Before we get too far down the Istanbul rabbit hole of awesomeness, let me remind you that I just had a major abdominal surgery a few weeks ago and am still very much in the midst of recovering. I give a lot of thumbs ups and smiles for the camera, but I had to move really carefully and slowly through all of this. That said, please forgive me if I tended to not do my hair.
Naziia accompanied me on this trip and it was an amazing honeymoon of sorts. She really made this trip possible by getting us hooked up at one of her friend’s homes in the beautiful Florya neighborhood of Istanbul.
The 6-hour flight was perfectly manageable under normal circumstances, but we departed in the middle of the night and I didn’t travel well having to sit for so long with my healing body. We landed, got through customs and hailed a cab to Naziia’s friend’s house.
After getting settled in and cleaned up, we went exploring around the neighborhood. Florya is a rather wealthy neighborhood and home to the famous sports club Galatasaray SK, a number of airline headquarters and the summer home of past Turkish President Atatürk. This area also housed more carpet retailers than the census could count and had I been traveling onward to a large home in America, I would have certainly bought a carpet here; the tapestries were of incredible design and quality, with unbeatable prices.
We decided to head toward the city center to check out the infamous architecture of Istanbul. Along the way, I got stopped dead in my tracks when I saw something I hadn’t seen in years: the holy temple of mediocre but consistently dependable coffee: STARBUCKS!
Once I dug myself out of the shame I instantly felt for succumbing to the corporate coffee, I needed to see something real, and really old. Luckily, we were right around the corner from the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world. The bazaar encompasses over 60 covered streets and with its 3000+ shops, it’s truly a maze of wonder. The Grand Bazaar is also the single most visited tourist attraction in the world, hosting over 90 million annual visitors. You can find just about anything here, but what really stood out to me were the many gold and textile merchants.
Gold is prominent as a fashion material, like many parts of the world, but its real merit here was as an investment. Traditionally, gold holds it’s value through economic strife, regime change, etc.. and is therefore perceived as a great investment to own in very specific weights and qualities. Since I have no need or desire for gold pieces, I spent more time focused on the textile merchants. Though what they have here is beautiful and might even be reasonably priced, I couldn’t very well allow myself to make a textile purchase in Turkey after making no such purchases in Kyrgyzstan. I left empty handed, but I did enjoy my first truly authentic Turkish coffee and stepped back into the daylight feeling both reenergized and redeemed.
The Hagia Sophia
Built around 500AD, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years and is the greatest achievement of Byzantine architecture. It was converted to a mosque around 500 years ago and now functions primarily as a museum. The interior of the structure is made from a black and white marble which makes everything at eye level dark, forcing your attention upward to the massive gilded dome reflecting outside light.
Though the Hagia Sophia’s architecture feels like a mosque, it was originally built as an orthodox church. Its architectural style has had such an impact that its design influenced the construction of more modern mosques, such as the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) from which many mosques around the world are fashioned today.
The Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, is an architectural marvel to behold. Anyone who stands in the presence of this building will likely be inspired, but you may also be confused. The confusion I refer to is that you may notice the lack of blueness in the mosque’s outward appearance. Indeed, the Blue Mosque is known as such not because of it’s exterior coloring, but because of it’s distinct interior design where more than 200,000 handmade İznik style ceramic tiles create vast mosaics.
I arrived at the Blue Mosque first thing in the morning and still had an hour or so wait before I could enter. I encourage you to also get there as early as possible. Upon entry, I received a plastic bag for my shoes and then I had free reign of the place.
Upon exiting the Blue Mosque, we ran into a film shoot for a Bollywood film. We stayed and watched for a few minutes before carrying on.
Update: While living in Hyderabad India (two years after being in Istanbul), I showed this clip to some colleagues and they recognized it instantly. What we saw being filmed can be seen in its final cut at 1:35 in this video featuring Jeet & Subhasree.
The Obelisk of Theodosius
A stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque rests The Obelisk of Theodosius. Carved originally from a single 30m long section of red granite around 1450BC, this obelisk is a relic of the temple of Karnak and has been in Istanbul for 1600 years. Istanbul has a reputation for being the most cosmopolitan city in the world. From this vantage point, you can see architecture which merges Egyptian, Ottoman, Anglican and Arab cultures from throughout the millennia, a view which is truly not available in many other places in the world.
Topkapı Palace was the seat of the once great Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. Its location at the mouth of the Bosphorus River makes it strategically significant as all vessels traveling between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea would have to pass right by here. The palace’s location made it formidable, but more importantly, it was important for the nearby trade routes, giving access to the Ottoman leaders.
Mısır Çarşısı (Egyptian Bazaar)
Also known as the Spice Bazaar, the Mısır Çarşısı (Egyptian Bazaar) is quite likely the most delicious smelling place I have ever been. This massive sprawl of mostly spice and tea vendors sell their quality products in an open-air fashion which fills the air, and your nostrils, with wonderful smells. If this is a glimpse into what Egypt is like, then I can not wait to get there someday soon!
Update: I have now been to Egypt! Check out those stories here.
Walls of Constantinople
Much like the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Constantinople are not a single wall but a massive system of walls. Built in the 4th century, these walls made Constantinople (Istanbul) impenetrable for nearly a millennium. Though left mostly in ruins today from centuries of neglect, there are still many standing sections with open public access. Restoration efforts have been underway in some spots since the 1980’s, but for our part, it was difficult to tell if we were looking at restored walls or simply masterful craftsmanship that has lasted for 1600 years.
For anything else we did not have time (nor I the health) to see in Turkey, we let Miniaturk fill in the gaps. This small amusement park of miniaturized models of famous Turkish destinations is like a putt-putt golf course, but without the golf part. It is very well put together, but I sure would have preferred to see all these sites in real life. Of course, now I have a good impression of what else I can see in Turkey next time, and that actually makes this a pretty brilliant marketing outlet.