The perfect five!
Day 118/138 2022/2023 Viking Neptune World Cruise. Istanbul, Turkey.
After last night’s visit to the Hammam we sure slept well! I would highly recommend that experience for anyone going to visit Istanbul, especially at the Hammam we were at last night. Wow!
When we were choosing excursions for this World Cruise I spent the better part of last summer taking each port into consideration and researching what there was to do in port, vs what excursions were being offered by Viking. For Istanbul, I had researched that if we wanted to make the most out of seeing the top 5 things in Istanbul we would need to see:
The Blue Mosque otherwise known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Grand Bazaar
The Spice Market
Viking did not offer an excursion that hit the perfect trifecta as I am calling these the perfect five iconic spots in Istanbul, so I went ahead and booked a private excursion through Viator for a full day guided tour, with a guide, as well as a driver for both of us. What I did not realize though when booking this excursion was that we would be visiting Turkey the day after Ramadan ends, or on ‘Eid al-Fitr’. ’Eid’ or produced ‘EEEED’ is one of two major holidays celebrated by Muslims around the world. Eid can be translated as “the feast of fast breaking” as it commemorates the end of the holy month of Ramadan in which Muslims who are able to do so will fast from before dawn until sunset each day.
On the day of Eid all Muslims will put on their best clothes, go to the mosque to offer prayers of joy on this special Friday, visit all their loved ones and pay their respects to their deceased. Young children in Turkey also go door to door and wish everyone a ‘Happy Bayram‘ (”Let us love, let us be loved”) for which they are given candy, chocolates and sweets such as baklava and Turkish delight as well as money.
I found out that the Grand Bazaar and The Spice Market were going to be closed on Eid al-Fitra, the day we had a full day in Istanbul. Well there goes 2/5 things we wanted to do in Istanbul! With the Grand Bazaar closed, and The Spice Market closed, we had all day to be able to visit 3 iconic places in Turkey.
What I also didn’t realize was since it is a holiday, everyone would be out and about in the area where these three landmark buildings were located. Viking was not even offering an excursion to the Blue Mosque, because of the traffic, crowds, and oh ya to top it all off, the President of Turkey was also paying a visit to this area in Istanbul - especially since he is seeking re-election and the election is coming up in May. Wonderful! We had half expected to get a Viator cancellation notice like we had got the night before in Haifa on Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
I was getting a bit discouraged before I had even met our guide today, that we may not get to see the three things we did have left on my list to visit on our tour. Anyway, we left the ship around 8:45am, to meet our guide who had emailed me the night before to let me know he would meet us through the Galataport cruise terminal at the street exit.
Sure enough when we got through the Galataport cruise terminal we found our guide Burak Yilmaz (email@example.com) waiting for us with a sign with my name on it. Burak walked us to the street and called the driver who picked us up in the Mercedes minivan to take us to the old town of Istanbul. It was a good thing we left when we did, because the traffic was very light still at 9am.
Burak said that because it was Eid, many people would be out and about with their families today so we were heading for Hagia Sofia first because he thought it might be best to see it before the ‘call to prayer’. After about 20 minutes, the traffic in the old city came to a complete standstill so I asked Burak if there was any way we could get out of the van and walk to Hagia Sofia rather than sit in the van. Burak was thrilled that we were walkers and after a few more minutes when the van made a bit more progress towards the Sofia, we jumped out of the van and started walking.
Istanbul was coolish today and I had worn long pants, a long sleeved shirt, a wool sweater and my North Face goretex jacket. I had a warm scarf with me as I knew we would be visiting mosques, but the scarf also served double duty to keep my neck warm as well as my head covering in the mosques. The forecast was for rain as well, so the goretex jacket and the Vessi waterproof shoes might come in handy, but hopefully not.
As we walked towards the Haifa Sofia, we could see a glass pavilion with two men inside.
The glass pavilion was set up to be a temporary studio for a political tv show since the President of Turkey was going to be in Istanbul today and the news commentators had set up this studio to be able to discuss the upcoming election and the President’s visit.
Musicians were set up on a small platform with a film crew filming them and they were singing traditional songs from the Quran or the Holy Book of Islam.
We kept walking past all of these special goings on, because we wanted to get to Hagia Sofia before the crowds started getting bigger because of Eid.
Hagia Sofia! For a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia church was the largest man-made structure in the entire world and it was also the centrepiece of power and religion in the Byzantine Empire.
