yesterday was our first full day to get out and explore the old city area of istanbul. after a delectable, traditional turkish breakfast at a quaint little streetside cafe called cheers midtown cafe (watching the friendliest cats crawl onto patron’s laps, watching the old men carry platters of chai tea down the street in tulip-shaped glasses, watching the neighborhood come to life in the late morning sunshine) we were off on foot, following the tram line across galata bridge, stopping to marvel the dozens of fishermen with their long poles and the tempting restaurants lining the underside of the bridge. we stopped in little touristy shops, amazed by all the cool souvenirs on hand. we finally wound up at topkapi palace – home to sultan’s and their harem for over 400 years. we had a great guidebook that led us on a walking tour through the courtyards and various rooms.
i had no idea the kinds of relics and treasure we would stumble on as we walked from display case to display case. it was amazing. we saw solid gold candlesticks from muhammed’s grave (weighing over 100 lbs each), golden cradles and thrones, the topkapi dagger, an 86 karat diamond (one of the largest in the world), and dozens of other treasured items or gifts in the sultan’s keep.
the most intriguing room was the hall of holy relics. there, they had a very interesting assortment of items from the early christian and muslim faiths. here was some of the things they had on display: moses’s staff, king david’s sword, joseph’s turban, and, oddly enough, john the baptist’s arm (hidden beneath a metal covering, of course). there was also muhammed’s tooth, some pieces of his beard, his footprint, and a few of his writings.
after the palace, we walked by hagia irene (a church that dates back to the 6th century), then past hagia sophia (closed on mondays, so we’ll get back over there later), and on to the basilica cisterns. at the cisterns, you walk below ground, and on wooden walkways through the ancient reservoir, built to provide 27 million gallons of precious water to the city in case of a shortage. constructed around the 6th century ad, 336 recycled roman columns hold up the brick ceiling. over time, pipes became clogged and people neglected the cistern, until it was forgotten about all-together.
then onto the blue mosque, built in the early 1600s. it represents the pinnacle of ottoman architecture. it is a huge mosque, built as a sort of response to hagia sophia. it has six minarets, and the inside is huge and colorful, with over 260 windows, many of them stained glass. the ceiling and walls are covered in painted floral and patterns, as well as ceramic tiles, but the islamic faith forbids images of living things inside a mosque (because it could distract from allah), so all the images are all geometric designs and patterns. we had to take off our shoes and stay quiet inside the mosque, as people came there to worship and pray. we’ve heard the call to prayer many times already in this city, echoing from mosque to mosque over our heads.
we grabbed a late lunch/early dinner at a renowned meatball shop in the area called tarihi sultanahmet koftecisi, where we got meatballs to dip in a red peppery sauce, and also chicken kebabs, which were moist and delicious. then we finished our little tour at the hippodrome, built in the 4th century ad as the primary venue for horse races. not much is left of it today, but at one time it seated over 100,000 spectators, and was decorated with monuments from all over the world. you can still see remains of the egyptian obelisk, the column of constantine, and the column of the serpent.
after the hippodrome, we made the trek home, through the evening streets, watching ferries dock at the port, watching the night come alive with glowing food carts and neon-lit restaurant signs, hearing hawkers beg for our patronage at their establishments. back at the apartment we relaxed and talked about the day until i started nodding off around 10. i’m still battling the jet-lag a bit, so no late nights for us quite yet.