I woke up today feeling like it was Christmas. I was so giddy for our arrival into Istanbul. Turkey is one of the places I really wanted to visit and couldn’t believe I was finally getting the chance to see it. I think part of the appeal for me is that Turkey is a place so different to any I’ve been before, in culture, religion and even architecture.
Istanbul is beautiful! It’s really phenomenal too that the country is split into 2, in the sense that a part of it is placed in Europe and the other part is considered Asia. That’s an awesome concept for me, I always thought it was cool that Europe was connected to Asia and that ‘technically’ you could drive your car to China.
We decided to book with a tour group for our trip to Istanbul. Safety was a factor of consideration, but mostly it was because this was the one city I wanted to visit and it was the easiest way to see the highlights properly in only one day.
The day began with a visit to the Sultan Ahmed I. This is the proper name of the Mosque, but us common tourist folk know it as the Blue Mosque. It is simply called this because of the buildings adorning blue tiles.
I was so excited to visit this place of worship. I have seen countless Churches and Chapels across Europe and even a large Synagogue, however I have never been inside a Mosque before.
Just prior to entering the Blue Mosque we had to make sure our knees and shoulders were covered and women had to cover their hair and top of their bust with a shawl. I asked our tour guide what the significance of this is. Our tour guide simply said that there is no reason, that the fact tourists now have to wear headscarves inside the Mosque is because the Prime Minister said so and he is trying to push for extreme, and which is also why there have been recent protests again the leader and his choices. Our guide explained to us that Turkey is actually a secular state, which I am sure many people are not aware of. It means that the state aims to stay neutral in matters of religion, therefore does not support either religion or irreligion.
So as you prepare to walk into the Mosque you have to pass through a corridor where you collect a plastic bag and put your shoes inside. From there you walk inside onto a carpet, which was explained to us as being synthetic and not been washed in 7 years. It was squishy and I wished so bad I wore socks that day.
The inside was interesting, it was explained that the Mosque faces Mecca and we saw a few men on the main floor bowing down, kneeling and praying.
Next stop was just across from the Mosque and it was the Hagia Sophia Museum. It is considered the 8th wonder of the world.
Originally, when the structure was constructed in 537 it served as a Greek Orthodox Church. Between 1204 and 1261 it was actually converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral. It then became a mosque from 1453 to 1931 until it was secularized and made into a museum.
Inside the museum it is interesting to contrast the Islamic additions and the original catholic mosaics. The mosaic on the wall in the centre of the museum depicts the enthroned Virgin and Child and is from the 9th century. The Byzantine mosaics are the oldest in the museum. There is also a huge bronze door as you leave, which dates all the way back to the 2nd century BC. In this same room there is another panel, which has a representation of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
As we finished the tour of the museum, our tour guide kept saying something about already having tickets for the underground subway. I had no idea why we needed to go visit the cities metro system but we were pleasantly surprised to find it was actually the Basilica Cistern.
This Cistern used to store the water for use in the Great Palace and all the surrounding buildings. It was magical, it felt like I entered into a medieval movie. Towards the back of the Cistern there are two Medusa heads, which are a mystery. One is placed upside down and the other sideways. Apparently they are placed in this way to ward off evil spirits.
We packed into our tour bus and then headed over to the area where we were going to see the Grand a Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is a huge market that takes up 61 covered streets and has over 300 stores. We were warned to be careful there as the sales men may follow you throughout the entire market until you buy something. We were also told that once you start bargaining, you are morally obligated to buy. So the entire time we were freaking out and trying to act cool. The warnings were very a bit too dramatic though, we were still apprehensive the entire time but it wasn’t as bad as we thought.
We had compliments and statements being thrown out to us left, right and centre. Obviously it was their best shot at sales tactics, but here are just some of my favourites:
1. Do you speak?
2. I like your trousers, do you like mine?
3. Are you Russian?
4. Are you looking for me? Here I am!
The tour company has some sort of arrangement with a shop called Argos. Here they sell high quality Turkish rugs and jewellery and they had a mini rug show for us. The owner showed us how the handmade ones are created and that some take up to 5 years to complete. They littered the floor with rugs and his helpers showed off their rug twirling skills. After the presentation, a group of men came in, split off, and targeted everyone they were assigned. Taylor and I had an older man who was smart enough not to try and sell us a rug, but instead ushered us downstairs to see their jewellery selection. A lady showed us some pieces but did eventually give up as she discovered we were students and they were not going to get a sale from us.
As we boarded the Norwegian Spirit, we could here some prayers in the city. They were being broadcast over loudspeakers somehow because they were echoing to every corner of the city.
My experience in Istanbul was one in a million. I had a wonderful day I won’t forget anytime soon. I went in with high expectations and wasn’t disappointed. The sail away was magical. One of my favourite views. I stayed up on the top deck watching until you could only see the land in the far distance. You could see both the European and the Asian side, you could see the business district and also the Blue Mosque and St Sophia Museum on the hill top.