A rickety flight landed us, a sleepy twosome, at Istanbul one evening. The only plus of the dismal flight was that we spent the time without a single magazine or inflight entertainment by learning basic Turkish. So Merhaba to everyone. We had to board a bus from the airport to get to where we had booked our stay and we had an early peek into the kindness of the Turkish people when the bus driver drove into not one but 2 fuel pumps just to get us our change with not a word of complaint. An hour later we reached Sultanahmet.
We alighted from the bus only to feel we were dropped into the embrace of the history and architecture of Istanbul- right in front of the Hagia Sophia(pronounced Aya Sofiya) looking very inviting in the evening light. It was also our first view of the friendly cats that are found everywhere in Istanbul. Grinning to ourselves while staring at it all – it was only the strain of carrying our large rucksacks and our sleepy eyes that dragged us across the cobblestone paths to our Airbnb for the night.
Note: the dogs are gorgeous too but didn’t seem to be used to being petted by people, so were a little more aloof. Leave them alone unless one comes to you obviously looking to be petted.
To our delight, we were adjacent to one of the most beautiful mosques designed by the same architect as The Blue Mosque- The 16th century Ottoman mosque- of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha.
Day 2 :
We were woken up by the azaan since we had left a soundproof window open, so after freshening up decided it was the perfect time to go to the terrace. Even when walking to our Airbnb the steep slope of the area was apparent. The architect of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha mosque has sensibly used the slope to create multi-storey courtyards. The first very prudently to house shops, the rent of which would cover the mosque’s maintenance and the second as living quarters for the residents of the madrasah. All of this was visible to us from our perch on the terrace of our stay but we hesitated to visit the mosque itself since it wasn’t particularly a touristy spot and there was a constant stream of people coming in for prayers so we didn’t want to cause them disturbance. Images online of the interiors also look beautiful though.
We were lucky to reside at walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque so happily set out on foot. We decided it was only apt we started the very first day with a Turkish breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially, the honeycomb and honey cream which gave it a perfectly quaint end.
We then joined the short queue to Hagia Sofia and bought a general ticket in. One constant amongst the mosques we visited in Turkey is the very, almost industrial exteriors with cement grey walls only slightly softened by the dome. This is hugely deceptive considering the gorgeous art, mosaics, colours and architecture in the inside of them.
The Hagia Sofia has always been my mental image of Istanbul and it was all I ever wanted and more. It’s both moody and magical. The immense chandeliers, the mosaics, the humongous works of calligraphy, the warm yellows, reds, and blues, the light streaming through the tall windows, the juxtaposition of the image of Mary with Islamic verses – it’s like another world where all is quiet and lovely. Even the continuous stream of tourists constantly clicking photos hoping to capture the image for posterity doesn’t deter from the place itself. Or maybe I’m just biased.
Since it’s construction in 537AD it was first an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then a Roman Catholic Cathedral and stayed the largest cathedral for a 1000 years after it was built. Currently, the Turkish Govt refers to it as a museum and there are no longer prayers held within its premises. It’s said to have taken more than 10,000 people and shy of 6 years to build. The name Sophia itself refers to the Wisdom of God. All religious pictures and icons were removed in 726 during a period where they were opposed by religious and imperial leaders. Individuals attempting to restore the structure have a challenge today- when unravelling the older images related to Christianity that were covered by plaster, it would be at the expense of historical Islamic art. It’s a delicate balance that to us, has somehow let both of them shine through.
If that was not enough, Hagia Sofia continues to mystify historians with its literal hidden depths. Below the floors are tunnelled passages presumably to let a 5th century Emperor avoid the paparazzi or traffic of the time. While covering the expanse of Constantinople(current Istanbul) it contained graves, crypto rooms, and even a section large enough to sail a small ship in!
While I don’t encourage ignorance, I’m glad I read further about the history of Hagia Sophia after my visit or my experience may have been marred by some of it. The structure has been damaged and repaired by numerous earthquakes and vandalism by the Crusaders and the Ottoman forces at different points in time. This too, like typical to churches then, was considered a refuge for people from persecution during times of war. However, the Ottoman forces tragically enslaved, violated or slaughtered women, children, the elderly and sick who were within it for 3 full days after capturing the city. It’s ironical that a place that was witness to such horrors was then made the first imperial mosque in Istanbul. Numerous restorations have added minarets, madrasah, soup kitchen, the sultan’s lodge, mihrabs etc to the building itself.
In addition to the numerous mosaics, there are 3 giant doors of note too.
- Marble door– My favourite, it has images representing heaven and hell on either side of the door and led to a space used for official meetings.
- The Nice door– the oldest of the lot and
- The Emperor’s door– the largest one there solely used by the Emperor and his posse. Above the door is a mosaic artefact of the Emperor taking blessings of Jesus Christ with Mother Mary and the Angel Gabriel on either side. It’s believed to have been made from the wood off of Noah’s Ark! Now that’s a claim I haven’t heard off before.
Before leaving you can’t miss the queue of tourists waiting in line to touch a pillar. Supposed to feel moist to the touch, it’s called the Wishing pillar while touching it is believed to cure all sorts of illnesses. We, however, can’t confirm that since we didn’t join the line, so I guess we will have to deal with the illnesses when they come!
Note: We had read online about the pre-paid card for most of the tourist place entrances but didn’t realise there were multiple choices among them based on how long they’re valid and how many places they cover. So it led to us, as a group, making complex calculations on which of the cards would be “worth it”. Unfortunately, this is hard to decide unless you’re really sure of your plan within Turkey. We still found the card useful if only to avoid dealing with cash and it helped sort of pre-budget entrance fees into our expenses.