Our early arrival in Istanbul left a whole day for discovering the city. A cold and dreary day, (surprisingly, one of our first of the trip) was counteracted by the interesting new place and seeing our friend Roby. After figuring out that our apartment was in walking distance to the things we wanted to see in Istanbul, we donned our raincoats over every layer we had and headed out the door.
Our first stop was the spice market, which we stumbled on purely by accident as we walked right into it on our way to see the Blue Mosque. A lovely covered market, it’s filled with beautiful displays of sweets and spices and offered us the opportunity to finally taste Turkish delight, which was much better than any of us expected it to be.
Next, was Aya Sofya, a church built by Emperor Justinian in 537 as part of his effort to restore the great Roman Empire and directly across the street from the Blue Mosque. Upon entering the church for the first time, Justinian is noted as saying, “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you.” One can see why he was so self congratulatory when standing in the church and realizing it is close to 1500 years old. It reigned as the top church in Christendom until the Conquest in 1453 when it was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror and remained thus until Ataturk proclaimed it a museum in 1935. While the architecture and dome are themselves inspiring, it is the mosaics that put the church over the top.
From here we went to the see the Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I (1603-1617) to rival and surpass the Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. I must say, having seen both back to back, this tourist believes he failed. But first, I must digress.
We arrived at the Mosque close to the noon call to prayer, so had a wait while it closed for prayer. Thus, we wandered out to the Hippodrome in front of the church. While there the call to prayer began and in one of the funniest displays I’ve seen in a long time one of the many dogs in the area stood up and answered each call with his own. I truly don’t know what was funnier, the howling dog or the people stopping to watch him perform this uncanny give and take with the recorded call to prayer.
After such high quality entertainment, we ventured down into the Basilica Cistern, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 AD to store water for the Great Palace. This underground marvel with its 336 columns arranged in 12 rows was eventually closed sometime before the Conquest and seemingly forgotten until 1545. At that time a scholar searching for Byzantine antiquities was told by the locals that they could miraculously draw water from their basement floors and could sometimes even catch fish through these holes. Realizing that wells don’t contain fish, the scholar searched for the source and discovered the cistern. Mystery solved, but restoration many years off.
Finally, we were ready to head back to the Blue Mosque. After removing our shoes, we followed the line into the Mosque with its plethora of blue tiles and 260 windows. In my humble opinion, the exterior of the Blue Mosque is something to behold, but the interior seemed simple in comparison to Aya Sofya. Grand of course, but plain. So much for building something for the sole purpose of outdoing someone else!
A long post I know, but the days treats were far from over. We arrived back at the apartment to find that our friend Roby had arrived in Istanbul and had just stopped by with her friend Selen. (When we were in Italy, Roby was planning to volunteer for the month of October in Kenya. When we talked about meeting up sometime in the future on our trip Roby realized she could build in a stop on her way home from Kenya in Istanbul to visit her good friend Selen and see us, all in one fell swoop! Good for her, better for us!) After a quick visit, Roby and Selen ventured out to visit the spice market with plans to meet up for dinner in a couple of hours. What a treat for us to go to dinner with someone who knows the city and even better, to go to a typical coffee house after to drink Turkish coffee and learn about reading our futures in the coffee grinds left behind. A Turkish tradition that we enjoyed participating in, even if we wouldn’t say the same about drinking the coffee.