Istanbul

14 Oct

The story of how I ended up in Istanbul for the better part of a day is rather roundabout. When searching for summer flights, many of the airlines were quite persnickety (and by persnickety I mean pricey) when it came to three week stopovers in Madrid en route to New York City from Bangkok. Turkish Airlines turned out to be the least troublesome of our options, so despite being a less-than-direct flight path (I had to fly east to Istanbul from Madrid to fly west towards NYC) we purchased the tickets. The itinerary came with a rather lengthy (14+ hours) in Istanbul, and friends recommended leaving the airport for some exploration. Perfect! We acquired visas and made plans. Then the Turkish political situation deteriorated. And terrorists bombed the airport. And there was a failed coup d’état. The US State Department warned not to travel there. Orestes and I thought long and hard about the decision, but ultimately we decided to still venture out and explore, he on his layover, and me on mine two weeks later (for various reasons, we headed back to Bangkok at different times and I was flying solo – literally).

I landed in Istanbul bright and early before the sun rose, img_5951and hopped myself up on Turkish coffee in the airport. Truth be told, I was a little nervous about venturing out on my own. Despite my confidence in my decision, I was worried that having lived through Thailand’s coup, and traveling to multiple “unsafe” countries worldwide had made me less wary than I should have been. I boarded Istanbul’s metro, prepared to turn around should I spot anything alarming. Well, it turns out I needn’t have stressed. Other than a shocking lack of female metro riders (seriously, where were all the women?!) I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I spent the better part of seven hours wandering the central portion of Istanbul, and the only things I saw were amazing architectural sights.

My first stop was the Blue Mosque, which is officially titled the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. I had to wait for the morning prayers to be over, and I spent the time wandering the gardens and surrounding area, as well as purchasing a scarf to appropriately cover my head. I was fortunate that the morning was on the cool side; long pants, long sleeves, and a head scarf in summer make for a sweaty mosque visitor. The Blue Mosque helpfully has history and information posted around it, so I also used my spare time to educate myself. Construction was completed in 1616, and Ahmed I is entombed therein. The hand-painted blue tiles on the interior ceiling give the mosque its common name. The mosque is simply gorgeous. Perhaps due to the recent troubles in Turkey, or the early morning hour, I was one of the only visitors. I lingered for quite some time, both inside and out, tipping my head back and admiring the intricate details on every surface. The photos do not do it justice, but I tried.

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Leaving the Blue Mosque, I strolled along a tree-lined walk to the Hagia Sophia. The two amazing sights are barely a stone’s throw from one another, and the intervening space contains a lovely tiled fountain, park benches, and a peaceful plaza. Like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia was almost empty. The huge  building was built in 537 A.D. as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, and converted into a mosque in 1453. For the past century, it has been open as a museum and has not been used for religious purposes. The space is truly enormous, with towering stone walls and hanging light fixtures.  An interesting mix of Christian and Muslim art covers the walls in muted shades of greens, yellows, and grays. The photos completely fail to capture how immense, echoing, and ancient the Hagia Sophia is. I was starting to feel my early morning wake-up and jet lag at this point, and I spent a long time in the cool, quiet interior, gathering myself for the rest of the day.

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A bit of lunch and a strong cup of tea revived me for the last stop on my exploration plan, the Basilica Cistern. The underground site is ancient; a basilica originally stood on top of it (hence the name) and the img_6694cistern has been used for water storage since early Roman times. As with the other two sights, the sheer size of the cistern is impressive. A helpful pamphlet informed me that it has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, although it currently contains only a few feet lining the bottom. A wooden walkway leads visitors in a loop around the cistern, passing some of the more interestingly carved columns that support the ceiling. Dim lighting and the faintly reverberating sound of dripping water give the cistern a solemn vibe; loud noises seemed somehow inappropriate.  I was reluctant to leave as I was tired, and the cistern was blissfully cool ~ the day had warmed significantly since my outing began. Eventually, I headed back to the airport in a pleasantly exhausted haze. There are more sights to be seen in Istanbul, but they will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, I’m extremely glad I went!

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