Writing Turkey: A Collection

Here you will find the complete Turkey posts.

Istanbul on the Horizon (Published 12/26/2012)

Very shortly I am going to be heading off to Istanbul, Turkey. This will be my first trip there and I am amazingly excited for a variety of reasons. The first is that I get a chance to experience a brand new culture for the first time.

I will eat my body weight. Don't judge.

I get to meet brand new people and eat new foods (baklavaaaaaaaaaa!!!) and see brand new things that I’ve never seen in person. So that is awesome.

The second major reason I am so looking forward to the trip is that I’ve come to find that Istanbul (nee Byzantium & Constantinople) is the center of two of the most powerful religions on the planet; Christianity and Islam. It was the home of Emperor Constantine the Great (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity) and became what was known as the New Rome. In fact, it is still the seat of the head of the Orthodox Church.

Further, as of 1453 it has been the center piece of the Muslim world as the pathway from Europe to Asia and is home to two of the most famous mosques in the world; the Hagia Sophia (now a museum) and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or the Blue Mosque). In fact, I would argue that if you were to study the history of the Hagia Sophia, you would have a pretty good idea of the history of the city.

So, the adventurer in me is excited as I get to be in a new place and try new things, and the constant learner in me is looking forward to being around so much history.

I’ll be making fairly regular updates (as long as there is wireless) with neat tidbits, stray observations, and maybe some photos and videos. So, watch this space!

Istanbul: Day 1 (12/27/2012)

We set off from Atlanta yesterday afternoon, bright eyed and ready. It was my first time in the new terminal.  It was nice enough. Seems to still have that new car smell. With some time to kill we stopped into the Jekyll Island restaurant  which, oddly enough, looks nothing like the real Jekyll.

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After nearly 14 or 15 hours of traveling (I watched some largely forgettable movies) we arrived in Istanbul. The descent into the city was breathtaking and an amazing view of the sprawling city.

Once to our hotel we went for a walk around the old town before dinner. It was on this walk that we got our first real taste of Turkey. As we were walking we heard the evening call to prayer. It was really neat and there seemed to be a sort of call and response between several mosques. We were between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque when I took this video:

Very shortly we will hop on a plane to the Cappadocia region known for the interesting rock formations, horses, and underground churches. Until next time!

Göreme, Turkey: Day 2 (12/28/2012)

Day two finds us in the south central part of the country in the Cappadocia district. As mentioned yesterday it is known for it’s fantastic rock formations, the horses, and as a site of early Christians. We saw all three (well, the houses and churches of the early Christians as they are all too long dead for us to meet). Göreme is a small town located outside the larger Nevsehir.

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My first impressions of the place are a lot different than what I expected from my research. I expected a lot more gloss and glimmer that are typically found around tourist type places. And while Göreme is fairly touristy, it is a more grimey sort of tourism. Instead of a few larger tour companies there are lots of random companies scattered around town. I feel that there are a lot of really good companies, but I imagine that with all these guides, there have to be some that are less than stellar.

That being said, our hotel is pretty awesome for both the room and the tours they offer. In fact, they make a point to mention that they won’t drop you off in a market or shop, as it seems a lot of tour companies will be in cahoots with these type shopping places. More on the tours later.

Today we walked to the Göreme Open Air Museum, a collection of churches that date back to the 11th century. They are all carved into the rocks and offer a great glimpse into the life of early Christian monks. The vast majority of the interiors have frescoes on the ceilings and walls. Most of the frescoes have faded over time due to the sunlight or defacement. In fact, most of the faces have been intentionally destroyed for one reason or another. From what I’ve learned, defacement of icons and frescoes come about due to differing religions (Muslims and Christians) or different sects within a religion (Latin and Eastern Orthodox). I’m not sure what the case is here.

Regardless, there were some fantastic churches with frescoes that had retained their vigor throughout the years.
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Tomorrow we will head out on one of the aforementioned tours to a region south of here. We’ll see some Greek towns, a monastery, and an underground city.

