Istanbul

April 16 ... We're off on another of our adventures; each with a back pack and each with familiar feelings of apprehension and excitement. Like human airmail we spend our first 18+ hours in flight (and transfers) from Vancouver to Montreal to London to Istanbul. With a blink of an eye and a glance down the page, this journal will allow readers to miss the security checks, safety instructions, in-flight movies, searches for new uncomfortable positions in a 30 by 22 inch space after hours of travel, line-ups for space saving toilet compartments and passport checks.  We will meet up with you tomorrow in Istanbul.

April 17

Our first glimpses of Istanbul were through the windows of a metro train as it zipped us to the end of its line where we transferred to a tram (looking very much like the metro we had just left). Admittedly our eyes were blurry from 18+ hours of travelling.

For those old enough, the word "Istanbul" may conger up remembrances of The Four Lads singing their 1953 hit "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)". The city was officially named Istanbul in the 1920s but it took Westerners decades to come to understand that Istanbul and Constantinople were indeed the same place ... perhaps the silly simple song helped some.
Atlantic Sunrise

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Istanbul, Turkey Istanbul, Turkey
View of Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The city of Istanbul (aka Constantinople and a number of other names) has been a popular spot for centuries - just ask all the conquerors who recognized itís ideal geographic location. The country of Turkey is mostly in Asia with a "foot" in Europe. Istanbul is at itís "ankle" saddling the Bosphorus Strait (which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara which is then connected to the Mediterranean) with itís western side in Europe and eastern side in Asia.

Our first impressions of Istanbul were positive ones. It is clean. The parts we have seen are rubbish and graffiti free. The people we have encountered have been friendly and have been most kind and willing to communicate in English, pantomime and friendly smiles.

Our prime desire was to sleep and the bed in our room looked inviting, but, in an attempt to put ourselves on Turkish time as quickly as possible, we unpacked for a three night stay at the Normade Hotel and then left. The first stop was simply upstairs on the Normadeís roof top where we could take in the view of the Blue Mosque. Our next stop was a restaurant across the street.

The restaurant was quite busy and the welcome was warm. They asked if we smoked and when we said no, they showed us to a small room upstairs with a number of tables - all empty. We selected a two person table by the tiny fireplace. It wasnít long before the room was full and returning customers were told they would be unable to smoke in this room. With help from the waiter who spoke English well, we ordered a light dinner of hot yogurt mint soup and lamb kebap with yogurt. While waiting they brought to the table a little bowl of olives and a basket of breads. Everything was delicious. We celebrated by going back to the room to sleep.

 

April 18

The first indication that a new day had started was listening to the call to prayer at 5:30 am. Shortly after 8:00 we returned to the roof top terrace for breakfast. Sunshine on fresh squeezed orange juice (fresh - as before our eyes), yogurt on fresh strawberries with sultana raisins and fresh breads ... a wonderful and very tasty introduction to our first morning in Turkey. There was ample selection from the breakfast buffet and we sampled the cheeses, olives and fresh vegetables as well.

   

Breakfast at the Normade HotelBreakfast at the Normade Hotel
The sun was shining and it was fresh and cool as we walked the short distance to the Blue Mosque from our hotel.

The real name of the structure is "Sultan Ahmet Cami". It was tourists who deemed it "The Blue Mosque" because of the blue tiles within. Sultan Ahmet was a mere thirteen years old when he ascended to the throne. Istanbul had itís Aya Sofya Mosque which had started out as a basilica and was converted into a mosque by Mehnet the Conquerer after the 1453 Conquest. However, young Sultan Ahmet wanted to leave his mark, something which would overshadow the Aya Sofya. He would build a new mosque and make it bigger and better. Making it more beautiful than the Aya Sofya on the inside would be near impossible, so this new mosque would have to be stunning on the outside (which the plain Aya Sofya was not). Rumours say he asked for the mosque to be gold - in Turkish "altin". The architect understood him to say he wanted six - in Turkish "alti"; so he built him a mosque with 6 minarets ... something which had never been done before. A first. That showed importance. Sultan Ahmet was happy. Mehmed Aga, the architect, was happy too because it meant he could keep his head after such a mistake. The mosque was completed in 1617. A year later at the age of twenty-seven Sultan Ahmet died.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey The six minarets (prayer towers) reach skyward like six delicate ornate pencils with freshly sharpened tips. An outer courtyard of paths and flower beds leads the way to an inner courtyard which is the same size as the mosque within. We were asked to remove our shoes. Women are encouraged to cover their heads but not kept out if not done. Robes are available for those whose apparel does not meet code - much like the tie and jacket at some restaurants.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The 260 stained glass windows are replacements of the originals and the floor is covered with colourful carpets. Outside we visited with an attendant. A most pleasant fellow who showed us the time schedule for todayís prayers - Muslims are called to prayer 5 times a day (though there are 6 prayer times); the times change daily according to the movement of the sun. He also taught us some Turkish words and extended an invitation for us to return during prayers. "You donít have to pray," he said, "but if you would like to sit and watch, you are welcome." We thanked him and continued our sightseeing tour by walking over to Aya Sofya and on the way passing two tea peddlers dressed in traditional costumes (much like the water sellers of Marrakesh) and pouring tea to a constant stream of tourists.

