Wednesday, September 26

Turkey-Iran, Day Two: Blitzing Istanbul

Coming from Etiler my early start was foiled by traffic on my way to catch the T1 into Sultanahmet, the place with the highest density of sights. This proved to be a blessing in disguise as it led to a change in plan which brought me instead to the Galata Tower. Not only did this mean not having to return to Galata, but the view from the top of the tower enabled me to get a real sense of the physical geography of the area. I now had a mental map (along with that provided by Google) of how the Bosphoros carved its way through the city as well as the relative directions and distances to the next stops on my list.

Since I was already in the area, my next stop was the Mevlevi House to the north of the tower. I'll be honest with you - this was only of interest since it was included in the Istanbul Museum Card I was planning on getting, except I was disappointed to discover that they weren't actually issued at that site (meaning I would have to pay an extra entrance fee). That said, it was a pretty decent visit and a useful introduction to the the more Sufi aspects of Islamic practise in the region. The hall (where the dervishes would whirl) was especially mystical.

Taking the novel Tunel to Kadakoy, I then begun the real walking of the day. Crossing the Galata Bridge the main destination was The Topkapi Palace but I took the opportunity to visit a few smaller sights on the way. The Spice Bazaar was novel enough - between the smells and the aesthetics you could easily have been taken back a few centuries if so desired. The remaining couple of sights were the start of what would pretty much become the theme of not only my time in Istanbul but that of my whole holiday.

Mosque #1: New Mosque
Mosque #2: Rustem Pasha

The New Mosque was under heavy refurbishment (unfortunately another theme for the trip) so I was only able to view it from outside. The Rustem Pasha was novel in that it was situated on top of a series of markets and catacombs - trying to find my way up was a mini magical adventure all on its own as I passed through secret passages and doorways to the stairs that took me up to the prayer hall proper.

After a quick passing by the Sirkeci or Orient Express Station, I had finally reached Topkapi Palace. This proved to be quite the time sink, with a total of 2.5 hours having been spent there. It wasn't the perfect experience either with the Harem (charged separately) being grossly overrated and long lines to see the collection of Prophetic relics acquired during the Ottoman era.

Now armed with my Museum Pass, I headed to the complex of Archaeological Museums. I spent an hour taking in all three of the sub-museums there - the collection of sarcophagi in the main Archaeology Museum was the clear attraction but the Ancient Oriental Artifact and Tiled Kiosk museums were also worth the look, particularly for the Egyptian Hittite peace treaty in the former.

On the way out of the museums I happened across an art exhibition called "Land of Dreams - Troy". This was a quick and unanticipated win and had some genuinely interesting pieces of modern art themed around Troy.

I then backtracked a bit back to the History of Science Museum, a half hour visit of what could have been bordering on Islamic propaganda if it wasn't so nerdy. Although most of the installations were replicas the museum was genuinely educational and provided a decent amount of insight into the advancement of science caused during the various Islamic empires.

Mosque #3: Aya Irene

Cutting back to Topkapi I visited the Aya Irene, situated on the palace grounds. This was until recently closed to visitors, but any excitement I held was quickly put to rest after discovering how derelict the place was. Although it was clearly a place of Christian worship I'm not sure if it was ever a mosque, but I've listed it anyway just in case.

Aside from the Topkapi, the real headlining tourist attraction is of course the Aya Sofia. Since it was closing a bit later on, I decided to hit the Basilica Cistern first, something I had heard about a lot before coming here. Somewhat interesting, if a bit dark, I don't think anyone would really need to spend more than the 20 minutes I did there unless they really had an imagination to feed.

Mosque #4: Aya Sofia

And so I finally arrived at the Aya Sofia, the single place that everyone would rave about after their return from Istanbul. And I have to admit, of all the places I have seen today the Aya Sofia disappointed the least. Magnificent, intimidating and cavernous its presence was clearly due to more than its size.

It was now late in the day, so I quickly blitzed the nearby Mosaic and Turkish and Islamic Arts Museums before they each closed. I wouldn't describe either as unmissable but the latter at least had some interesting things to see. The next item on my list wasn't far - in fact it was just across the Hippodrome.

Mosque #5: The Blue Mosque

Having arrived a fair amount of time before sunset, I took the opportunity to offer my day prayers and then chill out waiting for Maghrib. It was pretty much the only real down time I had today and was much appreciated. Praying in congregation was also an experience in itself, a feeling that was borne out of the history of the place as well as the people and even my own unfamiliarity with the land.

Mosque #6: Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque
Mosque #7: Little Hagia Mosque

After dark I visited two more mosques, both of which were a little off the beaten path. The Little Hagia Sophia in particular was a charming little place of worship, especially on the inside. Near to both of these was the last on my list for today: The Bukoleon Palace, a ruin of sorts which yet demonstrated its previous stature.

As I headed to Taksim for dinner, I managed to make a friend who accompanied me to dinner around the busy and neon district of Istiklal. The square itself was also a quick win, as I recalled all the times it would have been mentioned in the news for the protests it hosted.

As a measure of today's success (or failure perhaps) I came away with around 500 photos during my time out and about. I've been a tourist long enough to know how to optimise and be efficient when doing the sights of a city, and all those lessons paid off in my bid to consume all that Istanbul had to offer in the two days that I had. Of course being alone also helped, in terms of maintaining both focus and walking speed.

Overall it was a great day in terms of achievement but I can't quite shake the feeling of being underwhelmed with Istanbul so far. It could of course have been by approach - it's certainly a town that rewards a more casual approach - but I also sense the feeling that it can easily be oversold by those who might have a bias for Islamic tourism. It's probably a mixture of both, but I'll probably have a better idea of how I feel when I conclude my tour of the city tomorrow.

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