After a day of adjusting to the new timezone, it was time to venture out and see some highlights of Istanbul. We arranged for a private tour guide and car for the day, which turned out to be a fantastic choice on our part.
Our tour guide “Yil” (for short and probably not spelled right) showed up at our hotel at 8:30 am with our transportation for the day. It turned out to be a small tour bus. Our 1st stop turned out to be our only stop since everything we saw was accessible by foot. Yil kept us on a fast pace so we could see everything and to avoid as many crowds as we could.
Our tour included visits to the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. A side excursion we were able to take was a walk through the Basilica Cistern, an underground water storage facility built to save city water back during the many wars and innovations of the city.
We’ve used tour guides in the past and found their wealth of knowledge and insider’s accessibility to things to be a great benefit and enhancement to our experience. Yil proved this to us again on this tour. He seemed to know many of the other tour guides and security people we ran into. In many instances, this allowed us to jump ahead of long lines and not have to wait, often turning into Yil doing the European double cheek kiss in greeting to security guards that let us pass. We felt like we got lots of special treatment and Yil said having such a small group allowed him to get some privileges.
One of the lines we jumped was not a result of Yil knowing someone. Lines to enter the Blue Mosque were very long at both entrances. Yil told us to follow him and not look at anyone and do what he does. He took us right to the front of the line and into a shorter line next to it. This shorter line turned out to be the line for locals. We were in the mosque in 5min. I’m sure many of the people in line waited half an hour or much longer to get it.
Topkapi Palace After his conquest of Constantinople, Mehmet II built the palace as his main residence in 1459-65. Four courtyard pavilions created a tribute in stone to the tent encampments of his nomadic fore bearers. The palace also housed a college for training soldiers and officials. It remained the center of government until the 16th century. There we saw the Treasurery that displayed many priceless spoils of war or gifts from other countries. Amazing diamond-encrusted items like swords or head dresses or huge jade pieces or zinc bowls with gems on them. They had just reopened the Armory exhibit after years of remodeling and it was a very modern section with hologram exhibits and hundreds of weapons and armor pieces displayed.
The Hippodrome Currently a peaceful park, this was once the Byzantine chariot racetrack, capable of holding 100,000 people. There are 3 large monuments including the Egyptian Obelisk of c. 1500 BC, transported from Luxor; the Serpentine Column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, made in 479 BC; and the Column of Constantine VII Porphryogenitus, which of an unknown date, but named after the emperor who had it restored in the 10th century.
The Blue Mosque This mosque was completed in 1616 by the Sultan Ahmet I, who was only 19 when he commissioned it. The mosque is known in Turkish as the Sultan Ahmet Camii. It has become one of the most celebrated mosques in the world and is known widely as the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles in the interior.
Hagia Sophia The Church of Holy Wisdom is an architectural wonder. The first church on the site burned down in 404, the second destroyed during the Nika Riots of 532. The third church on the site was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537 and still stands today dispute countless wars and earthquakes. (Istanbul rests on a major fault line.) The church was converted to a mosque in 1453 and has been a museum since 1934.
This church was amazing in its size (4th largest in the world) and it’s history. The floors and columns were “recycled” marble from ancient pagan temples from the conquered areas of the empire as with Christianity there was not to be worship to other “gods” in the Empire. Many of the christian crosses in stone and sculpture had their cross bars removed and the christian mosaics like of the Virgin Mary and Jesus were covered over when it was converted into a mosque with the end of the Byzantine Empire. The location of the christian altar contains the muslim prayer box, just off center to accommodate the direction of Mecca. The building in a wondrous mix of religious symbology and architectural potpourri. As an example, the altar has a large beautiful now-uncovered mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that is bookshelved by two huge Muslim signs to Allah and Muhommed.
Basilica Cistern The translation of the Turkish name for this place is “Sunken Palace”. It covers an area of 11,720 square yards. Its construction was begun by Constantine to insure Constantinople always had a supply of water. It once held about 18 million gallons of water. The roof is held up by 336 pillars, 26 feet tall. Most of the pillars are repurposed from old Greek buildings transported here. One of the more famous pillar bases include a set of heads from a Greek temple for Medusa. The heads were originally part of a column on a Greek temple and chopped off and used as bases for pillars in the cistern.
Grand Bazaar Sultan Mehmet II founded the bazaar in 1461 with the intention of it being the trading heart of an empire. It has survived after several destructions by earthquake and fire. Offerings in the bazaar are virtually limitless with suppliers of jewelry, rugs, tea sets, clothing, spices, etc. crammed one shop next to the other.
One thing (of many) we found interesting was when a shopkeeper needed to leave, they would place sheets of newspaper over their wares and leave. There often wasn’t a door to close and everything was left out in the open. Our guide said that basic honesty and an elaborate camera system help deter thievery in the bazaar.
Although we ended our excursion and said goodby to Yil around 2:30, it’s felt like a full day of activity. This evening will be another leisurely enjoyment of the club lounge in our hotel and an evening stroll. We board our cruise ship tomorrow afternoon and will spend our morning with some last minute site seeing in what’s turned out to be an amazing city we’d love to visit with more time.