Monday was our last full day in Istanbul. We were flying to Selcuk the next morning. Actually we were flying to Izmir and then shuttling over to Selcuk which was about an hour away. So, today was really the last opportunity to see whatever we wanted to see in Istanbul. It turned out to be the longest and most exhausting day of the trip but a very enjoyable one.
The first stop was the Blue Mosque. I didn’t think we’d need that much time at the mosque and turns out I was right. My relationship with religion has become tenuous over the years. So, mosques don’t do much for me. But churches fascinate me (yes I’m an uncle tom – sue me) probably because I don’t see them as houses of worship like I do mosques. Plus I’ve grown up having seen all kinds of mosques including the big ones in Mecca and Medina. So, it would have taken something spectacular to impress me.
The interior of the mosque despite the famous blue tiles seemed pretty standard mosque fare to me. What was beautiful though was the exterior. The dome upon dome structure was quite beautiful and clearly built to compete with Aya Sofia right across from it. Also lovely was the courtyard. We spent some time inside the mosque which I’m guessing was more interesting for Greg than it was for Mansoor or I.
Topkapı palace was a quick walk from the Blue Mosque. It was not as packed as the Aya Sofia but it definitely seemed like one of the more popular tourist sites in the city. As mentioned earlier, Topkapı was the official residence of the Ottoman dynasty until later sultans decided to move to the newly built Dolmabahce Palace. Topkapı is actually pronounced Topkapa because the “ı” at the end of Topkapı isn’t the English “I” but a Turkish letter which is pronounced “a”.
Admission to Topkapı was included in our city passes. So, we breezed through the gates. The palace is basically a compound of buildings built for various purposes on a spread out campus right next to the water. It’s a gorgeous setting. I’m not sure why anyone would abandon the beautiful, airy grounds of Topkapı for the relatively claustrophobic Dolmabahce.
We started to make our way through the various buildings such as the hall for meeting/receiving ambassadors, the hall for the sultan’s cabinet meetings, etc. The main attraction here for me was the collection of religious relics but it would be a while before we got to that. Most of the exhibitions you come across first are the various treasures and jewelry the Ottomans either commissioned or were gifted to them (Nadir Shah of the Delhi massacre fame was represented here – yay for one ummah and other imaginary creatures such as unicorns). Photography wasn’t allowed and the guards were there to nudge you along to make sure the crowds kept moving along.
After getting through the interconnected rooms with these exhibits, we came across the most beautiful spot of the entire complex just above the water – truly was a view fit for a king. Below us was a café on the grounds of Topkapı. Wonder how the Ottomans would feel about that now – their palace partially turned into a café.
We took a break in the beautiful courtyard at the far end of Topkapı. The palace for the most part is immaculately preserved and maintained but on this end, we came across some relatively dilapidated sections.
After cycling through more courtyards and beautiful rooms, we finally got to the room of the religious relics. We couldn’t take any pictures in here but it was still a ton of fun. The first thing that amused me no end was this 10,000 year old (their claim, not mine) perfectly preserved staff of Moses. I had no idea that wood kept so well over thousands of years. Next up was the sword of David – once again thousands of years old and once again in pristine condition. Who says miracles don’t occur any more. We witnessed two in Topkapı right next to each other.
Moving further along, there were more suspicious relics such as lots of swords supposedly belonging to the Prophet and his companions all of which had ridiculously large gems encrusted on them. I had no idea that ancient Arabs were experts at working with precious stones. Apparently these swords were used by new Ottoman sultans in the crowning ceremony. Also present in the collection were some hair of the prophet (no comment). The last part of the collection was some dresses that were allegedly those of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Fatima. These dresses looked suspiciously Turkish/Ottoman in style.
The last stop was the harem. The harem once again just like Dolmabahce was much sparser compared to the rest of the palace. It was pretty dark and claustrophobic in places. Seemed even a little menacing or maybe it was my imagination at work given the kind of murderous conspiracies that had been hatched in this part of the palace. We slowly muddled our way through the various rooms and walkways and finally tumbled back out.
We took a small break here trying to decide what to do next. We had spent a solid 2-3 hours meandering through Topkapı. It had been a ton of fun especially the religious relics’ room. I had read about it years ago. So I was pretty happy that I got to see it. On a serious note, it was heartening to see that Topkapı for the most part is very well cared for.
Chora Church and Cemberlitas
It was around 2 PM as we tried to figure out where to head next. Eventually, we picked Chora Church as our next destination. This church is renowned for its beautiful collection of mosaics. We rifled through various guidebooks to try and figure out how to get there. Turns out we needed to take some bus at a centralized bus station to get up to the church. So, off we went.
