Istanbul - Second Time around - Sunday, December 28, 2003

Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents. Its history is a very long one. In 395 AD (when Istanbul was named Constantinopel) the city was made capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Domes and minarets fill the skyline. The city is a continual bustle of crowds, the rumbling of vehicles on cobblestone streets, and the cries of street vendors. After our time in Cappadocia, we took the dreaded 12-hour bus ride back to Istanbul and actually caught some shut eye. Unfortunately, we both seem to have picked up a nasty cold from our fellow bus mates. Within two days our cold had turned into a nasty bacteria infection requiring a doctors visit complete with Penicillin. Most of the week was spent recovering, but we did manage to visit both the Ayasofia and Blue Mosque. These impressive sights are across the street from each other and make for a striking skyline with their minarets reaching toward the sky.

The Ayasofia (or Hagia Sophia) church (a UNESCO World Heritage site) changed the course of Western architecture and was the greatest church in Christendom until St Peter's Basilica was built in Rome a thousand years later. The basilica was covered with the magnificient dome 182 ft high and 105 ft in diameter, with 40 frame timbers and 107 pillars. Even though it was in a state of restoration it was one of the most spectacular buildings we have ever seen.

In 1453, with the conquest of Istanbul, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror converted the church into a mosque. Hagia Sophia Museum, the legacy of both Christian and Muslim culture, was opened for visits according to the order of Ataturk and decision of the Turkish Assembly of Ministers on the 1st of February, 1935.

The Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I during 1609-1616 in the square carrying his name, on the site of the Great Palace of Byzantium. It is the only mosque in Turkey with six minarets. Two hundred and sixty windows surround this huge mosque measuring 210 ft L x 236 ft W. The central dome is 141 ft H by 110 ft in diameter . Due to its beautiful blue, green and white tilings it has been named the "Blue Mosque" by Europeans.

A carpet tout at the Blue Mosque struck up a conversation with us and invited us back his shop for some tea and a balcony view of the Blue Mosque. "Come have some tea", is code for ome to my shop and buy a carpet. These guys wont take no for an answer, even if you tell them you already bought a carpet and are not going to buy another. They counter with "it's just tea... and Turkish hospitality!". So we followed the tout to get a good pic of the Blue Mosque then had to worm our way out of the shop without buying anything. Of course our new friend wouldn't let us get away without visiting his cousin's leather shop. M was wooed with the "made to your measurements within 3 hours" line and the gorgeous coats but managed to resist buying.

Tea culture is very similar to that of Italy. The strong tea is served in very small glasses much like espresso cups in Italy. There are two kinds of tea - apple and Turkish. The Turkish tea tastes pretty much the same all over the country and is served with much sugar to take the edge off. Real Turkish tea drinkers place the sugar cubes in their front teeth and drink the tea around the cubes. They must keep the dentists in business! Apple tea tastes like cider or hot apple juice and is a nice change from the other kind. Everywhere you go, be it a restaurant, shop, or hotel, tea is offered.

Like Italy, there seem to be a lot of people doing nothing all day (kinda like us!). In half full local eateries, there are ~ a dozen people cleaning already spotless tables.

The Grand Bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world was quite impressive covering 60 plus streets and 4000 shops. Beautiful leather bags and clothes, fake Puma and Addidas wear, traditional carpets, kilims, tea sets, water pipes, mosaics, and jewelry are all for sale. The tricks are to not look too interested in anything, offer only 30% of the asking price, and to be willing to just walk away with nothing. Shopkeepers will start the selling process before you even enter their shop - "..may I offer you some traditional Turkish tea???" Hmmmm..like we haven't heard that one before! We managed to stave away all the eager shopkeepers and just take in the atmosphere.

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