If it wasn't for a long layover before my next long-haul flight, I would not have been able to visit Istanbul again. Turkish Airlines was offering passengers with a minimum 6-hour connecting time a free tour of the city. My flight arrives at 11:25 AM and my next flight doesn't leave until 1:00 AM the next day. With such plenty of free time, why not take advantage of this freebie indeed?
My flight from Athens arrived fortunately as scheduled, just in time for me to catch the tour that starts at 12 PM. But first I had to get a visa. While most countries require visas before arrival, many Western countries are not exempt though these can be obtained for $20 at a window adjacent to Immigration counters. Once I had the visa affixed, I queued for Immigration formalities which thankfully wasn't so long.
To join the tour, I had to register at the Turkish Airlines hotel desk - located at the far end of the arrival's hall. There were many other people waiting, giving me an idea what kind of sightseeing I'm in for. An agent handed all participants with tour IDs and a map. A big tour bus came to pick us all - a mix of nationalities comprising largely of Umrah pilgrims from Indonesia, madrasa students from Kyrgyztan and single travelers like me. A Turkish woman was serving as a guide.
From the airport, we took the road leading to the old part of town. There wasn't much traffic as it was lunch time. Soon the minarets jabbing Istanbul's skyline came in to view - I got excited. From the window of the bus, I could already see Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque, two of the city's well known landmarks within the "Historic Areas of Istanbul" listed on the UNESCO's World Heritage List.
|Sultan Ahmet Mosque|
As luck would have it (at least for me), the tour was going to Topkapi Palace which I missed during my first visit. It's very popular hence really crowded. There was a long line for the 25 TL (almost $14) entrance tickets but we got in for free. After getting our complimentary tickets, the guide spoke briefly about history relating to the palace. We were all given two hours to explore on our own.
Back in the days of the great Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi served for about 400 years as the residential, ceremonial and administrative nexus of the Sultans. Because this was a VIP's abode, it was built strategically within sight of 3 important waterways - the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. It's not a single building itself but rather a complex of buildings interspersed with courtyards, pavilions and gardens.
|Fountain of Ahmed III|
|Gate of Salutation|
|Mural detail on the gate|
|Detail on Gate of Felicity|
Unlike many opulent palaces elsewhere, Topkapi's facade today doesn't generate a "wow" factor (Dolmabahce Palace on the other part of the city certainly looks grand). What's inside these buildings is what keeps visitor's jaw dropping. There's a vast collection of royal jewelry, robes, Chinese porcelain, weapons, Islamic art and religious artifacts (talk about the prophet Mohammed's sword, an impression of his footprint and even a relic of his beard!). Photography is unfortunately not allowed in these exhibits.
Getting from one exhibit to the next however was a pain in the arse. A continuous stream of visitors made all lines so long. Once inside, I barely had enough time to absorb what's on display as another person was waiting while someone else's face practically was on my shoulder. Eagle eyed guards kept people moving while at the same time making sure no shutter-bug ever escape with a stolen shot.
|Iznik tiles on the Circumcision Room|
|The Iftar Pavilion with its gilded roof is a favorite spot for photo ops. |
The Baghdad Kiosk is at the background
|Panoramic view from Topkapi Palace of the Bosphorus - |
the strait dividing Europe (left) from Asia (right)
There's a separate fee of 15 TL to visit the Harem - which used to house the Queen Mother, the sultan's wives and concubines. Since there was yet another long line and taking photos were prohibited anyway, I decided to give it a pass. I ventured into other areas of this palatial maze, walked into the 4th courtyard (the most secluded and private area), poked my head into the Circumcision Room which primarily was used for, well, the circumcision of young princes.
Despite the heat, I walked further along the gardens and into the Mecidiye Kiosk (or Grand Kiosk) where one gets a panoramic view of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. I imagine the Sultan walking this part of the palace, perhaps trying to clear his mind away from the intrigues in the Harem or even his own court. It is a very strategic spot in the city where those now enjoying the vista are mostly visitors asking fellow visitors to "please take our photo".
|Glad to be back in Istanbul|
Two hours later, I rejoined the others as we were driven to a restaurant for a late lunch of chicken kebab. Sharing the table with me was an Indian guy, a Russian girl, a Saudi man and two Kyrgyztani students who went to a madrasa school in Saudi Arabia. One of the students was quite vocal about Islam, even questioning me why I did not become a Muslim when he found out I used to work in Saudi Arabia.
