The ride North along the Aegean Sea took us past the ancient city of Troy and the World War I battle fields of Gallipoli. The city of Istanbul located on the edge of Europe and Asia was once known as the city capitol of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. It has survived as the capitol of three major empires Roman, Byzantine and Ottomans. Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe and has the feeling of any major western cosmopolitan city with a flair. Turkey is actually unique in the cast of Islamic countries. In 1928 a newly formed Turkey banned the use of the Arabic script and a Latin-based alphabet was chosen to help bridge East and West. The Western themes and non-Arabic language has alienated Turkey from the rest of the Islamic countries. This tension creates problems for Turkey because it shares borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria.The Go Ahead Tour company arranged two days of sightseeing and every minute was filled with activity. Our Turkish tour guide, Gurken was a story all to himself. He is a licensed tour guide but spent a troubled youth looking for direction in life. He ran away from home and joined an Islamic extremist group in eastern Turkey. He became disillusioned and one day decided to wonder into a Bible mission in Istanbul. The missionary gave him a Bible to read and Gurken spent time reading through the New and Old Testament. He struggled with the writings of the Quran and the Bible. One night he went to sleep with the Quran in one hand and the Bible in the other. He prayed looking for a sign and a direction in faith. That night he had what he calls a modern day miracle in the form of a dream were Jesus came to him and told him to choose Christianity. In Turkey you are born into your religion and it is illegal to practice any other religion. His convictions became so strong he applied to the Turkish government for a change of his religion to Christianity. He was required to testify about his reasons and to document his miracle. After much effort on his part he was granted the right to legally change to Christianity. He was only the second person in Turkey to officially change from the Islamic religion to Christianity. Today, approximately 1,200 people have been able to change their religion.
Gurken was a great tour guide and was able to provide the history of our tour stops from an Islamic and Christian perspective. This was important because modern day Turkey is not interested in focusing on its Christian history. Our first stop was in the area called Sultanahemt and the jumping off point for the center of many tourist activities. The Topakopi Palace on the tip of the Golden Horn was the home of the Ottoman Sultans until the 18th century. It now contains a series of museums that contain gems, clothing and religious artifacts. The highlights include an 82 carat diamond and the head and hand of John the Baptist. We could not get a lot of details on why the head and hand of John the Baptist was on display in a glass case.
A short walk from the Topakopi Palace took us to the Hagia Sophia Church. Hagia Sophia is one of the most magnificent buildings ever constructed has been both central church to Christianity and the major inspiration for Mosques of Islam. Hagia Sophia is 15 stories tall and is capped by a 32 meter dome. When the Church was constructed the building of such a massive size was capped by the largest dome ever built and was considered impossible. The structure was so overwhelming for that period the locals were scared to enter because they felt the dome would collapse. After sometime when it became apparent the building was still standing it was believed that it was truly the house of God because God must be holding the roof up. When the Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) the church was converted to a Mosque and the beautiful Christian mosaics that covered the grand church were plastered over. The mosaics have only been partially restored by removing the plaster which had the advantage of preserving the mosaics over the years. Most mosaics from this time period have been lost due to exposure to the elements and earthquakes. What can be seen are great examples of the original mosaics depicting classic scenes from the Bible.
Across a large park is the Blue Mosque (its not really blue) the highlight of the Islamic religion in Istanbul. It was built by the Sultan Ahmet and was a copy of the Hagia Sophia. The building was constructed to prove that the Islamic was on scale with the Christian Religion. The inside of the Mosque is covered with blue mosaic tiles. The Mosque is open to the public during non-prayer hours but modest dress is required. This means no shorts or bare shoulders. They supply a wrap if you are wearing shorts and will keep an eye on your shoes. Modesty and cleanliness are fundamentals of the Islamic faith and this is very important during prayer. On the outside of the Mosque you will find people washing their feet before entering the Mosque. At night a sound and light show at the Blue Mosque is worth a watch but you need to get lucky on the language version. They rotate the presentation every night in English, German, French, and Turkish.
