21.03.2013 - 21.03.2013 14 °C
So, what does one do in Istanbul? The Trip Advisor website suggests over 583 sights and activities! Knowing we might get overwhelmed by sightseeing in Istanbul, we elected to hit the biggies first in case we burned ourselves out. The first on our list were the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque so we decided to trundle down to the tram area at a reasonable hour. Our place is situated on a higher street, providing a fantastic view of the Bosphorous, so we descended the 128 steps (they're only a problem coming up) and made for the waterside station just a few minutes' walk away. Once we figured out the token purchasing, grudgingly acknowledging that it's reasonable that every city should do it differently, we boarded the over ground tram to the Sultanhamet district.
The Hagia Sofia is quite the architectural and religious structure, important to both Christians and Muslims alike. The current building is the third built on the site, replacing the first two which were destroyed by rioters. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, it stems from 537 AD. At the time, it was the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture, and claimed the prize for the largest cathedral for the next thousand years. The dome, in particular, was a spectacular achievement, and supposedly 'changed the history of architecture.' What I found particularly interesting was the hybrid nature of the Hagia Sofia: since it was used as a Christian church till 1453, mostly by the Eastern Orthodox and briefly by the Roman Catholics after they sacked Constantinople, and a mosque thereafter, it has vestiges of both faiths in the now-secular museum. Between the beautiful painted and gilded mosaics of Christ, Mary, emperors and other figures, the gigantic Islamic discs with Arabic script, the paintings of six-winged seraphim, and the Muslim pulpit (the minbar), there's lots to gawk at. We were surprised that after it was turned into a mosque that the Christian symbols were allowed to remain untouched. However, it turns out, in reading my handy dandy Islam 101 brochure, that Islam recognizes many of the Christian patriarchs and figures (Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jesus, Mary, angels, etc. ) albeit differently than Christians do. Despite much of the crusading, pillaging and sacking that occurred in Istanbul/Constantinople, due to the many restoration efforts, the Hagia Sofia is still beautiful. It is largely empty as most mosques do not have much furniture and the carpets have been removed to reveal the rippling marble floor, settling in many places. Interesting to note is the front of the once-cathedral, where the Muslims replaced the altar with their mihrab, a semicircular niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. Fortunately for them, I guess, the altar was alllmmmoooosst in the right spot so that now, the mihrab is just a titch off centre, giving the impression that it was an apprenticing carpenter who installed it.
Exiting, we nipped into some tombs of various sultans and their families. This required us to remove our shoes; it's a neat but simple area (green is a big colour for their cloth-covered sarcophagi here); however, the tile work of many of the domed buildings are beautiful, most certainly surpassing the disappointing tile museum we visited in Konya. And speaking of tiles, during one of the restorations of these tombs, the French helped out and kindly took several tiles back to Paris to be restored. Istanbul is still waiting for them back! They are now ensconced in the Louvre in the Islamic art section. Apparently it's not only the British who know how to pilfer historical relics.
Crossing the Hippodrome, once the sporting and social centre of Constantinople (can you say chariot racing?), we took in the obelisks there and proceeded to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque due to scads of blue tiles inside. Doffing our shoes and donning scarves, we entered the revered space through the tourist door as the front door is left for worshippers. The majority of the space is reserved for those praying, although I noticed a few of the Muslim prayers taking pictures too! Again, it's a beautiful piece of architecture, both inside and out. Its symmetry, many domes and six minarets (the most ever raised for a mosque in the 1600s), provide a pleasing view and capture one's admiration. When I visited Istanbul several years ago, Sultanhamet Square, with the Hagia Sofia at one end and the Blue Mosque at the other, quickly became my favorite block in the world. Being the second time, I wasn't so in awe; however, it's still very grand.
The prices in this district, with the big attractions nearby, are outrageous so after a small lunch and a smaller dessert, we moved on. Next was the Basilica Cistern; we debated about going in but then decided 'What the heck? This is our only chance. Why quibble?' The cistern was built by Justinian, everyone's favourite sixth century emperor, to provide water for the city. It measures 165 m by 65 m and contains quite the collection of columns, many of the 336 borrowed from earlier ruins, we surmised. With music being piped in to demonstrate its acoustics, and the dark environs gently lit by low-wattage bulbs, it was actually a very peaceful place. The water dripping periodically from the ceiling just added to the mood.
Grateful after a full day of sightseeing that we had a very comfortable apartment in which to retire, we eagerly hopped onto the convenient tram and walked back up to our place. It's beautiful to see the city lit up at night -- there's not much neon but there are a lot of lights. The unique situation of overlooking the Bosporus while on the European side of Istanbul often causes Abby to exclaim, 'I can see Asia!' That's the last look of the continent we'll have before returning home.