Our original itinerary had us taking a bus from Israel to Cairo, spending two weeks in Egypt, and busing it back to Israel to pick up our next flight on our One World Around the World ticket. Even when we stated choosing the itinerary over a year ago, we knew Egypt was the biggest risk. Despite all of our hoping that the political climate would improve, in the end our research on the US, Australian, and UK Travel Advisory websites showed the bus route we would take went straight through what are now considered the most dangerous parts of Egypt. No pyramids this time. Cross Egypt off the list.
We also missed Egypt the first time we were in Israel five years ago, so this was an extra bummer. We can’t change the destinations on our Around the World ticket, so I went to my miles bank. Three weeks ago while spending over 24 hours in the Munich Airport, I took out another “withdrawal”, this time from United, and booked us a side trip from Israel. First stop, Istanbul.
Turkey has always sounded like a very exciting place to us, but never made the first cut on lists of places to go. I can’t think of any reason really other than the fact that other places jumped out at us even more. As we arrived in Istanbul, hopped on the Metro and then the Tram and finally a ferry, I marveled at how this could be. Riding through the middle of the streets in the daytime was exciting in and of itself – the first thing we noticed was all the mosques. Everywhere we looked there were mosques. They are distinctive with their two plus minarets, or towers, and very appealing to look at. Definitely not a site we’ve seen ever before.
In addition, Turkey straddles two *continents*. Our couch surfing host just happens to live on the Asian side of the river, and the main tourist sites just happen to be on the European side. That meant that for several days in a row, we’d be visiting both Europe and Asia. One day we went from Asia to Europe back to Asia. How cool!
Then, there’s the song:
Istanbul, was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish Delight, on a moonlit night.
Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, Not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way
So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks
If this tune doesn’t get stuck in your head for three days…
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
We had three main attractions in mind – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. The Hagia Sophia, meaning “Holy Wisdom,” has nothing to do with anyone named Sophia – saint or otherwise – as is commonly thought. It is the largest Byzantine Church in Istanbul and has been built three times on the same site, including its initial construction in 360 and its current version, built in 537. It was a church until 1453 when it was converted to a mosque, then served as a mosque until the 1930’s, when it was converted to a museum. It still contains some of its original ceiling mosaics. One of the nice things about this church is the fact that you can go “upstairs”, accessed through an authentic, seemingly never-ending, spiral cave-like ramp. This lets you get up close and personal with the ceiling mosaics as well as some other partially preserved mosaics on the second floor. The entire building is filled with gorgeous architectural elements so we have lots of photos!
I was surprised when I found myself even more enchanted entering the Blue Mosque. Officially named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this mosque gets its common name from the blue tiles that adorn the interior walls. This mosque is used regularly, so you need to time your visit in between the five calls to prayer and abide by the rules to dress and be respectful. For Elliott, that meant taking off shoes and being quiet. For me, that also entailed wearing a head scarf. Elliott’s attempts at tying a head scarf onto me (after claiming he had learned how to do so on a website) unfortunately failed; fortunately there was a woman there whose primary job was tying headscarves onto clueless women.
Entering the mosque felt somewhat magical; it was the first time we had been allowed inside a working mosque. (To be fair, we’ve only tried to enter famous mosques, such as Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.) The décor was breathtaking, the carpet was super padded and soft, people were praying, and the tourists were watching, almost in an air of silence. And to my surprise we were allowed to take all the photographs we desired! There was even a Welcome Center with brochures on the basic tenets of Islam; it was tempting to talk to someone to learn more but the center was dark for the time being. Elliott took a brochure and we went on our way.
The Grand Bazaar is just as you might imagine. It is indoors, enormous, vibrant, and consists of a ton of vendors who all want you to visit their stall. (As our friend Jim pointed out, however, many visitors would be pleased that the vendors here are much less pushy than those in the souk we visited in Tunis, Tunisia a few years ago!) The number one item selling in Istanbul has to be carpets. Normally we might be tempted to look at a million of these, but considering we have only our packs on our back for this trip, we had the will power to avoid even browsing. Other common items are beautiful colorful scarves, hanging lanterns, hand carved wooden board games, ceramics, and bronze and brass antiques. And of course, there are also knock-offs of every brand name you can think of from Prada to Converse.
