The day I arrived in Istanbul was cool, but beautifully sunny, and warm enough to walk around in a T-shirt. However, the next day, when I had planned to hit some of the sites of Sultanamhet (old Istanbul), that changed. The rain came down and temperatures dropped to 12-13 degrees during the day, at 7-8 at night. I was freezing, even with 4 layers of merino, cotton and a feather and down vest. As tempting as it was to spend the day huddled next to the radiator in the apartment, I was here on a mission to see the sites, and I stoically braved the elements. (I hear the cries of ‘toughen up’, but you forget that I have spent the last 6 months in a continuous summer!)
In an attempt to try to beat the expected crowds at some of the main sites, I headed to the tram early, only to hit rush hour. The trams were absolutely packed, and the crowds at the station were at least 5 people deep.
Four trams came and went, and I was still left behind. I needed to change tactics if I was to ever get off the tram platform. That means not politely standing back but to do as the locals do, and push your way through. And that’s what I did.
A friendly local
As I got off the tram, I was almost immediately greeted by a nice young guy. “Hi, where are you from? Do you mind if I practice English with you for a few minutes? I’m on my way to work soon.” No problems, I’m always happy to oblige, so I chatted with Murat for a few minutes. He asked my name, where I planned to visit, how long I would be here, etc, etc – as we walked towards the Blue Mosque. He advised (correctly) that, being a Friday, the mosque was closed until 1.30pm, and instead suggested that I might prefer to go to the Basilica Cistern, which was also on my list of places to visit. So he walked me there, and after he offered me various suggestions to make the most of my stay, I waved goodbye. (But it didn’t end there. More on this further down)
This underground structure was built in 532AD and is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. (I can’t even get my head around how old these historical sites are here!)
Back in its day, it stored up to 80,000 cubic meters of water, servicing the Palace and surrounding buildings. It closed down when the Byzantine emperors moved on from the palace but was rediscovered in 1545 by a researching scholar when locals claimed they could miraculously obtain water by lowering their buckets into the black space in their basements. Some were even catching fish this way. When the Ottomans later took over the empire, it was used as a dumping ground for rubbish and corpses. Eventually it was cleaned and re-opened to the public in 1985.
I found this place interesting and atmospheric. The technology to build this sort of infrastructure and the aqueducts that brought the water 20km from reservoirs near the Black Sea, back in 545AD is amazing. How come, in the 21st century, Auckland struggles to build houses that don’t leak?.
The elegant Aya Sofya
The Aya Sofya is one of the Top 5 must-see places in Istanbul, and the queues of people waiting to get in confirmed it’s popularity.
The Aya Sofya, commissioned by a Byzantine emperor, was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and later declared a museum in 1935.
It’s a beautiful building although parts of it were closed off for renovations. It was fairly dark inside so many of my photos didn’t come out well.
Down near the base of the photo above, you see a spotlight on the floor shining upward. If you remember, I said it was a horribly cold and wet day when I headed out. Even the resident cat must have thought so, as I got closer to the spotlight, I was amused to find the cat keeping warm with the heat form the lamp. Smart cat!
It was the mosaic works from the 11-13th century that I found most interesting, depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. They were stunning in spite of the damage that they had suffered over the years.
(There’s plenty more photos of these in the slideshow below).
The Blue Mosque
Another on the must-see places to visit, the Blue Mosque (built in early 1600’s) is a practicing mosque and therefore visiting hours are worked in around prayer times (which changes on a daily basis).
The means more tourists are squeezed into visiting hours, and to me, the sheer volume of tourists here really detracted from the experience.
It was a beautiful building but I didn’t walk away with any particular appreciation for it. Indeed, I later found other mosques that were just as pretty and more pleasant to visit.
Topkapi Palace and the Harem
To quote the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 18th centuries” during the court of the Ottoman empire. I guess it was a pretty exciting place back in its day.
A tour through the Treasury gave insight into the incredible wealth of the day with various glittery jewels and trinkets on display.
I enjoyed the decadence of the harem; although sparsely furnished, the history here was interesting and the mosaics and tiling throughout was stunning. Notice the fireplace in the above photo, on the left. This was a common style throughout the harem.
Apparently the sultan supported as many as 300 concubines, and Murat III fathered 112 children. The concubine girls were schooled in Islam, Turkish culture and language as well as the art of make-up, dress, comportment, embroidery, music and dancing. I guess the Sultan’s had a pretty good life back then; not so sure about the concubines though.