Also, can someone let me know if the video I posted is showing up? I am typing these on my phone and not sure if everything is going through.

Waking up in Göreme (12/29/2012)

At sunrise in Göreme it is a crisp cold. It is a clear morning and a few dogs bark at the mist or rising sun or maybe just any number of stray cats roaming the streets. Men’s voices punctuate the quiet, a cart rattles its way down a cobble stone streets. In the distance a number of hot air balloons rise through the crisp, clear and cold morning air. (Photo credit: Katie Riley)

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Göreme, Turkey – Day 3 (12/29/2012)

If I had to describe today in one word, that word would be “churches.” Now, the interesting thing about that word is that the area we are in has very few Christians still living here. Confused? I will do my best to explain.

Today was our tour day and we began in a Greek village, though, to be honest, it seemed a lot like any of the other villages we’ve seen thus far. The most interesting thing was the history of the place. In the years following Turkish independence the leader of Turkey set up an exchange with Greece. Basically, Greece got 400,000 skilled Greeks and Turkey got 2 million Turkish people. As a result, this village was emptied of Greeks and filled with Turks. I’m not totally sure why this happened but I’m thinking it has something to do with an overly nationalistic notion of what Turkey should be. Also, there was a pretty neat looking Christian church.

The next stop was a hidden monastery that had several rooms tucked away in a collection of caves. The main church was closed, but the frescoes in a smaller church were really neat. Though, awful destroyed. According to our guide, the majority of the destruction came from Muslims who either didn’t know or didn’t care if the value.

A short ride from the monastery we stopped to look at some Roman baths. I found out that the word priority came from the Roman citizens having to look at the backsides of the important Romans. So they called them “prioritas” which, apparently means ass. Learning!

It was then time for a short hike before lunch. We were able to stop and see several more churches along the way. These were somewhat distinct as they had visible domes, while the vast majority of the others were intentional hidden.
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley)
Also, lunch was really good and I had yogurt with honey.
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley)

The highlight of the tour came last as we visited one of many underground cities spread throughout the region. See, when the Romans or other Christian haters showed up to these Christian villages, the folks would run to these elaborate underground cities. This particular one extended 11 levels below the ground to a distance of around 200 feet deep. They included kitchens with spiral chimneys to dissipate the smoke (to avoid detection), stables, living areas and a full church in the traditional cross style. Some other neat aspects were the holes used for both storage and as traps and the huge stone circles that would be rolled into the passage ways to cut off access. The passage ways themselves were short and narrow and I have to think they were designed that way on purpose to further thwart attacks. Now, folks wouldn’t live there for much longer than a couple of months but the most interesting aspect for me was trying to imagine people actually spending part of their lives that deep underground. As our tour guide said, it is amazing what people will do in fear of death or a love/fear of God.
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Tomorrow is a bit wide open, which will be nice. I imagine we will explore Göreme some more before catching a late flight back to Istanbul.

Turkish Food is Yum and Not Yum (12/29/2012)

Tonight we had dinner a local restaurant, Dibek (which is Turkish for a type of container used for cooking) and then headed to Fat Boys (the vaguely racist bar that has a picture of Fat Albert on its sign).

Let me say of Dibek; BAKLAVA!!!! And baklava that was hot and covered ground pistachio. God Bless America (and also and especially Turkey), that was some of the most amazing food I have ever eaten.

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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley)
After that transcendent experience we headed over to Fat Boys, a little slice of Australia right here in Turkey. We’d heard that they had raki, the traditional Turkish liquor. It is a clear drink that turns a milky white when water is added. It was, by and large, pretty awful. With a strong taste and smell of liquorice, it was all I could do to finish mine. Luckily we had an Efes (the Turkish national beer) to cut the taste a bit.
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(Photo credit: Katie Riley)

After that is was time to try another Turkish tradition, the hookah. With some apple flavored tobacco, it was a nice change from the nostril flaring, throat burning raki.
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley)

Sunrise Balloon Surprise

I’m both embarrassed and proud of that title. Though it is a bit of a misnomer as I wasn’t surprised at all. This is all seeming unclear, even to me. Let me backtrack.

