Istanbul is another port in my "familiar old friends" category. In many countries cities fall under one of two main columns: the historic or the modern. This is an oversimplification for sure; in nations with history spanning the millennia, most cities will have some elements of the past, present and future -- but these elements are not always in balance. In China, for example, it is said that if you want to see China's past, go to Beijing; for the future, go to Shanghai, as these two cities, while having both modern and historical aspects, are weighted to the opposite ends of the temporal/historical spectrum.
Istanbul is a balance. At intersections you can see women crossing the street wearing all styles of dress, from full burka to hijab (head scarf) to designer jeans and form-fitting shirts, all in the same crosswalk.
Here can be found top-of-the-line high-rise luxury hotels and palaces and mosques dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and in the midst of it all, bits and pieces left over from the Roman Empire and the early Christian Church.
On the other hand, there are certain points of interest in Istanbul that are so identified with the city and the country that they appear on virtually every tour and in every guidebook's recommendations. They are to Turkey what the Eiffel Tower and Louvre are to Paris. They include, among others, the Blue Mosque, the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Hippodrome, the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and, of course, the Grand Bazaar. It is impossible to combine all of these into a single, one-day tour, but each all-day excursion in Istanbul will include some sites from this list. (And nearly every tour will include a rug-making demonstration and sales pitch, followed by a visit to the Grand Bazaar.)
After visiting Istanbul a half-dozen or so times in the past, I had thought I had seen all the major highlights. But -- and this isn't the platitude it may seem -- I always learn something new on return explorations of even the most familiar spots I've visited. And the tour I selected for this time in Istanbul included a site I'd never visited: the Basilica Cistern.
Our port call here would be a comfortable 10.5 hours, arriving at 9:30 a.m. and departing at 8:00 p.m. My 7.5-hour tour was scheduled to leave at 10:00 a.m. and return at 5:30 p.m., a comforting pad given my experience yesterday in Izmir! The tour, titled "Exotic Istanbul" included visits to the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and lunch at a restaurant built into one of the massive cisterns (huge underground reservoirs) created during the Byzantine period of the Roman Empire. Following that would be a visit to an even larger cistern, the Basilica Cistern, with the day winding up at -- you guessed it -- the carpet demonstration and shopping at the Grand Bazaar.
As unprepared as Izmir was to deal with the huge influx of tourists that even a single 3,000-passenger mega-ship brings to port, for Istanbul, which has been hosting outside visitors since Roman times, it's second nature. Istanbul, though four times the size in population as Izmir, has the advantage of compactness. Almost everything on the tourist's agenda is reachable by short bus or taxi ride, and Istanbul's extensive public transportation system efficiently moves traffic along. And, it has been my experience, that some of the best tour guides in all of Europe can be found here. Such was the case with our guide, Sinan, who spoke totally unaccented English, and had a perfect balance of essential information and interesting tidbits. We never felt his spiels went on too long.
As we made our way to the Old City I recalled another aspect of Istanbul that has struck me in the past; the palpable sense of respect the Turks have for this city. The streets are generally clean, garbage is hardly visible anywhere, and nowhere is there a single smudge of graffiti to be found.
As I mentioned earlier there is always a gap in one's storehouse of information ready to be filled by repeat visits to foreign destinations. Today I learned the difference between mosques with odd and even numbers of minarets. Those with even numbers (two, four or six) are so-called "Imperial Mosques," each built by a different sultan (36 in all); single minaret mosques are public places of worship, and are solely supported by contributions from the faithful. I also learned that, like Rome and San Francisco, the Old City of Istanbul is built on seven hills, and on each hill there is one Imperial Mosque. Sinan also mentioned that the reason there are so many mosques (as a ratio to population) is that with the call to prayer issued five times a day, devout Muslims tend to seek out the nearest place of worship, whether at home, work, school, shopping, etc., so there need to be mosques convenient for all neighborhoods.
