Despite a near sleepless night, we were up early and raring to go. After force feeding ourselves at the buffet breakfast, we hit the road. The weather was lovely. There was just a hint of chill in the air but a light jacket was good enough. I just love that early winter weather when it’s cold if you stand in the shade but nice and warm when you’re under the sun.
We had 3 full days in Istanbul not including the travel days. Additionally, a bunch of tourist sites in Istanbul were closed on Monday. So, we had to do some careful planning to make sure we saw everything worth seeing on Saturday/Sunday that wouldn’t be open on Monday.
The first stop was the famous Istanbul Archaeological Museum which was an easy five minute walk from the hotel. We also bought Istanbul cards there. This card for about 85 TL each gave us entry to a bunch of landmarks. It didn’t offer any real savings or discount (as opposed to the Roma pass which I highly recommend buying if you’re visiting Rome) but we bought it because it allowed us to bypass long queues such as the one that is ever present at Aya Sofia. The museum was pretty cool and not that busy which was great. That must partly be because November is low season in Turkey. Having said that Aya Sofia was absolutely packed (more about that later). So maybe the museum is just not that popular which is a pity because it’s a spectacular museum and a must visit if you’re ever in Istanbul.
There are three wings to the museum – the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Archeological Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art. The first stop was the Museum of Ancient Orient. I know almost nothing about the ancient civilizations of Turkey. So, my ignorance meant that I couldn’t appreciate much of the exhibit. I forget if we got an audio guide or not. There was one artifact that I definitely wanted to see and that was the Treaty of Kadesh which was an ancient peace treaty concluded between the Hittites and the Egyptians.
After a quick whirl through the Museum of Ancient Orient, we entered the Archaeological Museum proper. This is the biggest part of the museum complex and where we spent most of our time. The museum seemed organized by era – Greek, Roman and finally Byzantine – or maybe that is just how it worked out for us.
The first artifact you come across is also the biggest reason for the fame of this museum and it is the Alexander Sarcophagus. It is not actually Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus. It is the sarcophagus of a king which is decorated with a scene from one of Alexander’s campaigns. The art work and the skill of the artisans is so incredible that even an art illiterate like myself could appreciate it. The figures that are sculpted around the marble structure are so beautiful and life like, it seems as if they will come to keep if you keep looking at them. We are used to seeing these beautiful white marble statues and temples from the Greek and Roman world. So, the common perception is that they were white originally as well. But all these marble structures were once brightly painted. Right next to the actual sarcophagus is an artist’s depiction of what the carvings might have looked like back in the day all painted up. Actually, if you look closely at the Alexander Sarcophagus itself, you can still see some faint remains of color. There were a bunch of other sarcophagi on the main floor – all of immense beauty. The highlight though was the Alexander Sarcophagus.
The next section was dedicated to statues – most of which were Roman. I’d seen most of them in Rome but some of them I hadn’t come across even in Rome’s numerous museums. The most beautiful one was the one of a lady. I was fixated on the feet of the lady in the statue (no, I don’t have a foot fetish though I have been known to search youtube for “Mahnoor Baloch feets”. I urge you to do it and yes, spell it feets – not feet). The sculptor had paid so much attention to them and went to the trouble of sculpting sandals on. I want to say that the statue was that of Cornelia but I don’t remember the label. I did take a picture of the label but now can’t read it. If it is that of Cornelia (aka the mother of the revolutionary Gracchi brothers), it’s all the more spectacular considering she was one of the rare Roman women honored with a statue in public.
Next up was the Byzantine/Constantinople section. There were some pretty cool pictures/paintings of what ancient Constantinople looked like. But what I was looking for was the partial remains of one of three snake heads that used to crown the Serpent Column in the Hippodrome. This column was built from the bronze melted from the armor of the defeated Persian army that attacked Greece (portrayed terribly in the awful film “300”). Initially it was situated in Delphi but Constantine moved it to the Hippodrome of his new capital. Over time all three snake heads were removed from the column. Now only a partial jaw of one of the snake heads remains and is preserved in the Istanbul Museum. The remaining column still stands but looks pretty sad without the magnificent heads at the top.
The last highlight of the museum I remember was the chain that was used to lock the golden horn to protect Constantinople from naval attacks. In fact, even Mehmet II aka the conqueror of Constantinople was unable to break this chain. He actually moved his fleet over land to bypass the chain.
After spending a good 4ish hours in the museum, I was pretty much done. Greg & Mansoor went to check out last wing which housed the Islamic art (mostly tiles). I wasn’t really interested so I waited for them in the courtyard. I can’t help but repeat how much we lucked out with the weather. It was such a gorgeous day.
In summary, the museum was stunning and a great half day. If you’re in Istanbul, the museum is a MUST visit. Whether you’re a history or museum buff or not, this is not a museum that you want to miss.
The next stop was Aya Sofia. We bypassed the long line thanks to our newly acquired Istanbul passes. Aya Sofia is an entire subject in itself and so many qualified people have written about it that I’m not even going to give my two pence. All I will say is that Aya Sofia should be on everyone’s bucket list. The first time you walk in, the beauty and the sheer scale leaves you breathless. You can see why Justinian proclaimed that he had surpassed Solomon with Aya Sofia. A couple of things I still remember vividly: The first was a small square of marble on the main floor where new emperors were crowned. The second was on the upper story. There are no stairs or lift to get up there. Instead there is a spiraling ramp that you walk up to get to the upper floor. If you cross over to the right side, you can get into the section that was once a private section for Byzantine emperors. Also interesting were the large cracks all over the floor. We sat around there for a couple of hours. The only building that comes close to this building and in my opinion even surpasses it is St Peter’s in Rome.
The next stop for us was the Basilica Cistern which is basically a giant underground pool of water built to serve the city of Constantinople in case of an emergency or war. This one isn’t the only cistern in the city but it is the biggest one. There was a long line up outside the cistern which in retrospect was not worth it. We paid the entrance fee and walked down. There wasn’t much to it. Perhaps the mood and meaning of the site was ruined by the hundreds of people walking around and dozens of camera flashes going off every second. The main highlight in the cistern is the Medusa heads that serve as bases for a couple of columns located at the far end of the cistern. The most curious thing about the Medusa heads is that one is placed upside down and the other on its side.
Things were getting a bit late and we were hungry and tired. It had been a long but really enjoyable first day. After a brief rest back at the hotel, we decided to play it safe for food and went to Pasazade. The food was pretty good and the bill came to a little less than we had paid at the awful, possibly counterfeit Kasap Osman the night before. The service was also good. The waiter here actually knew what Greg’s gluten allergy meant and recommended dishes to work around that. After a night stroll through the Aya Sofia area again, we called it a night.