Turkey, commonly known as the nexus between East and West, was everything we had anticipated, and more. With merely a week to explore this historic and culturally rich country, we settled on focusing our attention on Istanbul, Antalya and the Mediterranean coast, and Ephesus. Our first stop was the fascinating Istanbul, a blend of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, palaces housing artifacts from the time of Moses as well as Sultans from the Ottoman Empire, a Grand Bazaar holding over 3,000 shops, and countless other sights and events of interest. A visitor could easily spend a week in Istanbul, itself, which is likely insufficient to view all that the city has to offer; we had scheduled two days. Based on sage advice from friends who had visited Turkey, and Istanbul, several months earlier we booked a hotel in “Old Istanbul” near Sultanahmet Square, a location that staged chariot and horse racing events in a hippodrome during the Byzantine Era, and which is a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia allowing us to forgo a rental car and simply walk while touring the city. Not only was our hotel, the “Ottoman Hotel Imperial,” strategically located, but the service and offerings were exemplary. After arriving, we were immediately upgraded to a larger corner room with wonderful views of Hagia Sofia, (right across a cobblestone street), multi-tiered traditional Turkish housing, and quaint shops and restaurants. One of the hotel staff also kindly laid out all of the sights to see, and things to do, in a two-day timeframe.
Istanbul’s roots are steeped in a wealth of history with the city enduring Greek, Roman, Latin, and Ottoman rule before Turkey became a republic. Istanbul, originally named Byzantion, or Byzantium, in 657 BC by ancient Greek colonists after Byzas their king; became “Nova Roma” in 330 AD (for a short time) after Constantine the Great relocated the Roman Empire capital from Rome to what would eventually be called Constantinople. The city remained Constantinople through the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire beginning in 395 AD to the end of the Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1922), during which it remained a capital city, and was renamed Istanbul in 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was established. We had a lot of ground to cover in Istanbul and our first stop was the magnificent Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, and now a museum. We planned our trip to coincide with the Easter holiday timeframe, early April, which meant that we had to sustain some cold (upper 40s/lower 50s Fahrenheit) temperatures and sometimes rainy weather, but that did not dampen our spirits. The Topkapi Palace, built in 1459, is a patchwork of structures, courtyards, and gardens. During the Ottoman Empire, the palace’s harem, manor houses, kitchens, mosques, hospital, school, library, Treasury, and Imperial Mint all evolved rather organically over the several hundred years from the time of its first inhabitant, Sultan Mehmed II, until its last resident, Sultan Abdulmecid based on the needs and tastes of the particular Sultan in power. The palace courtyards all held a special purpose, such as Divan Square (second courtyard) where ceremonies were held marking a sultan’s accession to the throne; and the Inner Palace (third courtyard) where the sultan spent most of his time outside of the harem, and included the Treasury and various pavilions. The palace kitchens, which were located behind the pavilions in the second courtyard, were quite extensive with 20 chimneys and over 1,000 cooks and helpers.
On the day we visited, a Friday, the palace grounds were swarming with Turkish schoolchildren indulging in their country’s history and treasures. While there was some jostling, elbowing, and obstructed viewing at times, we were able to see most everything of interest, including gold thrones and cradles, ceremonial clothes and carriages of the sultans, jeweled helmets, an armor and weapons collection, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, and exquisite gems. The sacred relics housed in the Hirka-i-Saadet building were remarkable, and purportedly include Prophet Mohammad’s footprint, tooth, swords, and threads of his beard, as well as Moses’ staff. The relics were collected, and brought back to Istanbul, after the conquest of Egypt in 1517 by Yavuz Sultan Selim.
A particular treat was the Topkapi Palace’s Imperial Harem, especially since there were no schoolchildren at the site allowing for a more leisurely viewing. The Harem included the private residences of the Sultans, their wives, children, Queen Mother, concubines, servants, and eunuchs. The Queen Mother (once a concubine of the Sultan’s father who rose through the ranks) ran the harem, and, therefore, was an influential figure in the intricacies of harem life, and sometimes the political life of the Ottoman era. The harem was a maze of apartments, passageways, great halls, secret doors, courtyards, mosques, baths (hamams), sprinkled with a healthy dose of Ottoman intrigue.
On our way from Topkapi Palace to the Blue Mosque we slipped into a boutique hotel restaurant, adjacent to renovated 18thcentury multi-tiered Turkish homes and the Topkapi Palace, and enjoyed what seems to be a staple of Turkish cuisine, creamy tomato soup (Domates), along with salads, and a vegetable omelet. It started pouring rain, and thankfully my practical husband packed an umbrella and rain hat from home, which came in handy for our jaunt to the Blue Mosque. Fortunately for other tourists, there were ubiquitous street vendors selling umbrellas of every hue.
The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, and originally named Sultan Ahmet Mosque, after the ruler who ordered its construction, sits alongside the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and is the site frequently seen in Istanbul travel photos and tourist brochures. Named the “Blue Mosque” because of the azure glazed tiles along the interior walls, it is located at one end of the Sultanahmet Square, and is one of the few mosques in the world with six minarets. At one time, the Blue Mosque was part of a larger complex that included a public kitchen, a bazaar, a Turkish bath, schools, a hospital, and an inn for travelers, which, unfortunately, have not been preserved to present day. Upon arriving at the Blue Mosque we were asked to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carried with us. Entering the mosque we were treated to a dazzling blend of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture and clusters of crystal Turkish oil lamps suspended throughout a wide open space with geometrical and colorful stain glass windows and intricate Iznik tile work lining the walls. The tile work depicted flower groups, such as tulips, violets, hyacinth, carnations, and jasmine, as well as tree and branch motifs, like cypresses and leaf formations.
Our dinner later that night in our hotel’s Matbah (“kitchen” in Arabic) restaurant was a fusion of Turkish hospitality and a feast for the palate. I had a hot soup with yogurt, dried fruit in a tomato base, and a salad with pomegranate sauce, also quite popular in present-day Turkish cuisine. We also shared hummus, stuffed grape leaves, a spinach and garlic dish, and delicious olive and walnut paste served with bread. The Matbah is known for preparing meals that replicate those served to the sultans in the Ottoman Empire. Dishes like Goose Kebab, Grape Molasses Stuffed Quince, Lamb’s shank dressed with eggplant puree on phyllo dough, and Sour Cherry Stuffed Vine Leaves. At the end of our meal, our amiable waiter served us complimentary Turkish coffee in a specially engraved silver holder with a top to retain the heat, and instructed us to make sure we cleansed our mouths with water (a common ritual in Turkey) before drinking our coffee. We were also treated to a Turkish Delight, oftentimes a rosewater or fruit flavored gel-like sweet covered with powdered sugar. I was even presented with a faux pearl pendant at the end of the meal. A perfect ending to our first day in Istanbul.
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