Saturday, October 13, 2012

Istanbul: Crossroads of the World

Welcome to Istanbul, Turkey!  My home state of Indiana used to refer to itself as the "Crossroads of America."  Istanbul, which sits at the intersection of Europe and Asia and has been the capital of four separate empires--Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman--could justifiably lay claim to the title, Crossroads of the World.  We spent a few days exploring the palaces, monuments, mosques, bazaars and restaurants in this incredible city.

Reunited at last!  For almost three weeks, Beth and I separated from Shane and Nick--they toured Egypt, Jordan and Israel (places Beth and I toured in 2008), while Beth and I visited several Central European countries.  We met up again in the Athens airport and then we all headed to Istanbul together.  First, we ate a kebab--the first of many in Turkey.

Then, we headed for the Topkapi Palace, which was completed in 1465, and was the center of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries.

Above are some photos from the opulent Topkapi Palace.  As with all Muslim palaces, you will notice much ornate decoration, but you will not see paintings or other representation of people or animals.  In the Muslim world, creating images of people and animals is the province of Allah, not humans.  Here is one fun fact: during the the Ottoman Empire, there were 1,400 public toilets around Istanbul; at the same time, there were no public toilets in the rest of Europe.

We next visited the Blue Mosque.  The Blue Mosque has six minarets (two are behind the trees in the above photo).  At the time the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I, those six minarets equalled the number of minarets at Islam's primary Ka'aba Mosque in Mecca.  This resulted in criticism of Ahmed for daring to match the number of minarets of Islam's primary mosque.  In response, Ahmed had a seventh minaret built in Ka'aba, which diffused the criticism.
The Blue Mosque derives its name from the 20,000 striking blue tiles which line the interior ceiling and walls of the mosque.  Above is a photo of the ceiling.

Above are photos of the inside of the Blue Mosque.  The last photo shows a boy shushing his father, which didn't go over very well with the father.

Istanbul's most famous monument is Aya Sofia, also known by its Greek name, Haghia Sofia.  Roman Emperor Justinian had Aya Sofia built as part of an effort to restore the greatness of the Roman Empire.  It was completed in 537, and it reigned as the grandest church in Christendom until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.  Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque, and it remained so until 1935, when it was made into a museum.

 Above are images from the inside of the Aya Sofia.  For centuries, this was the single largest enclosed space in the world.  This interior, with dozens of lights dangling from the domed ceiling, is still profoundly impressive.  The enormous wooden plaques which bear the Arabic names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the first four Caliphs, were additions after the church was transformed into a mosque.
Although the photos may not do justice to the grandeur of the interior of the Aya Sofia, take our word for it: the Aya Sofia gets two thumbs up.

During the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the emperors loved nothing more than an afternoon at the chariot races, and the Hippodrome was their preferred venue.  The above-pictured Obelisk of Theodosius is one of the few remaining remnants of the Hippodrome venue in Istanbul.  The obelisk was carved in 1549 BC and erected in the Karnak Temple in Egypt; Emperor Theodosius had it brought from Egypt to Constantinople in 390 AD.  Constantinople was the former name of Istanbul--as memorialized in the swing-style song, "Istanbul, Not Constantinople."  The carving at the base of the obelisk, shown in the above close-up photo, shows Theodosius, his family, and others watching the chariot action from the imperial box.

The above photos show the Basilica Cistern, so named because it was built beneath a church.  This cavernous underground structure, built in 532 AD with 336 carved columns, was built to house water supplies, which would be pumped and delivered to points throughout the city in 20 km of aqueducts.  The cistern was constructed using columns and other materials from ruined buildings from previous empires.  The photo immediately above shows a sideways Medusa head, which was taken from an ancient Greek temple (not so ancient in 532 AD), and used for the base of one of the columns.  Beth is covering her eyes, because everyone knows you don't look directly into the eyes of Medusa.  By the way, if you're a big-time James Bond fan, you might recognize the Basilica Cistern as a setting in the 1963 Bond film, From Russia With Love.

One constant among all successive empires in Istanbul has been the covered bazaar, which houses over 4,000 shops.


As you can see from the above photos taken at the covered bazaar, while there may be over 4,000 shops, it doesn't take long before the shops start blending together.

And outside of the covered bazaar, the shops continue, with the merchandise varying from fresh fish, to spices, to Turkey mugs at Starbucks.

We headed to the waterfront.  The above photo shows the Bosphorus channel, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and one of the busiest waterways in the world.  The land mass on the left side of the photo is part of Europe, and the land mass on the right is part of Asia.

At the waterfront, we sampled fish taken directly from the fishing boats a few yards away, cooked on a portable grill, and served at the pictured folding table beside the water.  And when I say that "we" sampled fish, I do not include Shane.  The first thing Shane does when he enters a new country is look up how to say the word "fish" in the local language; then he can check any menu, and confirm with any server, to make sure he NEVER orders fish.  He really, really does not like fish.  In the above photo, Beth is examining the fish for bones; Shane is making his usual comments about how he doesn't understand why anyone messes with the hassle of picking through fish bones.  For my part, I enjoyed the meal.

The most flashy of the Turkish dishes is the testi kebab, consisting of a mixture of meat and vegetables cooked in a clay pot over fire.  The pot is sealed with bread dough or foil and is broken when served.  The server puts on quite a display.  But it also was invariably the most expensive item on the menu, and none of us could justify spending so much money on the dish.  However, we had fun watching our neighboring table receive the dish--see the video above.

The food I did order ended up being delicious, and almost all of our meals in Turkey ended up coming in under $5.  From chicken kebabs to grilled corn on the cob bought from street vendors, to pieces of bread bigger than your head, I thoroughly enjoyed the Turkish cuisine.

But for Beth and I, the biggest highlight of Istanbul was again being able to enjoy the great company of Shane and Nick!

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