Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Grand World Voyage Part 7: Istanbul, Turkey
This segment may be the most difficult to write, simply because Istanbul is possibly the most magnificent city I've seen. It is a remarkable combination of ancient and modern, with the influences of both Christianity and Islam. Istanbul has the depth of culture of a place like Valletta, Malta, only on a grand scale. I already knew from prior experience that I liked the Turkish people I'd met, so I was looking forward to the people, but was feeling very overwhelmed by the size of the city. Before I got there. Once we arrived, I found the atmosphere to be very welcoming, and the city felt comfortable.
A point of interest for me was looking at the language on the signs on the buildings, which looked familiar, very much like Hungarian. I asked our guide about that and found out why: the Turkish language is most closely related to Hungarian and Finnish.
We were in Istanbul for two days. On the first day we did a tour that included the obligatory carpet demonstration. It was quite interesting, and because I opened my big mouth about something I was offered the opportunity to try tying a couple of knots in their demonstration rug. I tried it and discovered that it is not as simple as it looks when an expert is doing it. Most of the rugs we saw were okay and nice quality, but did nothing for me. Until, that is, they brought out a 6 foot by 12 foot silk rug with an overall pattern in light taupe and peach on a cream background that only cost $34,000. I did not buy it, as I did not have the money and also had no place to use it, but that rug was very tempting. When we left the rug demonstration we walked over to the Grand Bazaar, which is immense. We stayed on the main walkway in it, and checked it out superficially. The tour took us to the Hippodrome, a park dating from Roman days that had sculptures, a German fountain, an Egyptian obelisk, and tulips in bloom everywhere.
Following the Hippodrome we went to see Hagia Sofia, the famous church originally built by Constantine. The current church was built by the Emperor Justinian between 532 and 537 AD. The church was converted into a mosque in 1453; the minarets, which are still part of the building, were added at that time. Apparently Hagia Sofia served as a model for the Blue Mosque as well as several other major mosques. Hagia Sofia was used as a church for 916 years, and served as a mosque for 481 years, ending in 1934. At that time, Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, had it restored, and it opened as a museum in 1935. Today it shows aspects of both religions. It is a truly magnificent structure, very worth visiting. One of the things I remember most clearly about it was a couple of cats sleeping in front of some display lights, to absorb their warmth.
That evening we did a tour called "Istanbul By Night", which took us by bus to a place called Kervansaray, where we had dinner and a show that involved belly dancers, Cossack-type dancers, flame throwers and singers. The food was quite good and I got up on stage when invited, to participate in one of the dances (despite the fact that Tina was discouraging me). That turned out to be a lot of fun.
Our excursion on the second day took us first on a boat ride around the Bosporus. There were many beautiful and ornate buildings visible, as well as a very old castle which occupied the land on both sides of the strait at about the narrowest point.
After the boat ride we went to see the Chora museum, another ancient Christian church that had been turned into a mosque, and is now a museum. The Muslims had plastered over all the ancient frescoes and mosaics. Chora has now been restored and the mosaics and frescoes are once again visible. As with Hagia Sofia, the minarets remain in place.
We had lunch at Haci Baba, an authentic Turkish restaurant with wonderful food served in several courses. The entire time a young man was playing Turkish music for us on a zither-like instrument. I think he was only 13 years old, and he had a wonderful mastery of this difficult instrument. The music was a nice enhancement to the lunch.
While driving to our next destination, the renowned Blue Mosque, we drove under the Roman aqueduct. The thing I found most amazing about it, after it's existence, is the the arches were spaced perfectly to fit modern day trucks and buses. The Blue Mosque is a beautiful structure, both inside and out. Inside it is cavernous, with very high ceilings. The walls and ceilings are covered with gorgeous blue tiles, which is how it got its name. The huge room is brightly lit from windows, including the dome, and huge chandeliers. Apart from the chandeliers, the place is almost unfurnished. Although the mosque is beautiful, it felt hollow and empty, despite all the people there, worshipers as well as tourists.
On our final evening in Istanbul, Stein Cruse, the CEO of Holland America Line hosted a party for the entire ship at the Binbirdirek cistern, a fabulous venue for a truly fabulous party. There was all sorts of great food, including some things made right while we watched. They even had a couple of guys walking around with urns on their backs serving cherry juice (wonderful) and lemonade. For me this was the party to end all.
As if this party were not enough for one evening, when we got back to the ship the Lido deck wasset up for the Dessert Extravaganza, which was also over the top. Of course.