We embarked on our longest plane flight as we took the massive trip from Seoul to Istanbul, with 2 stopovers in China, for a total of 22 hours! Having completed the Eastern leg of our trip, the irony wasn’t lost on us that we flew into the only city that straddles two continents. One side of Istanbul sits in Europe while the other sits in Asia. So we were literally just a river’s width away from being back on the Asian continent!
While the trip itself was exhausting, the end of it was joyful as we saw Petko & Nadia waiting for us as we emerged from customs at the airport. They had driven down to explore Istanbul with us and we were in for an action packed few days. Istanbul has a tremendous amount to see and do, having been the capital of the Byzantine Empire for 800 years and the Ottoman Empire for close to 500.View of Rustem Pasha Mosque
Our first day was to some of the city’s most spectacular sights. We walked across the Golden Horn (named after all the gold the Byzantines were said to have thrown into the harbor when Constantinople was being sacked by the Ottomans) to stunning views of the mosque lined old city. The New Mosque is the most conspicuous of the mosques along the waterfront and its construction is intermingled with two often oppressed groups: women and Jews. In this case the one was working against the other. The construction of the mosque was ordered by Safiye Sultan, the wife of Sultan Murad III during a time when women controlled much of the political affairs of the Ottoman Empire while the Sultans abdicated much of their power in favor of partying and enjoying their harems. Unfortunately, Safiye Sultan’s motivation in building the mosque was due to its location in the city’s foremost commercial center, where many Jewish merchants lived. Local and foreign merchants had grown jealous of the Jews’ success in the area so the building of a mosque was a convenient way to legally seize Jewish properties, a story we have seen in many other cities.Hagia Sophia
As we strolled through the city we came to perhaps its two most famous sites. Hagia Sophia and sitting right across from it, the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of world architecture, having been built in 537 and remaining the largest dome in the world for nearly a 1000 years while also being the seat of Byzantine Power during that time. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque sits across from Hagia Sophia with a small park and water fountain in between them. It is a massive structure with 6 minarets (and issue of contention since the Grand Mosque in Mecca had 6 at the time and the Blue Mosque was seen as an egotistical challenge to its power) that is filled with Iznik tiles, a traditional ceramic painted in hues of primarily blue, white, and sometimes copper-red. We finished the day with a visit to the Mosaic Museum, where mosaics from the Great Palace of Constantinople have been unearthed and are on display.
At that point everyone was exhausted, but Jeff had energy for one more site as he headed down into the bowels of the city to explore the Basilica Cistern, an ancient water holding area built in the 6th century. It was capable of holding 100,000 tons of water in its hey-day and was an engineering marvel, containing 336 huge marble columns to support its cathedral sized chamber.
The next day we explored Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. The complex is huge and it took us nearly an entire day to move among its courtyards and various buildings such as the King’s Harem, Audience Chamber, Library, and summer pavilions. It was particularly pleasant due to the lush tulips that were growing throughout the palace. Still, I couldn’t help a cringe when passing the circumcision room – dedicated to the deed for young princes. But I felt better for them after passing the beautiful apartment of the Crown Prince in the Royal Harems, where, according to the sign, the princes were trained in the “discipline” of the Ottoman Harem. We also visited the Grand Bazaar on this day, but were slightly disappointed on how it was essentially more of an over-priced indoor mall with aggressive shop-owners rather than an old style market selling anything close to authentic goods. For the most part we found this to be the case of any of the well-known markets.
Each day of our travels was an indulgence in different kinds of Turkish food. For Neda and me it was particularly refreshing to find so much fresh fruit, most of which Turkey grows itself. This is in contrast to places like Japan where fruit is imported and quite costly. For just $1.50 we could get a glass of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and for only fifty cents a glass of orange juice. Sufficed to say, we drank a lot juice. The cuisine itself was mildly disappointing for us as it seemed quite greasy and didn’t compare favorable to Bulgarian cuisine, with which we are well acquainted. Meat dishes were generally just grilled (like meat kebabs) without much seasoning and the mezzes (side dishes) we tried were oily and not terribly interesting flavor-wise. Unfortunately we also struggled to find authentic cuisine because every restaurant in the city seems to be on tripadvisor and those where the locals are eat are usually just places with pre-cooked food being kept warm. You just enter and pick out the food you want. It’s cheap, but not exceptionally fresh or tasty.Turkish coffee goes great with sweets!
