Day 14: Sultanahmet

Today was one of those do all the things sort of day. We set off for Topeki Castle straight away. The castle was built by Mehmed II and added onto by just about every Sultan since. It’s right around the corner from us, and a quick walk. On offer here is a tour of the palace grounds itself as well as the Archaeological museum, and the private Mosque of the castle. There is a single Museum pass that you can buy for this and the Aya Sofia outside the gates as well as a couple other things. We also pick up an audio guide and this one is actually pretty good, it goes into detail on most things that are interesting.

All in all we spent more than 3 hours wandering the grounds with our audio guide, moving from the kitchens to the lounges and throne rooms, to the treasury and armory and eventually harem. The most striking part for me was the treasury filled with gifts and treasures of the Ottomans for hundreds of years, and the largest emeralds I’ve ever seen by about 20x. The wealth and opulence was staggering. The architecture also amazed with its intricate repeating patterns. It’s hard to imagine the number of man hours for just a small section of perfectly sharp lined detail that has to fit into its space oh so perfectly. The armory also had some interesting bits and pieces from full sets of armor, to the helmets warn by cavalry horses.  Our tour eventually spat us out onto a patio section overlooking the Bosporus with nice white puffy clouds. Many ships sail through the Bosporus as it’s the sole connection between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Jenn remarked she couldn’t think of any better way to spend 3 hours.

For a moment we considered eating at the palace, but the mains were quite expensive even with the exchange rate. We looked up in our book recommendations and settled on a körtesi nearby that had great reviews. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was recommended by some of our shipmates. The line outside was worrisome, but they sat us quite quickly, though basically at a table with a group of 4. The food came quickly though and it’s clear these guys turn out their 5 dishes very quickly and turn over a great number of customers. We ordered the köfte as it’s the thing to have and it was delicious, especially with the spicy sauce that came on the side.

Next up was the basilica cistern, a Byzantine cistern underneath the Aya Sofia. The Ottomans hadn’t known about it for centuries until they found out that residents were dropping buckets through their floor and coming up with water. Inside are hundreds of columns beautifully lit for visitors and a pool of clear water filled with fish. It’s very visually appealing to me, but the low light is hard to shoot. I do the best I can with long exposures with the camera on the walkways. At one end there are two columns with medusa heads at their bottoms. They have no idea why they’re there and why one is upside down, and one is on its side. The cistern is a great break from the heat. Istanbul is leagues cooler than everywhere else we visited on our trip, it’s still a nice break. I could see being down here when no one else is around being magical.

From there we headed across the street to the impressive Blue Mosque. To get in you have to take off shoes and wear long pants. Women are supposed to wear head scarfs as well. We came prepared. Jenn had a scarf with her and we both wore pants. The guys manning the entrance though still handed her a wrap for her legs all the same, and Jenn noticed that a number of guys were let by with shorts on. The rules are already asymmetric and gender biased, but the enforcement being more so bothered Jenn. Inside signs points to a tiny fenced off area where the women are allowed to pray on the outskirts while the men have basically everywhere else. This also bothered Jenn. To me these are the customs of the people, and we have to respect them, but I certainly wouldn’t condone or participate if I was a resident. But we’re visitors so it’s hard for me to be as bothered as it might otherwise bother me.

The architecture of the Blue Mosque is tremendous all the same, the exterior a cascading of domes punctuated by minarets. The interior walls and ceilings covered in exquisite detailed tile and paint work. It belongs to the same era as the castle, though the structure itself so much grander.

We now headed off to the Archeological museum inside the castle walls to spend some time until the sun was lower for a great view of the Aya Sofia. By now we’re pretty tired. The museum wasn’t super interesting, there are a lot of artifacts, but still far less than exist in the museum in Berlin or London. The most interesting bits were to do with the changes in who controlled Anatolia over the centuries, from the Hitties, to the Persians and so on. My feet were beat though. After wondering the museum for a good hour we went and sat outside on a nice cool park bench inside the grounds and read for a little bit before continuing on.

The Aya Sofia wasn’t as impressive as I’d expected. I can see under the dirt and grime this was once a magnificent piece of architecture, one that inspired a lot of what the Ottomans did later with the Blue Mosque across from it. Over the years however its fallen a bit into disrepair, and while it’s now being attended to, many of the beautiful gold mosaics that once covered the walls have been lost when the Muslim inhabitants white washed over them in order to follow their own religious beliefs regarding depicting prophets.

At this point we’re completed mosque’d out and are ready to just call it a night. We drop our stuff at the room and go wander for food. I had picked out a place from trip advisor ratings, but the food was International food. I didn’t come to Turkey to have Italian. We found another restaurant and the service sucked and the food was just ok. But it’s Ramadan.

Tomorrow it’s the Grand Bazaar.

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