Sunday, 3 November 2013

Istanbul - Sightseeing

The beauty of staying in Sultanhamet is that  the key historic attractions in Istanbul are mainly within walking distance.  After the ear splitting 5.30am wake up call from the mosque right beside our hotel I managed to go back to sleep but was still up and ready to go early on what was to be a six hour walking tour of Istanbul old town.

We were met, at 9, by our Turkish guide who was an invaluable fount of knowledge.  Guiding in Turkey is a prestigious occupation where guides require a tertiary degree, must speak a minimum of two languages and will have studied long and hard to attain their guiding license.  It is such a good system that all through our trip we had excellent, articulate, well educated guides and is something other countries, including New Zealand, could learn from.
Our group in the Basilica Cistern

Our first stop was at the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), an extraordinary underground reservoir built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, around 560AD.  It is vast, 140m long, 70m wide with a capacity of 100,000 tons of water.  The striking thing about what is essentially just a water tank is how beautiful it is.  336 columns support the ceiling, many of them elaborate Corinthian columns.  This seems a bit over the top for a water tank but the columns were simply recycled from demolished, abandoned or damaged buildings.  Tourists are fascinated by the medusa heads at the base of two columns, some theories are that they were simply put there to attain the correct height of the pillar but there are
myths surrounding them including the fact that they may have been put there to protect the cistern.  Either way they are a real, much photographed drawcard for visitors.  The Basilica Cistern, no longer a supplier of water to the city, is a beautiful, atmospheric place with raised walking platforms and large fish now living in the water.  Until I visited I never knew it existed. I believe it was used as a location in one of the James Bond movies and features in a Dan Brown novel.

Left and above left::  Inside the Basilica Cistern

Right: Medusa at the foot of a column in the Cistern

Our next destination, just across the road, was the Blue Mosque, more correctly, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque This is a stunning building and we were all very excited about our visit It was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed when he was only 19 years old and built between 1609 and 1617. He was so dedicated to the construction that he worked as a labourer on site.  Sadly, he died aged only 28. Turks never refer to it as The Blue Mosque, it was named that by westerners because of its blue tiles covering the interior.  The tiles are exquisite and are in many colours, blue being the most predominant, however, I had expected it to be much bluer that it is. It is lit by hanging lamps and
chandeliers and also by the light gleaming in from 260 windows giving the mosque a feeling of peace and serenity.When originally built it was a complex of buildings which included a hospital, a school, a market, and a soup kitchen, in fact a mini city, much like the European monasteries were.  The prayer hall is 2646 square metres and can accommodate 10,000 at one time. In Islamic culture the dome represents the heavens.  The main dome is 43 metres high.  In all there are 30 domes and six minarets. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque didn't disappoint.
 It is a truly beautiful, peaceful and mystical place.


Right: That's me, all scarfed up ready to enter the Blue Mosque

Below: The interior...not a good photo.

Below right:  A photo I took of a photo showing how the mosque looks during a prayer service.

Outside the mosque is the Hippodrome, built in 203AD by Emperor Septimius Severus as a sporting
and social centre for the city.  Originally lined with large bronze statues, now all gone, it was the location of the popular chariot races.  One of the key features of the hippodrome is the Egyptian obelisk, bought to Istanbul (Constantinople) by Emperor Theodosius in 390AD. In remarkably good condition the obelisk is 3500 years old.  The hippodrome is now renamed Sultan Ahmed square and is a popular strolling and meeting place for the locals.

It was time for lunch.  We had had a wonderful morning, learnt so much and seen some amazing sights, and there was much more to see, but lunch at a nearby café was a chance for a welcome sit down and rest and time to discuss our morning's activities.