The Turks like their tea and drink the strong brew from small dainty glasses. Since there are no handles, for the novice they are a little hot to handle when first poured. Two lumps of sugar accompany the small 3 ounce serving and many like it sweet.

Tea peddlers, Istanbul, Turkey
Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey Aya Sofya  ("The Divine Wisdom" in English and "Sancta Sofia" in Latin) was rebuilt in 532 AD after a fire destroyed the first. In 1453 with the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet the basilica was converted into a mosque. It is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a huge place and tourists can roam around the ground floor and the upper gallery appreciating the delicate and often ornate support columns, the uncovered Christian mosaics and the Muslim additions. One such addition, as in all mosques, is the minbar. Minbars are little towers with pointed roofs and a staircase climbing up to what corresponds in function to the pulpit in a church. The Imam (leader of prayer) stands upon the stairs but never at the top out of respect for Mohammed. 
Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey  Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey 
Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the mosaics on the gallery level depicts Mary and Jesus with Empress Zoe and her husband standing on either side holding a bag of money and a scroll (symbols of their donations to the church). Which husband? Zoe was married three times. The original mosaic had her original husband depicted. When husband number two came along, Zoe had the head and inscription changed. The head and inscription was changed again for husband number three. The only reason husband number threeís head still remains in place is because he outlived Zoe.

It was not a long walk to our next sight, The Basilica Cistern. A cistern is a box. The term is usually associated with a box built as a reservoir to hold water. Such a box ... a very big box (143 x 65 metres) ... was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century. Surrounded by salt water, Istanbul has never had its own fresh water source - the water for this cistern came from the Belgrade Forest 19 km from the city. 

Three hundred thirty six marble columns, each 9 metres high are arranged in twelve rows. The capitals (the top sleeve of the columns) are both Ionic and Corinthian in style and came from ruined buildings. In one corner of the cistern two of the pillars are supported on Medusa head sculptures. They were not positioned at the base of the pillars for their art value but simply because a block of granite was needed. One of the Medusa heads lies on its side while the other is upside down.

The cistern was unknown to the west until around 1548 when a Dutch traveller and researcher of the Byzantines was told that some folks in the neighbouring houses to Aya Sofya were able to draw water from holes in their basements. If that was not amazing enough some even caught fish. Armed with a torch he descended into the cistern, discovered the columns and took measurements. He published his discoveries in a travelogue and tourists have been coming to the Basilica Cistern ever since.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey  
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey   We caught the tram to the Grand Bazaar. We can understand why they call it "Grand". Not only is it grand in size, with over 4,000 shop, but also in style. Both wide, arch-ceilinged main "streets" and narrow side alleys carry throngs of people passed shops filled with colour, textures and light and waiting salesmen in every doorway ready to say "hello" in any language and seemingly to have lived, visited or have relatives in every country on the face of the earth. These salesmen are masters at their craft. With cheerful attitudes, honest remarks regarding our interest (or lack thereof), smiles, a sense of humour, easy laughter and friendly banter we had a grand time at the Grand Bazaar. We had lunch at a guide book recommended place within the Grand Bazaar - it was delicious. Our most attentive (and candid) host, told us there are many good places to eat both within and outside the Bazaar which perhaps were better value.
After putting on several kilometres strolling the aisles we left the Bazaar to discover cool and sunny had changed to cooler and rainy. We donned our rain jackets and headed out towards the Spice Market. The streets between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market wound their way through an area of wholesale merchants.

Did we want to buy a riveter? Perhaps some burlap bags, bubble wrap? As we neared the Spice Market the stores and manufacturing shops changed more to everyday products. One store was dedicated to wooden flatwear like bread boards, including long ones with handles to place and remove loaves from deep brick ovens.

