Our last two days in Istanbul were jam packed with tourist activities:
- Belly Dancing Show
- The Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapi Palace
- Taksim Square
I think it was Sultana’s that our group went to for dinner and a belly dancing show. Granted, these shows are for tourists and not indicative of the authentic culture, we nevertheless had fun. Dinner, drinks, show and transportation were included in the service. Our table was next to the stage and a few of was were dragged up to compete in the show including yours truly. I would rate it 7 out of 10 experience. Lot’s of fun if you played around with it. I was the 2nd to last man still standing. Here are a few pics.
Our private tour guide Gulgun Asutay was a fascinating and talented person. She was extremely well informed about art, church and religious history and could easily answer any of our questions. She was strongly “pro west” and supportive of women’s rights in the Islamic secular state. We had some very interesting conversations about Turkish culture, politics and religion. She also knew how to control a tour group of individuals who like to wander off.
The Blue Mosque also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is perhaps the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul. Constructed from 1609 to 1616 as a rival to the adjacent dark and imposing Byzantine Hagia Sophia, it’s called the Blue Mosque because of the dominating blue colour of its interior. It’s exterior has the grace and delicate lines representative of mosques in Istanbul. At night it is bathed in blue light. It is a functioning mosque that Pope Benedict XVI visited it in 2006. He paused inside for a full 2 minutes with his eyes closed in silent meditation
We were not allowed to wear shorts and had to remove our shoes upon entry. We marvelled at the beauty of the prayer area, the cupola and the coloured glass windows. Because of my modest camera, I was unable to take very good pictures due to the sheer size of the interior space. Here are a few courtesy of Wikipedia.
For me the Hagia Sophia was the highlight of Istanbul. It’s name means Holy Wisdom. Here are some of the superlatives. It is the former Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral which later became an Ottoman Imperial mosque. In 1935 it was secularized and opened as a museum. It is famous for its large dome built in 537 AD during the reign of Justinian. It was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. It is the epitone of Byzatine architecture that changed the history of architecture. It remained the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years.
The great dome of the Hagia Sophia is 107 feet in diameter and 2 feet thick. It has collapsed a couple of times due to earthquakes and some sections were rebuilt. Inside the church there are many restored Christian mosaics as well as Islamist art works side by side. Restoration has been delicate and extensive seeking to keep a balance between the two religious traditions. Gulgun knew the story and history behind every mosaic and explained them in detail. It is very dark and imposing inside, a religious and historical experience we will not soon forget.
Our visit to the Topkapi Palace was memorable too. A museum today, it served as the principal residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s name means “cannon gate”. The seaside palace is spread out over many acres and includes the Ottoman Imperial Harem where the women lived, many buildings such as kitchens, stores, treasury, administration, avaries, gardens and 4 principle courtyards. There are clothing, art works, tools and many more items on display in this indoor/outdoor treasure. We much enjoyed our visit there.
Our visit to Taksim Square involved a short street car ride and slow walk up the grand Istiklal Caddesi lined with shops, art galleries and beautiful late Ottoman era buildings. Taksim Square is a major tourist attraction lined with hotels, boutiques and monuments. Sadly it is famous for many protests including the tragic massacre of up to 42 leftist protesters in 1977 upon the resumption of labour day celebrations which had been banned in Turkey since 1928.
There were many more places we visited such as the Galata Tower and the Obelisk of Theodosius resurrected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Some of our group even crossed over the bridge to Asia. We could have stayed much longer but our cruise ship was now beckoning us.