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On two continents, Istanbul 2014

It’s early September here in the UK, the summer is over. Days are much shorter, rainy and colder, it’s the best time to visit some warmer place. Istanbul will do. I’ve always been curious about this city. Is it in Asia or Europe? Well, it’s on both actually. But not only geographically Istanbul shows two distinct faces, historically too. Capital of the powerful Roman Empire and bastion of Christianity in Eastern Europe for hundred of years, it fell to the Muslims in 1453, becoming the islamic capital of the great Ottoman Empire. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, three evocative names for a powerful capital, evidence of its long and rich past.

It’s 4 in the morning when I land in Ataturk airport just outside Istanbul. I haven’t had much sleep but there is certainly no time for this. By the time I drop my bags in the hostel in the borough of Sultanahmet, the sun is rising and it’s the best time to start exploring the historic centre. A few minutes walk later, I get the first glimpse at the imposing Blue Mosque.

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It was commissioned by sultan Ahmed I in 1609 and completed in 1616 with 6 minarets, same as only one other mosque on the planet at the time, the Ka’aba in Mecca. It was seen very presomptuous and generated controversy in the muslim world. Another one was shortly built to the Ka’aba, and another four since then, for a total of eleven today.

On the other side of Sultanahmet park is the famous Aya Sofya, greatest evidence of the city’s history. It was built as a cathedral in 537 by the emporor Justinian, got turned into a mosque in 1453 when the muslim conquered the capital and is now a museum since 1935 thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of Turkey. The monument we see today is in fact the third attempt after the first two disappeard into flames in 404 and 532. It was in the 6th century, and still is today, a marvel of architecture, a majestuous an unrivaled interior.

 

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Just a few hundred meters away is the Bisilica Cistern. Also built under Emperor Justinian command in 532, the gigantic chamber, supported by 336 columns, could keep 80,000 cubic meters of water brought via an aquaduc from the Black Sea. Forgotten by the city authorities, it was rediscovered by the Ottoman only in 1545 but used as a trash dump, even to throw dead bodies. It was cleaned in 1985 so visitors could admire this underground water reservoir.

 

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Most of the day, the mosques here in Istanbul are closed to tourists for prayer time. It only opens for a few hours and the famous Blue Mosque is opening in about… now. I feel much better visiting a religious monument during “tourist time”. It’s not common around the world and usually it’s possible to enter at any time. But it means there are people inside, praying and making offerings or other religious rituals specific of certain cultures. Therefore, I always feel like I’m disturbing them, the peace of the place and rarely spend more than a few minutes having a look around. Now, I should be able to spend enough time looking at this amazing monument.

By the time I get there, the sky has gone pretty dark, not a great sign for the following few hours. I just hope that it won’t explode until I’m inside. The courtyard is impressive by its size and the number of people it can hold. There was hundreds of tourists but it didn’t really feel crowded.

 

 

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But it does feel more crowded when the hundreds of tourists all want to get inside the mosque. It took me about 45 minutes of queing, under a threatening sky before I could enter. As in any muslim edifice, you need to take your shoes off before entering. The interior is at the image of the exterior, huge and nicely decorated surfaces.

 

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It was built and designed to rival its neighbour Aya Sofya. I am not sure it achieves such an ambitious objective but it is still a remarkable work of art.

When I come out, the sky hasn’t changed at all. I have a bit of a walk now, since I’m going to the Bazaar District to see… the Grand Bazaar, where hopefull I can get some lunch. Since I’m in Turkey, I’m definitely going to have a kebab. 🙂

Luckily, I made it to the bazaar dry… just. Almost as I walked into the undeground giant market, it started to rain very heavily. Ouf! Now the plan is to explore as much as possible of this labyrinth, find something to eat and potentially find a souvenir.

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Just after lunch, I thought I’d get a tea as I could see locals running around with trays full of the hot beverage in small little glasses. (no milk here) When I saw where it came from in a little corner, I approached and asked for one myself. The guy looked really surprised and confused. So he served one in a small paper cup… it was so hot I couldn’t even hold it! The few people around me were smiling at the scene. So I looked at the one closest to me and asked (nicely of course): “what’s so funny? Why do I get a paper cup and you all have nice glass tea cups”, “This place is not for tourists”, he said. He also joked that the guy making tea didn’t want me to stay and this is why I’ve got the paper cup so I could walk with it. A few laughs and my tea is transferred into a the same glass tea cups they all have, I’m happy. 😉

It’s a place full of life, bargaining is the rule and the range of products available is unbelievable: art, meat, fruits, jewellry, clothing, accessories, kitchenware, decorations, everything.