Istanbul, Turkey Istanbul, Turkey Istanbul, Turkey Istanbul, Turkey
 Spice Market, Istanbul, Turkey  Spice Market, Istanbul, Turkey  Spice Market, Istanbul, Turkey  Spice Market, Istanbul, Turkey
The entrance to the Spice Market was not well defined but often times the fun is in the searching. Once past the entrance arch we were again immersed in the excitement, noises, colours, textures and scents of a bustling market scene. Salesmen (only a minuscule number of women) called out their wares and invited passers-by to enter their shops; some saying in English "tell me how I can help you spend your money". We sampled Turkish Delight, a jelly-like confectionery sold in small cubes dusted with powdered sugar. The original is tea coloured, sweet with a delicate hard to describe flavour and contains nuts while the more modern come in different flavours. Turkish Delight made with honey are more than double the price of the sugared varieties. It is samples of the honeyed ones they offer while showing the cheaper sugared varieties. Shops selling teas, coffees, herbal medicines and spices in piles of rich hues are interrupted by shops selling tourist gee-gaws.

The rain had stopped by the time we emerged back into the salted sea air. We made our way to the train station to secure tickets for Fridayís overnight train to Ankara, then caught the tram back to our hotel. Still full from lunch, we opted to stay in, read, journal and catch an early sleep.

April 19 

We were up before the first call to prayer at 5:30 am.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey The weather was not very promising so we prepared with layered clothing and raincoats.

The Topkapi Palace, designed in a similar fashion to Asian citadels (with forbidden cities), was a pleasant walk from the hotel. From the main front entrance each of the four courtyards in turn is more discriminating as to who was granted permission to enter.

The first courtyard was available to the masses and is a pleasant park with stately trees. On very rare occasions citizens might have a chance to catch a glimpse of the Sultan at the main gate. The second courtyard was available to those having imperial business, whereas the third was only for palace staff and those of great enough importance to warrant such honour of inclusion. There was protocol as to who could enter which gate into each of the courtyards and if they could be mounted or on foot. Usually the only two persons allowed on horseback were the sultan and his mother. The fourth court was strictly for the immediate royal family.
We followed the advice of our guide book and went straight to the Harem in order to obtain two of the limited tickets. As luck would have it, we were able to purchase tickets for a tour which was going through immediately. The guide book pointed out that though the sign says tours are in Turkish only, the tours are conducted in English and therefore the rental of an audio guide was not necessary. We found the information incorrect (perhaps outdated). Not only did the guide not speak English, he hardly spoke at all and did most of his communicating by pointing and waving his arms in the direction he wanted us to go.

The word "harem" actually means "private". The harem in Topkapi Palace was a village unto itself. There were 300 rooms, various baths, two mosques and a hospital for the women. The harem is roughly divided into four sections. The first is where hundreds of eunuchs lived. Their responsibility was the security of the harem. The second section was for the concubines. Here they lived and were educated. The concubineís desire was to bear a son and have that son become sultan (which was not necessarily the eldest son), and thereby making her the most powerful woman in the harem and some would argue the most powerful person in the palace.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
She would have the sultanís ear and even pick which of the concubines among the most beautiful, talented and educated would become "favourites" and be presented to her son, the sultan The third section was for the mother of the sultan and was placed between the private quarters of the sultan and the concubines. The fourth section belonged to the sultan and his wives. A sultan could have three wives and as many concubines as he could afford Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey The palace was huge with kitchens, meeting places, armoury and the treasury where we saw some of the royal jewels including the Spoonmakerís diamond - this 86 caret stone is the 5th largest diamond in the world. It is called the Spoonmakerís diamond because it was found in a garbage dump and traded for three spoons. Also among so many beautifully set stones on everything from archerís rings to thrones, was a crystal box filled with emeralds, rubies and other precious stones. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey  
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

There seemed to be a room in the palace for every occasion but even for the obscenely rich it seemed to be a little over the top to have a room for royal circumcisions. Really! How many times can you use it? Although upon further contemplation, one sultan did managed to have 112 children.

Speaking of children, there were many groups of school children touring through the palace. A number of them took the opportunity to practice their English and to try to teach us a few words of Turkish. They are much faster learners than we are.

After spending so much time viewing all this decadence, Terry found his way to the stables. There, instead of horses, he found an art exhibit with the theme of tulips. An excellent theme since the palace grounds were in bloom with thousands of them.

After leaving the palace we walked downhill towards the Bosphorus Strait thinking we might buy a fish sandwich right from one of the many fishing boats. The street, like every street in Istanbul, is home to carpet shop after carpet shop and we were lured into one by a very hospitable gentleman. We told him right up front we did not want to buy a carpet, we have no intentions of buying a carpet. But he showed us around anyway. The banter was good natured and at times we were laughing out loud.

"We do not want to buy a carpet."

"A carpet bag will be very nice for you," he said reaching for one.

"No," Sherrie answered, "I donít like carrying bags."

"Perhaps for your mother-in-law?"

"No"

"Here we have some leather coats. Very soft."

"No. We have many leather coats."
Istanbul, Turkey Istanbul, Turkey

 "If you do not want a carpet for yourself, perhaps a carpet for your children."

