My last day in Istanbul I spent with Anna, my traveling companion for the next two weeks or so while we’re in Tajikistan.
Starting with breakfast at the Cafe Privato. This is not what I expected to happen:
We re-visited the main historical attractions, because Anna hadn’t seen them – and fortunately for me, too, because somehow I had managed to miss most of Topkapı Palace and the upper level of the Hagia Sophia (though I think the latter had been closed).
On the way to the airport, there was an unusual billboard. Exotic as its destinations, were, though, they didn’t include ours.
With Hagia Sophia as my only specific destination, I set out again to Sultanahmet.
On the way I stopped for a sandwich. At many streetside vendors, when you order meat, it is cut off of a giant rotating pile of meat on a skewer:
My sandwich also came with a cup of ayran, evidently Turkey’s national drink, which satisfied my desire to be an adventurous eater for the day. Imagine milk that has gone sour, watered down, with a tablespoon of salt added.
I decided to see whether any geocaches were around. There were; one tiny (but not nano) one was hidden under the railing of the bridge I was crossing. Its logbook showed that it had already been found the same day.
The Hagia Sophia itself is outside my scope to describe (as always with these things) but it is essentially a 6th-century Greek Orthodox cathedral that was converted to a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople about 800 years later and secularized to become a museum by Ataturk. During its time as a mosque all of the Christian mosaics were plastered over, but now many of them have been restored, while leaving the Muslim additions in place, resulting in a bizarre combination.
Also part of the complex are several buildings housing tombs of sultans. They require visitors to remove their shoes, as in a mosque.
The Sultanahmet district is teeming with sellers of Bosphorus boat tour ticket sellers, so I decided to give that a try. The printed price is 15 euros (yes, euros) but in about five seconds I got it down to 8. Perhaps still too high, but not bad for two hours on the water.
As we seemed to set out, we appeared to drift and/or motor aimlessly closer and closer to the rocks on the shore. Most of the tourists on board wondered out loud what was going on.
Actually, we were just dilly-dallying as they waited for more customers.
Although saying you were in the Bosphorus Straits is cool, the way they can manage to have a “tour” is because of the huge number of interesting buildings right along the shore on both sides. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember what any of them are.
Or on neither side. This lighthouse is now a restaurant.
On the shore I was surprised to see people selling turns to shoot at balloons.
In 13 hours I’ll be on a plane to Tajikistan. Wish me luck.
Jessica’s place, where I’m staying, is near a metro stop called Şişhane, which, apparently, according to any normal person, is not within walking distance of Sultanahmet, the old part of Istanbul/Constantinople where the most famous historical attractions are. Not being deterred by this, I set out on foot towards the neighborhood that houses the Hagia Sophia and the other essentials.
After crossing the bridge (see GPS track) the first stop was the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar, which I visited later, seemed to actually have a higher concentration of spices.
My digital watch had all but stopped working in Tel Aviv, since I believed its claims of water resistance, so I took a look at a few of the hundreds of watches for sale in the bazaar. I paid 10 lira ($5) for an obviously counterfeit “CASIQ” F-91W. Whoever made it created a functional replica of the actual Casio model, although I don’t know if it’s quite as good for bomb-making. Oh well, I guess I’m not a real terrorist. Either way, I probably shouldn’t wear it through customs when I return to the US after having been to the Tajik-Afghan border regions. Al-Qaeda watch on wrist (seriously, the first Google Images result for the model number is a picture of Osama bin Laden wearing one) I carried on.
The Basilica Cistern is a huge underground space full of water (presumably there used to be more of it) and old Roman columns.
It also has fish. It’s basically the coolest thing ever.
Istanbul, or at least that area, really has an embarrassment of riches in terms of historical attractions.
The Blue Mosque, which is so big that it didn’t fit in any of my pictures, is positioned squarely in front of the Hagia Sophia. It has hordes of tourists, but is also in constant use as a mosque.
Since it receives so many non-Muslim visitors, the walls of the courtyard are plastered with information about Islam in English directed at Christians, describing, for example, the lineage of Biblical characters and about Jesus the Messiah’s role in the Quran.
The final must-see for the day was Topkapı Palace, the former residence of the Sultans. The Sultan’s apartments are known as the Harem, a term they are milking for all it’s worth. It’s not inaccurate; he did indeed have many concubines from all over the territories he conquered, those of whom he slept with were called his “favorites”.
As I walked from the palace to the Grand Bazaar, I stopped to buy a bottle of water (it’s hot, though not as hot as Israel!). The man selling the water was explaining to another Westerner that as for himself, because of Ramadan, “I am looking at the water but I cannot drink.”
Despite Ramadan and the possible impropriety, I eventually decided to get something to eat (after all, why are the cafes open if no one is supposed to go there?). This turned into a half-hour conversation over tea with the proprietor, who really wanted to sell me some silk scarves, about my life and family. He said he learned English (which was relatively good) within the walls of the bazaar.
Having underestimated the time to get back, I ended up missing a Bosphorus boat tour with Vince (who I met the day before), but instead we ended up watching a World Cup game at the French Consulate. A few hours later, with another guy we met there, we were sitting on Taksim Square illegally drinking wine, talking about life, with children coming up to us to sell water, while hearing the muezzin’s late-night call to prayer. Not something you do every day.
Where I went, minus some where the GPS ran out of battery.