tour begins at the Topkapi Palace. In its heyday, 4000 people lived in the palace (1400’s to 1800’s). Of those, 900-1000 were kitchen workers. Two meals were served per day. Quite the production to serve that many people! We entered the first courtyard through the Imperial Gate. The Gate of Salutation led to the second courtyard, where originally the peacocks and gazelles roamed. It was also where the Sultan met with audiences. There were fountains to create white noise so that people were prevented from eavesdropping.
There were dogs everywhere! The dogs have their ears tagged, and are taken care of on site.
We then went through the Imperial Council Chambers. The Sultan had a separate room in the chambers where he would listen in to what the council was discussing. If he did not like the topic, he would move the curtain separating him from the council 3 to 4 times.
The Gate of Felicity led to the 3rd courtyard, which is where the Sultan spent his time (when he wasn’t in his harems!). We toured some areas that had crown jewels, etc., but photography was not allowed.
Most of the main sites in Istanbul are located in the Sultahahmet area, and are very close to each other. Unfortunately, today was a national holiday, so the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar were closed. Bummer.
We visited the Hagia Sophia, which has an interesting history. It was originally a church, then a mosque, and now a historical museum, so there are elements of both Islam and Christianity contained within. Some of the iconography had been covered when the church was converted to a mosque, but has now been uncovered. This was a really beautiful place.
We had a delicious lunch with our tour group: flat bread, pita bread with beef and lamb, chicken kebabs, rice pilaf, broiled tomatoes and peppers. Dessert was pomegranate ice cream and baklava. Heaven!
Since there is a strong Muslim influence in Turkey, there is a call to prayer 5 times per day. It is broadcast over loudspeakers. During prayer times, you are not allowed to enter the Blue Mosque, which was our next stop.
I had been looking forward to seeing the Blue Mosque. I have never entered any mosque, and this one was supposed to be spectacular. Before entering, there were signs showing what was appropriate/inappropriate to wear inside the mosque. If a woman did not have a headscarf, one was provided for her. All were given plastic bags to put your shoes in while in the mosque. There were separate areas for men and women to prepare to enter the mosque, as well as separate areas for worship within the mosque.
I am not sure what I was expecting, but the mosque was a bit disappointing to me. Perhaps one of the reasons was that, unlike Christian churches, no images are allowed, so there was no artwork. There were, however, tessellations galore (former math geek here!), which were quite beautiful. After touring the bazaar, we went outside, but our shoes back on, removed headscarves, and continued on.
We walked through the Hippodrome, which was where a variety of events took place, including games and riots. There were several obelisks, all of which were quite old.
Although the major bazaars were closed, there was a small bazaar that our tour guide found for us. We paid a Euro to use the nasty toilets, and then went souvenir shopping. We tried to find a souvenir to take back with us, but were not very impressed with what was available. The majority of shops were selling ceramics (too hard to carry home), scarfs (don’t need), and jewelry (don’t want; questionable quality). We did get free samples of turkish delight at one of the shops.
We had some time to kill, so wandered around outside the bazaar. We passed a rug shop; the owner tried to come out and sell me a rug “for my dowry”. Too funny!
Back to the ship by 5 pm. We were pretty tired by now, and happy to be heading west again; we regain the hour we lost when heading east!