Istanbul day 1: The Wisdom of God and subterranean adventures

How do you start a post about Istanbul? How do you sum up a truly eternal city, where cafes and druggies overun ancient walls and syrupy pomegranite juice can be bought for 1 lira in the shadow of towering mosques?
I suppose I’ll start at the beginning, which for me and Istanbul, was when I stepped out of the airport. It was a slap in the face with cacophony, people bustling and shouting and herds of cars competing for noise and speed, which you have to navigate by pushing through. Under this chaos runs a public transport system that works really well, thankfully, so getting away from the airport and into the city was easy enough even late at night and post flight. And anyone who’s been on a plane knows how wonderful it is to collapse on a bed after a flight, which it most definitely was. Yes, it was only a 3 hour flight but time is relative when it comes to airports and aeroplanes.

A few weeks prior to leaving I’d put together an itinerary for our trip and had asked for advice about what to see as there is rather a lot in Istanbul. Also I like lists. So armed with the list we set out eagerly on Saturday for our first exploration (after a very pleasant Mediterranean style breakfast, which would soon my accompanied by very pleasant Mediterranean sun), and headed down the road to the Hagia Sofia. Well, there was a short detour when we found some ruins and dashed over to photograph them and wonder who left them, and point out the numerous cats wandering about. The Hagia Sofia is very big, and grand, though as she is old on the outside it’s her size and the motley of building styles that I noticed most. Eschewing an audio guide or one of the persistent human guides that lurked around the entrance, we went in, stepping over the worn marble doorstep and then staring around at the golden tiled ceiling. The tiles still glittered a bit in the morning light. Then we went into the main hall, and had to crane our necks to take it all in.

The dome of Hagia Sofia

Despite having construction work going on, mosaics missing and bustling crowds, she seemed as stately as a queen and though I wanted to avoid this cliché, bigger on the inside. There’s something about a dome that stretches out and upwards. I was reminded of the Pantheon, probably my favourite building, which is now less colourful and also smaller, though just as stately.

A mosaic featuring Mary or what remains of it

Something I didn’t expect when I’ve imagined visiting the Hagia Sofia in the past, was, well, the signs that she has been rebuilt a few times over the years. The original parts, under arches and on a few walls, are covered in delicate in mosaics and the dome and most of the walls are painted in bright colours, with some sections whitewashed. There’s also some Viking graffiti somewhere, though we couldn’t find it, plus more recent scratchings. She shows her years and there are signs all over of the millions, possibly billions of people who’ve walked her halls. She carries her age very well, still standing after 1476 years and drawing masses of crowds to worship her in their own way.

The second level, including original mosaics in the arches

After pulling ourselves away from the Hagia Sofia, we descended into the Basilica Cistern, the popularity of which would have puzzled the builders I bet. It’s basically a large columned hall for holding water, which doesn’t sound like much and there are hundreds of them under Istanbul, but none as big. Here are some stats from Wikipedia: approximately 138 metres by 64.6 metres, about 9,800 square metres in area – capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. So yeah, big. Nowadays the water is about a foot deep and full of goldfish and carp, and the occasional coin, and the room is lit by lights at the base of the pillars, dimmed and creating a cavernous atmosphere.

The haunting cistern

The most famous parts of the Basilica are probably the two heads of Medusa, which support two pillars and are mysteriously upside down and on the side. There are theories as to why they are there, and the one I like best is that in those positions Medusa’s power is lessened. Why they dunked her in their water supplies is another question that is unanswered.

A forebearing Gorgon

Ascending to sunlight again we decided to have some lunch, and my partner was told for the first (though not the last) time that he looked Turkish. I was also complimented on my handy bread-tearing skills and had some apple tea or elma çayı for the first (and also not the last) time.