In contrast to the main courses, the sweets were a highlight of our time in Istanbul. Local bakeries made melt-in-your mouth baklava at reasonable prices and the halva (a dense, flaky sweet made up primarily of tahini and sugar) was to die for! Often lunch for us would just be a sampling of different offerings at the bakery – real indulgence! If you’re going to Istanbul though, watch out for the popular tourist markets – there you’ll find overpriced baklava made with simple syrup instead of real honey, an experience better avoided.The Whirling Dervish Hall
Our 3rd day in Istanbul was generally considered the favorite by the family, though it started with two “misses”. The first was the Galata Mevlevi House, a Sufi lodge in the Whirling Dervish tradition. The order was originally founded by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, one of Neda & my favorite poets and spiritual thinkers. Unfortunately, the “museum” did a first rate job of making Sufism uninteresting and included no audio or visual presentations of a tradition that has to be seen and heard to be understood. It also only has Dervish dances once a month, making it difficult to see an authentic version of the famous spinning dancers, who have been thoroughly commercialized in the city due to tourist interest. The second miss was a trip to the exceptional Church of St. Stephen the Bulgar, notable for being completely pre-fabricated of iron. That’s right, the whole church was made in Vienna and then shipped to Istanbul to be put up in the late 1800’s. It was only a miss because the whole church is closed for renovation.Righteous on my right, sinner on my left
The day started to redeem itself, however, with a trip to Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. The beautiful Byzantine Church contains captivating murals built through the patronage of Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites. The murals are the finest example of the Palaeologian Renaissance, which was a flowering of Byzantine art and culture after the sack of Constantinople by Venice. Eventually the city was won back by the Palaeologan dynasty, though it was permanently weakened in what would only be a prelude to the Ottoman conquest 150 year later. However, the sacking scattered Byzantine artists into various different regions so when they returned they incorporated the styles they had learned into the new murals. The result is more humanistic representations of the religious life of Jesus than can be found anywhere else in the Byzantine world. Once could see how the story of Christ’s life and the Virgin’s life would have seemed to come to life to parishioners practicing in the church at the time.
Just a few blocks from the church sit the famous Theodosian Walls that protected Istanbul from invasion for 1000 years. The walls repelled Arabs, Rus’ and Bulgar invaders over the years and was even able to repel cannon technology for a while (soldiers would rebuild the fortifications during reloading of the cannons!). Eventually the Ottomans overpowered them, but they still stand as one of the most important defensive structures of antiquity. For our part, a steep climb up the walls led to sweeping views of the city and worked up an appetite for a local lunch next to a mosque and some Turkish coffee afterwards! After the walls, our next activity was a beautiful cruise up the Bosphorus strait in the direction of the Black Sea. Along the way one passes beautiful palaces by Sultans, old fortresses used to attack the city, and riverhouses built by wealthy Ottoman citizens at the height of the empire.
What better way to end our favorite day than going to a Turkish Coffeehouse, where Nadia & Pekto tried their first Hookah! Nadia picked the strawberry flavor and we all sipped on Linden tea while laughing good-naturedly at the parents’ attempt to master the smoking process.
Our last day was one of relaxation, shopping in the city’s bazaars, and visiting the Istanbul Archeological Museum. Some notable objects we enjoyed there were the world’s oldest love poem, the world first written peace treaty (dating from 1258BC), and some amazingly well preserved Sarcophagus’ from the 4th century BC, found in the area of ancient Sidon. The next day we headed out of town with a stopover close to the border at Edirne to see the famed Selimiye Mosque, a towering structure considered a high point of Islamic architecture. From there we crossed the border into Bulgaria!
Neda & I joyfully ate our first shopska salad and Bulgarian kebabs in more than 6 months and appreciated being in a country where we could understand what was being said. This leg was our longest away from home taking us to India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Korea. It is also our last major leg, as we don’t plan on doing any more traveling (other than around Bulgaria) and than heading back to the States in the next few months. Thanks for following our travels these past two years and stay-tuned for follow-up posts about lessons learned on the road!