Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to be a Shameless Tourist in Istanbul

It's been quite a while since I've written anything, but I promised there would be more on Turkey. So here's the next installment...finally!

Tourist Attractions in Istanbul

Although we had many insider tips, we still ended up seeing all of the typical sights in Istanbul (...I mean, how can you not?...), plus a few more.

The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cisterns, Topkapi Palace and several other attractions are all located in the old historical Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. It's pretty much the starting point for any basic sightseeing, and many of the city's reasonably-priced hostels and not-so-reasonably-priced hotels are located here. Our hostel was a mere 4-minute walk from the back of Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, which also meant that everything to see here was within walking distance.

Our first stop in Istanbul was the Hagia Sophia. This was a structure I vaguely remembered from 9th grade history class, but whose medalions and soaring architecture had stuck in my head since I was forced to memorize about eight different images of it in Art History 101. Orginally constructed as a cathedral under Emperor Justinian in 532-537 AD, it was the epitome of Byzantine architecture for...well...let's just say, for a heck of a long time. It also remained the largest cathedral in the world for a whopping 1000 years -- that is, until 1453, when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. This marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the begin of the Ottoman Empire, and our good buddy Mehmed II converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. But you can't get rid of an epitome of architecture so easily, no sir! True to form, the Hagia Sophia continued to be a model for later Ottoman mosques, including the Blue Mosque, which you'll find right across the street.

Thus, it was a natural second stop to visit the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, directly across the street from the Hagia Sophia and separated from it by a well-kept garden. The Blue Mosque was built a bit after Mehmed II's time, between 1609 and 1616 by none other than one Sultan Ahmed I. The Blue Mosque is one of the largest mosques (and it is also the national mosque of Turkey), being so named for the heaps of blue tiles in the interior. There are something like 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles on the inside, and like the Hagia Sophia, one gets the impression of soaring gradeur when standing on the inside and looking up. The Blue Mosque clearly draws architectural inspiration from its predecessor, the Hagia Sophia, and thus pulls off a grand marriage of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. (And yes, I said a "grand marriage"!) Visitors to the mosque -- or any mosque -- must remove their shoes, and women must cover their heads. Since it was the first mosque we visited, I was particularly struck by the non-stop blend of patterns, from the carpet to the tiles to the ceiling decorations; it was a beautiful, busy aesthetic and was something I kept marveling at in every other mosque we visited. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum, the Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque.

To any visitor to Istanbul, I would also highly recommend Topkapi Palace. The first day we visited Topkapi, we didn't allow ourselves enough time to see it all, but perhaps the fact that we were willing to spend the 20 lira entrance fee to come back again can testify to its rightful place as a must-see attraction in Istanbul. Visitors pay outside and enter the palace grounds through a gate that is extremely reminiscent of the blue-and-white animated palace at the into to any Disney movie, so you already know that you're off to a good start. Inside is the palace complex, the main residence of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 (when Sultan Ahmed II commissioned himself a palace as the first Ottoman emperor) to 1853 (when Sultan Abdul Mecid I moved the official residence to Istanbul's other palace -- the newer, western-style Dolmabahce Palace), the modern-day visitor can see any number of imperial exhibitions. It's a good idea to check the display board by the ticket office to see which exhibitions are currently closed (unfortunately the kitchen was closed for our visit) or open. It's a full day's work to see the treasury, the stables, the apartments and chambers, and -- perhaps most intriguingly -- the imperial Harem. Although you'll pay a second, nearly equal admission price to see the Harem, it is well worth it. Not only can you learn the history of the harem (not at all glamorous), but you can see some of the most finely ornamented chambers in the palace. Topkapi is probably an all day affair, but it's a sight I wouldn't leave out.

All of that opulence made us feel rich as sultans, so what better natural outlet for our bulging purses than a visit to The Grand Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar (also call the Egyptian Bazaar)! The Grand Bazaar was nothing like the large flea market I had somehow envisioned -- rather, it's one of the largest covered markets in the world. There are over 1000 shops stuffed into countless corridors, some of which (to my surprise) even have glass-windowed storefronts. The merchants at the bazaars will call out to you as you pass to buy their jewelry, scarves, carpets, pottery and spices. Of course you'd be a fool to pay full price for anything, but there's only so much haggling you can get away with as a tourist.

Istanbul has the unique distinction of being a city divided between two continents. All of the tourist attractions are on the European side, but the Asian side offers a more authentic look at the city free from the throngs of travelers. The Bosphorus acts as the straight between Thrace (the European part of Turkey/Istanbul) and Anatolia (the Asian part), connecting the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south (which, in turn, connects to the Aegean and by extension to the Mediterranean). The ferry runs back and forth and up and down the river, so we took it over to Üsküdar for a quick visit to Asia and then further on up to Eyüp (on the European side again) where we saw some more out-of-the-way sights.

If you find yourself back near the Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque area with nothing to do, you may want to look someplace you'd least expect for a great attraction: underground at the Basilica Cisterns. You'll see the ticket office at road level, then as you decend into the cisterns you'll find another of Justinian's great accomplishments of the 6th century: a massive cathedral-sized cistern capable of holding 2,800,000 cubic feet of water. A boardwalk leads the visitor through the arcaded structure, and that same feeling of size and grandeur returns.

One of our accidental discoveries was the old City Wall. We were actually trying to go to a museum that happened to be closed (on a Wednesday?!) and ended up exploring the area instead. The old city wall still runs around the city in certain places, and remains open to the public. Although it would be a major liability in America, in Istanbul you can scramble up the steep and narrow ziggurat-like steps of the wall to the lookout station. This gave us a great and FREE view of the city, and eliminated the need to go up into the more touristy Galata Tower.

After all of this sightseeing, you'll want to wash the grit of the city off with a nice deep clean. Fortunately, Istanbul offers any number of Turkish baths designed with this very purpose in mind. We visited the Cemberlitas baths, the oldest, most touristy, and therefore most expensive baths in the city. All that being said, it was well worth it, and I wouldn't have done it any other way. Far from the classical pipe dream that Ingres depicted of the Turkish baths, the Cemberlitas was built in 1584 by the sultan's wife, for the purpose of bringing in a little extra revenue. Today visitors can come and experience something most adults haven't experienced in decades -- being bathed by someone else. Separated into men's and women's chambers, most guests enter nude or mostly nude into the large circular sauna room. In the middle of the room centered under a dome is a heated marble slab where you can stretch out and wait until it is your turn to be bathed. We got a package for a "bath," soap massage, and an oil massage...and it was well worth the splurge! I can't remember the last time I felt such a deep clean, and the best part of it is that you can hang out in the sauna or in the little pools surrounding the sauna as long as you like. But make sure you plan your trip to the baths for the end of the day -- it will take every last ounce of remaining energy out of you, and they only thing you'll be capable of doing afterwards is eating a big greasy kebab.

...So now that you've had a taste of the major sights in Istanbul, you can stay tuned for a taste of another update will be on Turkish food. Yummy!

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