On our way out to Oman we managed to book a 24 hour layover in Istanbul – a complete dream, as I’ve wanted to see the city for a very, very long time and this layover business just fell in our laps-normally people fly to Dubai, then transfer to a flight to Oman. Even with such a condensed amount of time on our hands, we were ready to dig into the city and make the most of our fleeting window. The heat was much denser than England and greeted us in a warm cloud as we got off the plane. After sailing through customs (Turkey is now the first stamp in my shiny new passport!) and picking up a taxi, we zoomed along the coast, lights twinkling off the giant ships in the water, and pulled up to our hotel just as a light, warm rain began to fall. It was just after midnight.
The hotel itself fit some vision of Turkey that existed inside of my head that I hadn’t really known was there until we walked into this place . Someone had to turn the lights on to let us in. All decadent materials and gilded frames, but dark inside, staffed by a gruff gentleman in a tie who didn’t waste time on niceties. The key he handed to Jon was massive, brassy gold, weighty in the palm and definitely for use in magical cupboards and abandoned mansions, not to mention our hot room, where the one window lay open out to the city – unfortunately at ground level, which was a bit too dangerous for leaving open despite the welcome breeze it brought in.
Not willing to go to bed and miss out on our one night in Istanbul, I cajoled a slightly sleepy Jon into wandering the streets with me, just for a bit. We went out into the gentle rain, on to the little cobbled lane that the hotel lay on, and after walking up a hill and taking a left, lo and behold, the Hagia Sophia loomed ahead of us, the stunning Blue Mosque staring her down a few hundred feet away. High fives to Jon for his sweet hotel-booking skills!
There wasn’t much to be done at that hour (we weren’t interested in tracking down the late night scene, what with having just the one day in town anyway), so our night creeping came to a quick end so we could catch a few hours’ sleep before an early wake up call.
A wander around the city
In the morning we woke up early to the call of prayer at 5:30am. It was eerie and beautiful, but we weren’t about to wake up at that hour, so we drifted quickly back to sleep. Two hours later, we woke up officially to that same steamy heat, and after a delicious Turkish breakfast (the Turkish bagel is now my new favorite thing maybe in the entire world, accompanied by strangely sour Turkish cream cheese) found that by the light of day our little neighborhood was ridiculously cute. And full of stray cats, and very large stray dogs. And also that everything was closed because it was Eid. Oops. No worries! We could putter. We are puttering types. And things were set to open in the early afternoon, so not all was lost and we could squeeze at least a few things off our list before our 8pm flight to Muscat.
(give all of these to meeee)
We set a course towards the Grand Bazaar, because even though it was closed, we would not be deterred. We found an opened tea and spice shop, and let the pushy sales dudes do their best, leaving with some lovely, fragrant teas (one of which was stolen by either Omani or Turkish customs…but I digress). Then we bought some baklava next door and washed it down with fresh pressed pomegranate juice, one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
Just going to put this here, because I love it.
Mezze Mezze Mezze
Lunch had to be mezze-we only had one real sit down meal during our stay, so we braved the gauntlet of dudes on a narrow side street, all trying to get all passerbys to sit down at their restaurant, and basically chose the first one that didn’t try to bully us into with them. And it was a good choice, and my purple tunic matched my chair. There was more pomegranate juice, kebab, grape leaves, various dips and veggies and tasty things everywhere. And a Korean family sat next to Jon and I, allowing us to happily eavesdrop on their conversation, which was nice. They also ordered all the foods we didn’t, including traditional lamb slow cooked in a clay pot, which they then brought to the table, and knifed opened, the Turkish spectacle equivalent of the sabering of a champagne bottle.
The Blue Mosque
After this leisurely lunch, things were finally opening up so we queued up for the Blue Mosque. The inside was absolutely stunning-intricate tiles everywhere, and the only downside was trying to take in the beauty while being jostled by the throngs of people everywhere, all trying to take photos in the relatively small walk-through tourist bit of the back of the mosque. We did get to see an Asian tourist get shouted at and basically chased away after he explicitly ignored the huge and undeniable cordon that kept visitors away from the prayer area in order to climb over it and LAY DOWN IN THE CENTER OF THE MOSQUE to take pictures of the ceiling. Those people were pissed, let me tell you. And good for them.
Ablutions before entering to prayer.
(headscarves=not my best look. jon agrees)
It’s honestly stunning-no pictures could do it justice. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life.
The Basilica Cistern
The cistern lies below the city of Istanbul and was built by the Emperor (haha BY the emperor, yeah right, I mean the slave labor of over 7000 people, duh) in the 6th century. The pillars are made from various types of granite and marble, said to be brought from various sites around the city. Two heads of Medusa, both of unknown origin, exist in the cistern, holding up pillars. Tradition says that the heads are kept upside down and sideways to prevent the magic of Medusa’s gaze from having any effect. Rude, right? It’s creepy down there, but I’ll have you know that there is also a cafe near the exit steps that serves Turkish coffee and sells Pepsi. Servicey!
Cliff’s notes version: the Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) was a cathedral for a long time, then a mosque for a while, and now it’s a museum. Constructed in 537, it stood as a cathedral all the way up until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered what was then Constantinople and decided to mosque it up (the official term, I believe), in the process taking out all bells, altars, and sacrificial vessels, either covering up or completely tearing out mosaics, and adding Islamic features such as the four minarets.
It was the world’s largest cathedral for, wait for it, one THOUSAND years, until 1520.
It stood as a mosque until the 1930s, when it was secularized and then turned into a museum.
I think the thing that struck me most about both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is just how massive they are inside. Neither look particularly huge from the outside, but once you walk through those doors you are met with a reminder of your insignificance before a higher power. Architecture is a serious thing.
The restoration process on these mosaics is ongoing, but most are from the 11th century at least.
By that time of the day we were grumpy and hot, and it was time to hitch a taxi to the airport to catch our flight. We ate some ice cream before leaving and discussed the impertinence involved in deciding that your religion is so much more important than someone else’s that you literally tear down their place of worship, or gut it and fill it with your own bits and pieces, all to prove that you care about your God more than that guy over there cares about his God, all while pretending that either God cares about your dumb human buildings. The world is strange and full of hubris.
We hitched a taxi and zoomed back to the airport, taking in the reverse view by fading light that had greeted us the night before. Twenty four hours was not enough, but I’m glad we got in. The decaying decadence of this former empire is intoxicating.
And then it was on to the Middle East.