I woke up with the morning call to prayer and headed over to a field where the tour companies launch their balloons. It was about 6am when I got there and the guys were just beginning to lay out the balloons and connect them to the baskets. When I first arrived a man comes up to me. I have all my photo gear and am changing lenses. He says to me ‘Take photos?’ ‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘going to take some pictures.’
‘You ride balloon?’
I shake my head no.
‘Later you ride?’
‘Yea, maybe another morning.’
‘You get up early, 5:45?’
‘Yea, it is early.’ I agree.
‘You come here, take picture?’
‘Yep.’
‘And you no ride?’
I give a short laugh. ‘No, I’m not riding.’
He laughs as well. ‘You’re crazy!’

This was my first time getting close to the I inflation process so I was interested to see that they used giant floor fans to get the balloons going before using the hot air. With six or seven balloons, it was a loud process. After a short while the balloons are getting to be a decent size and some are already upright and seemingly ready to go.

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It was really cool watching them inflate and leave the ground. I snuck up close and got some photos with my camera, so I’ll have to post them later.

After they were up and going I decided to have a bit of a walk about town and get some photos of the actual city instead of just the tourist spots. One interesting thing I noticed is that there are a lot of seemingly abandoned farm equipment just lying all around town.

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I know that farming is a big source of income for a lot of people in this region, but I wonder if tourism has begun to creep in and overtake what was the traditional source of money.

New Year’s Eve In Istanbul (12/31/2012)

Happy New Year!

Every country has its own traditions when it comes to New Year’s Eve, and Turkey is no different. It was interesting to see and hear all that Istanbul had to offer. The biggest thing that I noticed in the days leading up to NYE is that there was hardly any mention of it. Sure, there were signs in shop windows and ads for clubs and such, but there wasn’t nearly as much hype as there seems to be in the States. It was nice.

Another aspect that was odd was the fact that Santa hats are directly linked to NYE. I have no idea why.

Before arriving in the country we had decided to spend NYE out and about. I read about Taksim Square and that it was the place to be. However, after we arrived and began talking to more people, we realized that the square might not be such a great choice. Mainly as it is apparently full of drunk men who get a bit handsy as the night goes on. Needless to say, neither of us were looking for that sort of evening. So, instead we decided to walk for a bit along the main drag and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of NYE in Istanbul.

We began the night with a light supper in our room while watching some NYE Turkish tv.
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After our fill, we headed to the streets to see what we could see. We started along the main drag, Istikal Caddesi, and it was streaming with people most of them heading towards Taksim Square (and 95% of them were men, natch).
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Along the way we say loads of police (mostly younger guys and always in packs of four),
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some dancing, lots and lots of dudes and roasted hazelnut carts.
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We stopped for a drink at a cafe/bookstore and watched the world go by for a bit.

With about ten minutes to go, we began walking back to the hotel. It was easy to tell when the clock hit 12 as the street level noise rose, whistles were blown and cheers erupted from restaurants and bars. 2013 is here!

Back at the hotel we snuck up to the roof to catch the last of the fireworks exploding over the Bosphorus.
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Days 4 & 5 – Göreme and Istanbul (01/01/2013)

Yesterday was a pretty long day all told. But full of some good stuff. As I mentioned in another post, I got up early to catch the balloons and get some gritty city shots. After I returned we decided to rent a couple of bikes and take them for a spin through the Rose Valley. It was a good ride, maybe 3 or 4 miles, through a very quiet valley.

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About half way into our ride we realized that one of the bikes wasn’t working as well as the other. I figured out it was because the front brake was rubbing the front rim. When we returned the bikes I told the rental guy, but he seemed less than impressed with my offer to have some money returned. Needless to say, I ended the conversation by telling him that he was a poor business owner and a horrible bike mechanic. We won’t be connecting on Facebook.

