Our second day in Istanbul was as exceptional as our first. Slipping into the Matbah restaurant adjacent to our hotel (the Ottoman Imperial), our day started with a Turkish breakfast that included bread, a variety of fresh sliced cheeses – white (Beyaz Peyniri), yellow (Tel Peyniri) and herbed (Otlu Peyniri), bologna and cold cut style meats, green and black olives, hard boiled eggs, baklava, and brownie cakes. Following the meal, our waiter was kind enough to serve us complimentary Turkish coffee on a silver platter along with a Turkish Delight.
One of the prime reasons for staying at our hotel was its location – right across a cobblestone street from the Hagia Sophia, or St. Sophia Museum, a remarkable structure with a complex and intriguing history. The Hagia Sophia provides a true display of why Istanbul, and the larger Turkey, (bordered by countries like Greece to the west and Iran and Azerbaijan to the east), is known as the gateway between East and West. Strolling through Hagia Sophia’s Imperial Gate, the visitor spies a mosaic above the gate depicting a Byzantine Emperor kneeling before Christ, and just steps away through the main entryway broad designs of Islamic calligraphy and Ottoman oil lamps.
Spanning the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Hagia Sophia has gone through several transformations during its long and illustrious history. Originally called the “Great Church” in the mid-4th century when it was first constructed in what was then Constantinople, this cathedral was decimated in 404 AD by fire resulting from riots caused by a dispute between Empress Aelia Eudoxia and the Patriarch of the church. Another basilica was built and completed under order of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in 415 AD, however, this second structure was also destroyed in 532 AD due a revolt that beganat the nearby Hippodrome. The cathedral was rebuilt a third time by Emperor Justinian I and was dedicated in 537 AD, and once again in 562 AD after earthquakes resulted in necessary restoration efforts.
The church remained the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople until 1204 when commanders of the Fourth Crusade captured portions of the Byzantine Empire and converted the church to a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the Latin Empire. In 1261 the Byzantines took back Constantinople and the cathedral remained a Greek Orthodox church until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, renaming it Aya Sofya Mosque. The building became a museum in 1935.
On this beautiful spring day among other awestruck visitors with cameras at the ready, my husband, Bishara, and I marveled at the elaborate designs on the interior of the multiple domes, marble pillars and granite colonnades, Hellenistic urns, golden Islamic calligraphy emblazoned on imposing circles, colorful stained glass windows, captivating passageways, ottoman oil lamps providing a subtle glow to the open space, and the collection of mosaics in the majestic upper gallery. I could almost envision an empress of the Byzantine Era and members of her court seated in the upper gallery watching the ceremonies below, or, years later, the men of the Ottoman Empire assembling for the call to prayer in the wide expanse of the lower gallery.
We were fortunate to have a sunny April day, with brisk temperatures hovering in the mid-50’s; perfect walking weather. From the Hagia Sophia we followed the tram line to the Grand Covered Bazaar, which took us past streets adorned with Turkish Delight and ceramic shops, Turkish bath houses (hammams), and quaint outdoor cafes with gatherings of people sampling spinach and cheese pides and sour cherry juice. Bishara, definitely the more domestically inclined of the two of us, (I can barely boil water), persistently inquired about the colorful and intricately designed ceramic Turkish bowls as we rambled along the approximately one and a half mile route between the Hagia Sophia and Covered Bazaar. Most importantly, Bishara was on a quest to find the lowest prices in the city for this traditional Turkish dishware, proudly, unabashedly, and masterfully using his refined haggling skills acquired through having spent his formative years in the Arab world.
Turning off a tree-lined pathway, we encountered the Nurousmaniye gate, one of the nearly half dozen entranceways to the Grand Covered Bazaar, a sprawling complex of over 3600 shops and 60 streets populated with shops and stalls selling jewelry, hand woven carpets, multi-colored Ottoman-style lanterns, beaded necklaces, colorful ceramic dishware, confections (Turkish Delight is quite popular), fabrics, the typical “touristy” coffee mugs and t-shirts, leather jackets and handbags (in a separate distinct section), and so much more. The Grand Bazaar was established in 1461 under the auspices of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and was a major trading center between Europe and Asia during the Ottoman Empire until its commercial dominance abated in the nineteenth century due to competition from Western Europe. At the height of its trading activity in the Ottoman Era the Grand Bazaar had streets named for the occupations represented in the shops that included textiles, jewelry, guns, carpets, silver and copperware, silk, crystal, armor and weapons, furs, old books, and shoes. Serving a more utilitarian purpose, wealthier traders stored their valued gold and silver possessions in cramped safes in the covered bazaar for a reasonable price. Meandering through the patchwork of stores amongst the masses of shoppers, one can easily envision specters of Ottoman merchants from a bygone era, turbans atop their heads, offering traders hot tea, conversation, and the opportunity to sample their wares.
After covering a healthy portion of the labyrinth of covered tiled streets and tangle of shops we stumbled upon a confectionary store with assorted flavors of Turkish Delights ranging from mixed fruits, to rose, pistachio peanut butter, and hazelnut. Bishara artfully bargained and purchased seven boxes of the delectable gel-like sweets, a favorite of mine, as well as two cans of Turkish coffee, a primary staple in our lives back home. Reaching the innermost arteries of the Bazaar, Bishara became positively gleeful when we happened upon several ceramic stores, and one, in particular, where he was able to work his haggling magic and obtain a super discounted rate for five colorful and beautifully designed ceramic bowls. Bishara was in heaven! . . . Thank goodness Bishara loves the kitchen, cooking, and culinary treasures or we’d both go hungry.
Satisfied with our shopping excursion we wandered along Nuruosmaniye Avenue back towards our hotel, where there were even more shops. On the way we passed the ever-present stands of roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob. Bishara felt compelled to buy several bags of roasted chestnuts, divulging that they brought back sweet memories of Christmas holidays in both Jordan and Lebanon. Feeling entirely “shopped out” we opted for sheesha and Turkish coffee on sedu-style cushions at a café near our hotel. A great way to wind down after an eventful two days.
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