We crossed over the Golden Horn, the estuary that widens into Istanbul's natural harbor, and entered the Old City, driving by the train station that is the terminus of the Orient Express. As we rounded a corner we glimpsed one of our five major stops for the day, the Blue Mosque, unique in that it's the only mosque with six minarets. Heading toward the Blue Mosque brought us to the Hippodrome, once a 60,000-seat chariot race track built by the emperor Theodosius. Unfortunately, little remains of the original structure as it was all leveled in the 16th century to create a flat park to locate the Blue Mosque and subsequently three flanking palaces. What is left is a frieze showing Theodosius presenting a wreath to the winner of a chariot race, and atop that foundation, a 1,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk, which amazingly shows not a whit of wear.
Leaving our bus at the Hippodrome, we crossed the street to the Blue Mosque, whose actual name is the Mosque of Ahmet, after the sultan who built it. It was erected between 1609 and 1616, and is one of the largest ever built. It is constructed around four main domes, each of which is subdivided into three semi-domes, and all covered with the distinctive blue tiles that give the mosque its unofficial name.
After visiting the Blue Mosque we proceeded toward the Hagia Sophia, once a Byzantine church, turned into a mosque when the Ottomans defeated Constantinople, and now a museum. While we waited for some in our group to take a rest stop I purchased a simit, a bagel-like toasted sesame pastry, from a street vendor, which I managed to finish by the time we had crossed the street to the Hagia Sophia. I needn't have rushed. Outside the building was a massive crowd of tourists, wedged unmoving into an enclosed courtyard feeling every degree of the intense, windless heat. Ultimately the reason for the bottleneck became apparent. Ahead of us was an airlines-style security check, but with only one metal detector and x-ray machine. According to Sinan, this first appeared at the entrance of the Hagia Sophia right after 9/11.
The Hagia Sophia -- which translates to "divine wisdom" -- was built during the height of the Christian era of the Roman Empire. Begun in 532 it was completed in a mind-boggling five years, entering service as the world's largest cathedral in 537, a role it played until Constantinople was defeated in 1453. That was the year it was turned into a mosque, and it remained so until 1934, when the young Turkish republic restored its Christian attributes, and, with a mix of Islamic and Christian characteristics, reopened it as a museum.
When the Muslims first turned it into a mosque, one of the first items on their agenda was to cover up the beautiful gold mosaics on the ceilings, walls and inside the dome. The reason was that these mosaics portrayed key Christian personages, including Christ and the Virgin Mary, and Islamic tradition forbids illustrating people or animals, as that could be construed as idolatry. However, since Islam does recognize Jesus as a predecessor prophet to Mohammed, rather than tearing the mosaics off the walls, they were, instead, covered with wood and plaster, which was later removed when the Hagia Sophia was made a museum.
To the Byzantine emperors, the city of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia represented the triumph of Christianity over paganism, and symbolically, the columns that flank the inside of the cathedral were imported from Greek and Roman temples torn down by early Christian zealots, including pillars from the Temple of Zeus in Lebanon and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
From the Hagia Sophia we made our way on foot to the nearby Sarnic Restaurant, built into one of the old underground cisterns created by the Romans to pool drinking water. As we entered, each of us was given an amulet of a tiny glass eye on a safety pin to attach to our clothes. This symbol is common throughout Greece and Turkey to ward off evil and provide good luck. We descended the stairs to find ourselves in a large underground chamber with a vaulted ceiling supported by flanks of marble columns. Seating was at large tables, accommodating 12 or more diners each. Unfortunately, with three separate tour groups from our ship filling the room the air conditioning system was overwhelmed, and it got pretty stuffy. On our table was a preprinted menu which included:
Su Boregi (Layers of filo pastry with cheese)
I was assuming that "Chicken Breast Pudding" was not a literal description, but rather something which failed in translation. As it turned out it was exactly as described, a sort of creme brulee with a browned top which did, in fact, include thin filaments of chicken. All the food was delicious and certainly rated higher on the authenticity scale than at our rushed tourist trap buffet in Izmir. And we had a leisurely hour to enjoy this meal.
