A potpourri of cultures across different timelines merges here as the Bosphorus strait bonds Asia and Europe in this ancient city. The skyline of Istanbul appears around me, dotted with minarets and mosques, palaces and churches and each one of them has a story to tell. We reached there in the afternoon and after resting a bit we decided to go for a Turkish night show on the Bosphorous Cruise. We enjoyed the novelty of being able to see two continents at once (Asian and European side-though it wasn’t always clear which was which, from a distance they were little more than clusters of yellow dots) and the suspension bridge that joins the two was suitably impressive. Being a full moon night made it all the more romantic :). We spent all evening watching Anatolian folklore shows and belly dancing which we really enjoyed.
First day we decided to do all the historical monuments on the European side of the city. Our first stop was the Topkapi Palace- The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the World’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul; just expect to be exhausted afterward.
This was the primary residence to Ottoman Sultans and their courts in Istanbul until the middle of the 19th century. Constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, the palace was also considered the administrative and educational center of the state. In the early 1850’s, the palace was deemed inadequate for the requirements upheld for certain state ceremonies and protocols, so the sultans moved to the newly constructed Dolmabahçe Palace directly across the Bosphorus. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1921(establishment of the republic of Turkey), Topkapi Palace was transformed into a museum with only the most important rooms (including the Sultan’s Harem) and relics available to be viewed by the public today.
We visited the Harem containing over 400 rooms that also served as living quarters for the sultan’s mother, his concubines and wives, and the rest of his family including his children and their servants. What was most fascinating to me was that the apartments of the sultan’s mother (also known as the “Queen Mother”) were the largest and the most important sections of the Harem. Though the Sultan was the king of the empire, but the Queen Mother also had major influence on the affairs of the state. She also was the one who chose the sultan’s wife. Throughout the Harem, there were numerous opulent rooms covered with brightly colored tiles, lavish fabrics, and gold-plated ceilings.
After a quick lunch we moved on to Hagia Sophia which has been built and rebuilt again over to remain ageless and timeless. Initially built between 532 and 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia (also known as the Aya Sofya in Turkish) is a true ancient wonder. Few places can boast even half the history that this building has seen, from its origins as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral built by Emperor Justinian, to its sacking and conversion into a Roman Catholic Cathedral by Latin Crusaders, to its conversion into a Mosque after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in the 15th century, to its final conversion into a museum in 1935.
Today, the structure is a place where ancient cultures meet and mix in a most amazing way. Much like we felt at Alhambra in Granada, Spain the blending of religions and cultures produces a striking contrast. This is most clearly evident in the Hagia Sophia where Byzantine mosaics depicting Jesus and the Holy Family sit side by side with Islamic calligraphy reciting lines form the Qur’an. Further displays of the Hagia Sophia’s size and grandeur are everywhere as visitors explore the marble covered ground floor and upper gallery. From the giant low-hanging chandeliers, to huge stone columns and archways, everything is huge inside this building.
In many ways for me, the 1500 year old Hagia Sophia seems to symbolize the transition that Istanbul has been through. An ancient orthodox church turned cathedral turned mosque turned museum, this 6th century monument, Aya Sophia takes you through the turn of history in this city from the era of Byzantine Emperor Justinian to King Mehmet 11 of the Ottoman dynasty. The relics and symbols of both faiths reside in this marvelous piece of Byzantium architecture. The glittering mosaics and the marble pillars hold your attention, but what really took my breath away was the massive 105 feet dome towering 180 feet above my head. Our guide added that it rivals the Pantheon in Rome whose dome is slightly bigger.
Next on the list was Istanbul’s most important and second largest mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (better known to tourists as the Blue Mosque) standing opposite the Hagia Sophia. With its six towering minarets surrounding a single dome and enormous courtyard, the imposing structure is definitely one that makes you feel small. Now there is nothing really blue about the Blue Mosque when you look at this 17th century mosque from the outside. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque is one of the most impressive and beautiful examples of Islamic Architecture we’ve seen on our travels. We were extremely excited to visit as it was to be our first trip actually inside a mosque. And we couldn’t have picked a better one to be our first.