The next morning was a cruise on the Bospherous river and we caught the boat in Eminonu. The weather was perfect and heading North along the Golden Horn shows the wealth of the region. The large unique weekend homes along the river would hold up to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world. The river takes you past the Dolmabahce Castle, Ciragan Hotel and Beylerbeyi Palace. The Asian continent on one side and the European continent on the other. During the Ottoman rule at the narrowest point a large chain was hung across the river to prevent enemy boats from approaching. A portion of this massive chain is on display at the Archeological museum. We cruised from 10 AM to 4 PM with a stop for lunch in a colorful, floral accented Ottoman house. We visited the Beylerbeyi Palace which was built for Sultan Abdul Aziz in 1865 filled with marble, woodwork, gold furniture. This was a summer palace/vacation home and many famous people visited until the end of the Ottomans and the Sultans had to flee the country. The house had a very large fountain in one of the main rooms that was used for air-conditioning. We would recommend taking a ferry tour of the Bospherous to anyone on a beautiful sunny day, it gives you a completely different view of Istanbul.
An organized city tour of Istanbul is not complete without a traditional Turkish dinner and belly dancing. Our bus was unloaded at the famous Orient house, I of course have never heard of it but it was written on their sign that they were famous. The food was good and the waiters kept bringing endless courses of Turkish appetizers and wine. The MC of the folk dancing show was very entertaining and his knowledge of foreign languages and songs was impressive. He polled the room for tourists from around the world determining which nations were represented. He greeted them in their language and then sang a popular tune from their country. The MC was of course outdone by the belly dancers who worked up quite a sweat moving every part of their body at a very rapid rate. The Japanese really seemed to enjoy the dancing, I kind of liked it myself. The night dragged on and Karen and I decided to make a run for it when the waiters started pulling audience members up on stage for dancing lessons. We ended up at a bar next door and watched the last 30 minutes of the French victory in the World Cup. We loaded back on to the bus and we were asleep by midnight, it had been a very long day.
Today ends the organized portion of our tour and I have to admit that Go Ahead Tours did a very good job of packing in a lot of activities. We are now going to venture out on our own but we have a very nice plan in place. Karen’s parents had booked two rooms at the Yesil Ev Hotel, an old Ottoman house in the center of Sultanahemt. The Yesil Ev has probably the best location in Istanbul because you are in the center of many activities and next to the Blue Mosque. Being located next to the Blue Mosque does get you in tune with the call to prayer five times a day. The method used to signal the call to prayer has evolved but remains the same with the development of the watch and loudspeaker. In earlier times, before electricity, the call to prayer would occur from the lungs of a very loud voice at every vantage point of every minaret at the four corners of every Mosque. The chanting is in Arabic and starts at 5:00 AM and lasts for around five minutes and occurs four more times throughout the day. It was this loud ominous voice that indicated it was time to head to the Mosque and bow to Mecca for prayer. Today the call to prayer has been upgraded to include large speakers and a central P.A. system that does a very good job of jolting you out of bed at 5:00 AM. The voice that emanates is mesmerizing and filled with Arabic that is only heard but not understood by most of the Turkish citizens.
In Turkey the language is similar to the Finish language and the locals do not understand any form of Arabic. This has made it difficult for the Turkish to practice the Islamic Religion because most of the writings and prayers are in Arabic. The Quran which is similar to the New Testament of Christianity is written in Arabic and was brought to the Islamic religion by the Prophet Mohammed. The New Testament and the Quran is another underlying difference between the Islamic religion and Christianity. The New testament is a collection of stories that describe the events that occurred after the death of Jesus. The original text of the New Testament was written in Aramaic the language of that time. As the bible was translated to different languages different versions of the stories began to appear. These interpretations or changes in the original New Testament can be seen in the King James Bible and the Roman Catholic Bible. The Islamic faith does not argue that the stories of the New Testament were not true but what they object to was the way the stories were changed to suit those currently in power. The Islamic Religion believes in Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. They do not believe that Jesus was the son of God but that he was a Prophet of God. This creates a difference of opinion since the teachings of the New Testament is centered around Jesus being the son of God.