Hunkar Begendi ("Sultan’s Delight," a puree of roasted eggplant with cream and grated cheese, topped with sauteed cubes of lamb in tomato sauce, served with saffron rice)
Chicken Breast Pudding
Sometime between the last two courses, a CD of Turkish music was started up and out came our entertainment, an attractive, personality-laden belly dancer, who knew how to work the room -- well, mostly she worked the men in the room -- and entertained us one and all. I had seen a similar performance a couple of years ago when I was on assignment in Istanbul, but while I was pondering this, our belly dancer danced up to me, gently poked me in the shoulder with a forefinger and said, "I know you. You were here before, yes?"
It was then I realized that I hadn’t previously seen a similar performer, it was the same performer! Talk about a small world!
From the restaurant it was a short walk to the entrance of the Basilica Cistern. Engineered by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century to provide a dependable supply of drinking water for Constantinople's burgeoning population, the giant reservoir was located over a spring in the middle, and an aqueduct was designed and built to bring in additional water. The ceiling of the cistern was built of porous bricks so that rainwater would be absorbed as well, filtered and dripped into the reservoir, whose capacity totaled a whopping 20 million gallons.
In order to hold up the huge vaulted ceiling -- not to mention the city, above -- massive supporting columns were needed. Fashioning them from scratch would have been a Herculean task, but Justinian had a ready made source of pillars at hand. This was the era when the Roman Empire was entirely Christian, and "pagan" temples were being demolished left and right. Columns from those temples were brought to Constantinople for use as ceiling supports. For that reason the colonnade is a mishmash of different styles -- Doric, Ionian, Corinthian -- and many columns have slices cut from the middle and have been restacked to reach the proper height.
The cistern was drained in order to make renovations in 1986, and it has acquired water to a depth of a foot or two through natural processes during the ensuing years. It is now home to schools of giant carp as well.
After leaving the cistern we reboarded the bus for the short ride to the Grand Bazaar. Now, I have seen these rug presentations a number of times and felt neither like spending time watching another one, nor time warding off high-pressure rug sellers. So I bid farewell to Sinan and made my way to the Bazaar. Getting back to the ship would be a snap; Carnival runs semi-hourly shuttle buses free of charge to anyone who has taken a ship-sponsored excursion.
I am frankly one of those guys who cares little for shopping. Not that I don't like to buy stuff, but in my lexicon buying is not the same thing as shopping. If I know what I want I like to go right for it, negotiate a price, hand over the paper or plastic, and go on my way.
This acquisitive style is anathema to the merchants of the Grand Bazaar, for whom the process is as important as the final sale. So I remained outside the Bazaar proper, where the stores are a little more like Western emporia, and the merchandise a bit more upscale. I still was looking for a gift for my wife, and the wares of a leather shop next to 100 Orient, where the carpet demos take place, had a great selection of calfskin purses, one of which caught my eye. After haggling the price from 280 to 220 euros, I had my purchase in hand and boarded the shuttle to return to the ship.
After dinner I made my way to the Victoriana Lounge to take in the night's show, an act by a young magician named Paul Dabek. Though he was perfectly competent, his material was old long before he was born. (Let's see, I take a newspaper, fold it over a few times, rip it to shreds, push it into my hand, open my hand and -- lo and behold! -- the newspaper is whole again!) So I decided to make my first visit to the Babylon Casino. First stop, the craps table, and, miracle of miracles, within a half hour I’m ahead a couple of hundred dollars! Mama Faber raised no dummy, so I take my chips back to the cage to cash out. I take the bills, and as I’m stuffing them into my shirt pocket, I feel it. The evil eye charm! Could it ...? Naaaaaah. But I went over to the Caribbean Stud table and bought in with one of my crisp new hundreds, and, zut alors! Within 20 minutes I had doubled it. I cashed that out and made my way back to my stateroom.