 

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I had also planned to remember where I came from so I could find my way back. If you are going there, don’t bother, you will get lost no matter what you do. And in a way, you’ve got to. There are so many hidden narrow streets that are only awaiting to be discovered. Allow enough time to fully appreciate the charm of the place and practice your negotiation skills. Me? I tried to buy a shisha. But after the first merchant literally turned back on me after I told him how much I had to spend and the second also ignored me right in the middle of our chat for a woman, I thought these were signs that I shouldn’t be buying this thing. Fine I’ll head north to the Spice Bazaar and I’m sure I’ll find plenty more there.

And I did, this bazaar is a lot smaller, a couple of streets, but mostly selling sweets and spices.

Dried fruits…

 

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… lokums, a Turkish delicacy…

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… lots of spices of course (it’s not called Spice Bazaar for no reason)…

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… dried flowers…

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… and other dried… things…

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… more lokums…

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… more dried fruits…

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… more spices…

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… and even soap.

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I head back to the hostel, rest for a couple of hours (much deserved after a day which essentially started like 36 hours ago), get ready to go out for dinner and head out to look for a restaurant, hopefully with great views over the Blue Mosque or Aya Sofya.

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But it’s quite difficult to find a quality restaurant in Sultanahmet. Reviews all report tourists traps and high prices only for the sake of a great view. But there seems to be one standing out, quite literally. It’s at the top of a 6-floor hotel, on the edge of Sultanahmet Park and offers great views over the Old City and it’s monuments. It’s called Cihannuma, reviews are good so I’ll try that one. I’m lucky enough to get a table on the good side, but you should book in advance if you don’t want to be disappointed. Mix of grilled meats on the menu, under the well know name of Kebab, a cold beer and a great vew… pleasant dinner 😉

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After dusk, the Old City is lit up with warm colours.

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In the following morning, the plan is to start by visiting the luxurious Topkapi palace. It is built to accomodate the sultan, his wives and children and their thousands of servants. Every room is beautfilly decorated, from top to bottom.

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There are several courtyards so the inhabitants of the palace could spend time outdoor, relax, without ever leaving the palace.

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Every single room has its own purpose, even a circumcision room with a sign “pushchairs forbidden” shown at the entrance…

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When entering the Harem, I walked into an intricate network of narrow corridors, small rooms, all built for providing privacy to the sultan and the 300 concubines it could host.

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The private quarters of the imperial family are extremely luxurious, every single wall surface covered in colourful tiles. Inside…

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… and outside.

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In short the location of the Topkapi palace also applies to the various influences in its architecture: between Asia and Europe. I could recognise features of north Indian fortresses we saw in Rajasthan as well as shapes similar to Europen castles, all blended into the unique Ottoman style.

Later in the day, I crossed the Golden Horn and stepped into Beyoglu, which seems to be the lively area of Istanbul. Not much history there but a lot of shops, bars, restaurants. The main street of Istiklal Caddesi is packed with people hanging out, doing shopping on a nice Sunday afternoon.

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The city authorities have banned bars and terraces from the main street so they’ve all relocated into the small parallel streets. It’s a very chilled and relaxed atmosphere. I can’t help but sit down at a table of one of these cafes, drink a cold beer and observe people chatting and playing games in the shadow of vine leaves.

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I’ve worked out where I need to be for the sunset tonight for a great view over the city: Galata Tower. The timing will be challenging, I’ve booked a shuttle at my hostel to the airport at 8:30 but the sun probably won’t be down until 8, which leaves only just the time I need to get back. I’ll need to run down the hill, take the tramway and then run from the station to the meeting point. When I get there, I’m surprised at how long the queue is. It circles around the tower, to the point that I can’t see the entrance. Luckily, I had planned some margin, so after an hour of waiting, a fight between locals, an argument about my tripod and a lift ride, I’m finally at the top of Galata Tower watching the sun set over the Bosphorus and Istanbul.

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One by one, the mosques are lit to stand out from the rest of the city falling in the dark.

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I’ve pushed it as long as I could. It’s 8:15 and I need to be back at my hostel in 15 minutes. I knew I was going to have to run but I didn’t think it would have to be so intense, a sprint from end to finish. I got on the bus, sat at the back and finally had the time to breathe.

I was pleasantly surprised by Istanbul. It’s not the overcrowded, noisy and polluted city I had imagined. I know I’ve only visited a small portion but what I saw is a lively city with a unique character, where tradition and modernity live together in harmony. It is rich in monuments, remnants of a long history, which has definitely shaped the Istanbul we can see today. I am certainly more curious about Turkey and I’m sure I’ll soon be coming back to explore further into the country.