After taking off our shoes and placing them in the conveniently supplied carry bags, and making sure I still looked trendy with my headscarf on, we ventured inside. Much like the Hagia Sophia, the interior of the building immediately took our breath away. Decorated with over 20,000 handmade blue ceramic tiles from the nearby city of Iznik, 200 stained glass windows, enormous chandeliers, and covered in Islamic calligraphy – the mosque is absolutely stunning inside. The names of the Caliphs and verses from the Quran were inscribed on the tablets on the walls. It was a common belief that blue being the color of sky was the color of heaven, that’s why all the tiles were painted in blue inside the mosque.
We spent a long time inside the mosque admiring the intricate beauty all around us. We were amazed to see the immensity of the structure, which can hold 10,000 Muslims for prayer.
There are very few places in the world where two such incredible sites sit side-by-side. As though still in competition to see which can amaze visitors more, The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque feel more like one attraction than two. While the Blue Mosque is still used for daily prayer, it gives visitors an authentic glimpse into the Muslim religion, and the Hagia Sophia works as an extension of this experience, as a wonderful museum that visitors can fully explore without fear of overstepping. Together both are the must see attraction for visitors to Istanbul. Fun fact our guide told us: There are 2000 mosques, 123 churches, and 26 synagogues in Istanbul.
We also saw the Roman Hippodrome which was used for chariot races by the Romans in the Byzantium Empire. We ended our tour with a visit to the Basilica Underground Cistern. It was a surreal and a peculiar experience down under in an underground cistern built beneath the city of Istanbul. 6th century by Emperor Justinian, the room is 65 meters wide and 143 meters long, and is supported by 336 columns, in 12 rows. It once held water delivered by aqueducts from a reservoir in Belgrade Forest in Istanbul. At some point throughout the centuries the cistern was forgotten about and rediscovered by Peter Gilles in search of Byzantine monuments. Since this time, it has been through a number of restoration efforts. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, it was finally cleaned out and fully renovated between 1985 and 1988 and opened to the public. Watching the dark waters reflecting the eerie lights, we walk around until we reach a pillar, where the carved head of Medusa sits upside down, resting on the ground. There are two Medusa (a Greek monster) heads at the far end of the Basilica Cistern. Nobody exactly knows or can explain why those two marble Medusa heads were put there.
HAMMAM -Another classic Turkish experience is a visit to the hammam. For those who haven’t been, or haven’t heard of hammams, it’s a wonderful Middle-Eastern tradition. Hammams are public bath houses, and vary from the ultra-luxurious to beyond basic. The most popular hammam [at least with tourists] in Istanbul is Cemberlitas, which is located in a beautiful old building just near the Grand Bazaar.
Hammams are generally split into completely separate sections for men and women, or have separate times for each gender. Not only though are hammams a place to get clean, they’ve been an important place for socializing for hundreds of years.
Me and my husband paid for our services at the entrance and then parted our ways. Cemberlitas is beautiful and welcoming, and upon entry they hand you a package containing a kese glove, disposable underwear, service tokens and locker keys. You collect a wrap, get undressed and enter the hammam itself in your standard-issue black underpants and your cloth wrap. Once inside, you try to find a place on the central heated marble stone and relax, awaiting your turn to be scrubbed and massaged. Lying on your back, you can appreciate the beauty of the building with its marble detail and high domed ceiling.
It’s not the place for people who are shy about their bodies. And if you take a look around you’ll see people of all shapes and sizes. It’s also very relaxing, lying on a slab of heated marble in a steamy room.
When it’s your turn, you’ll be tapped on the ankle and asked for your token, which determines what services you’ve paid for. The attendants lie you down either on the edge of the marble slab or in an alcove and start washing you with bubbles. They have these amazing web-like things that produce an inordinate amount of foam and bubbles, and it feels incredibly soft on your skin. They’ll work this into your hair, too. Once you’re appropriately soft it’s time for kese, the scrub, and this is the part that makes you realize you’ve probably never been truly clean before.