Hagia Sophia or translated from Ancient Greek ‘Holy Wisdom’ built in between 360 and 537 AD was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox church and was used as such until the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Ottoman’s turned the church into a mosque. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and with the rise of the Republic of Turkey, Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1934. In 2020, the Council of State or high court in Turkey, overturned the government’s decision from 1934 to convert the Hagia Sofia to a museum, and the museum was once again converted to a mosque during Covid, in 2020 by the current President of Turkey signing a law that the Hagia Sofia would once again be a working mosque. This is the 4th Byzantine church converted from a museum into a mosque during President Erdogan’s rule. The Christian icons in the church/mosque would be protected to retain the UNESCO World Heritage designation, but UNESCO said that it ”deeply regretted the conversion made without prior discussion” with them and they asked to “open a dialogue without delay” saying that the lack of negotiation was “regrettable”. The World Council of Churches condemned the decision to convert the building into a mosque, but the President of Turkey said the building would still welcome Muslims as well as non-Muslims alike inside the building and admission would be free of charge to enter.
Knowing that the building we were going to visit had so much history, I was really eager to go inside and see what it was all about. Once inside the mosque, we tool off our shoes and placed them in Bin #19 in the gallery area of the Sofia. I pulled the headscarf up over my head and secured it in place, to make sure my head would be covered for our visit.
It was pretty clear what the dress code in the mosque was supposed to be. I really liked the long shoe horn hanging off this poster though, that made the ‘struggle is real’ real, to get one’s shoes back on after visiting the mosque!
Despite now being a mosque again, the Hagia Sofia has a mosaic of Christ located above the South Western vestibule doors. The mosaic represents Justinian (who built the Sofia), Christ, Mary and Constantine (who Constantinople was named after). Mary the Virgin is holding Christ the child on her lap. Justinian is giving a model of the Hagia Sofia to the Mother and Child and Constantine is presenting the city of Constantinople to Mary and Christ. The ironic thing about this mosaic is that Justinian and Constantine both lived at different times, yet they are both portrayed in this mosaic as if they lived at the same time. The polychrome marble below the mosaic was cut by using threads of silk so the mirror image of the marble panels would be able to be laid side by side on the wall. This mosaic is not covered over during the 5 daily prayer times, like the other Christian images inside the Sofia, as we were soon to find out.
The gorgeous ceiling in the gallery of the Hagia Sofia.
Entering the Hagia Sofia. There are 8 gigantic circular medallions with calligraphy imagery which were added in the 19th Century and have the names of ’Allah’, ‘Muhammad’, the ‘Rashidun’, the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali and the two grandsons of Muhammad: Hassan and Husayn.
Wow! My jaw dropped literally from the sheer beauty of this place. I did not know how a building could be so jaw droppingly beautiful and I did not know where to look. The Sofia was amazing! The white curtains at the front and top of the church were drawn to cover the Christian iconography since the mosque was going to be used for Eid prayers and Christian icons could not be seen during prayers.
The magnificence of the building was overwhelming!
The dome of the Hagia Sofia which is 107 feet in diameter and rises 180 feet above the ground. The dome is called a pendentive dome, supported by four pendentives, and is the second largest in the world after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The dome of the Hagia Sofia is meant to symbolically represent the realm of heaven and its glory. The many openings that let light in to the perimeter simulate the concept of heavenly light and also create the illusion that the dome is floating.
We had spent about 10 minutes inside the Hagia Sofia and then these security guards started shouting that everybody had to get out of the mosque. Our guide, Burak, went up to one of the guys and spoke to him in Turkish to ask what was happening. Because of the special Eid prayers which were being offered on this holy Friday, the mosque needed to be vacuumed and readied for the many people that would be shortly attending the mosque, so we had to leave. What a drag! At least we did get inside to see the mosque, which as it turned out was going to be very difficult with the thousands of devote Muslims who wanted to visit Hagia Sofia, on this very special day of Eid to pray.
Our guide suggested that we try to walk over to the Topkapi Palace next to wander around what is now a museum instead of a palace. The crowds were really starting to get crazy long to enter the Palace, but luckily Burak already had our entry tickets and he suggested a back way to enter the Palace that involved a longer walk, but helped us avoid the crowds, and also brought us to the Palace Gardens to view before entering the palace grounds.
