Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Istanbul: East Meets West

It is exciting to be back in Istanbul, re-visiting the land that straddles two continents.  It is one of my favourite cities and I am back here almost 3 years to the day.  With almost 14 million residents, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world.  It is the heart and soul of Turkey, with loads of culture, history and trade to keep you occupied for weeks.  We will be here for 10 days but will use the time to visit surrounding cities as well as to soak up the atmosphere of Istanbul. 

The city is huge but it isn’t just the historic old city that has a heart.  There is plenty of atmosphere to be found elsewhere and it is a fun city to get lost in!  We spent our first day visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  The Hagia Sophia was undergoing major maintenance work and the scaffolding did spoil us getting a true sense of this magnificent structure.  As Empires changed hands, it went from being a Greek Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, to a mosque before it was finally converted to a museum by Ataturk.  There are symbols from both faiths all over the structure including an iconic painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by Arabic writing above the main alter.

As we visited the Blue Mosque and saw a diagram that illustrated the genealogy of Muslim prophets that began with Adam and Eve and went on to include Abraham and Moses that we realised how many
similarities there were between the two faiths.  The two faiths share a common origin in the Middle East and Muslims consider Christians and Jews to be People of the Book.  While many of the Old Testament teachings remain the same there are some major differences including the fact that Islam does not consider that God is a Trinity or that Jesus was the Son of God.  It was also interesting to be inside both the Blue Mosque as well as other local mosques and see how different the practice of the two faiths are especially with respect to how men and women are able to worship. 

We also had fun visiting the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.  The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with approximately 61 covered streets, 3,000 shops and a visitor count that could reach 400,000 on a good day!  It certainly has a very special atmosphere and but what I loved was grab a seat at a café and people watch while sipping a nice glass of hot apple tea.  It is also a great venue for street photography if you are able to get a good vantage point amongst the throngs of people who frequent this place.  The Spice Market is also full of colour and I loved photographing the piles of different coloured spices for sale.  It was historically the centre of the spice trade in Istanbul although today this might be changing.

We were also able to visit a couple of the palaces in Istanbul.  Perhaps the most impressive was the
Dolmabahce Palace, situated on the European banks of the Bosporous.   It has been home to six sultans who preferred the comforts of this palace as compared to Topkapi Palace.  It is a museum today and a reminder of the excessive lifestyles of the rich and famous! 

A tour of the Bosporous is a great way to experience Istanbul but unfortunately for us the weather turned and our day out was a little ruined by the harsh weather.  I braved the cold to take some photographs on the top deck but eventually caved in and went downstairs.  We finished the day at a great lookout spot from where we caught a cable car down to the buses waiting for us at the foot of the hill.

We also crossed the Bosphorus by bus to visit the Asian side of Turkey as well as to have a look inside the Beylerbi Palace.  This summer palace was considered to be cooler but not as lavish as Dolmabahce hence the reason it was only used as a summer escape.  It did however have an indoor pool, which would have been a huge extravagance back then.  We finish the day at the top of Çamlıca Hill, sipping hot chocolates and enjoying the spectacular views of Istanbul. 

On our last night in Turkey, we splurged on a Turkish Bath.  After a little searching we found a hammam that gave us a more local experience with one difference – it was mixed.  Generally, the
Turkish bath houses are strictly separated by gender (or men and women visit at different times) so it was an unusual experience to sit in the sauna with both sexes!  I have had a Turkish bath previously but this was Steve’s first experience and we enjoyed it immensely.  You start by relaxing in the steam room, move on to a more private room to be soaped and scrubbed and then after a shower enjoy a wonderful massage!  It was a wonderful way to say goodbye not just to Turkey but to our European adventure and we finished the day by treating ourselves to a truly authentic Aussie pizza!

 We were not flying till later in the afternoon of the next day so we wandered into the old city in time to see some of the runners finish in the Istanbul Marathon.  This is the only marathon in the world that is run across two continents so I guess it would be high on the bucket lists of many marathon runners. 

During our time here we also visited Pamukkale, Ephesus and Gallipoli but I will blog about each of these places separately. 

It seems we timed our departure from Europe perfectly.  The last two days have been freezing and we went from T Shirts to 4 layers in one day!  So it is timely that we are flying off to a beautiful tropical island, 6 degrees north of the equator to spend Christmas with my friends and family.  Our journey through Europe gave us far more than we could have ever expected. We come away with beautiful memories, deep connections and friendships with locals in almost all of the countries we visited and photographs to cherish and sort through.

We are looking forward to a bit of rest to reflect on and make sense of what we have learnt and to ponder what it means for the year ahead. We will always be grateful to all of the 'strangers' (strangers no more of course) who invited us to their homes & lives and who shared their stories and their cities.

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