Today we met with Yasin, a tour guide arranged by the hotel to take a walking tour of the old city. We headed out full of questions and curiosity. I can't say that we now understand Istanbul, but we certainly have a better idea of the critical importance of its position in history ancient and modern!
Yasin first walked us by the monument that marks where the Ancient Roman Hippodrome once stood. The scope of the Roman Empire and the scale of the buildings it created is still shocking to me. And it is here, in Istanbul, where we see the most profound evidence of the shift of power from Rome to Constantinople as the Ottoman Empire took control of the region. History plays out before our eyes as we see Cathedral converted to Mosque and architecture shift design. Istanbul is both a living museum and a bustling, life-filled city.
Next to the famous Blue Mosque. Built in the 1600's, the mosque is named after the Sultan who commissioned it, Sultan Ahmet. It is called the Blue Mosque, not because of its exterior, but because of the fantastic blue tiles that adorn the walls inside, all produced in Iznik, a city still famous for its tilework and ceramics. The Mosque sits across a long promenade from the Hagia Sophia, and I was at first confused between the two, until we got inside and saw the differences. The Mosque is magnificent. The Prayer Hall is huge. I noticed that the carpet is one piece, but is marked very clearly in its design as to where those who pray will stand and kneel. The Hall was filled with visitors, and some small groups of those praying, but during the main prayer times (5 times a day) visitors are not allowed, and believers enter for the communal prayer. The call to prayer is a beautiful, haunting sound, and after the call is made from the minarets, Muslims have some time to arrive at the Mosque and prepare themselves for prayer.
We walked down the lovely promenade to the Hagia Sophia, and stopped for a cup of Turkish tea and a treat before heading into the main area. We learned from Yasin how tourism has dropped significantly since the bombings in 2016, and only recently have visitors started to return.
Hagia Sophia (translated as Holy Wisdom) is an example of a living museum. The third version was built in the 500's as a Greek Orthodox Church, and it survived as a Cathedral for almost a thousand years. For a brief time in the 13th century it was used as a Roman Catholic Church, and then in the 15th century, it served as an Ottoman Mosque. In the 1930's it was converted into a museum. The building is a beautiful Byzantine structure, and clearly shows its long history inside, where you can see evidence of both Christian and Muslim Faiths.
And then! Then we explored the cisterns of Istanbul. Yasin led us through the dark passageways of the amazing water system of old. Cool in temperature and dimly lit, it reminded me of something I'd seen before. Of course, it was where part of the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love was filmed (and maybe other films I don't remember). The cistern is famous for its two heads of Medusa...no one seems to know how they ended up here.
After a classic lunch at a cozy restaurant on a corner (where Yasin knew everyone) we headed to the Grand Bazaar. I was surprised that it was covered, well lit and very spacious. We weren't in a shopping mode, so we walked through, visited a lovely rug shop, saw the spice market, and said goodbye to Yasin. Thank you, Yasin, for a wonderful day!
After a quick rest, we headed out to meet Travis at a restaurant well known for its many kinds of meat. We loved it! The food and the hospitality were exemplary...and Julian ordered an extra course! (All that walking you know).
What a day...we felt that we visited several centuries and an empire or two!