Once the scrubbing and massaging was over you could remain in the hammam for as long as you choose or shower, collect your belongings and return to the changing rooms to get dressed. You can’t take photographs inside, for obvious reasons – who wants a tourist taking photos of them half-naked and bathing?
Overall, I felt the experience at Cemberlitas was more about the gorgeous setting than the service. I do recommend that all visitors try the Hammam once while they are in Turkey. For anyone interested in Cemberlitas, you can find more information on their website at http://www.cemberlitashamami.com.
Next day we decided to make it a mix of everything – history, leisure and shopping. We started off at the Rustem Pasha Mosque which is quite is similar to the Suleymaniye Mosque in many ways. Rustem Pasha, the founder of this mosque and a Grand Vizier, was the son-in-law of the Sultan Suleiyman. Construction of this mosque by Mimar (architect) Sinan began in 1550 and ended in 1561. Sinan’s Ottoman style made him one of the most popular and sought out architects of his time. Unfortunately the Great Fire of 1666 damaged much of the mosque, and some Iznik tiles have been stolen over the years as well.
Next on the list was the Bosphorous Cruise. The one-day Bosphorus Cruise along the strait that divides Europe and Asia has been a classic component of any Istanbul itinerary but we found it less touristy than expected and infinitely pleasurable. There are numerous cruise options and you have several choices to make – day time or evening, the complete strait or just the central district by Istanbul, and finally public ferry or private/dedicated cruise. We opted for a day-time cruise focusing on the central district. We selected one leaving from the Golden Horn pier and they leave from the central area near the Spice Bazar. Bosphorus is a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, 19 miles long and curves like a snake as it connects the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara and eventually the Mediterranean. During a cruise on this strait, on the European shores you can see Ottoman imperial palaces, and water front mansions of the royal family members. On the Asian shores, you can see the mansions that were built by wealthy traders and high ranked officers of the government and the army. We saw various neighborhoods in Istanbul which have sprawled in every direction over the past several decades. The cruise crossed under the Bosphorous Bridge, built in 1973 and linking Europe to Asia for the first time. The boat also crossed the Rumeli Fortress built in 1453. This fortress, along its mate across the strait, gave the Ottomans the ability to completely control the strait and all vessels that wanted to pass. We passed a line of fishermen setting up for a day on the docks and bridges below the Golden Horn. Today the Bosphorous is one of the world’s premier shipping routes, and an important route for oil tankers.
In the afternoon we decided to visit the Dolmabache Palace. Dolmabahce Palace was really easy to get to; it’s in the old part of the city and can be easily reached by tram (Line T1). Note that the palace is closed on Mondays and Thursdays and you are not allowed to take any photos or film inside (could only do photos outside 😦 )
The first thing you notice about the palace is how ornamental it is – every surface inside and out is intricately carved, gilded or embellished to within an inch of its life. I suppose it should be this way as it was the home of six sultans and the first president of the republic.
‘’Dolma” means stuffed or filled, while “bahce” translates to garden. The name came about because the palace was built on land that was formerly part of a small bay on the Bosphorus. The Dolmabahce Palace is notable for its combination of oriental and western styles of architecture. Its covers an area of about 110,000 square meters and costed about 14 tons of gold. Approximately 3.5 tons of the gold was used to decorate the gilded ceilings of the building. The last six Ottoman emperors from 1856 to 1924 lived in the palace. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the leader of that revolution, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became the country’s first president. He used the palace as a summer residence, working and living there. He died in the palace in 1938.
These Ottoman palaces are just two examples (Dolmabahce Palace and the Topkapi Palace) of the majesty that can be found on a visit to Istanbul. This description hardly does either palace justice. Especially a trip to the Dolmabache Place is great to experience the last breath of the old Ottoman Empire that was already crumbling by the time this extravagant and grandiose symbol was completed. They truly must be seen to be properly appreciated.
Our final destination of the day was a tour of the Egyptian Spice Bazar. Istanbul is enveloped in an ancient time wrap and even the bazaars here seem to have an old fashioned charm. Perhaps it has to do with Istanbul’s ancient history as a trading port, but spices are still the essence of the season here. The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is an assault on your senses. Besides the spices, stacks of dry fruits and herbs, Turkish delights are sold here along with some exotic varieties of tea. It is a vibrant mecca of sights, sound and smells which is quite overwhelming.
