The final stop of our cruise brought us back to Istanbul mid-morning on Friday. We had saved many of the highlights for a planned, private full-day tour. Little did we know, however, that Friday is a holy day for Muslims, so the mosques don’t open until 2:30 pm and the streets were especially full. Add to that a massive Norwegian cruise ship docked near us and a small cruise ship next to ours, and the city was overflowing with people.
We met our guide, Hazal, and headed first to the Grand Bazaar. It was nothing like I imagined. In my mind, I pictured an open-air market with makeshift stalls and locals selling their wares. In reality, this is a massive indoor shopping mall with tiny shops and crowded halls. It was sensory overload at its best. We explored several halls, purchased a couple of interesting items (including delicious lemon-marinated pistachios), and then made our way back outside.
Our next stop was Hagia Sophia, or at least we thought. The line snaked all around the building and flowed into the surrounding Roman Hippodrome (or ancient chariot racetrack). We estimated the wait to be at least 1.5 hours, so we opted instead to head to the neighboring Blue Mosque.
After a shorter wait, we covered our heads (women), removed our shoes, and entered the working mosque. I have said these words so many times at different points of every trip, but I must repeat them again…neither words nor pictures will do this structure justice in terms of illustrating its beauty. At every turn of your eye, you are met with the most beautiful, colorful sight of painted tiles and stone. The mosque gets its name not from its darkish-hued dome but instead from the lovely blue and white tiles that adorn its walls on every side.
The mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 1600s. He wanted his structure to surpass the magnificent Hagia Sophia in an effort to please Allah and to show his stature in the community. He chose to build the structure directly across from its “rival” mosque, using the former foundation and site of the Great Palace of Constantinople.
Did you know there are more than 4,000 mosques in Istanbul? The largest one will hold 60,000 people! And while Muslim is the predominant religion, there is no official religion in Turkey; people are free to practice whichever religion they choose.
We then made our way to the Basilica Cistern. This underground cistern, known locally as the Sunken Palace, was built by a Roman emperor in the mid 500s AD. The structure received water from the Hadrianus Aqueduct, as well as from rain through holes strategically carved throughout its roof. As with many Roman sites, the image of Medusa was present and used to deter evil spirits. Her head is often sideways or upside down lest you peer directly into her eyes (legend has it you will turn to stone).
Just when I think I have seen something like no other, I am once again taken by surprise! This ancient, colossal structure once held up to 80,000 tons of water and is truly a remarkable and stunning sight to see. There are 336 columns, forming 12 rows and holding up its arched ceiling. These columns had various capitals on top – some were Corinthian style, others were plain, or Ionic. These columns were taken from other sites or ruins and brought to Istanbul. An early example of recycling on display!
We emerged from the underground structure hot, sweaty, and exhausted. We retreated to a nearby restaurant and were seated on the top floor of this building with a beautiful breeze and gorgeous 360-degree views of the city!
After a lovely meal with our friends and our guide, we made our way back to the ship to begin packing and preparing for our trip home. Saturday morning, we disembarked the ship and made our way to the ginormous Istanbul airport (did I mention this is the largest single-building terminal in the world?!), where we wait for our early afternoon flight back to Dallas.
Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace are both on our lists of sites to see upon our return to this large and lovely city.
I'll end this Eastern Med blog series with a quote that I believe rings so true: "The best part of any journey is the company you keep." We are blessed with dear friends who share our love of travel and adventure and who make fantastic travel companions!
Until our next adventure, Hoşçakal ve teşekkürler!