Back at the hotel we had a partial hamam (a trip to the sauna and a cool down) before heading to catch our late night flight.

Today we woke up a bit late as our flight got in pretty later than expected. It wasn’t a huge sight seeing day, but we managed to get some good stuff in. We went to the top of Galata Tower,
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley) walked through the fish market
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley) and took the ferry across the Bosphorus.

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After the ferry ride we had a fish sandwich at the market, which was pretty darn good. Then to around the Spice Market to get all up in the crunch of folks getting amped for NYE. It was today I also learned that a common symbol of New Year’s in Turkey is Santa and Santa Hats. Who knew? On the way back to the hotel we stopped in at the New Mosque (built 1697, natch) and window shopped some Turkish treats.
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We are now laying a bit low before venturing out into the NYE fray. Happy New Year!!!
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(Photo Credit: Katie Riley)

Istanbul – Day 6 (01/01/2013)

Today we transferred from a hotel in the Beyoglu district (in the New City, on the northern side of the Golden Horn) to one in the Sultanahmet district in the Old City. The main difference between the two is that the New City is much more modern and you’ll find your trendy shops, night clubs, and an all together younger set of people. The Old City is a bit more traditional and contains the bulk of the historical sites.

Once we left the modern for the traditional, we hit the streets ready for the Grand Bazaar.
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I’d heard that it is an experience that I needed to prepare for; that it is going to be packed, we’d get lost in the maze of it all, and the vendors are going to practically tackle me into their stalls. Now, I’m not typically all that comfortable in crushing crowds, so I was wary. I don’t know if it was the time of day, the fact it was New Year’s day or what, but the Grand Bazaar was simply delightful. The wide avenues we’re free of a ton of people and most of the vendors seemed somewhat subdued.
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Maybe they decided to call a truce with their marks just for this one day. Regardless, we had a blast checking out everything from lamps,
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to jewelry,
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to rugs, to cheap clothes and hardware. There were plenty of folks wanting me to buy their Turkish flag belt buckles, but the whole experience was really neat.

After bursting from the grandness of the largest covered Bazaar, we made our way up towards Süleymaniye Mosque, a structure built in the 1550s that sits on a high point overlooking the Golden Horn.
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We got there just as the afternoon prayer was ending, and were directed off the side where the visitors enter. There are a couple of rules for entering mosques; some that apply to everyone and others just to women. A blanket rule is that everyone has to remove his or her shoes. They provide plastic bags, so there is always a funny image of everyone walking around holding his or her shoes. In an active mosque, non Muslims aren’t allowed past a certain point, beyond which only practicing male Muslims are allowed (though, to be fair, I popped into a Catholic church and they’d done the same thing with the pews). In the mosques we’ve been in so far, women are required to pray at the back of the mosque behind a screen. Also, women are required to have their arms and head covered at all times.

Rules aside, the mosque itself is stunning. It has a huge central dome with amazing colors.
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And is largely quiet despite the boatloads of tourists streaming in. We caught the last bit of a prayer and it was a nice reprieve from the hustle of the day thus far.

On leaving the mosque we grabbed a quick to-go pouch of pistachios from a street vendor and headed towards the Spice Bazaar. Yesterday we skirted the edge of the bazaar and found ourselves in a super crunch of people. Hoping this wasn’t the case today, we ventured on.

Unfortunately, the Spice Bazaar was BUMPING. Built in the 1600s in part to help support the New Mosque that sits right outside the entrance, the Spice Market is still a very popular place. While the Grand Bazaar was open and somewhat chill, the Spice Market was wall to wall people and vendors and everyone wanted to buy or sell. Despite the crowds the market was a great experience.
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It was certainly worth the crush just to see all those spices and fruits and ceramics displayed in their glorious colors and smells.
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After we wedged ourselves outside, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest before dinner.

