As promised here is our final Istanbul summary including information of the most important sites we visited. Main sources are Rick Steves’ Istanbul travel guide and Wikitravel. For those who know Istanbul and those who are not really interested in a rather informative article, just skip this one, a personal update is in the pipeline as well.
Its official name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named for its patron, but the blue tiles interior gave it the nickname Blue Mosque. The mosque was built in the early 17th century as an answer to Hagia Sofia and is one of the finest in the world. Its six minarets rival the mosque in Mecca and beautiful tiles with floral motifs fill the interior. Stunning! It is wonderful to just sit on the floor and enjoy the beauty of this building, watch worshippers praying and just forget that you are just one of another thousand tourists being in this mosque right now.
Originally built by the Greeks as a church it was later turned into a mosque. The Turkish name is Aya Sofia. It has been built between A.D. 532 and 537 and for 900 years it served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the ‘eastern Vatican’. When the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, impressed with the Great Church’s beauty, converted it into an imperial mosque. In the 1930s Hagia Sophia was again converted – this time into a museum. It retains unique elements of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and their respective religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
Hagia Sofia is not only famous for its beauty but also for its huge dome: Paris’ Notre Dame fits in it and the Statue of Liberty could perform jumping jacks! Actually you cannot describe its grandeur, you have to see and feel it. It is one of the most impressing buildings we have ever seen, especially knowing when this was built. Even the architect had his doubts about the stability of the dome and only ten years after it has been finalized it partially collapsed and more arches had to be added.
This palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The Topkapi Palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is really nice, but even though we went there really early, there were far too many tourists. And on top the kitchen area was closed for renovation works. A big disappointment for us! We visited the Harem including the main private areas of the Sultan, his wives, his favorites and his mother. And just in case you didn’t know, even though the Sultan was allowed to have four wives, they very seldom made use of it. Some women played very important roles in politics in Ottoman history and it was even said that the empire was ruled from harem. A harem is a place forbidden for men and protected by Eunuchs – and not a place where wild orgies took place – and where the women of the palace lived together with their children. Boys got educated in the Harem as well until the age of 16.
Or the place where parts of Bond’s movie “From Russia with Love” was filmed (and by the way the latest Bond movie was also filmed in Istanbul). It was built in the 6th century and is as big as two soccer fields. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high. The majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings, likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia. The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.
The bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. Tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons‘ (a terrifying female creature) gaze, however it is widely thought that one was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column.
And this is a place where you can get almost everything and mainly carpets, fabrics, typical Turkish souvenirs, water pipes, jeans, leather products, gold, books….. And even when we told the salespeople that we cannot buy anything since we are cycling they still somehow managed to drag us into their shops and come up with ideas how to get their nice products to our homes!
Close by the Bazaar is the Spice Market where you can buy Turkish Delight in a million variations, spices (oh really?) in wonderful colors that make great pictures and little eateries sell their kebabs, köftes and other delicious food. Luckily the Turkish desserts are far too sweet for me so I can easily resist :-).
And that’s it for Turkey. Unfortunately we didn’t cycle as much as we would have liked in this country but enjoyed every bit of what we’ve seen. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, having been able to still wear our summer clothes and having had rain only in Istanbul and only in the evenings. All in all, another great cycling country with great people added to our list!