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Entries about istanbul

Istanbul

A Turkish Delight

sunny 30 °C

Istanbul, formerly Byzantium and Constantinople, has a population of approximately 14 million people. That was about to increase by two. After seeing our life flash before our lives driving in the traffic, we arrived in Sultanahmet, the old town of Istanbul and our home for the next five nights. We checked into our hotel and proceeded to guess our way into the heart of the action. The first thing, after getting a map, was to get a feed. We had been in the car for about four hours and needed some sustenance. In Turkey, you have three choices, lamb, chicken or meat. In some cases you can get all three at once. You have to give them credit though, they know how to cook it.

There are a million things to see and do in Istanbul and luckily enough they are all close enough to see them all pretty easily. We spent our first day just doing reconnaissance and getting hassled by very eager carpet salesman. To make sure we fit everything in we set ourselves up a system, yes it sounds boring but when you have to compete with 14 million others, it is essential. We cruised around being conscious that now we were in a muslim country with 98% of the country following Islam. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a mosque. We decided our first full day we would hit the Grand Bazaar so that way if we wanted to go back we would have plenty of time.

The Grand Bazaar is just that – Grand. Four thousand shops in a labyrinth selling everything from gold to textiles to carpets to silver to junk. The Grand Bazaar was built by the Sultan Mehmet for somewhere for merchants to trade around 1461. We had no idea how long it would take us to navigate the bazaar and in the end we were there for approximately four hours. Taking our time meandering through the lanes we were reminded of Bali with the way they offer up their goods. The difference between the Turks and the Balinese is the wit. The Turks are great with the one-liners to entice you to buy, amongst our favourites were: Spend some money on your honey, Buy something for your mother-in-law, Are you mad at me? No, Then why not buy?, Can I sell you two carpets? No, how about just one? We didn’t buy much as we don’t really have the room, however we did find ourselves dragged into a carpet store and given a lesson on the difference between kilims and carpets. Much to the salesman’s disappointment no amount of teaching was going to get us to buy even though they really are very beautiful.

The Turks love their tea and now we do too. They drink the stuff non stop and we know why, it is delicious. It is served in dainty little glass cups with cubes of sugar. Nobody drinks coffee, although we did try some. The Turkish coffee is similar to the Bosnian, great until you get to the sludge at the bottom. We went a bit crazy buying some sweets, Baklava and Lokum (Turkish Delight) were the obvious choices and you certainly have no trouble finding them. Shop after shop sell all varieties by the kilo and the displays are enough to make your eyes water. Will power is the order of the day.

Another of the must dos in Turkey is the Blue Mosque. It was built by Sultan Ahmet in the 17th Century (around 1610) and is truly magnificent. Being a typical sultan, Ahmet wanted something to rival Aya Sofya (more on that later) and so built a mosque with six minarets which was apparently more than the mosque at mecca. This annoyed the Islam boss guys in Mecca and so Ahmet commissioned and paid for Mecca to have another minaret built to placate them. (Minarets are the towers). It has an enormous courtyard with a central ablution area for the men to wash their feet, the women have to wash theirs out in the back corner. Tourists are not allowed to enter at prayer time, of which they have (officially) five a day. When you do go in women have to cover up and so wearing an attractive ensemble of crushed blue fabric that they gave us, in we went. Inside is breathtaking, with pillars five metres in diameter and a central dome 43m in height. Only men are allowed in the open prayer area and women who come in to pray have to stay up the back in closed off areas. Are we seeing a pattern here? It is known as the Blue Mosque because of the tens of thousands of tiles inside that give it its blue hue.
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Opposite the Blue Mosque is the Aya Sofya built in 537AD by Emperor Justinian and his apparently precocious wife Theodora. It is classed as one of the Ancient Wonders of the World and is a massive tourist attraction. Its history is fascinating. It was built as a Christian church by the Romans because Istanbul (at that time Constantinople) was part of the Roman Empire. There are gold mosaics of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist and Archangel Gabriel all over the ceilings and walls. However after the Ottomans gained control of Istanbul in the 15th Century Sultan Mehmet turned it into a mosque. Now it has massive circular disks with the names of the Sultan, Mohammed the Prophet and others in Arabic across the ceiling in the main worshipping centre. It is a real mix of Christianity and Islam and has been a museum since 1935. One of the funniest things in it is a mosaic in the Upper Gallery of Empress Zoe and her husband, however because she had three husbands she just had the mosaic changed each time to match the new husband. Clever girl!
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Topkapi Palace is the third enormous structure in the same area. Built by Sultan Mehmet, the man obviously had size issues, it has four courtyards and the best bit…..a harem. We went for a tour through the harem and got to see where they had their little parties and where the favourites lived. Some of the other tourists had personal guides, so if you loitered around near the English speaking ones you got a little bit of extra info for free. Bargain!!

Having an authentic Turkish Bath was also something we were not leaving Istanbul without doing. We went to the original 300 year old bath (1741) that has been used in Hollywood movies. Men and women are separate but basically the same thing happens except the level of nudity. For those of you who have had a Turkish bath, feel free to skip the next bit, for those that haven’t read on. You walk into a central area with two levels of change rooms and your ‘attendant’ gives you a towel to wrap around you. Then you are led into the Wash room where everything is marble. The room is octagonal shaped with a massive marble slap sitting conspicuously in the centre and small sinks and bench seating (all marble remember) around the outside. You are left there to steam for 10-15minutes and then your attendant comes in and leads you to the marble slab and whips your towel off you and places it on the marble slab. That first moment of total nudity (for women, men always had their jewels covered) is difficult to say the least. It’s been a long time since I’ve been totally naked in a room full of strangers….well maybe not that long (um joke). They then proceed to soap you up and well…wash you. Then they lead you back over to the side and rinse you off and then back over to the slab (naked remember) to oil and massage you and then back to the side again and wash your hair. By the end everyone’s naked and you realise it is no big deal but it is still slightly confronting. The men were done slightly differently but Adam’s guy Ali reminded him of the prison warden in Midnight Express. We were both really glad we go it ‘done’.

Other activities were a ferry ride on the Bosphorous River over to Asia. Two continents in one day was pretty exciting in theory but there was not much happening in Asia. We also went to the Spice Markets and had a ‘scent’sational time and headed over to modern Istanbul to the suburb of Beyoglou. If we thought we had seen busy before that was nothing to what we were seeing now. The mall/shopping strip would have been 30m wide and there were people shoulder to shoulder for as far as the eye could see. We couldn’t believe our eyes, the absolute busyness of it all, where were all these people going and where did they come from? Both of us can confidently say we have never seen so many people in one space at one time.
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Istanbul seems to draw tourists from everywhere and whenever someone found out we were from Australia the first thing they said was ‘oi, oi, oi’. They love that chant. There is so much to see and we couldn’t possibly tell everything. The history of Istanbul itself, let alone Turkey, amazes you when you are surrounded by things thousands of years old and the stories behind them. For a muslim country the Turks are fairly relaxed, the Arabic tourists were the ones all kitted out in the full black burqas and we actually saw a couple with even their eyes covered. Weird! Also the age old question (or my question) of do they remove their face things to eat was answered out at dinner one night when it became a mission to watch. Trying not to stare it seems that they don’t remove them they just shove the food in underneath and let me tell you this girl was shoving that food in there like it was her last meal.

Leaving was sad but we have the rest of Turkey to visit and if Istanbul is anything to go by it is going to be fantastic. We cannot say enough how much we loooovvvveeeedd Istanbul and would go back in a heartbeat.

Posted by Ange and Adam 13:35 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul Comments (2)

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