As you pull into the port of Istanbul, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. The skyline is distinctively different, with mosques and towers spread all over the city, and it just looks more, well, exotic, than most of the other cities in Europe. Istanbul is quite large (over 12 million people) and the traffic is tremendous, so it took a while to get to our first destination on the tour, the Blue Mosque.
You must be appropriately dressed to go into a mosque--no shorts above the knees or bare arms, and no shoes, but that works out just fine because the floor is lushly carpeted inside even though the area is massive. The guy with the vacuum cleaner must have to start very early in the morning just to finish up by dinnertime. I spent most of my time inside the mosque looking up at the beautiful tiles and wonderful, larger than life letterforms on the walls, pillars and ceilings.
Historically speaking, the Turks have been there and done that for just about every major culture -- Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, and more. This makes for some interesting architecture as a result. Great cathedrals which later became mosques, then reconverted to churches, and then to museums. Hagia Sophia is one of these structures, and it was the next stop on our visit.
From Sophia, we went to Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans and their families during the Ottoman empire. The compound on which the Palace sits is almost as large as my little town here; once you've entered the gates, you stroll down a wide promenade through beautifully landscraped grounds, past a row of shops including a post office, and then finally you reach the Palace gates. The group of buildings that make up the Palace appear simple in contrast to what goes on visually inside. Colorful tiles are everywhere, pattern upon pattern, in every room and space available. We were able to tour the harem quarters; one of the photos here shows a bedroom. Incredible!
There is also a museum within the compound that displays swords and jewels and ancient artifacts, including books. From Topkapi, we went to the original mother of all shopping malls, the Grand Bazaar, with over 4,000 booths or stalls selling everything under the sun, with heavy concentration on jewelry, scarves, handbags, textiles and cheap souvenirs . We decided to save our money for a more interesting purchase, which I'll tell you about in the next post.