Saturday, March 24, 2012

Istanbul was once Constantinople - Part Three: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Bosphorus Strait

To wrap up this series on Istanbul, this post will highlight a few more of the sights and experiences that Istanbul has to offer.

One of the first sites that we checked out was the underground cisterns that date back to the 6th century, during the Byzantine emperor Justinian's rule.  We were blown away by the size of this place and all of the lighting really made it feel a little eery.  At the time of its use, water would fill this entire chamber and serve as a freshwater supply for the city, holding around 27 million gallons!  Apparently this place was even used in the James' Bond movie "From Russia With Love".

Basilica Cistern - as it is often referred to, since it was built on the site of an old basilica.  The Turks refer to it by a name which translates to "sunken palace".

One of the highlights in the cisterns is the massive pair of Medusa head blocks that serve as the base of two columns in a far corner.  You can just make out the snakes that make up the gorgon's head.

Probably the most famous site in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia - pronounced "Ay-a Sof-ee-a" (meaning "divine wisdom").  It was originally built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian during the 6th century to be the main church of Constantinople, and the empire - kind of like the Vatican in Rome.  Later it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1453.  Now it serves as a museum.  Its massive in size, with the inside supposedly being able to house the Statue of Liberty in its entirety (minus the torch).

Hagia Sophia from the outside.  You can see how it looks like it could've been a large church with minarets added centuries later.

Marisa made sure to tote around the Rick Steve's book, which served us well in this city.  He apparently loves Istanbul because his book was chalk-full of historical facts and interesting places to see.

You can get an idea of the size of the interior from this balcony - notice the chandeliers below on the ground floor where Marisa was previously standing.

Hagia Sophia - I love it when you get the sun beams making their way across a shot.

You see so many stained-glass windows in cathedrals with Biblical scenes throughout Europe, so it was interesting to see one in more of an eastern style.

Istanbul also has its share of exciting markets.  The Grand Bazaar resembles a sprawling indoor/outdoor mall that has pretty much anything you can think of.

There are some areas set aside for different types of goods, but we honestly didn't get too caught up in this place because most of it looked like cheap merchandise.

Dried fruits at the Spice Market.

Turkish delight (white stuff), dried fruits, and nuts.  By the way, we found that the only way to enjoy Turkish Delight is when its covered in chocolate.

View of the Spice Market.

One shouldn't visit Istanbul without stopping by the Topkapi Palace, which was built on a hill which was the site of Byzantium (ancient Greek settlement).  It was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet in the 1470's as an administrative complex, but was later converted into a palace by Suleyman the Magnificent a century later.  This palace was used by the Ottomans until the mid-19th century when they opted for a new Euro-style palace on the Bosphorus Strait.

Gate of Salutation - Topkapi Palace

Baghdad Pavilion - built by Sultan Murat IV to celebrate his conquest of Baghdad

Part of our palace tour included a visit to the Harem, which isn't quite what our western view had previously thought.  The Harem was a private set of apartments and living spaces where some of the Sultans wives and concubines lived - along with the Sultan's mother!  While we typically think of concubines as sex slaves and a Harem as the setting for a huge orgy, this apparently wasn't the case at all.  There were limits as to how many women could be concubines and they were treated with dignity and respect, similarly to his wives.  The practical use of the Harem was simply to ensure that an heir would be produced to maintain power in the empire.

Fancy tilework adorned practically the entire Harem complex.

As far as experiences go, it's pretty popular to hang out in the hookah bars.  This was my first experience and I found it anti-climatic, not that I expected much.  You basically pay for flavored tobacco, which is a very mild blend.  The attendants lock it and load it and keep hot coals over the bowl to keep it lit.  It is a relaxing atmosphere with comfortable couches and pillows at ground-level, but the hookah doesn't do a whole lot for you.

We randomly ran into these two gals from our school in the middle of the Grand Bazaar and caught up with them outside of our hotel for hookah and dinner.

There was an imbalance of estrogen, so I kept my eye on the television in order to maintain a low profile.

One last experience that I'd recommend is a boat cruise down the Bosphorus Strait, separating Europe from Asia.  The cruise takes about 1.5 hours each way with a 3-hour stop for lunch at a little fishing village.

We passed quite a few fishermen out doing their thing in the strait.

I'm pretty sure that this is the palace that the Ottomans used beginning in the mid-19th century.

We had some nice views on both sides of the boat along the cruise, including these fortifications.  This is the Rumeli Fortress, built by Sultan Mehmet II just before he conquered Istanbul for the Ottomans in 1453.  They added this to a second set of fortifications on the other side of the strait in order to cut off Constantinople from any supplies coming in.

In the distance behind me is where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Black Sea.

This was a fort that we hiked up to during our lunch stop - it's where the previous pictures were taken.

Coming back into port, you can see the fishermen who line the bridge practically all day, with a really neat silhouette of the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent in the background (at least I'm pretty sure that's the one).

Istanbul was an amazing city that I would recommend to anyone living or traveling in Europe.  There is such a rich history here with many cultural and architectural overlaps over the centuries that make it a unique place to visit.


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