Memories of Istanbul: Exploring the Old Sultanahmet
In this second of two blog posts, I’m sharing pictures and memories of our travels in Turkey. We visited in 2006, when U.S. State Department warnings and acts of terrorism were not a concern for tourists in Istanbul. I’ve thought about our time there quite often the past six months, watching cruise lines replace Istanbul with other “safer” ports of call, and I’ve wondered about the people whose livelihoods were dependent on tourism.
As I wrote in my post on Kusadasi, a few cruise lines have plans to return to the region as early as next July. It’s a sign of hope, and this is my small way of honoring that hope.
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It almost seemed as if Istanbul were born under the zodiac sign of Gemini, the Twins. A city on two continents: Europe and Asia. A city with two names: The old Constantinople and the modern Istanbul. A famous house of worship that has been home to two religions: Christian and Muslim. And two very different worlds: The modern-day metropolitan city and the historic ancient streets of the Sultanahmet District.
The Crystal Symphony had docked overnight in Istanbul, giving us two days to explore. We focused our touring on the Sultanahmet, where the ancient sites are within walking distance of one another. After a short taxi ride from the port, we found ourselves in Sultanahmet Square, a lovely park with the flowering colors of summer.
Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, constructed between 1609 and 1616 and still in use today. Before we entered, we were asked to remove our shoes and were given plastic bags to carry them in. We also were required to have our shoulders and legs covered. It’s a magnificent space, filled with chandeliers, stained glass and thousands of blue tiles.
Back outside, we walked across the park to the Hagia Sophia, Greek for “Church of the Divine Wisdom.” Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, originally built between 532 and 537 AD as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and transformed into a mosque in 1453. It was closed in 1931 and reopened as a museum, reflecting both religions and showcasing its fascinating history.
The size of the Hagia Sophia is overwhelming, with its almost football field-like nave, wrap-around upper gallery and exquisite dome. A winding stone ramp leads to the second level galleries, where lovely mosaics have been uncovered.
Next we headed across the street to the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient reservoirs for water storage in underground Istanbul. As we began making our way into the dimly-lit cistern, I quickly realized this was not going to be a typical tourist attraction! Built in 532, the cistern can hold 21 million gallons of water and features 336 marble columns, a walkway over the water and piped-in music. I found it to be both eerie and beautiful at the same time.
After a wonderful lunch on the rooftop patio of a nearby café called Doy Doy, we spent the rest of the day wandering through the Grand Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world and filled with an estimated 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is an intense experience. It was crowded, and vendors approached us as we made our way through stalls of every imaginable item. The four of us had decided to split up – Herb and Andrew in one direction and Emily and I in another – and when we met at our designated spot, we shared the same story about a shopkeeper who had talked to us and figured out that he had met the rest of our family! Small world in a big place.
We returned to the Sultanahmet the next morning to visit the area’s other attraction: Topkapi Palace, capital of the Ottoman Empire between 1459 and 1865. We had toured everywhere on our own in Istanbul, but this was one place I regret not hiring a guide. It’s incredibly massive, with courtyards, museums, galleries, staterooms and its infamous Harem, and I found it difficult to appreciate the details without understanding the history. We took the Palace’s tour of the Harem, but the group was quite large and our guide was difficult to understand. We were shown a small number of the Harem’s approximately 400 rooms, all tiled and marbled and unimaginably lavish.
That afternoon, we returned to Doy Doy for lunch and wandered through the Sultanahmet. Rarely will I to return to the same café when traveling, wanting to try as many different places as I can, but the food and the rooftop setting were that terrific! We stopped in a few shops, grabbed a taxi and headed back to the ship.
What I remember most of all about Istanbul was the feeling I had at our ship’s sail-away. It was late in the evening, and the Istanbul skyline was filled with lights for what seemed to be miles. As the four of us stood on the top deck on that warm summer night, we watched the places we had visited slowly disappear. I’ve seen many beautiful sail-aways since that long-ago night, but I think Istanbul will always be my favorite.