Doug & Heather's Voyages

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Istanbul was Constantinople, Now It's Istanbul...not Constantinople

The title says it all. We visited several sites which let us explore the history from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul.

Another fun part of this visit was using their public transit system. We walked out of the pier and a nice local at the edge of the port directed us to the nearest Tram stop after confirming that we had Turkish Lira (which you needed in order to buy tokens). The timing of this was a little strange because we rode the tram along with hundreds of commuters, so we were standing and crowding in the entire time. Quite an experience. I was impressed with how orderly and quiet the Turkish people on the tram were. It was different from Athens where the train was louder.

After a ride over the Golden Horn (an inlet off of the Bosphorus Strait which separates Europe from Asia, we were on the Europe side today…Asia yesterday), we arrived at Sultan Ahmet station. From here you can see all of the major attractions, so we had an easy time making our way to our first destination. This began our Constantinople experience.

Topkapi Palace was the home of the Sultans during the Ottoman empire. I call this the Constantinople part simply because this was the name of the city at the time…although the Sultans came long after the time of Emperor Constantine. We made our way trying to keep in front of the tour groups, to the ticket window. Unlike some of the other tourists, we had Turkish Lira and were able to get in. We saw some German tourists trying to use Euros and they were sent to a currency exchange (which I'm sure gave a terrible rate). Unfortunately, due to inflation over the past few years, the ticket prices had just doubled from what we had expected…it was still worth it.

Upon entering, we went directly to the Harem for a tour through and we were ahead of the masses of other tours (there were two large ships and a small ship in port, so things were crowded again). The harem had some very beautiful rooms with wonderful mosaics and tiles on a lot of the walls. The architecture for the most part seemed hap-hazard as each Sultan added his own rooms and styles. After this, we toured the rest of the Palace grounds including the Treasury where we saw the Sultan's Dagger which featured prominently in the movie Topkapi. We also saw the 26 karat diamond…very impressive.

The best part of this tour was a section devoted to various religious artifacts. Here we saw Moses' staff, King David's sword, John the Apostle's arm and part of his skull. There was also Mohammed's beard, tooth, sword and bow. This was a pretty impressive collection and throughout this section, there was a man singing the Koran. We looked at him and made eye contact, which, perhaps, we weren't supposed to do because it seemed to distract him.

Continuing our Constantinople experience, we headed over to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). On the way, a gentleman spoke with us and followed us over there. He said his name was Arsenio and that he had a shop near the Mosque. We weren't sure how to escape from him, but he was very nice and shared a lot of good information about the Mosque and about Istanbul. While we knew he was up to something, he was still very polite and it was nice to get to know one of the locals. I thought the mosque was quite impressive. The tile work and the lighting from the windows high in the dome were very beautiful.

Upon exiting the mosque, began our Istanbul experience. Arsenio led us out of the mosque, down through a gate and up to a street where there was a hotel and some shops. He took us right into a carpet store and upstairs for a carpet demonstration. We felt bad because we knew he put a lot of time in with us, but we weren't going to be buying a carpet. His boss spoke with us and there was really no pressure from them. They showed us 10 or 15 carpets which were very beautiful, but clearly not our modern style. Once we thanked them and left the store, Arsenio took us to his store, a shop with "hand painted" plates. These were also nice, but far too expensive at 160TL. I offered about 50TL, but that was clearly not enough. We parted ways with a hand shake, but Heather and I felt bad not buying anything from him after he spent about 45 minutes with us.

From here, we went to Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) for our Byzantine experience. This was originally a church with wonderful artwork during the Byzantine empire, but during the Ottoman empire, it was changed into a mosque and the artwork was plastered over. Finally in the 1930's, Ataturk declared it a museum and much of the plaster was removed to reveal the Christian art. This was much older than the mosque, having been built in the 1200s. The dome and windows were wonderful, unfortunately, there was large scaffolding and the central chandelier was down on the ground for renovation. This took away from the beauty of the place.

After this, we took the tram to the Grand Bazaar just to see what it was like. Walking in there were hundreds of jewelry stores and Turks outside each one wanting you to come into their store to look at their wares. We avoided most of this because we were just looking for a place for lunch. Even the food places had people in the middle of the hallway trying to get you in. We picked a place that was nearly full. The "barker" told us it would just be a minute for a table to clear out as they had been trying to get as many people seated as possible. He paged through their entire menu for us and we made our choices. I had a donner kebap plate and Heather had a chicken kebap. The food was good, although more expensive than it would have been on the street.

For some more Istanbul experience, we had carpet salesmen trying to get us in the store. Here are some things we heard here:

"Do you remember me?"
"Now, it's my turn to harass you."
"Brother. Brother, it's me. Come and I will just show you two carpets."
And the best one was from yesterday which we heard from Mom and Dad:
"Do you want a leather jacket? How about a purse? Then how am I going to get your money?"

All of this made for a great experience in Istanbul and Turkey in general. I think we may come back here some day. It's a pretty amazing place with an interesting culture which is very different from ours. I really appreciate the all business aspect of it because it's not like Mexico where everyone just wants you to buy cheap junk…these people really go out of their way to connect with you and make you feel comfortable doing business with them. A lot of fun.

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