We have spent the last two full days in Istanbul and what an interesting and exciting place it is! In terms of geographical location and culture, it is a melting pot of east and west. The border between the continents is literally defined by the Bosphorous Strait which flows from the Marmara Sea (an extension of the Mediterranean) to the Black Sea. One shoreline is in Europe and the other is in Asia. Every time that I walk out of the door of the hotel I feel like hailing a taxi and asking the driver to taker me to the Casbah (except that I am in the wrong city).
We started our day, yesterday, with a trip to the site of the Roman Hippodrome and then to the Blue Mosque. The mosque is a gigantic building with six minarets. We had to take our shoes off as we entered, and we carried them with us in a plastic bag. The interior is a real work of art – nice stained glass windows and beautiful blue ceramic tiles forming intricate patterns on the walls. The ceiling is painted in a floral design pattern. I have no idea how many people it would hold – perhaps six or seven thousand
From there we went to another ancient building – St Sofia’s, which dates back to 550 AD. This building started its life in Byzantine times as a Greek Orthodox Church and then became a mosque. In the 1930’s it was converted back to a museum. In terms of area, it is the fourth largest church building in the world after St Peters in Rome, St Marks in Venice and St Pauls in London. It is structurally sound but in a poor state of repair. Some work is being dome to renovate the gilded mosaic in the dome and a lot of the murals on the upper walls and ceiling are faded, even though the building was restored only four years ago.. Four of the giant pillars that form the edge of the sanctuary were removed from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesis that we had seen a few days ago.
In the middle of the day, we spent some time at Topkapi Palace, the residence of the former Sultan. Turkey is now a secular state with an elected democratic government. The palace is located high on an outcrop above the Marmara Sea and holds hundreds of treasures including a 57 carat diamond. The whole area is still complete and includes reception rooms, throne room circumcision room and the harem. Some of the religious artifacts include the walking stick of Moses and the right arm of St John.
From there,we went to see the underground water cisterns. These are unique to Istanbul and there is n nothing like them anywhere else in the world. They were built by the Romans to hold water, should the city have been besieged. The water came along aqueducts from a source 24 kilometres from the city.They are a wonderful example of Roman engineering and ingenuity. The floodlighting did a great job of emphasising the columns and structure. There were even fish swimming in the water.
By the end of the afternoon, we were rather tired so we went to visit to a leather factory where we could sit down for half an hour and watch a fashion show. The prices of their jackets were very cheap, but the leather was generally heavier than the same type of garments that we had seen in Florence.
The very last part of our day, before dinner in a local restaurant was at the spice market. Whilst there are lot of spice stalls with their display of coloured spices and their mixture of aromatic smells, a good number of stalls in the market sold jewellery, clothing and household goods. Attached to the market was a section selling plants and another selling animals; I assume for pets. One of the more interesting sellers was a man with big glass bottles selling leeches.
Today, we started with a 90 minute boat cruise along the Bosphorous. Initially, we travelled up the western (European) side and were able to see lots of nice buildings, an old fortification and a couple of five star hotels. On our return along the eastern (Asian) shoreline, we could see a large number of wooden houses on the waterfront that could only be described as mansions. There certainly is a lot of wealth here. We were told that the minimum price for a house along here is US$1.5 million. Some have recently sold for up to US$43 million. This is significantly different picture of the Turks from the dark skinned people who wear big mustaches that we see in Australia.
I guess that the most interesting part of our second day was to go to the Grand Bazaar. This bazaar has operated since 1461 and covers a number of acres. There are a maze of lane ways in the Bazaar. and over 2500 shops. Many sell rugs, others sell jewellery and others offer plates, lamps, leather wear or food. We spent almost two hours there and didn’t have a boring minute.
We haven’t visited a garden since we arrived in Greece, and we thought that we had an opportunity this afternoon as we visited the Istanbul Botanic Gardens. Turks are not into gardens and the university garden reflected this. We were shown around by a professor who was eager to explain the variety of Turkish plant that they were growing. The garden was very simply laid out according to variety with a few specimens in each. We could best say that it reflected a functional academic garden rather than one designed to be attractive. However, there were a few good views across the Golden Horn Bay. The highlight of our visit was another professor telling me that I looked 10 years younger than my rea
l age and wouldn’t need Viagra! I like the first part of his complement and make no comment on the second part.
Our tour finishes with breakfast tomorrow and everyone goes their separate ways. Jill and I have all day in Istanbul before a flight at 6.00 pm to Kayseri for our visit to Capadoccia.