Palace Gardens with the tulips in bloom. The Turkish word for tulip is ‘TULBENT’ which comes from the Persian ‘dulband’ meaning ‘turban’. The tulip got its name from the resemblance of its petals to overlapping folds of cloth in a turban. So the word tulip pretty much like the flower itself, has Turkish origins. Tulips originated in Persia (now Iran) and were brought to Turkey and cultivated in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century. Tulips from Turkey were given to the Netherlands for the first time in 1592. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey was so enamoured with tulips that his clothes were heavily embroidered with them and they decorated his turbans with a single tulip.
Gorgeous tulips. I wonder if my tulips will be up when I arrive back home next month?
Lovely red tulips blooming in Istanbul.
The fountains with the gardens were so very pretty and the trees were just starting to open their leaves in the gardens.
We found some street food vendors who were selling their wares outside the palace and since lunch seemed like it would be a long time coming, we grabbed some street food to stave off the inevitable hunger pains.
A Turkish simit. A simit is not cooked like bagels. There is no boiling step, instead they are dipped in water sweetened with molasses or other cooked fruits and coated in sesame seeds before baking, which helps them stay moist and creates the flavourful, slightly shiny golden brown exterior. The simit was delicious as it was lighter and less doughy than a bagel.
Cooking popcorn over a small hot coal bbq in an old pot, with a wire screen to capture the kernels. The cardboard display, was the perfect place to scoop up the popcorn into a brown bag and add salt directly to the bag.
I was very happy to get some fresh hot popcorn. My ‘go to’ snack food! Our guide grabbed another bag for me to act as a lid on top of this bag, so we could put the popcorn into the backpack for our visit to the palace, where no food could be consumed.
Heading into Topkapi Palace.
Construction on the Topkapi Palace commenced in 1459 and was completed in 1465. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror began construction of the palace six years after the conquest of Constantinople and was originally called the ‘New Palace’ to distinguish it from the ‘Old Palace’ located in another part of Istanbul. The name Topkapi means ‘Cannon Gate’. Many renovations and additions have been made to the palace, but the palace complex primarily consists of four main courtyards with many smaller buildings. After the 17th Century Topkapi became less important with sultans preferring to spend more time in their palaces along the Bosporus and in 1856 Sultan Abdulmejid I decided to move the court to the new Dolmabahce (pronounced Dolma, BATCHI) Palace. In 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ended, a government decree in 1924 decreed that the palace would transform into a museum.
Large gates to enter the Palace.
Richard and Burak walking through one of the many courtyards in the Palace in Istanbul. It was very crowded at the Palace with many families out for the Eid.
Another courtyard in the Palace. The buildings were all such architectural marvels and so well preserved after many centuries.
This building which was formerly the library of Sultan Ahmat III has now been turned into a gift shop museum at the Palace.
The Topkapi Palace or the Seraglio as it is also known, served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire and was the main residence of its sultans.
The beautiful blue handmade tiles and gilt gold work inside one of the buildings in the Palace.
Done in the Baroque style, the ornamentation in the building is 3 dimensional and used intricate patterns of gold leaf on highly decorated hand painted frescos on the walls.
Looking down from the Third Courtyard, we could see the Neptune docked at the new Galataport Cruise Terminal, against the skyline of Istanbul.
The Audience Hall of the Sultans. That looks like a bed in the corner, but it was really a place for the Sultan to sit cross legged, and receive his guests or his staff. Any gifts that were brought to the Sultan were kept across the hall in another room, in case there was any funny business going on with the gifts, that might endanger the Sultan.
Looking down from another viewpoint in the Palace grounds we could see the ‘1st bridge’ on the Bosphorus. Europe is on the left of the photo and Asia is on the right of the photo.
Another courtyard in the Palace.
A divan for relaxing. The fabric is original and so ornate. The tiles on the walls have such rich colours. The stained glass is reminiscent of a church, but this was the Sultan’s residence and not a church.
More beautiful courtyards in the Palace grounds with Hagia Irene or ‘Holy Peace’ church in the background. The church is an Eastern Orthodox Church located in the outer courtyard of the Topkapi Palace. It is the oldest known church in Istanbul and the only Byzantine church in Istanbul that has not been converted into a mosque. It was used as an arsenal for storing weapons until the 19th century. Built before Hagia Sophia, it once burned down and was rebuilt in 548 AD. After the Ottoman conquest in 1453 by Mehmed II the church was enclosed inside the walls of the Palace. The church was built with iconoclastic art when the use of religioous images within the church were opposed.
The church is in the process of being restored inside, but it has recently served as a concert hall because of its amazing acoustics.
