Turkey is one country which I have always wanted to visit. When I found that in order to fly from Baku to Urumqi in China, the next stop on my mission, I had to go via Istanbul it was an ideal opportunity for me to get a sampling of this fascinating and historical country. And I was not to be disappointed …
My Turkish colleague Elmas advised me to stay at the Ciragan Palace Hotel. This is one of the old sultan’s palaces dating back to the 19th century which stands European shores of the Bosphorus strait: the Bosphorus has traditionally separated Europe from Asia so part of Istanbul is in Europe while part is in Asia. As would be expected, it was a grand place with excellent service. I was met at the door by Fatma, the customer services representative whose role was to make sure everything went smoothly. Unfortunately, it didn’t as for some reason there was no booking for me! Fortunately, the place was largely empty due to the current global downturn, so she got me a nice large room overlooking the Bosphorus.
Istanbul has a large number of interesting places to visit. Since I fully intend to return here with Lis I decided to only do a few of them this weekend. The Hagia Sophia was the one that I really wanted to visit, having recently read an article in the Smithsonian Magazine on its restoration – and challenges.
I caught a taxi over to the site and was introduced to something that I last saw almost 20 years ago in Italy: the effects of 2000 years of tourism, and it wasn’t pretty. No, it wasn’t the building I was disappointed with, just the large number of touts trying to sell me carpets, guide books, trinkets, or just relieve me of my money. Ho hum. After a breakfast of grilled corn on the cob and a nice bread roll, I joined the queue to get my ticket.
Since the day was cold – a high of 7 degrees with light rain – my exterior photos were poor, and my interior photos totally forgettable, so I’ve taken the liberty of raiding Wikipedia for some nicer images.
The Hagia Sophia was built in 532-537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Its name means “Holy Wisdom”. Later, after Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims and became Istanbul, it became a Mosque, as evidenced by the four minarets in the photo above. In 1935 with the secularisation of Turkey, it became a museum.
The Hagia Sophia is most famous for its dome which is just massive. It stands over 55 m high and the architects designed the building to maximize the interior space. You stand there in wonder, and it is even more impressive when you think that it is some 1500 years old and has withstood – with some repairs – numerous earthquakes. The architects did an amazing job of creating visually smooth transitions and it was just a wonder to behold.
I heard a tour guide saying that in summer there are so many people that you can hardly move – glad I was here in winter since it was still crowded. I had a chuckle when I saw a cat warming itself in front of one of the spot lights. I was chilled to the bone.
There were several other sites near the Hagia Sophia but I decided to save them for the next visit and just went wandering through the old town. It was fun to see all the people out and the level of activity was so much higher than I had seen in the South Caucasus countries. People were trying sell things on street corners, shine my shoes, or even offering to weigh me with a bathroom scale! The Turks really are a hardworking entrepreneurial people.
It was even more impressive because of the biting cold. I don’t know how they were able to stand there for so many hours on the street – perhaps the guy carrying a kettle selling coffee made things bearable. Since I’m not a coffee drinker I popped into the ‘Grand Bazaar’ to warm up.
First built in 1455, for a long time it was the largest covered market in the world, although modern shopping malls have since surpassed it. The Bazaar is actually no more than a number of streets with a roof over them – but with 58 streets and some 1200 shops – it is quite impressive. There is even a mosque!
I was grateful to be out of the cold wind, even though it was somewhat crowded. The shops are often grouped together, so you would find antique street, jewels street, carpet street, etc. As you passed by a shop the touts would try to get you inside. It takes a certain degree of callousness not to respond to their greetings – my father raised me to be somewhat polite – but I just use a shake of the head and a wiggling of the hand to show my disinterest.
Warmed up, I wandered out again and just followed the ebb and tide of the crowds. It was nice to have nowhere to go and just to walk, exploring a new and very interesting place. The photos below show you some of the atmosphere.
After some 5 hours of walking around I was absolutely chilled so decided that the best remedy was to have a Turkish Bath since I had stumbled across the Cemberlitas Hamam.
First, let’s dispel some misconceptions. The hamam has separate facilities for men and women. Also, it is quite different to the western concept of a bath. And there is no nudity 🙂
The hamam had a central courtyard or “Camekan” where refreshments were available. The courtyard was surrounded with changing rooms and I went to the second floor where I donned my “Pestemal” which is a large cotton garment, normally that you wrap around your body.
I entered the sweating area or “Hararet” where there was a low marble platform called the “Gobek Tasi” which was heated, sloping slightly outwards to drain the water. I lay down on the platform and began to relax – and importantly warm up. The closer to the middle one went, the hotter the marble.
While I was there an attendant came over and began working on the fellow next to me. He was firstly scrubbed with a coarse mitt and then massaged. During the scrubbing process the fellow was soaped up and there was so many bubbles I could not see his body. Seriously. During the massage the poor fellow regularly elicited yelps of pain. That which does not kill you makes you stronger … Soon it was my turn and I went through the same process, but without the yelps. After a wash and a shower I returned to the platform and relaxed some more. It was just what I needed.
I went exploring some more and found lots of interesting narrow alleys and back roads wander. The ocean was never very far away and I could see ships stacked up to the horizon. There were so many mosques and old historical places that after a while you are no longer surprised to come across them. I found a restaurant where I had a delightful vegetarian dinner – I was the only one around so I wondered how they survived – before heading back to my hotel.
The next morning I decided to start at the Galata Tower which is a striking building overlooking the city. Over 65 m tall, it is on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. It was built in 1348 and has served various purposes from a defence watch tower, to a prison, to a fire watch station. Today there is a restaurant on top with a very narrow observation deck.
I took the lift up and then walked up two more stories to the observation deck. There was a great view and I got the panoramic photo below for part of it. Pity that the day was so cold and gray – with a very biting wind on the observation deck! The Hagia Sophia is in the centre of the photograph, and you can just see the Galata bridge in the bottom right.
I wandered down the hill and across the bridge. It was full of fishermen – all men – catching tiny fish which made me wonder why they did it. Perhaps a male bonding thing. I personally would not eat fish caught in waters around a city of some 10 million people. Actually, I don’t eat fish at all 🙂
The rest of the day was spent just wandering and people watching. I had another delightful lunch, I do like Turkish food, and was entertained by four young cats playing with two boxes. It made me think of our cat Tia who gets so excited when a box or suitcase is out.
It was finally time to head back to the hotel, grab my bags, and then head to the airport. My sampling of Istanbul left me with a great desire to return with Lis when the weather is better – probably April or October. I’m looking forward to exploring Turkey more in the future.