Touring Istanbul

The view from the apartment where we’re staying.

Istanbul continues to be one of the most compelling cities I’ve ever visited. Last night was another late night along the famous boulevard Iskindar, in Beyoglu neighborhood, a place like nowhere I’ve ever seen. The street is a pedestrian only area, stretching some 20 blocks through a dense neighborhood, with dozens of side streets branching out, each one jammed with outdoor restaurants, cafes and bars. The main boulevard is a typical shopping street full of stores but the streets are jam-packed with strolling people. One of our friends here told me that somewhere around two million people pass through this district every Friday and Saturday night, where the bars and clubs stay open til dawn.

Hard to believe, but this area is only one relatively compact zone in sprawling Istanbul. We’ve been blessed by having Ali and his family hosting us and showing us around, without which we would have missed so much of what we’ve seen. Early in the week we went to the standard but awesome tourist sites, the Blue Mosque, the Hagiya Sofya, the Byzantine cistern, the Ottoman Topkapi Palace and its infamous harem. I don’t tend to react very strongly to religious buildings, only enjoying them at the level of architecture and art, and the Blue Mosque was something to see in that regard. A soaring dome with intricate Islamic patterns, lovely rugs and tiles everywhere (you could say that about most of the places in Istanbul actually), and an intricate ironwork suspended from the ceiling holding lights. Here are some shots of the Blue Mosque:

The Hagiya Sofya is a vast church dating back to around 300 AD, with additional construction continuing for two hundred years ending in 550 AD or so. That time span alone is awe-inspiring, especially when you consider that this is a seismically active area and there have been many devastating earthquakes over the centuries. Somehow the Sofya stands strong to this day. From outside it is not so impressive, but once inside, the grandeur of the place really hits you. It was turned into a museum in the 1930s by the ubiquitous Ataturk, and within the main area is a modern white canvas structure. While we were there they had an exhibit about the history of Sufism with an account of the rise of the Mevlana, its philosophy and structure”¦ it took me a day to realize they were talking about Rumi, whom so many of my California pals quote so often”¦ Around here the English translations and embrace of Rumi by new age types is considered to be a product of bad translation work and there is some resentment about the absence of Islamic fundamentals in the presentation of Rumi’s thought, since he was above all an Islamic disciple. Anyway, here are photos of the Hagiya Sofya and one photo of a photo of Sufi dervishes from the 1910s”¦

Francesca has been my tour guide, reading from John Freely’s “Walking Around Istanbul”.

The cistern was a wonderful surprise. We stepped into a small brick house to buy our tickets, about $8 each, and I feared we were falling for an overpriced tourist trap, but once we went downstairs and entered the amazing cistern we were really glad we’d come. It’s really quite vast and hard to believe that it was lost for over 1000 years before being rediscovered in the 1500s by Ottoman engineers. Under a couple of columns amidst the water there are huge Medusa heads, one upside down and one laying on its side. Not much of an explanation is offered, except that the presence of Medusa heads might be one way of warding off bad spirits who would have compromised the integrity of the water supply.

A couple of days later Francesca and I went to the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Sultans who ran the Ottoman Empire for centuries. What an opulent and amazing place! The aesthetic delight of the architecture and décor makes wandering around a constant delight. In particular we were taken with the dozens of tiles, considered the best of the Empire during their day, and still simply gorgeous. Here are the pictures:

OK, OK, if you don’t like tiles… what can I say? I love them!

The next entry will have photos of our dining and social experiences, local graffiti, and so much more! It’s a bit overwhelming to be honest. A huge, amazing, impressive city. Wish I spoke Turkish, but if I decided to come and spend some real time here I’d make the effort, because so much about this city and this culture is really appealing… (not the military!)…

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