The sheer magnitude of the city and the numerous sites available convinced us that an organized tour, including a cruise on the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, would be the most efficient and effective way to use our next to last day in Istanbul. The weather was cool, but the time on the boat was comfortable and enjoyable, and we had some very stunning views of the city.
The Bosporus is a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. It is about 31 kilometers in length and connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. From there ships can pass through the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and then to the Mediterranean. As a result, it has always been of strategic importance, especially for those nations with access to the Black Sea such as Russia and Ukraine, since it provides them passage all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
There are two suspension bridges that connect the European part of the city with the Asian part. The first bridge was completed in 1973, exactly 50 years to the day after the declaration instituting the Turkish Republic. The second, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, began operation in 1988. More than 300,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day. At the present time, a tunnel being constructed under the strait is approximately half-way toward completion, and a third bridge is already on the drawing boards.
After completing the cruise around the Bosporus, we were bused to a restaurant near our hotel where we were served a traditional Turkish meal, complete with baklava for dessert. Although we found it enjoyable enough, we still find Moroccan cuisine more to our liking, perhaps as a result of our long association with the people here, and the many opportunities we have to enjoy home-cooked meals as opposed to restaurant fare.
The afternoon part of our tour consisted primarily of a visit to the Dolmabahçe Palace, the largest palace in Turkey. Built between 1843 and 1856, It has an area of 45,000 square meters, and contains 285 rooms and 46 halls. Dolmabahçe means “filled-in garden” in Turkish. The site of the palace was originally a bay used for anchorage of the Turkish fleet. Gradually, the bay was reclaimed during the 18th century to be used for imperial gardens. After completion of the construction in 1856, the Dolmabahçe served as the residence for six sultans until the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. Bordered by the Bosporus on the east, a stunning view of the palace and the gardens can be seen from the water.
We were taken up to the highest point on the Asian side of Istanbul for some pictures in the latter part of the afternoon. We had some time to enjoy tea and pastries at a restaurant at the summit while contemplating the view and reflecting on the significant role the city had played during its history. Its strategic location, sometimes described as the Golden Horn in the heart of the Silk Route, and its continuous history of more than 26 centuries, tinged with antiquity, causes one to wonder what gives individuals significance in a world so vast and diverse.
Though we had a day’s worth of sightseeing on Friday, we still had not “toured” a couple of the must-see sites. Since our fight to Kazakhstan did not leave until 10:30 p.m. Saturday evening, we decided a couple of other places were worthy of our attention before we left.
We first took the tram over to the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world, and its more than 3000 shops welcome more than a quarter million visitors each day. Located in the formerly walled part of the city, the so-called core of the bazaar was built in the middle of the fifteenth century. According to Wikipedia, “At the beginning of the 17th century the Grand Bazaar had already achieved its final shape. The enormous extent of the Ottoman Empire in three continents, and the total control of road communications between Asia and Europe, rendered the Bazaar the hub of the Mediterranean trade. According to several European travelers, at that time, and until the first half of the 19th century, the market was unrivaled in Europe with regards to the abundance, variety and quality of the goods on sale.” It is an impressive place, but for one who traditionally finds malls, shopping centers, and other retail collectives, places to be avoided, I found more pleasure elsewhere.
For example, the Hagia Sophia Museum proved to be a very special place. The current building that one enters was constructed between 532 and 537. From 537 until 1453 it served as a Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. There was a period between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral after the fourth crusade under the “Latin Empire.” After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the cathedral served as a mosque until 1931. It opened as a museum in 1935.
The original basilica was dedicated to the “wisdom of God” and remained the world’s largest cathedral until 1520. Sophia is actually the phonetic spelling in Latin of the Greek word for wisdom. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have forever changed the history of architecture due to the construction of its massive dome. It intrigued me that the designers of the structure, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, were not architects, but a physicist and (wait for it) a mathematician.
Until the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) opened in 1616, Hagia Sophia served as the principle mosque of Istanbul. When converted to a mosque, the bells, altar, sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Of course Islamic features such as minarets were added and served as a model for many other Ottoman mosques.
After a closure to the public of four years, the Hagia Sophia reopened as a museum in 1935. The mosaics were once again made visible as can be seen in a couple of the photos below. The first is of the Virgin Mother and Child and is located in the apse of the basilica, while the latter is of Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I. Justinian I was the Byzantine emperor upon whose orders the cathedral was built.
We had time after a second day of sightseeing to have a leisurely meal at one of the many sidewalk restaurants. It is difficult to grasp the number of hotels, restaurants, gift shops, carpet emporiums, and other businesses that exist and thrive off the trade of tourists. As I mentioned earlier we could see (and hear the call to prayer) the Blue Mosque from our hotel window. I saw one Google search that returned the link “Compare 400 Blue Mosque Hotels.” That seems like a lot of hotels for a city, much less in one area. We departed for another adventure a little more informed, probably not too much wiser, but convinced that you can encounter nice people in practically any location, even one that’s intercontinental.
Fred – Photos by Denise