Tag Archive: Istanbul

Aya Sofya

So unfortunately I have been insanely busy and have not been able to update my blog due to group projects, tests, etc. However, now that the group project and test are done with I’m going to attempt to power through and finish blogging about my trip to Turkey.

This particular blog is about Aya Sofya, Haiga Sophia, Saint Sophia. However you say it, no one can deny that it is a MUST SEE on the list of places to see before you die. I must state up front that nothing I write about this museum and none of the pictures I post can ever do this place justice.

As museums are closed on Mondays in Istanbul (I don’t know why) we had to give this one a miss that day and see it Tuesday before our briefings with the Intercultural Dialogue Platform and the archaeologist from Bosphorus University.

The Aya Sofya is one of Istanbul’s iconic sites and like every other tourist site in Istanbul, requires you to go through two security points, watched closely by armed members of the military. Just satnding outside the building is inspiring. I’m pretty sure I took at least 50 photos before we even entered into the entrance hall.

The Aya Sofya was built by the Byzantian Emporer Justinian in 532. This enormous engineering marvel only took 5 years to bulid and it is still standing. It probably helps when you have thousands of slaves at your disposal, but I don’t think a building of that magnitude could be built in 5 years in this day and age. Originally the Aya Sofya was built as an Eastern Orthodox Church and was the largest cathedral in the world until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. It was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral from 1204-1261 until it was once again converted into an Eastern Orthodox Church. This only lasted until 1453 when the Ottomans took over and converted it into a mosque.

When visiting the Aya Sofya, one notices that despite being a mosque for hundreds of years, the wall are absolutely peppered with intricate mosaics of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St Paul and numerous emperor’s and their wives. In Islam, there are no depictions of people in art. It’s a cultural/religious thing. When the Ottomans took over, rather than chipping the ornate mosaics from the walls (though they did do a little bit of that to sell to visitors), they simply covered them with some form of plaster. While I am sure they did not do this in anticipation of a future where millions of people would want to see these mosaics when it was no longer a mosque, this incidental preservation does make one appreciative of laziness for a change.

So from the outer courtyard we went through a set of oversized doors into the entrance hall. This hall in and of itself was insane. The hall was solid marble. Marble floors…Marble walls…probably a marble ceiling containing beautifully ornate mosaic designs. One of the many Christian depictions is still intact over the main entrance from the entrance hall to the main room.When our tour guide was telling us about the entrance hall and a bit more about this history of the structure I was awestruck by the size of the entrance hall. If just the entrance was this large, how vast could the main hall possibly be? I soon found out.

We walked through the second set of doors into the colossal main hall. I was dumbstruck. Completely speechless (not necessarily a bad thing). The floor was solid marble (still). There is so much marble in this country. Everything seemed to glitter due to the natural light streaming in and hitting the marble, the onyx and the shining gold paint of the mosaics. We looked up to see the domed ceiling (iconic Byzantian architecture) and had to bend over backwards while craning our necks upwards to check it out. The height of the room from the floor to the top of the dome is 56.6 metres. The most amazing thing about this is that the Aya Sofya doesn’t have the 4 supporting pillars that other domed buildings have. It is held up by the internal walls, the external walls and small supporting pillars on the second level. While this is a feat of engineering, it doesn’t seem very smart as when we went up to the second floor you can see the walls and pillars leaning from the weight of the dome. Apparently the dome actually collapsed just after they finished building it due to an earthquake. It was obviously immediately restored.

Anyway, the Aya Sofya, in my opinion, epitomises the “East meets West” reputation that Istanbul proudly claims. When you look up at the not insignificant height of the building the four corners of the internal supporting walls depict 4 cherubs, only one of which shows the face of the angel. I am unsure of the significance of this, but I think the other faces were covered by the Ottomans and only one has been uncovered. There was a bit of a debate between the tour guide and one of the girls in the group who’s dad is apparently very into theology about that.

The walls also had the green and gold discs that you find in every mosque containing the names of important people in Islam. It was impossible to get a photo of the scale of these discs because you can’t actually stand next to them, but I tried. These discs would have been about 4 or 5 times my height I’d say. They were the largest discs I’ve ever seen in my life. The area where the alter once stood now contains the mihrab which faces Mecca. Behind the mihrab you can see the stained glass windows that are very popular in Christian/Catholic churches and cathedrals. 

Anyway, we had a gander down on the main level and in 2 corners of the mosque were marble “vases” that a Sultan had brought from Pergamon. These vases, like everything else about this place, were larger than life. 3 people of my size could have squeezed into one of these vases (would have been a tight squeeze). They were huge and impressive. I find it especially impressive that these vases were made of one solid piece of marble. They aren’t exactly light and easy to maneuver.