We also visited the Topkapi Palace. This palace was the home of Ottoman Sultans and seat of the government from the late-15th century through the mid-19th century. It was built on the site of the acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantion, and is separated from the city by land walls called Sur-I Sultani. Although the total area of the palace, including its gardens and pavilions, has shrunk from 700,000 square meters in its heyday to just 45,000 square meters today, it still contains an impressive collection of over 80,000 articles!
One of my favorite rooms was the Audience Hall, or Chamber of Petitions, where the sultan would sit on his canopied throne to receive official visitors. The canopy for the throne is displayed and is embroidered with huge emeralds, rubies and pearls. Depending on what type of news an official brought, he might be showered with gifts or strangled to death, so a visitor never knew if he would leave the Chamber of Petitions alive!
We also both loved the treasury which contained some of the fabulous objects – art, jewelry and heirlooms – of the Ottoman sultans. There were some fist-sized emeralds casually mounted in brooches, many jewel-covered aigrettes (large pins stuck into a sultan’s turban), and enough gold-plated everything for a 007 movie. We also saw the famous Topkapi dagger. We especially took a liking to items such as flasks and boxes carved out of rock crystal. Many of the objects in the treasury, and weapons in the armory, containted absolutely beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Unfortuntely, the rule of the day was no photos. This means that we have no photos of the treasury items or the exquisitely engraved swords in the armory collection.
As we walked through the streets of Istanbul, one thing we notice is that they take their food-related window displays very seriously. There are always beautiful and meticulously stacked piles of pastries, mouthwatering cakes, and sweets and spices of all kinds. The food we’ve encountered in Istanbul in general is fun and very reasonably priced. The first night we were there, we took our host out for dinner where we tried the local dish called döner, consisting of meat shaved off a roasting spit. It’s very similar to the shwarma in Israel but with a fattier, smoother taste. The drink served with our meal was a plain liquid yogurt; instead of being sweetened and tasting of sugar, the yogurt here is lightly salted. Try as we might, we couldn’t quite get used to that taste. Our host treated us to a super sweet baklava dessert, covered with green powder – chopped pistachio nuts! Mmmmmm. Apparently, there are several different varieties of baklava. Elliott thinks trying them all is going to be the only way to tell them apart.
On the street while touring sites the next day, the first thing we tried was a sesame seed coated bread ring. Sold by street vendors everywhere and a total bargain at 1 Turkish Lira (about 55 cents), this little ring of bread is delicious and quite addicting. We were tickled to see roasted corn again, just like in Tanzania and Kenya, and Elliott was thrilled to relive sweet memories of Africa as he bit into crunchy kernels. The deal of the day came in at 3 Turkish Lira for a chicken döner-and-salad sandwich large enough to share; there were even a few French fries thrown onto the sandwich for a winning taste combination. Dessert, of course, was the famous Turkish Delight – Lokum in Turkish. Elliott indulged in his favorite flavor, rose, while I tried out vanilla and “mixed fruit”.
We really lucked out since our host cooked for us a few times as well, and turned out to be quite the chef. One night we indulged in a local dish of rice and vegetable stir-fry with some tomato flavored bulgur wheat on the side similar to couscous. Then we had a homemade Turkish dessert that we couldn’t quite identify, and even our host couldn’t name, but it was like a turnover stuffed with raisins and nuts. Another night we ate a slightly sweet flavored chicken and chestnut dish. Chestnuts are another snack item that is roasted and sold on the street everywhere, so we were psyched to try them in a food dish!
Despite our new found love for Istanbul, we were only there for a few days before it was time to move to our next destination in Turkey, and a long bus ride to get there!