An example of the iconoclastic church with only the decoration of the cross on the ceiling. Such a difference in decoration from the Hagia Sofia which we had seen earlier in the day.
After visiting many more sections of the Palace which we could not take photos of like: the kitchens, the costume rooms, the jewel rooms, and the weapons rooms I was getting hungry and my feet were tired from all of the walking and standing. I said to our guide I thought it was time for lunch and could we get going please to lunch. We had pretty much seen everything at the palace except for the harem area, for which another ticket was required, and which we really did not have time to visit.
Walking through the melee of people who had come out for Eid.
The line up for the Hagia Sofia was blocking our way to get outside this area fenced in area around the Palace and the Hagia Sofia. We finally found our way out of the grounds and the military presence had really picked up since we had entered Topkapi Palace. We found out that the President was opening the Blue Mosque at 2pm and we could see bus loads of military security personnel which had arrived to monitor the situation for the President’s security.
We escaped all of this mass bedlam to walk over to the ‘Sura Hagia Sofia’ hotel down a little laneway near the Grand Bazaar for our buffet lunch with Burak.
A nicely coloured Vespa inside the hotel lobby.
I ordered a fruit drink and got a fresh pineapple, lemon, mint drink. It was really delicious. The food was a buffet of different mezze, breads, salads, chicken and beef patties and dessert was baklava of course! We invited our guide Burak to sit and eat with us, which is generally not the practise. The buffet was closing as soon as we were fed, because it was 3pm when we finally got our lunch! That is the thing about touring around, it is not possible to stop in the middle of seeing something at noon or 1pm and leave to grab lunch, so we made the most of our day, by being flexible to see as much as possilbe before grabbing lunch. Thank goodness for some street food snacks that helped us get through the day.
After a quick 20 minute lunch, we crossed the street and found ourselves in the area known as the Hippodrome. The structure behind me is a fountain gifted to Turkey by Germany.
Sultan Ahmet Square or the Hippodrome (from Greek: hippo-horse and dromos - pathway) as the area was used for horse and chariot racing in Byzantium. There were previously stands on the sides of the Hippodrome capable of holding 100,000 spectators. The hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. There were many chariot races and bettings was a large part of the fun of watching the various teams of people that would take part in the races.
There were many decorations set up in the Hippodrome which were works of art that the Ottomans had brought back from other empires to adorn the area.
The green monument in the foreground is called ‘The Serpent Column’ which was moved form the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and set in the middle of the Hippodrome. The serpents head was destroyed in 1700. In the background the Obelisk of Thutmose III was brought in 390AD by Theodosius the Great, from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. The obelisk dates back to 1490 BC. Theodosius had the obelisk cut into three pieces to bring it back to Constantinople. The granite obelisk has survived nearly 3,500 years in good condition but nobody knows where the bottom of the obelisk is.
You can see on the right side of the obelisk how it was cut. The cut went right through some hieroglyphics and the obelisk was placed on the black wooden blocks to support it. I can’t even imagine what they were thinking to cut through such an ancient obelisk just to put it up on display in the Hippodrome! I wonder if Egypt wants the obelisk back for the Temple of Karnak?
As we were wandering through the Hippodrome our guide Burak noticed that the Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque was now open and that the line up to get into the mosque was not too long, so we headed over to get in line to try and get into the mosque. The Blue Mosque has been closed for renovations for the past 5 years and with today being a holiday because of Ramazan Bayram or Eid-al Fitr as it is also known, everyone in Istanbul wanted to go to the mosque to see the recent renovations. Now I know why Viking was not offering a tour to the mosque. The crowds and logistics of trying to get buses and people into this mosque would have been a complete nightmare. Thank goodness we had booked our own private tour with our guide!
The crowd to get into the Blue Mosque was unbelievable. There was no rhyme or reason to how the crowd was moving towards the mosque. People were pushing trying to get out of the mosque and as many people were trying to get into the mosque as were trying to get out. We got pretty close to the mosque and then we had to bend down and take our shoes off in this crowd, and then we had to hold our shoes above our head, to keep from hitting people with our shoes. Unfortunately being 6 feet tall when people behind me put their shoes over their heads, they put footprints all over my nice goretex coat. Oh well. The 15 minute wait in the crushing crowd, was worth it to get inside this amazing building!
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the ‘Blue Mosque’ due to its thousands of blue and white hand painted Iznik tiles and blue stained-glass windows.
The Blue Mosque. The only mosque with 6 minarets which rivalled Mecca, so a 7th minaret was added to the Mecca mosque in Saudi Arabia.