Waking Istanbul (02/01/2012)

I’ve been up early several times this trip, be it from jet lag or simply an unfamiliar setting. But a 5:45 start is not wholly uncommon. It’s been cool to be up and about as the city around me wakes up.

It starts early, with the morning call to prayer (or the azan) around 5:45 or 6am. Depending on where I’ve been that’s been as few as two voices in a call and response or innumerable layering on top of another. It’s haunting and beautiful to hear the stillness broken by the chants. The basic idea behind the chant is to call Muslims to prayer and the text has reminders of the power and beauty of Allah as well as the instruction to begin praying.  In the first call of the day, the line ‘prayer is better than sleep’ is included.

As the last of the call fades the city begins to rise. Trucks beep their way backwards, men shout instructions, metal shop front covers rattle up, and seagulls bicker through the air. And somewhere in the midst of all that the sun has crept up. And the day begins.

Day 7 – Fatih Mosque and Many Russians (02/01/2013)

Toady I was on my own as my partner has managed to catch a nasty bug. So, send all your vibes for a speedy recovery!

I started about 9 this morning and, since it was a nice day, I decided to walk instead of hitting up the tramway or ferry. My goal was the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which is the most recognized headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the home of Bartholomew I, the head of the church. With only a 2% Christian population in Turkey, I was curious to see what sort of presence the church has here.

On my way to the church I stopped at the Fatih Mosque which is in the Fatih portion of town (funny side note: I’d always read that as Faith, and only today realized I was incorrect). An interesting thing about the Fatih section is that it ia known to be more conservative than other parts of Istanbul. And, sure enough, I noticed right off that the vast majority of women were wearing headscarves, and at least half of them were in coverings from head to toe. It was also a part of town where I got a lot more funny looks whenever I brought my big camera out. In fact, in the market just outside the mosque, one of the stall owners stared me down with what seemed to be open hostility.

But, more on the mosque. It was built as an imperial mosque but has gone though several renovations due to various natural disasters.
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I was there somewhat early and when I entered the mosque I realized that I was one of three people there and the only non Muslim. It was serene. See, mosques don’t have seats or pews as all the praying is done on the ground, so the whole floorplan is very open. Having that openness to myself in such a large expanse was tranquil and allowed me a moment of reflection after a busy sidewalk and roadway walk.
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After leaving the mosque I continued my journey to the church. I knew it wasn’t a large building (because of some Ottoman code that kept non Muslim buildings from being larger than mosques) but I had a rough idea of where I was going.

One thing I’ve learned about Istanbul that I didn’t realize before I came is just how hilly the place is. Also, just what a maze some of these streets can be. It’s a wonder the Ottomans conquered anything without GPS. All that to say I took my proper right to get to the church and began heading down some steep and serpentine roads, all while fruitlessly checking my map and Google map GPS. Eventually, I found myself here:
image I assumed that this has to be the place, seeing as the Eastern Orthodox pope lives here and all. Now, how to translate that into a front door…

After winding and weaving my way past speedy cabs, food sniffing stray dogs, and at least two bemused looks from passerbys, I found the church. I mentioned that I was expecting an unassuming façade, and I was correct.
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Besides the church there are some dark wood buildings that house what I assume to be the offices and living spaces of the church’s employees.

But while the outside might not be much, they certainly make up for it with the interior. For a small space, these guys pack in a LOT of opulence. From the giant chandler to the gold gilded icon screen, this place is wall go wall gilt.
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It was interesting to go from the huge expanse of the mosques that have no images to the confined and icon heavy church. It was also interesting to see the two huge tour groups of Russians as they interacted with a church they felt wholly familiar with and also revered as a very holy place.

