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Eight days in Istanbul

Last year I spent eight days exploring the exotic city of Istanbul.  Now a megacity of almost 13 million people, it began life as a Greek colony known as Byzantium in the year 667 BC.  It quickly became a prosperous trading center due to its prime location on the land route between Asia and Europe.  It sat on the banks of the only seaway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  Rome destroyed the city in 196 AD, then rebuilt it and continued its prosperity as a trade center. 

In the year 330 AD Constantine I declared the city to be the new capital of the Roman Empire and it was then called Constantinopolis, or “Constantine’s City,” anglicized to Constantinople.  When the Ottoman Turks captured it in 1453 they changed the city’s name to Istanbul.

On my taxi ride from the airport to my hotel I was surprised by how much Istanbul looked like any city in America, with playgrounds, buses and modern buildings.  Then, among the modern streets and cars I got my first view of historic significance when I saw this aqueduct from the Roman era, known as the Valens aqueduct.  It stands some 29 yards high and is approximately 970 yards long:

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The following day I took the city tram down to the heart of the historical area.  My first priority was to see the Hagia Sophia, one of my favorite buildings in the world for its history and its beauty.  There were two previous churches on this site, both burned down during riots.  The current one is the largest by far, built as a Christian cathedral, finished and dedicated in the year 537.  Building materials were brought from as far away as Egypt and Syria, and included the large columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. 

It remained as a Christian cathedral until the Turks took over in 1453, at which point they erected minarets on all four corners and turned it into a mosque.  It remained as a mosque until 1935 when it was turned into a museum by the first Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  

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As I left the tram and walked toward the Hagia Sophia, I was besieged by carpet salesmen.   They are very good at what they do.   If you haven’t been around them before, you think Istanbul must be the friendliest city in the world.  They come up to you, introduce themselves and begin telling you the history of the city as they walk along beside you.  They have lots of great information and are happy to share it all with you.  Then…”My uncle has a carpet shop nearby with excellent deals…”   It gets really old after the first two or three, but there’s no way of getting around them.  They make their living that way, and they don’t make a dime unless they make a sale, so it’s just a part of the experience of visiting Istanbul.

As I stood in line to buy a ticket into the Hagia, I was approached by a small man who brimmed with intelligence.  He spoke excellent English and said he was a retired university professor, having spent his whole life right there in Istanbul.  His name was Ibraham and for a fee he’d give me a guided tour of the Hagia.  I knew it would be a much richer experience with him leading the way, so we worked out a deal and began the tour.

This is the main entrance to the Hagia Sophia.

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Istanbul - D AvatarThis is a gigantic building, the largest church in the Christian world for the first 900 years of its existence.  The few windows in there are small, which combined with the height of the ceiling, made the flash on my camera almost useless except for close shots. 

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I went up onto the second floor to get a better angle on the large “roundels” with Arabic writing. 

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In an unusual move, the Muslims who conquered Constantinople refrained from destroying a lot of the Christian artwork.  Instead, they plastered over it and then decorated as they saw fit.  Now that the Hagia is a museum, scholars are working to uncover the original Byzantine art.

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I took a picture of Ibraham standing next to this “lustration urn,” made of one solid piece of marble.  Lustration urns were used in ancient Greek and Roman purification rituals.

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Back outside again I headed for the famous Blue Mosque, or Sultanahment, that is located directly across from the Hagia Sophia.  I attached myself to an Italian tour group that was just entering the Mosque and meandered inside this enormous building.  Although magnificent when seen in person, it was too dark in there to get any decent pictures and I didn’t stay long. 

Wandering back outside, I saw a small building approximately 500 feet from the Hagia Sophia that had a sign saying “Basilica Cistern 532 AD.”  I paid my admission, walked down some stairs and into a vast underground room. The small entrance shack above ground gave no indication of all that lay beneath, the area of which was covered by several city blocks above.   This was the elaborate water system built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.  It is large enough to hold twenty million gallons of water. 

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There is a raised walkway that allows visitors to tour from one end of the cistern to the other.  Most of the 336 columns that support the roof are plain, but at the far northwest of the cistern are two columns that are decorated with medusa heads at the base.  One is upside down, the other is sideways.  No one knows why they are there or where they originated.

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One of the highlights of any trip to Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar.  One of the largest covered markets in the world, it gets a minimum of 250,000 visitors on any given day.  Opened in 1461, it has 60 streets and 5,000 shops selling everything from carpets and spices to jewelry and antiques.  

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This tiny alcove was a small cafe.

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These men playing backgammon lent a classically exotic flavor to the Bazaar.

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As I left the bazaar through the area specializing in antiques, it looked for all the world like a movie set from an Indiana Jones movie.

Istanbul R 

One of the highlights of my trip was a cruise on the Bosphorus Straight.  This body of water separates Europe from Asia, and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.  Istanbul occupies both sides, the only major city in the world to exist on two continents simultaneously. 

Tour companies have offices on almost every street in Istanbul, so finding a cruise didn’t take long.  We boarded the boat and were on our way.

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Although there seemed to be a mosque on every corner while I was on land, there were many more than I had realized.  Wherever there was enough land, there was a mosque, even right up to where land met water.  I saw more of these than I can remember.

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My mental picture of Istanbul had more to do with history than modern times, so it struck me odd to see high rise office buildings in the distance.

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The highlight of the cruise for me was seeing Rumeli Fortress.  Built in just four months by the Ottoman Turks in 1452, the fort was used as a base to aid in the conquest of Constantinople.

Istanbul VIstanbul W

Back on dry land, the tour company gave us the added bonus of a drive around the medieval walls of Constantinople.  The Byzantines had felt safe behind these walls for centuries, but that all changed when Sultan Mehmed II showed up with 14 batteries of artillery in 1453.  Seven weeks later these walls had been breached by the world’s first concerted artillery barrage.

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With my time in Istanbul over, I grabbed a taxi and headed for the airport.  I had been warned that the taxi drivers will frequently charge a higher night rate to foreigners, and there isn’t much you can do about it unless you speak Turkish.  I had been wary of the driver who took me from the airport to the hotel at the beginning of my time in Istanbul, but I had forgotten about it eight days later.  Sure enough, this driver charged twice what I had paid for the same distance and time on the first trip, and there was nothing I could do.  There are enough of them to form a small army, and the local police will naturally back them up.

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Ah, adventure travel.

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