During excavations in the 1950’s, archaeologists uncovered an amazing mosaic pavement that featured hunting and mythological scenes dating from the Byzantine period.
The original pavement was estimated to be about 3500 sq meters; they have managed to preserve about 250sq meters of it, with the rest having been destroyed or still buried under the Blue Mosque and surrounding shops. Some of the restored sections are now hanging on the wall, while larger sections are laid out on the ground. The museum provided quite a bit of good information about the process that they went through to restore the tiles, and to bring out the colour of the faded tiles. It really was quite interesting! (More photos in the slide show)
Also from the Byzantine period (1300’s), this church features some absolutely incredible mosaics depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
OK – so those are just a few of the places that I checked out while in Istanbul. Considering I’m not really much of history buff, I think I did pretty well. It would be fair to say that I’ve probably had my fill of mosques and museums for a while, though.
With 10 days in Istanbul, I don’t think I have ever walked so much – and up and down so many hills. Istanbul is built on some fairly hilly land and there is no way to avoid them. Aside from getting out to see the sites, I also spent a huge amount of time walking just to avoid my grotty hotel room! (I might tell you about that in my next post).
When is a new friend not a friend? When they are a tout!
Remember the guy, Murat, that I met as I got off the tram. Well, after I finished checking out the Cistern, he was waiting for me. How strange – I thought he had to go to work? It turns out, his work is a carpet store just around the corner, and he wanted to show me where it was so that I could go back to see him if I had any more questions. He was a tout. I cannot believe I fell for the friendly patter as soon as I got off the tram that morning. You’d think I’d be seasoned by now. The touts were everywhere and they were relentless. Being on my own made me an easy target, I noticed. They tried all sorts of lines.
- Hi – what’s your name?
- Hey – I’ve seen you before. Weren’t you here last year?
- Hi – where are you from beautiful lady?
- Are you looking for the Palace? It’s this way – please come and I will help you.
- I have a cashmere scarf that matches your pretty eyes. Maybe you’d like to see it?
The touts hang outside all the main tourist sites waiting for unsuspecting tourists. They wait at the tram stops; every shop and every restaurant has someone waiting outside to try to lure you in.
I was in the Grand Bazaar when a guy silently pointed down at the floor near my foot. Thinking I was about to step in something I looked around, but couldn’t see anything. He slowly moved his pointing finger away from my foot, and confused, I followed with my eyes. He continued, until he was pointing into the doorway of this shop. “I think you were coming this way”.
In the end, I just had to ignore them. A few got upset because I didn’t answer back (“Why do you not talk to me?”) but you just couldn’t dare to engage in any sort of conversation with them, even to say ‘’No thanks”, as they would just try to continue to conversation.
And it wasn’t just the local Turks doing it. I had been here for a week when a blonde woman came up behind me and asked “Are you Australian or Kiwi?” She had spotted my Kathmandu vest. It turns out that she is an Australian married to a Turk, and spends half her time in Turkey and the other half in Australia. She was a designer she said. After a few minutes of friendly chat, she invited me back to her place for a tea and to continue our chat. I had nothing else planned, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to, so why not? But as we walked a considerable distance to her place, my suspicions were raised. Long story short – my suspicions were right. She took me to her brother in law’s carpet shop. The custom in a carpet shop is to have a cup of tea while they explain the intricacies of the carpets. I decided to stay and listen as it did look like a decent shop compared to some of the others I had seen around town, and I just might learn something. But I also explained up front that I was on a backpacker budget and wouldn’t be buying one, so it was up to them if they wanted to waste their time.
For an hour and a half, I learned about the different styles of Turkish carpets and drank apple tea. Having studied Carpet Sales 101, they worked hard to close the deal. After laying about 20 carpets out on the floor, they asked me to start removing the ones that didn’t appeal. Eventually I was left with the two carpets that apparently ‘spoke to me’. That’s when he pulled the calculator out and showed me the numbers. (One was valued at NZ$4000, but he’d let me have it for $1400 or so. I obviously have good taste. The other started around the $1000 mark). They eventually accepted that I really wasn’t going to buy one, so next they brought out the jewelry that the Australian supposedly designed. And when they accepted that I wasn’t buying a ring either, they very quickly lost interest in me and pretty much showed me the door.
Whilst I had a bit of fun with it, I was still kind of annoyed that it wasn’t just the Turkish touts you have to be wary of – they come in all shapes, sizes and colours.