When purchasing our tickets to go to Uganda, we found that there was a cheap option to travel through Istanbul. Unlike most hubs, Istanbul does not charge a penalty if travelers choose to stay a few days in Istanbul in transit. In addition, Turkey is in the same time zone as Uganda. Obviously this presented the perfect opportunity to see a different country and it would aid us in adjusting to the time change (7 hours ahead of DC).
We stayed in a hostel that is right next to the historical sites in Istanbul. As the city is built on a very strategic point between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, it has been conquered and reconquered many, many times. The city has been known by many other names including Byzantium, Nova Roma and Constantinople. There are layers upon layers of history across the city and it is quite beautiful to see. In addition, it was my first time traveling in a Muslim country, so to see the mosques and hear the call to prayer each day was pretty incredible.
The first night we ventured from our hotel and walked around a local market, visited one of the mosques and ate dinner at a restaurant where they brought the raw fish to our table and allowed us to pick which we wanted to eat. The dinner was delicious, but very expensive.
We awoke early the next morning and began our tour by visiting Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856). It is now a museum with some really cool artifacts (most of which we cannot take pictures) including Moses’ staff (you know, the one he used to part the Red Sea), some of Mohammed’s garb, really cool thrones made of real gold, huge diamonds and emeralds and some other really awesome things. We also visited the Harem – a huge part of the Palace with hundreds of rooms where the sultan’s mother; the concubines and wives of the sultan; and the rest of his family, including children; and their servants lived.
The entire palace was COVERED in tiles. They were very pretty individually, but often times they mixed and matched patterns together and it was overload for me!
Upon leaving the palace, we went to check out some Turkish carpets. I actually wasn’t that impressed by most of them – I guess my brain likes the much more simple designs than the ones we were seeing, but they definitely require a lot of work to make and were way to expensive for my budget! It was nice to talk to the folks at the store, though.
We walked from there to the Spice Bazaar which was pretty cool. It’s not only spices that are sold there, but also souvenirs, food and other goods. I did buy a mixed spice that I’ll try to use on meat sometime soon.
From there we went underground to the Basilica Cistern which used to supply the city with its water. It was a very intricate system of aqueducts which brought the water from the Belgrade Forest, 19 km north of the city. The cistern itself can hold approximately 100,000 tons of water, though today it’s basically empty since it’s no longer in use and is a tourist attraction. Most of the pillars supporting the roof of the cistern are quite plain, but there are two which have Medusa heads at the bottom. One head is turned upside down and other other lies on its side which protects a viewer from being turned to stone when looking at her. Historians are unsure where the heads came from or why they are in the cistern.
That night we went to a whirling dervish and Sufi music concert. The music was really really cool. The dervish ceremony was interesting to see once, but wasn’t something i would likely return to see. The dance is a type of meditation in which the dancers aim to reach the source of all perfection through abandoning their egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the solar system orbiting the sun.
The next day, we first visited the Suleymaniye Mosque. The Süleymaniye Mosque was built on the order of Sultan Süleyman and was built from 1550 – 1558. It was pretty impressive inside.
From there, we wandered downhill to the dock where we bought our tickets for the Bosphorous Strait Cruise. Before boarding, however, we bought some delicious fish sandwiches from these boats which were rocking on the water. The sandwiches were delicious! From the boat we could see many historical sites including the Bosphorous Bridge and the Rumeli Hisari – a fort built by Mehmet the Conqueror when moving his army in to conquer Constantinople.
Afterwards we visited the Grand Bazaar – a huge bazaar selling a variety of items from clothing and food to souvenirs which recently celebrated its 550th birthday.
That night we went to the rooftop of a really expensive restaurant to see the city (luckily it was really cold and there were no patrons on the roof, so we just snapped our pictures and ran). We also went to a really neat restaurant (whose name I wish I could remember) where we had delicious food!
Our final morning we finally entered the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya – now a museum, but formally an Orthodox Basilica and later a mosque. It was really interesting to see the combination of Christian and Muslim designs and architecture. One of the coolest features are the detailed tile mosaics on the ceilings and walls. We then went next door to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is not blue, but has some blue tile work inside. It was also very interesting to visit this mosque. After we bought our final souvenirs, had lunch and baklava for dessert, we headed to the airport for our next adventure: Uganda!