The next day we decided to move away from history and go for a bit of natural beauty. Destination – Cappadocia, which is set in a unique landscape that makes it look like something out of a fairy tale or a city on the moon. The nearest city is Goreme and airport is Kayaseri airport. There are several hotels that offer cave rooms for an authentic experience.
The distorted yet graceful landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey is the stunning result of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Volcanos have laid down a thick layer of soft ash known as ‘tufa’ and a second harder covering over the top. Over time the tufa crumbled away leaving hard caps teetering on the top of isolated pillars. Since then, numerous civilisations have passed through, all leaving their mark. The result is a magical and utterly captivating environment of extraordinary rock formations, rose-coloured ravines, stone-hewn churches, complex underground cities; ancient cave dwellings and castles perched atop rocky outcrops. In ancient times, people started carving into the soft rock and living in cave houses. There are many underground cities in the region. Modern houses have been built on land and into the hillside out of materials that blend in with the natural sandy coloured mountain formations.
Our first stop was the Goreme Open Air Museum. When you first look at the museum it looks like you are standing in front of a giant earth pyramid with little holes in it that look like windows and doors to a another world. And then you move head from left to right and see you are surrounded by these tall pillars and cones that seemed to have mushroomed everywhere around you. The holes in them look larger as they open into a world which was once homes and hiding places, churches and caves where monks once lived. This is what they call the Open Air Museum in Goreme National Park. It is a World UNESCO site and it actually refers to a vast monastic complex with eleven churches, carved in these rocks filled with some of the most beautiful frescos of the Byzantine period. Dated between the 10th-12th centuries, these cave chapels were sites of religious refuge of monks who had settled here and they were probably the artists as well or had worked with them.
The names of these churches are highly fascinating. There is the Apple Church, the Snake Church and the Dark Church among others. The churches here have highly figurative paintings drawn from the life of Christ and stories from Bible. However the most spectacular of all churches is the Dark Church which takes you inside through a narrow tunnel. There are paintings everywhere, on the walls, on the dome depicting scenes from the New Testament, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas, and Crucifixion among others. I also found the Snakes Church or Yılanlı Kilise very interesting to see a fresco that depicts the killing of the Snake by St George and St Theodore, while opposite the entrance is a painting of Christ with a book in hand.
As we left, we stopped at the Tokali or Buckle Church that lies a bit outside the museum complex and is the largest church in Goreme. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed inside the Church so the only photos we could take were outside.
We then made our way to the Pashabag valley aka Monks Valley where we saw mushroom shaped fairy chimneys. The fairy chimneys here are rather unique with twin and triple rock caps that resemble mushrooms. It’s called Monks Valley because the monks used to distance themselves from the world by living in the hollowed out chimneys.
After Pashabagi we went to Dervent valley where the rocks (using much imagination) resembled different things including a chicken, a camel, Napoleans hat and Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I must admit, my imagination isn’t great. At least I could identify only the camel/ chicken thing. Dervent Valley is a popular hike but you need a car to get there from the town and then back again.
For lunch we tried a traditional dish called the testi kebab (pottery kebab) — lamb meat, potatoes, and veggies are cooked inside an earthenware jug. The dish is served in the closed jug. The server provides with a knife and the jug is hit in the center to break it open.
AVANOS – After lunch we headed towards the town of Avanos. It is second largest town in Cappadocia which sits on Turkey’s longest river, the Kizilirmak. The river’s red clay lends itself to one of Cappadocia’s oldest tradecrafts – pottery. Dirt from the river’s banks has been used to create ceramic jars, statues and burial chambers since as far back as 8,000 B.C.
