After many years of passing through Istanbul on my way to other places in the region for work I finally made it out of the airport to explore the city. Istanbul was always a destination that I wanted to see, more exotic (in my mind) than Athens, or Rome but just as important in western history — maybe more important. Finally making it I was only able to see the old city itself, the Bazaar and Sultanahmet areas, but that includes most of the major sites; Hagia Sophia [wikipedia.org], The Blue Mosque [wikipedia.org], the Grand Bazaar [wikipeida.org], Topkapi Palace [wikipedia.org] and the Basilica Cistern [wikipedia.org], as well as many other important and historical sites. Unfortunately this was just a visit to Istanbul and I did not make it other places in Turkey that I would like to visit; Ephesus [wikipedia.org], Cappadocia [wikipedia.org], Mount Nemrut [wikipedia.org] and Troy [wikipedia.org]
But enough Wikipedia links. Lets talk about the city; amazing. The site that has been on my ‘must see’ list for years was Hagia Sophia. It did not disappoint me. My hotel was only a block away and my room had a view directly on Hagia Sophia. I arrived early, checking in at 8AM, well before the room was ready, so I immediately headed over to Hagia Sophia. I spent about three hours just wondering around and exploring the details of this grand building, which started life as the church, was converted into a Mosque and is now a museum. I think it is these layers of history that gives Hagia Sophia an elegance making it more than just a decaying building. It’s older and not as architecturally beautiful as the Imperial Mosques which were modeled on it. Yet, for me, the Imperial Mosques, lack the sense of presence that Hagia Sophia has. They have a single purpose, where Hagia Sophia has been many things to many people.
As for the Imperial Mosques themselves; I visited three of them; The Blue Mosque [wikipedia.org] aka Sultan Ahmet Mosque, The New Mosque [wikipedia.org] and the Süleymaniye Mosque” [wikipedia.org]. Outwardly I thought that the Blue Mosque was the most beautiful. Fitting that it is the closest to Hagia Sophia, and was the first mosque built with Hagia Sophia as the architectural inspiration (as were all the Imperial Mosques and most of the mosques in Istanbul that came after). The inside of the Blue Mosque is overwhelming in its use of tile, particularly the İznik tiles [wikipedia.org], though there are many less exquisite tiles due to the demand the construction put on production. At the other end of the spectrum is the Süleymaniye Mosque, where the use of tiles is much less. The effect is more serene and the extensive and peaceful grounds around the Süleymaniye Mosque are wonderful. I read in the Süleymaniye Mosque is considered the ‘height’ of the Ottoman style, but it was not my favorite of the Imperial Mosques I visited. Somewhere between the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque is the “New Mosque” or Yenni Mosque. I’m not sure why I preferred the New Mosque, outside it is similar to the Süleymaniye Mosque though there are no grounds to speak of and inside it has every square centimeter covered in tiles but somehow the overall effect is not overwhelming as it was in the Blue Mosque. The sense of peace of the Süleymaniye Mosque is achieved while keeping the beauty of the tiles. I don’t know why, I just preferred the New Mosque over the others.
Away from religious buildings the two major attractions I visited were the Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar.
The Cistern was very cool. Maybe because I read a lot of fantasy books as a teenager but the setting of an abandoned cistern on the scale of the Basilica Cistern is fascinating. The seemingly endless columns disappearing into the darkness and the sounds of water. Very Dungeons & Dragons.
The Grand Bazaar on the other hands was a let down. I expected some sort of medieval market but, while the building itself if mostly old, the feeling is not of a genuine historical site but more like a touristy strip mall. Maybe my expectations where unfair but I don’t think they were too off; I expected something more like, but better, grander, than what I found in the old city of Jerusalem [confusion.cc]. The Grand Bazaar is a random collection of the many clones of the same 5 or 6 basic shops and cafe’s — the same ones you can find selling tourist nick-knacks on all the streets around the Grand Bazaar. I was not impressed.
Overall Istanbul as a great time. I wish I had more than a few days, more time to explore more sites and enjoy life in general in a great city. It was actually refreshing that there are not too many Greek or Roman (Byzantium) ruins in the city. Having been around Italy and Greece I’ve seen my share of temples to Zeus or Jupiter and columns and arches. The Ottoman style was something I am much less familiar with. The most obvious Ottoman architecture is the Blue Mosque — or more properly the Sultan Ahmet Mosque which sits almost next to Hagia Sofia.
You can see the full Istanbul, Turkey, September 2011 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].