Istanbul – Dizzyingly Modern and Quaintly Traditional

Istanbul – Dizzyingly Modern and Quaintly Traditional

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What to See
Hagia Sophia

Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia was designed and constructed to surpass all other Christian monuments of the time.
The basilica suffered through riots, arson and earthquakes before Mehmet II anointed it as a mosque in 1453. Islamic features like minarets, muezzin’s quarters, sultan’s lodgings, and ablution fountains were added. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was converted in to a museum after extensive renovations and refurbishing of damaged icons and statues. The extravagant interiors with the massive dome and brightly colored tiles are awe inspiring and the Ayasofya (as it is known now) is easily one of the most recognized landmarks in the city.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul

Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul

Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Also known as the Blue Mosque, it was built by Sultan Ahmet I, who desired to build a namesake mosque that would equal if not outdo the Aya Sophia in architectural brilliance. As impressive from the outside as it is inside, this fully functioning mosque is one of the best known examples of the Ottoman style of architecture. The overwhelming use of blue Iznik tiles in patterns of lilies and tulips led to early visitors naming it the Blue Mosque. This being a place of worship, a strict dress code applies – shawls are provided to cover bare shoulders.

Intricate Mother of Pearl inlay work on a Bagdat kiosk in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Intricate Mother of Pearl inlay work on a Bagdat kiosk in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace
When Mehmet II entered the city in 1453, he wasn’t too enamored by the Byzantine palaces, so he went about building his own palace. Work began in 1459 and the Palace was completed 6 years later. Topkapi Palace is divided into four courtyards. The first contains the mint and the Archeological Museum while the second houses the kitchen, bakeries and the wazir’s chambers. The third courtyard displays holy relics, portraits and textiles of the sultans and the fourth is actually a multi leveled garden. This palace is a perfect example of the opulence of Ottoman emperors.

Hippodrome
Looking at the tame nature of activities that the Hippodrome witnesses these days – families strolling along on pleasant afternoons – it’s hard to believe that this was the venue of frenzied chariot races and bloody massacres in the past. In its heyday, the Hippodrome could accommodate 100,000 people who gathered to watch and cheer gladiators. Don’t miss the three main monuments here- the Egyptian obelisk brought to the city in the 4th century, the Serpentines’ Column that originated in the Temple of Delphi, and the Column of Constantine that dates back to the 10th century.

Suleymaniye Mosque
Built by Sinai, the greatest architect in the Ottoman Empire, this mosque contains the remains of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his lover Hurrem.

Istanbul Archeology Museum
Located in the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace and spread out over three buildings, this museum has a staggering collection of nearly a million art objects, very few of them more recent than the 1st century AD. The most remarkable exhibits here are the collection of sarcophagi, some of them dating as far back as the 4th century BC. The Alexander Sarcophagus – so named because it was originally thought to be that of the mighty conqueror himself, but was later discovered to be actually that of King Abdalanymos – is covered with surprisingly detailed depictions of Alexander’s life and his various battles. There are more such intriguing sarcophagi on display at the museum as well as pre Islamic idols, sculptures and artifacts from Cyprus and Palestine, mosaic panels from Babylon, a 13th century Sphinx and many more such awe inspiring exhibits. The Cinili Kosk displays a collection of ceramic tiles and pottery from the Ottoman period.

Shopping
The Grand Bazaar

A tourist attraction besides being a shoppers Mecca, Istanbul’s incredible Grand Bazaar is a labyrinthine maze of 2600 shops, 24 marketplaces, restaurants, tea houses, and mosques. Jewelers dole out anywhere from $5000 to $8000 in rent every month which explains why the marketing is so pushy, bordering on aggressive. Shops here tend to cluster together, so you have entire streets lined with gold and silver jewelry stores, another street for carpets, another for shoes and so on. Bargaining is de rigueur here, and you could end up with some treasures in your shopping bag if you really exercise your vocal chords. All in all, this is part of the quintessential Istanbul experience, even if some of the stuff on sale seems a tad more expensive than it would outside the Bazaar.

The staple purchase of every Turkish trip has to be the exquisite carpets. Less known to the outside world is the quality of Turkish leather goods that are comparable to Italian made ones in Florence. Besides these white copper ware, antiques, intricately craved gold and silver jewelry, ornamental tea sets, and embroidered bed linen are popular with visitors.

Nightlife
A typical night out on the town in Istanbul will include copious amounts of food accompanied by a flavored spirited beverage called raki, in a pub like setting known locally as meyhane. Earlier the preserve of men, it’s quite common now to find quite a few women in the mix. The growing popularity of Turkish wines has led to the burgeoning of wine bars in Istanbul. Most clubs here offer some form of live musical entertainment, from pop and rock to jazz and everything in between. Five star lounges are a more relaxed way to spend evenings and offer a calmer atmosphere than the frenzy of smoke filled pubs. Remember to take in a traditional Turkish show with a belly dancer and some other dance and music forms. Very touristy, but part of the Istanbul experience. Although homosexuality is frowned upon in Turkish society, there are a number of gay clubs in the Taksim area.

What to Do
Hamams

If you’re in Istanbul, a Turkish Hamam bath is a must do. The Sulemaniye Bath, built by Sinan, is the only unisex hamam in Istanbul and is popular with families. The Cemberlitas bath has separate male and female divisions and is one of the more popular ones with tourists.


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