Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sultanahmet Camii & Ayasofya

Hello again! I seem to be the only person in this party of three who isn't jet lagged. While everyone else takes a nap, I'm going to blog!
Last night we walked around Sultanahmet, the area near our hotel. There's an energetic vibe to Sultanahmet because it's a big tourist area, and the streets are lively with tourists and locals alike. There are restaurants, carpet shops, and other shops everywhere you look, and the shopkeepers are friendly and inviting. We visited our first bazaar (they're everywhere) and also saw Sultanahmet Camii (also known as the Blue Mosque) and Ayasofya (also known as Hagia Sofia) from the outside. The photo above shows what Sultanahmet Camii looks like at night.
We had dinner at a nearby restaurant that offers rooftop dining. Climbing five levels of ankle-twisting stairs wasn't anyone's idea of fun, but the nighttime view of Sultanahmet Camii on one side and the lights of the Bosphorus on the other was totally worth it.
Today we returned to the Camii but since it's just a short walk from there to Ayasofya, we decided to start there instead. Ayasofya was originally a Christian church. The first church was built there in the 4th century. Now, having traveled through Europe quite a bit, I've seen lots of old stuff. But all those cathedrals built back in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe are not old at all compared to Ayasofya. The building you see below (minus the minarets, which weren't added until the church was transitioned to a mosque) was completed in the year 573! No, that's not a typo!
Ayasofya is considered to be one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture (Istanbul was once known as Constantinople but before that it was called Byzantium. This place is old, I say. OLD!) It's now a museum, and despite heavy crowds today (Sunday is cruise ship day in Istanbul, apparently) we bought tickets and went on inside . . .
The interior is quite impressive (again, remember that most of what you're seeing here is original and from the 6th century!) First off, the marble is incredible. The flooring, most of the walls, and the columns are marble. To think of what it would have taken at that time to mine the marble and to shape it into perfect columns just blows my mind -- not to mention transporting it and putting it into place! The walls also have layers of agate and possible malachite (or something that looks like it). The brochures say that the best materials were brought in from all over the (Roman) empire to build the cathedral, and even after all this time, it's awe-inspiring to see.
A few centuries later the church once known as Hagia Sofia became Ayasofya, a mosque. At that time some changes were made -- new things were added, such as everything you see in these photos that has Arabic script. It's interesting from a historical perspective to see the influence of both Christianity and Islam in the building. There are four Byzantine-era angels in the corners of the dome, but only one of them has a face. There are a couple of mosaics showing Jesus Christ, such as this one with the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the emperor (he's the one bowing).
A few more interesting things we did today:
1. We drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. OK, most of us have had Pom, but this morning we had FRESH juice. There are pomegranates everywhere, and guys with juice carts are on all the area streets. For the Turkish lire equivalent of US 80 cents you can get about six ounces of this wonderful stuff. I'm going to drink this every day I'm here. :)
2. We drank apple tea. It tastes a lot like apple cider. Honestly I'm not sure if it's real tea or if it's some kind of powdered stuff that's added to hot water. But it's really good.
3. I tried Turkish Delight. This is a type of sweet candy that has a jellylike consistency and is dusted with powdered sugar. It comes in several different flavors, like almond, pistachio, hazelnut, and some fruity flavors. I bought a pack of the almond and gave it a try . . . and I like it. (Mike likes it, too, but Sandy doesn't care for it.)
I also had my first non-food shopping experience. For the equivalent of just less than 9 US dollars, I bought a beautiful silk scarf (shown in the background of the photo above) from a street vendor. I needed something to cover my hair so I could go into the Sultanahmet Camii (I'll be taking it with me everywhere now just in case we go into another mosque.) I just realized that I haven't written about going into the mosque, and I'm out of time now because the sleepy people are beginning to stir and it's almost time for dinner. Hopefully I'll remember to write about that later, because it was my first time in a mosque and it was quite interesting.
Signing off now with the same message as yesterday -- please forgive any errors here because I'm writing this in a hurry. Later!