Before heading to the church, we took a small detour to the neighborhood right next to Sultanahmet which got its name from a lonely, sad column that stands there. This pillar once had a statue of Constantine the Great in the guise of the god Apollo on it. The statue no longer stands there but the column itself remains famous. The column also had a habit of collapsing and was reinforced using rings which you can still see. These reinforcements are called cemberlitas and that is what the neighborhood derives its present name from.
After that quick detour, we hopped on to the tram and headed for the bus station. Once at the bus station, we were completely stumped. First, we couldn’t figure out which bus we were supposed to take. The bus the guidebooks mentioned didn’t seem to exist. When we found an alternate, we couldn’t figure out where to get the tickets from. After a half hour of bumbling around and getting no help, we gave up and looked for a cab. We tried to haggle with a couple of cabbies both of who showed nothing but contempt for our haggling skills. Finally, a third, nicer driver came along and quoted a slightly lower fare which we quickly accepted and hopped in. I could be wrong but I think we paid around 25 TL. It proved to be a good investment because as it turns out, the church was pretty far. And I’m not sure if we would have found it without a lot of pain even if we did find the right bus to catch.
After a 30 minute and at times hair-raising ride, we reached the church. Entry to Chora was once again included in our passes which was convenient. We went through the turnstiles. Every time a card is swiped validly, the machine at these tourist sites says “lutfen glitches” (pardon the spelling) aka “please proceed”. Except to our juvenile ears, it sounded like “lutfen bitches” aka “bitch please”. Greg and I really enjoyed that (yes, we are 12 years old mentally).
Once through the turnstiles, I reached for my Lonely Planet only to realize that I had kept up my proud record and lost yet another guidebook. For the Rome trip, I borrowed a Rick Steves guide from the library which I lost somewhere in St Peter’s. Then, I spent half of the following day trying to find a copy of the book to buy for use over the rest of the trip and to return to the library. And now I’d gone and done the same in Istanbul. So, somewhere in Istanbul is a cabbie driving around with my copy of Lonely Planet.
After 5 minutes of self-flagellation, we walked into the church. The artwork in the church was stunning. The church itself is pretty small inside despite the imposing exterior. Chora has an interesting history. As was standard, it was turned into a mosque after the Ottomans took the city. Mercifully the images were not destroyed and were merely plastered over. Once more benevolent times returned mid last century, they were uncovered which is similar to what happened to the artwork in Aya Sofia.
We spent about half an hour looking around at the images. But as three art-illiterate engineers, as you can imagine, neither one of us has or had anything intelligent to say about the images except marvel at the beauty.
We were done rather quickly with the church which was good because after getting out of the cab, I had luckily spotted a landmark which I was desperate to see but had no idea how to get to. And here we had stumbled upon it completely by chance. They were the ancient walls of Constantinople initially built by emperor Theodosius. So, after finishing at the church, we hiked up to the walls and climbed on top to get a great view of the city. We were a little shocked though to see the houses with collapsed or makeshift tin roofs in the neighborhood next to the walls. Clearly this was not a well to do area. Some of the houses were in terrible shape. Some had been abandoned altogether.
We climbed off the wall and started walking down along it without a clue of where we were heading. I’d read that the area near to the wall was not safe but we didn’t feel unsafe at any point. But then again, what was anyone going to get by harassing three 30 year old engineers with early onset carpal tunnel syndrome?
We must have walked through that neighborhood for at least an hour with no clue of where we were at or were heading. Eventually, we found ourselves back on some busy main road or maybe highway is a better description. We tried to flag down a cab but had no luck. So, we kept walking. In total, we must have walked for 2 hours along the walls. The hope was that if we kept walking, we’d get back to the tram system. But after a while we gave up.
We were all sick of kebabs and we’d seen a Pizza Hut in Taksim the night before (don’t judge us – we’re weak). So, we changed plans, somehow flagged a cab down and off we went to Taksim. At the Pizza Hut, we ate like kings for a grand total of 60 TL which is half what we had averaged so far at proper Turkish eateries. And the best part was – no kebabs or meats. What a relief.
It was pretty late by now. I think it was at least 8 PM or so. We must have walked a solid 3 hours in the late afternoon alone. So, we were pretty much wiped out. We slowly made our way back to Sirkeci and after a brief stop at Hafiz Mustafa to indulge in some desserts, we headed back to the hotel for some shut eye.
This was our last night in Istanbul and in the morning, we were flying to Selcuk via Izmir. To be honest, I was far more excited about Selcuk than I had been about Istanbul.