After a break to grab some lunch and do for the sick half of the Team Istanbul what I could, I decided to take a dusk walk to the Hippodrome and the two famous mosques; the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I didn’t actually go in any of the buildings, but it was cool to see everything in the light of the setting sun. Well, except the Hippodrome, as there is hardly anything left. But, the mosques are beautiful as the sun sets and the lights begin to shine all over the building’s exterior.
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And then, just after the evening azan, the sun dipped into the Sea of Marmara and the whole world got a little more beautiful.
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Day 8 – Feeling Blue (and Wise and Regal) (03/01/2013)

Having shaken the bug (but moving a bit slow) we venture first to the Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya in Turkish and Church of the Divine Wisdom in English) before checking out The Topkapı Palace and ending with the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque.

After breakfast we caught the tramway for an early start in hopes of beating the crowds. As we got off at our stop we noticed that things seemed much more hazy than usual. It became apparent that something somewhere was on fire. Then we realized; it was the bathroom.
image (Photo Credit: Katie Riley)

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’ve put out a grand total of zero toilet fires in my days, and from the general reaction of the first responders, it seems that the Turkish fire department is in a similar situation. Hell, even one of the policemen was taking pictures with his cell phone.

After the newness of watching the bathroom fire wore off we headed to stand in the small line to the Aya Sofya. Lest we think that was all the excitement we would have for the day, four fire trucks came screaming down the road, lights flashing, sirens blaring and loudspeaker barking some instruction or another. But they were apparently headed the wrong way as all four had to make a three point u-turn right in front of the whole line. It looked an awful lot like a fire example of the keystone cops.

The Aya Sofya sure had a lot to live up to.

Fortunately, it delivered ten times over. In my mind, knowing the history of the Aya Sofya is to know the history of the whole city. Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 537, it stood as the most massive church on the planet (and as legend has it, Justinian declared ‘Oh Solomon, I have outdone you!’). When the Latin invaders took over the city in the 1200s it became a Catholic church before again returning to Byzantine hands some 50 or 60 years later. And, with the violent arrival of Sultan Mehmet II and the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. In its current form it stands as a museum, a decision made by Atatürk, the man who brought about Turkish independence in 1923. Being the central part of so many religions for so long has taken its toll, but the building is still one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a toilet fire).
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The sheer expanse of it all is breathtaking and difficult to comprehend. To think that this was all built almost 1500 years ago is mind boggling. And the largess is only the start as there are frescoes of gold leaf and jewels scattered throughout.
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I simply can’t imagine any ruler on the planet, upon conquering the city, looking at the detail and work of the Aya Sofya and thinking, ‘yea, that’s gotta go.’ But with each successive shift in ideology and rule, that’s exactly what happened. So there ends up striking images of huge panels with the prophet’s name or sections from the Qur’an coupled with the Virgin with Child.

From the grandeur of the Aya we move to the Topkapı Palace. Built by Mehmet II shortly after his conquest, it includes four courtyards, a harem for his wives and concubines, and a circumcision pavilion. So it had everything you could need, really. While the grounds were impressive enough, my favorite parts were the library and all the amazing tile that were used in the construction.
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They also had a section that contained some ultra holy relics from Islam, like Muhammad’s footprint and mantle. We couldn’t see the mantle, but I did see the box it was held in.

Leaving the regal palace we conquered some lunch before heading to the Blue Mosque. Officially named Sultan Ahmet Mosque after the building’s commissioner, the blue tiles of the interior give the building its nickname. While it is impressive, it felt like more of a tourist attraction than any of the other mosques we’ve visited. I also can’t imagine praying in such an environment. That being said, the scale and opulence is impressive.
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Once finished with the mosque it was time for some earring shopping
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before heading back for a quick rest before dinner. Tomorrow we leave for home, but I’m sure there will be at least one more post before we head out.

Thanks! (03/01/2013)

I want to give a quick thanks to all those that have read, liked, or followed my blog in the past eight days! I promise that if you have a blog yourself, I’ll be sure to check it out when I get home to my computer and regular wireless. Also, be on the lookout for periodic posts containing photos from the trip as I’ll post them as and when I get them sorted out. Tesekkür ederim!
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Several Photo posts:

And more photos can been seen on my Flickr page.

 

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