When the Prophet Mohammed, the fourth and final prophet, according to the Islamic religion brought the word of God in the form of the Quran, it was decreed that not one symbol or dot of the text would be changed. This conviction can be seen in the Taj Mahal in India were the entire Quran is inscribed throughout the structure in perfectly carved and inlaid tile. Because the Quran must not be changed or interpreted a version of the Quran in Turkish does not exist. So the prayers recited in Arabic by the Turkish Muslims, five times a day are done from memory. You do not have to be Arabic to practice the Islamic Religion but to truly read and understand the writings of the Quran you are expected to learn Arabic. The Turkish population is more likely to speak English than Arabic and this has created a problem for the Islamic fundamentalist who make up fifteen percent of the population. The other eighty-five percent is content to make it to the Mosque when it is convenient and this is usually on Friday the holy day of the Islamic Religion. During our time we spent in Istanbul I did not notice a mob of people heading to the Mosque for prayer. The Islamic faith in Turkey is suffering a decline in attendance which is on par with religion in the Western world.
Back to the travel stories. We loaded luggage into two taxis and we were not disappointed….. neither of the drivers knew where they were going but after driving around the block a couple of times we managed to find it. After unloading our stuff we set out to finish exploring the numerous sites in Istanbul. The Archaeological museum has an excellent collection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. The museum was quite impressive and worth the visit.
The next stop was Yerebatan Sarayi a huge underground cistern built to store water for the local palaces. The structure was built in the center of town and was rediscovered by a French archeologists. The cistern is a unique space with 336 columns holding up the ground overhead. The columns are a mix collection of columns taken from other ruins. A couple columns are resting on pedestals that have been carved into large medusa heads. This was not an original artwork because one head is upside down and another is resting on its side. It makes you wonder what ancient ruin they were borrowed from. Several days a week a small band is setup for playing Turkish and classical music.
We visited a travel agent about hiring a car for a couple of days to Bursa, Iznik and Termal. Then we met Sadat, a local taxi driver, who would become our guide for the next couple of days. We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a small Greek Church with sacred spring water, Suleymanie Cami another large Mosque, and a beautiful overlook of the Golden Horn from Pierre Loti. The Golden Horn is the narrow body of water that divides Europe and Asia and connects the Black Sea to the Marmera Sea. The final highlight of the day was a stop at the Kariye Museum – Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. It is a small church that has been converted into a museum. The Church was originally a Christian church but was converted to a Mosque. The ceilings are covered with beautiful mosaics that look as they were just completed by the ancient masters. This was definitely a must see in Istanbul.
The night life action in Turkey is a little low key and you will be hard pressed to find a group of nightclubs or bars in full swing. The Islamic religion does not allow the use of alcohol or artificial stimulates. This does not prevent tea from being served every five minutes or cigarettes being enjoyed by all. After asking around for a good night time spot we settled for Ortakoy a twenty minute cab ride from Sultanahemt. The area is on the water and was very busy with numerous restaurants and long rows of tables setup outside for dining. This was definitely a local spot because no menus in English could be found. It doesn’t matter because every dish we ordered was excellent. The food in Turkey is very fresh and similar to Greek food.
The Turks and Greeks for the most part do not like each other. They are neighboring countries that have had a long history of conflict and occupation. The Turks ruled Greece for two hundred years and were responsible for destroying many of the ancient Greek buildings including the Parthenon in Athens. Based on borders drawn up after the World War I and II Turkey is limited to the mainland and Greece has all the neighboring islands on the edge of Turkey. The only exception to this is Cyprus which was divided in half the west side ruled by Greece and the east side ruled by Turkey. They are currently testing each other’s resolve with military buildup in and around Cyprus.
In every part of the world you can find a local market and every guidebook puts it on the must do list. So far I have seen my share of local markets and for the most part they are about the same with some being better than others. Istanbul has the Grand Bazaar and it is legendary in the field of local markets. With Karen and her mom ready to shop we set out for the grand daddy of local markets. The Grand Bazaar consists of 65 streets jammed with 4,000 shops and restaurants making it the largest mall in the world. It has lots of atmosphere with crowded arched passageways and smiling vendors that know every line in the book. The shopkeepers are very interested in your business but they are not annoying. The field is very competitive and it should be a buyers market but these guys are real pros and probably can figure out how much money you have in your wallet by the way you walk. The result of two hours of tough shopping was a couple of pillow cases and 40 silk scarves. We were fortunate to exit into the garment district – a wild area where no one stands still very long. Everywhere you looked someone was carrying fabric or parcels from one shop to the next.