The Blue Mosque was built in the 17th century and opened for worship in 1617. It was built across from the Hagia Sophia which was a church at the time and not a mosque, as I mentioned previously. The mosque can comfortably accommodate 10,000 people for prayers.
The main dome of the mosque is 141 feet high and the blue and white tiles are made nearby in a city called Iznik. The blue hand made tiles are arranged in intricate patterns and designs giving the mosque a striking blue colour.
The mosque also has blue stained glass windows. The blue tiles and windows were chosen for their spiritual significance. Blue is considered a holy colour in Islamic culture, symbolizing the sky and heaven and it was believed that the use of blue in the mosque’s design would help create a spiritual and serene atmosphere for worshipers.
One of the four massive support pillars known as ‘elephant legs’ in the Blue Mosque.
There are more than 200 stained glass windows in the Blue Mosque. The chandeliers held uncooked ostrich eggs intended to repel spiders and prevent unsightly spider webs.
Sultan Ahmed who built the mosque died at age 27, only one year after completion of the mosque.
The many shades of blue tiles and intricate patters were so overwhelmingly beautiful. It was hard to know where to look because the mosque was so gorgeous. What a day of sensory overload from the Hagia Sofia to the Blue Mosque!
Selfie time in the mosque in front of an elephant leg. Wow!
By the time we went to exit the mosque someone had taken control of the entrances and exits and we were ushered out the side door of the mosque without the crushing crowds we had experienced on the way into the mosque.
Since the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market were both closed for Eid, our guide brought us to a small market for me to sample some local tea and browse the shops before heading back to the ship.
Luckily the Arasta Bazaar was open today and I could browse some of its shops.
Teas and sweets. They really know how to do tea in Turkey! They even have Viagra Tea!
All manner of Turkish sweets. We did try a few samples of these sweets along with some delicious tea.
So many choices, so little time! I resisted the temptation to buy sweets. It was hard, but it was for the best! A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!
We saw a store with the Canadian flag over it and I had to wander in to see what this delightful store was all about. Jennifer’s Hamam (www.jennifershamam.com) works with local artisans to create beautiful hand woven thick-looped Turkish towels, robes, bedcovers and more using organic turkish cotton, Jennifer’s Hamam has been able to expand the art of Turkish weaving to 600 working looms and brought back the art of weaving to save this beautiful industry. I loved the Turkish towels so much I bought 4 small hand towels to bring home with me to remember our visit to Istanbul. Jennifer is apparently originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They do export if anyone is interested in purchasing any of these beautiful towels, sheets or bath robes!
After visiting the small market for about 40 minutes I had seen all that I wanted and our guide Burak called our driver to come and pick us up. We had no sooner got in the van than the skies opened and it started raining very hard. Richard keeps saying ”We are charmed” because we keep escaping bad weather, and getting all the sights in that we wanted to see, without getting wet!
We tipped our guide and our driver and after sitting in traffic for a little bit, we were dropped off at Galataport Cruise terminal around 5:30pm. We still had to go through the Duty Free shop where I ended up picking up Richard a large bottle of the Turkish red wine he had enjoyed the night before, as well as a nice Turkish tea cup to drink my Turkish green apple tea in.
Burak our guide was so very knowledgeable of the history of Turkey from the 36 different sultans that all played a part of Turkey’s history, to the many styles of architecture and history of the beautiful Hagia Sofia, massive Topkapi Palace Museum as well as the stunning Blue Mosque. He likes to walk and we are great walkers, so the tour worked out fabulous for us. I would highly recommend him for anyone wishing a nice walking tour of Istanbul. Burak freelances and also has done work for tour operators that work with Viking group excursions in the past. Burak offered to put together other tours for us outside of Istanbul in the future so we will keep this in mind.
Our day of seeing the perfect 5 turned out to be the perfect trifecta instead, with the market at the end as an added bonus. We would love to come back to Turkey and spend more time in Istanbul as well as venture to other coastal towns, and visit Cappadocia to see and stay in the underground city, as well as perhaps take a hot air balloon ride. As we said when we started this World Cruise, we are only seeing the highlights of the world, but that just whets our appetite for future land based adventures which we can arrange on our own in the future. I loved the fascinating, historical, mystical Turkey that we did see and I definitely want to explore and get lost in the future in The Grand Bazaar, The Spice Market and have more than one meal in Turkey. A must come back for another visit recommendation from us on Turkey!