"Islam good, number 1!", he pointed out for everyone to hear despite his very limited English . His religious fervor went on as he ranted loudly in Arabic to an equally pleased fellow Kyrgyztani. The Indian guy (himself a Muslim in his 50s) felt uncomfortable. The Saudi man could only offer his silence in disbelief. Whatever the madrasa has taught this guy is something I'm beginning to be scared about.
|View of the Sea of Marmara while having lunch|
It was almost 4 PM by the time we were done eating. I told the guide I was staying on in the city while the rest of them went ahead to the airport. They dropped me off in front of the Hagia Sophia. The Indian guy, whose name is Salim also had a long lay-over before his flight to Oman (where he works as an IT consultant) so he decided to walk with me when he found out I was visiting the Süleymaniye Mosque.
To get there, we walked in the direction of the tram until the legendary Grand Bazaar came into view. This to me is the grandmother of all malls. Period. At the height of the Ottoman Empire's hold on three continents, the Grand Bazaar became the hub of commerce in the Mediterranean. Housed under one huge roof are more than 3,000 shops selling anything from carpets, jewelry, lanterns, candies, spices, clothing, leather goods, kitchen utensils, tourist kitsch and so on.
|The Hippodrome Monuments: |
Walled Obelisk, Serpent Column & Obelisk of Theodosius
|One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar|
Beware: It's easy to get lost here and easy to get charmed by sweet-talking salesmen. Trying to remember exactly where we entered and going where we want to go (and there are many gates connecting to city streets) is like a big challenge for orienteering. Shopkeepers meanwhile love enticing customers especially tourists. Bargaining of course is the name of the game. If the price is still high, the mere act of leaving magically brings the price further down.
Carpet sellers are the most aggressive. On my first visit to the bazaar, my friend and I were stopped numerous times by salesmen standing by the door, asking us to just "take a look" and then offering cups of apple tea. While we stood inside looking at wall displays, two helpers unroll carpets upon carpets for us to see. Then comes the oft-repeated spiel: "Which ones you like my friend, I give you very good price?". I went home with a $50 rug which ended up being hung on the wall as an art work instead.
This time around, I wasn't going to be swayed with a carpet or another rug. I merely bought fridge magnets and some Turkish sweets while Salim bought scarves for his wife and t-shirts for himself. We asked around and found shopkeepers who were actually helpful in steering us towards the right exit...without being asked to buy anything.
From the commercial, we went to the spiritual. Up on a small hill, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the city's 2nd largest, named after its builder Sultan Süleyman (AKA "Süleyman the Magnificent"). It was constructed in 1558 and went through several restoration work after being ravaged by fire and earthquake. As I entered the vast courtyard and gawked at its main dome flanked by semi-domes, I was reminded of Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul's other great mosque which I earlier visited.
Like any other mosques everywhere, footwear has to be removed before entering. There are bins for this purpose. While Salim went ahead performing ablution before praying, I sat on the carpet and silently offered my own kind of prayer. Sitting there, looking up and admiring Islamic art was very relaxing, a complete contrast from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Grand Bazaar.
While enjoying the coolness & tranquility offered by the mosque, Salim & I talked about his work in the Middle East and our thoughts went into what the young Kyrgyztani ealier said during our lunch. "As a Muslim", Salim went on, "I was not happy hearing him say that. These kids learn something very different and that's really scary".
Soon it was time for Salim to go ahead as his flight leaves earlier than mine. We walked back, past the Grand Bazaar and parted as he took the train headed for the airport. I merely ambled, taking my sweet time before sitting on a bench park flanked by both the Haghia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque. The sun was slowly going down and the minarets glowed like golden horns piercing the sky. My day in Istanbul is almost over. Another long flight is waiting for me.