Here we visited a pottery workshop which is a sprawling underground studio carved into a hill overlooking Avanos home to Albert Einstein-lookalike Galip Korukcu. “Master Galip”, as he is known, has been practicing ceramic pottery in Avanos for 50 years. Through his studio he has preserved traditional Cappadocian pottery practices, and he teaches his craft to students from all over the world every year. He also maintains a collection of female human hair which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records. (Yes, I will tell the story about it after I have praised his pottery 🙂 )
As soon as we entered we were offered tea/coffee/wine as a part of Turkish hospitality, the wine was served from a Hittite-style wine decanter. Master Galip himself gave us a pottery demonstration. After a demonstration from Master Galip, an explanation was provided on the production process (which can take up to 6 weeks per product once fermentation of the clay, molding, drying, baking and decoration are accounted for). Here Galip demonstrated the strength of his finished products by inviting members of the tour group to stand on jar placed on its side, proving it could withstand the full force of their weight. Our tour ended with a walk through a photography-not-allowed section of the showroom featuring an approx. 2-metre-tall wine decanter & ceramic pieces decorated with magnesium oxide glasswork that can glow in the dark. Next I parted with some of my cash to buy the beautiful pottery.
A Spooky Hairy experience– Legend has it that in Turkey in earlier days when men went out to serve in army women gave a little bit of their hair just like a little bit of remembrance. So it all started in 1979 when a dear friend of Chez Galip was leaving him and he was very sad to see her go. So, the generous lady cut off a piece of her hair and gave it to him for remembrance. The potter being a true romantic decided to pin this lock of hair on the wall and started to share this story with his visitors. Touched by the tale, women started to leave a piece of their hair behind with him along with their names and contact details written on a card.
You can well imagine the flashes of a gazillion images that must have conjured up in my mind on how the museum would look like when I was on my way to Avanos. Believe me, when I finally entered the museum, I was completely blown away.
The rather small cave-like room was sprinkled with thousands of locks of hair attached to almost every surface except the floor. Long and short, black, blonde and brown I even saw green hair; I spotted many types of tresses carefully pinned to the walls complete with the name and address cards. The lifeless yet neatly-cut locks of hair are a sight to look at. Yes, bizarre but true.
I must admit that the proud owner really knows how to make your experience a special one. Every year, in the months of June and December, the first customer who arrives here is invited to the Hair Museum to choose ten hair strands off the walls. And the lucky ten to whom these strands belong receive a week-long vacation in Cappadocia, where apart from holidaying they also get to attend free pottery workshops with none other than Chez himself. I too wanted to leave a lock of my hair behind but unfortunately my husband freaked out and totally refused in me cutting my hair for donation purposes 😦 So there goes all hope of me having any free pottery lessons in near future.
Our last stop was at the Love Valley where we could also get views of the Rose Valley and Uchiasiar castle from a distance. The Love Valley gets its strange names because of the phallic shaped structures present in it. 🙂
Driving around, I realized that Cappadocia had really intrigued me. It was full of mysteries and surprises. I don’t know what fascinated me more, nature’s artwork or the man-made architecture in nature’s creation? The paintings inside the rock cut caves or mushrooms shaped fairy chimneys? The desperation with which monks lived high up in fairy chimneys or the life of the people hiding in underground cities built layers below the ground? In this dreamy and surreal landscape, I stood and stared for hours until it is time to leave. Travel they say expands the mind. My little tryst with Cappadocia left me in awe, wonder but above all, humbled.
Now a trip to Istanbul is incomplete with a visit to the Grand Bazar. So we finally made our way to the Grand Bazar on our last day. In 1461 Sultan Mehmet II ordered the construction of two stone bedestens, or covered markets, to be used as centralized commercial exchanges for merchants. These covered markets grew up to be the Grand Bazar of Istanbul which has been evolving till date. At present it is a sprawling complex of 18 entrances, 65 covered streets and over 4,000 individual shops and stores. The Grand Bazaar Istanbul has been well-known for centuries as a place where almost anything can be bought and sold, from jewelry and gems to copper-ware, candlesticks, fine rugs, clothing, hats and even antique coins and books. That tradition is still alive today in the Grand Bazaar, the perfect place to experience the romance of old Istanbul.
There is so much to Istanbul that it cannot be restricted to a mere list of sightseeing spots. It may be a concoction of the west and east, the contemporary and the traditional, the old-fashioned and the new, but it is a city that draws you like a magnet again and again. I am for one heading there soon.