Blog / Random thoughts and musings.


Istanbul, Turkey

Our second private tour of Turkey with Ekol Travel began at 8:00am. We met our guide Terri and driver Cem (Jim) after getting off the ship, and drove to Istanbul. The city of Istanbul seems better built, less chaotic, and prettier than Athens. It was a very short drive from the port in the new city of Istanbul over the Golden horn bay to the old city.

Part of Istanbul, as seen from Emerald Princess

Jim dropped us off at the Hippodrome, which in the 4th century was a Roman stadium holding 100,000 spectators for chariot races, but little of which remains today. Of the original treasures lining center of the stadium, the remaining masterpiece is the obelisk from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, standing upon a Roman base. The four bronze horses that originally adorned the entrance to the Hippodrome were taken by the Venetians and today can be found atop St. Mark’s in Venice (easily visible on the left side of the bottom photo in my St. Mark’s Basilica blog entry; click on the photo for a larger version).

Egyptian obelisk on Roman pedestal at the Hippodrome

We then walked a short distance to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is so called because of the blue colors of the frescoes and tiles that adorn the interior ceiling of the mosque, but the actual name of the mosque is Sultanahmet Mosque, named after the Sultan who built it in 1616. The interior of the mosque is quite amazing and difficult to believe that it only took 7 years to build! Since the muslim religion forbids iconography (statues, images, etc), instead there is beautiful Arabic calligraphy from the Koran, ceramic tile art, and fresco designs. The mosque is still used for services and we had to remove our shoes before entering the building. Mosques normally have one, two, or four minarets, the tall towers surrounding the building. The Blue Mosque has six minarets — apparently the Sultan directed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets. The Mosque at Mecca had six minarets, so the new mosque in Istanbul caused quite a stir. To resolve the situation, the Sultan paid to have a seventh minaret added to the mosque in Mecca!

Outside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Our next stop, another very short walk, was to Hagia Sophia. This “Church of the Holy Wisdom” was built in 537AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian. It was the largest cathedral in the world until the 16th century. In 1054 when the great Eastern schism separated the Catholic church and Greek orthodox church, St. Sophia became the Greek orthodox center for religion. In the 15th century, the church was converted to a mosque after the Turks arrived. When the church was converted, the altar was shifted to point towards Mecca instead of Jerusalem, and four minarets were added. Interestingly when the church was converted, the Christian mosaics and frescoes were plastered over rather than destroyed. Fortunately this meant that after the church was turned into a museum in 1920 by Ataturk, those works were restored and can now be seen mixed with the muslim art. When you enter the church, you’ll see gorgeous Christian works in gold, mosaics of Emperor Justinian, Mother Mary, the baby Jesus, etc, but you’ll also see huge circles of arabic calligraphy spelling out Allah and various prophets.

Walking towards the Hagia Sophia

Our last stop before lunch was the Topkapi palace, home of the Sultan and his family in the 15th century. Walking up to the entrance of the castle, you may be hit by a sense of deja vu. The entrance looks remarkably similar to Cinderella’s castle at Disneyworld and some say this was the inspiration that Walt Disney used to build his castle. Topkapi has been converted to a museum filled with treasures from the Byzantine empire. We saw huge pieces of jewels including the 86-carat Spoonmaker diamond (pictures are not allowed). From the balcony of the castle, you can see the Bosphorus strait dividing Istanbul’s two halves on the Asian and Europe continents.

Topkapi Palace

We met up with our driver again, and went to the Grand Bazaar area for the afternoon. We started with lunch at an outdoor Turkish restaurant where we had a meal very similar to fajitas — carved meat, rice, and vegetables along with some flour wraps. After lunch our guide took us to one of the recommended carpet shops (there are many less reputable shops that will sell machine-made foreign carpets and claim they are hand-made Turkish carpets). Their selection was impressive, and the carpets were all beautiful. The masterpiece was a 6’x8′ all-silk carpet that, according to the salesman, had 640 double-knots per square inch and took two people 4 1/2 years to weave. The carpet was simply incredible, and we were both awed by it. The colors shimmered and changed from different angles, and it was luxuriously soft.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a the largest covered market in the world, built in the 15th century and housing more than 4,000 stores. It is almost like a small indoor city, and seemed like an easy place to get lost in as every corridor looks much like the next and they branch off in every direction. We didn’t spend too much time, since after a while the goods offered for sale started getting repetitive. We exited the covered area and wandered the streets outside the Bazaar, with more stores and people everywhere. The last place our guide took us was to the spice market, another much smaller covered market that originally was exclusively used for spice trading, but now houses a few other types of shops. The market smelled wonderful, and the array of spices was beautifully colorful.

Outside the Bazaar

After the Bazaar, our guide took us right to the Golden Horn bay so we could look out and watch the ferries and boats. Speaking with Terri all day, it’s amazing to realize how western Turkey is. Most Turks are very secular, believing that religion is a personal belief and should not be forced on others. There are temples, churches, and mosques all over Turkey even though 99% of the population is Muslim. Women have the same rights as men and dress in shorts, dresses, and skirts. Turkish citizens are willing to fight and die for these rights.

Inside the spice market


  1. Jim
    July 13, 2007

    So very cool – I am throughly enjoying your tour and photos!

    Is that a net on the minarets of the blue mosque? Any idea what it’s for? It almost looks like an antenna called a “Marconi curtain”…


  2. Mike
    July 13, 2007

    It’s a net, used for holding banners during holidays etc. I asked our tour guide the same thing.