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Turkey's Enchanting Cultural Capital

August 28-31

It's hard not to be impressed by Istanbul. It's Turkey's largest city, and the country's cultural and business capital. With a population of 12 million, Istanbul embodies all of Turkey in one single city -- at once modern and traditional, new and old, decidedly Westernized and yet steeped in the history of the old Ottoman and Byzantine empires. It's a vibrant, beautiful and bustling place. We quickly found ourselves in love with this intriguing historical city.

Blue Mosque

At the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)

Istanbul is the only city in the world which spans two continents. It's divided by the Bosphorus, a narrow strait which separates Asia in the east from Europe in the west, from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. Part of the city lies in Europe, part of it lies in Asia. We entered Istanbul by ferry, cruising up the Sea of Marmara from the Asian mainland. After five weeks of traveling throughout Turkey, we had at last arrived in its most famous city. It was one of the places we most anticipated during our journey, and it didn't disappoint.

Every first-time visitor to Istanbul must stay in Sultanahmet, the historic "old city," located on the European side of the metropolis. Almost all of the major sights are in Sultanahment, within walking distance of one another. The most famous of Istanbul's many beautiful historic buildings is the Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque. It's so named not for its exterior color, which is actually steel gray, but for its interior, which is covered in beautiful blue Iznik tiles. Built by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 17th century, it's an elegant piece of architecture, and the most beautiful of the many mosques we had seen on our trip thus far.

Aya Sofya Mosaic

Mosaic of Mary & Christ Child in the Aya Sofya

The Aya Sofya's Exterior

The Aya Sofya's exterior

Not far from the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul's beautiful old buildings, the Aya Sofya, whose name means "Church of the Divine Wisdom." Erected by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 453 AD, its beauty is not on its exterior, as the Blue Mosque's is, but rather on its interior. For a very long time, the Aya Sofya was the world's grandest Christian church. After the coming of Islam to Turkey, it became one of the world's grandest mosques. But its Christian theme is still very dominant throughout the building. Its interior is absolutely stunning, with beautiful marble columns, incredibly detailed mosaics on the walls and a huge dome covered in millions of gold tiles. The dome is even more impressive because it is not supported by any columns. It is held in place only by support structures hidden in the surrounding walls -- an amazing feat of engineering for any time, let alone the 5th century when it was built! Walking through the cavernous interior of the Aya Sofya's many chambers, lit only by the soft natural light which filters in through the many small stained-glass windows, is a revelation. Justinian really outdid himself with this building project; it is truly magnificent!


Beautiful tilework in the Topkapi Palace

We also took a walk through Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman sultans lived and administered the Empire. The giant grounds are full of park-like courtyards and opulent, grand buildings. The most impressive of the many structures in the Palace is the Royal Harem. Contrary to popular myth, the Harem wasn't just where the Sultan's concubines were kept; it actually served as the Royal Residences. The Sultan and his family, as well as his many concubines all lived in the Harem. There are over 300 rooms in the Harem alone, with several hundred more throughout the surrounding palace grounds. A palace in every sense of the word.

Kapali Carsi

The Kapali Carsi (Covered Market)

Most visitors to Istanbul make it a point to visit the Kapali Carsi, or Covered Market. It's a huge market with more than 4000 shops and stalls selling everything from the ubiquitous Turkish carpets to brassware, tilework, ceramics, and clothing. Most of the stuff in the market is pure tourist crap, but it's worth a stroll if for no other reason than to marvel in the size of the place. It's easy to get lost in the maze of the market. We wandered around for about an hour before popping out in a part of the city we had never seen before. It took us a while to get our bearings and wind our way back to the Sultanahment neighborhood where our hotel was.

We're staying in a Turkish prison, and we don't want to leave!! That's right, a Turkish prison. We had spent so little during our month in Turkey that we decided to take the first "big splurge" of our trip in Istanbul. After eight weeks of too many bus rides and many cheap rooms in Greece and Turkey, we decided to treat ourselves to a few nights at the Four Seasons Istanbul hotel. Opened in 1996, this beautiful and supremely comfortable hotel's building is actually a remodeled century-old prison. It's perfectly located, just footsteps away from the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. We were so used to staying in basic places that we at first didn't know what to do with ourselves when we checked in to our room...CNN and BBC?! A king-sized bed with a down comforter?! Turndown service and complementary newspapers every day?! Ah, over-the-top luxury -- how quickly it can spoil you. To see more of this outstanding hotel, visit the Four Seasons Istanbul web site by clicking here.

Sadly, our little taste of luxury was cut short when we found out we would have to leave Istanbul a day early. Our original flight to Cairo on September 1st had been canceled. We had to take a flight which departed a day earlier, on August 31st. We found this out that very morning, only hours before our flight was to depart. Bummer! We quickly snapped back to reality as we hurriedly checked out of our comfy little cocoon at the Four Seasons. It was time to move on to Cairo.

Looking back on it all, Turkey was an amazing expierience. It ranks right up there with Spain and Prague as one of our favorite destinations so far. We covered some 3,800km (2,400 miles) in five weeks on 21 buses, 4 ferries, one rental car, and countless minibuses and taxis. From West to South to East, we saw a good portion of the country. And yet, that wasn't enough. We will be back one day...

From Istanbul, we flew directly to our next destination...Egypt.

Back to Turkey pg 10 On to Impressions of Turkey! 

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