Terry answered with a straight face, "We donít like our children." The salesman was startled and at a loss for words. This state did not last long and he sighed audibly when a young gentleman arrived with tea.

"No thank you. No tea." we said graciously knowing it was one more step towards the feeling of obligation.

"I really just want a fish sandwich," Sherrie said making her way back down the narrow steps passed the gentleman with the tea standing disappointedly at the bottom.

As we inched our way towards the front door, he steered us over to the jewellery. Oh, yes, if they canít get you in one part of the store, theyíll get you in another.

"Perhaps something nice for your children."

"We donít like our children," Terry repeated.

"You are very complicated." he replied and saw us to the front door with an invitation to return should we change our minds.

We walked to the harbour, walking through the ever fascinating Spice Market and, deciding to leave the fish sandwich until tomorrow, opted instead for a guide book recommended restaurant with a view table. We were not the only new ones to the Turkish menu and learned how to skin an eggplant by watching the waiter demonstrate at a neighbouring table.

Spice Market ,Istanbul, Turkey

April 20

We have been very pleased with our accommodations at the Normade. After yet another great breakfast with the fresh and flavourful tastes of Turkey, we were once again within walking distance of a major site Ė the three obelisks. The newest looking one, an Egyptian piece looks smooth except for the carved hieroglyphics which date to around 1450 BC. It is holding its 3450 year age very well! The other two, both suffering damage and losses were actually younger by a thousand years or so.

We strolled the back streets around the Blue Mosque and wondered how carpet shop after carpet shop could compete and still make a living for its owner and employees. Carpets in windows, draped in front of buildings, on fences, carpets outstretched, carpets rolled, and carpets folded and piled upon each other.

We decided to walk back to the Galata Bridge via a different route - one away from the carpet sellers, the porcelain shops and the tourist restaurants. It wasnít far before we found ourselves in a commercial area without carpet shops; an area where many of the 16 million Istanbulians were going about their daily lives. When we came to the bottom of a hill just behind the "new mosque" (a mere 400 years old), we turned left and dipped into the place where Turkish Delight first got its start; where members of the family still own the original store.

 Istanbul, Turkey  Istanbul, Turkey  Turkish Delight Shop, Istanbul, Turkey

We came out with smiles on our faces and a box of mixed Turkish Delight. From there it was a quick walk to the Galata Bridge.

Although most people know of the card game "Bridge", probably most have never asked where such a game started, or why the name. Well, it is the "bridge" in Galata Bridge which lends the card game its name. It was dubbed so by British soldiers who developed the game while stationed in Istanbul during the Crimean War. Each night they would cross the bridge to play their game in a Beyoglu coffee house.

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey 
Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey
We too crossed the bridge Ė its upper deck railings lined with fishermen who were jigging for a tiny anchovy sized fish (we later learned was a "horse mackerel") and filling buckets and bottles with their catch. The lower deck near water level is lined with restaurants. We did not see any fish boats on the New Mosque side nor at the other end of the bridge from which we could purchase a fresh fish sandwich. We sat on a bench, sipped a cola and did some people watching and then returned back over the bridge stopping to share a fish sandwich bought from a busy stand on the dock.
 
Using an underground tunnel to cross a busy street, we admired the Turks ability to use any space. Here both sides of the tunnel were used for commercial enterprises. We passed two mothers contemplating the purchase of a windup toy while a man bought a pair of white sneakers and a young women sorted through a heap of t-shirts which were on sale. A woman at one end crouched down by her bathroom scale awaiting the next customer who would pay for such information. Her male counterpart, with his own scale, was positioned at the other end. As we emerged into the sunlight, we passed men on the stairs selling everything from batteries to disposable shavers. We caught the tram back up to our hotel.

Although we no longer had a room to return to we made our way to the roof top terrace to sip cool drinks, play cards, read, listen to the birds (including two soft cooing doves), enjoy the view of mosques and the busy Bosphorus Strait which included the passing of a Turkish forces submarine, and to soak in the warm afternoon sun.   Most pleasant.

Near sunset we, with our backpacks, said goodbye to the people at the Normade and made our way by tram back to the harbour where we caught the ferry across the Bosphorus just as the sun was setting. We then made ourselves as comfortable as possible in a waiting room at the train station until ten to ten when we could board the overnight train to Ankara.

The train was very impressive - new, smooth, clean. The conductor was most hospitable ... as we have come to find most Turkish people are.

Istanbul, Turkey  Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey 
Crossing the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey Across the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey Train station, Istanbul, Turkey Train to Ankara from Istanbul, Turkey

click here to continue April 21 ~ Ankara and Cappadocia ...

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