When preparing the itinerary I’d read that you can see remnants of the ancient hippodrome in the area near the Blue Mosque, and that it is often confused with a park. So bellies full of food, we wandered over to the supposed location of the hippodrome, and it was quite possible that if I didn’t know what to look for we wouldn’t have known it was there. As with the hippodrome in Rome, the huge, stretched oval has somehow maintained it’s shape, and has been subsumed into the landscape. Where the chariots once thundered along are gardens and benches, and somewhat more obvious are three monuments that have survived. Two obelisks and a column. At the far end is the walled obelisk from the 10th century and that was once covered in bronze and is now bare stone, though it was not as interesting as the other obelisk. The other one was carved in 1490BCE on the orders of Tuthmosis III and had stood in Karnak before being shipped around the various locations before being used as a monument in the hippodrome. Though it looks a bit stunted today and could be overlooked next to the obelisks, the serpent column was the most interesting of the three in my opinion. It was made to commemorate the battle of Plataea, in which an alliance of Greek cities fended off the Persians, and was apparently made from the melted down bronze weapons of the defeated army. It originally stood at Delphi, then was brought to it’s current home by Constantine I. The three snake heads have been broken off, and I was excited to see one at the museum the next day, looking quite fearsome.

In which I cleverly get an obelisk and column in one shot

From there it was a short walk to the Blue Mosque, the final item on the itinerary for the day (yes, the day actually went according to plan, amazingly). I was prepared for the headscarf requirement to enter, and when we entered the forecourt got myself tucked away and wasn’t quite prepared for how I felt afterwards. Most readers will be aware of my opinions regarding religion, in particular in relation to women, but as soon as I wrapped the scarf around my head I felt nondescript and like I fitted in. I suppose while in Sweden, and even more so in Istanbul, I’d become used to head-scarves and on occasion felt a bit conspicuous with my hair all over the place. Maybe also a sense of anonymity. I’m not entirely sure yet, though all this doesn’t mean it’s going to be a habit, but it was unexpected. My partner on the other hand was greatly amused by my get-up and insisted on commemorating it with multiple photographs.

In which I cleverly get an obelisk and column in one shot

When we worked out that we couldn’t enter by the main entrance (my partners mostly joking suggestion that we pretend to pray didn’t quite sit right in the circumstances), we lined up for the tourists section. Before entry we took off our shoes, I wrapped up my head again and we walked quietly inside the Mosque. It was, in one word, beautiful. While the Hagia Sofia was grand and colourful, the Blue Mosque was a stunning stretch of tiles in all directions, mostly blues, reds and yellows. I stared about for a while, snapping away. It as magnificent, and while I will mention that the area where the women could pray was at the back, in a tiny fenced off section, I’ll reserve my comments on that for another day.

Another view of the ceiling

So what did we do after such a busy day? Why, walk around the penninsula of course. I’d glimpsed the Sea of Marmara a few times and wanted to have a closer look, so we wandered down through the twisting streets below the Blue Mosque till we reached the water side. A road runs along the coast, separated from the sea by a footpath and piles of rocks where fishermen and cats were enjoying the sinking sun and the occasional fish. As we walked smoke from fires in the rocks and possibly smog caught in my throat, and the lights, roar of cars and general busyness reminded me that this was a very big city, and had been for a long time. As we walked we also saw one of the old city walls which stood on the city side of the wall, punctuated by towers, old gates and sometimes crumbling stone. We were also treated to the sight of a car trailing rollerbladers who were holding on to whatever bit of car they could reach, and somehow managing not to get run over, all the while shouting excitedly.

Traffic by the old walls

Once we reached Galata bridge we turned back to make our way to the familiar Sultanahment area where our hotel was, making a few deviations along the way. I say deviations, but in reality it may have been more like getting lost, and wandering through dark streets and markets in the hopes that we could find a street going left. We made it in the end, and to celebrate had dinner at a restaurant next to the cistern. It was very good, including the by now ubiquitous restaurant cats, and so full of food and a day of wonderful sights, we returned to the hotel and a good night’s sleep.

The Golden Horn meets the Sea of Marmara

Next time, the Archaeological Museum, Topkapi Palace, and we go slightly off the itinerary!