Rather than hanging around downstairs we went up to the second level. Rather than stairs leading up to the balcony level there is a rather unimpressive stone ramp with very little light that just curls around until you get to the second level. When I say “unimpressive” this is relative to the granduer of the rest of the building. I thought it was actually really cool looking, even if it was a bit drafty and creepy.

The second level contained most of the mosaics that we have been hearing so much about. We started out in the loge, which had painted walls rather than mosaics, but the paintings were still well preserved, intricate and beautiful. I’m not entirely sure on this, but the painted parts may at one time have been mosaics that are now simply painted on as a representation to show what they once looked like.

Outside of the loge we came upon numerous mosaics (and a very random marble doorway to another hall). As previously stated, most of these mosaics are of an adult Jesus, emperors, saints and Mary. The largest of the tiles that we saw was probably about as big as my thumbnail, at the very largest and many of them had some sort of gold guilding. For all I know they may have been real gold (if Topkapi Palace is any indication), but they still glimmered magnificently.

The view from the balcony was just as amazing as the view from below, though a significantly different view. We were able to see the discs up close, and they look much smaller from below, if that is any indication of the size of this place. Eventually, we made our way around to the bottom of the horseshoe shaped balcony and came upon what I thought was the most amazing depiction of Jesus I have ever seen. It was a common theme that all baby Jesus’s had the body of a baby but the face of an adult Jesus. This particular baby Jesus looked like Chucky, the creepy possessed puppet doll thing. It was spectacular! It was at this point that I became extremely upset and disappointed because my camera died. It was very emotional and I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, as this balcony actually is similar to a horseshoe (there is about 6 feet that separate the 2 ends and they are blocked off by a giant wall) we had to double back through and go down the other side. The other side didn’t seem to contain very many mosaics for some reason. I’m not entirely sure of the reason why, but the museum had signs up telling about different aspects of the museum and restoration. We went down another stone ramp to get back to the main level and came out near the mihrab and minbar. Once again, East meets West with the minbar and mosaics of Jesus in the background on the upper level. We had another 15 minutes to wander around and check out the place and I decided to give the weeping wall a miss. The weeping wall is a portion of a wall that has a hole in it and it is said that if you stick your finger in it and it comes out wet your ailments will all be cured. I purposefully decided to give this a miss as I didn’t want to stick my finger in it and have it come out dry.

I’m completely aware that this blog just cannot do the Aya Sofya justice or even begin to touch on the size of this place. I do have some photos which can be seen on my facebook album here and here.


After Topkapi Palace we went for lunch at this little restaurant with an insane amount of food per person. The amount of food I ate at this one meal was literally more food than I’d eaten in a week back home. Granted I was starving myself to pay for this trip, but that’s beside the point. There was one noteworthy thing to say at this restaurant though. This was the first time I’d ever tried Baklava. Ivo goes on and on about this particular dessert (which I wasn’t even aware was a dessert) and let me tell you…it is spectacular. I can’t get enough of it. I’m going to have to start making regular time consuming trips to Auburn when I get back to Sydney to obtain this sweet pastry of perfection.

After lunch we went to the Basilica Cistern. Wow! I have to say now that I have felt like an inarticulate 5 year old this entire trip. Everything I have seen is either “Wow”, “Amazing” or “Holy Buckets”. The Basilica Cistern is no exception. This insanely massive underground water holder thing was rediscovered only a few decades ago. It was reopened for the general public in the 1980’s and it is amazing. Apparently, it was built in Roman times (Constantinople was actually the capitol of the Eastern Roman empire, Rome being the capitol of the Western part of the Roman empire) and it has survived to this day with very little restoration. We walked into a very dark and dank area but it had a vast feel to it. It really is very dark in there. When we looked at the “far end” of the cistern it was actually only halfway down.

The story is that this cistern was built however long ago and then for some reason or other the people forgot about it, as they do, and residents would dig down below their houses and reach water and not realise that there was an entire cistern there which was bringing water from an outside spring via clay pipes and aquaducts. When it was “officially” found they cleaned and restored it and now charge people to see it as a tourist attraction and for good reason. It is truly amazing. There are heaps of carp and goldfish in the water and one can also throw coins into the cistern and make a wish, similar to the Trevi fountain in Italy. I will admit that I threw my coins in and made a wish, but I won’t tell you what that wish is. I recognise that the wish is highly unlikely to come true, but a girl can still wish, can’t she?

The columns in the Basilica Cistern aren’t actually all alike. Most of them look very different due to the fact that they are “Borrowed columns”. It was very common in the day to “borrow” columns from the Roman temples by taking the marble columns from other places to build different structures apparently. Keeping what would eventually be ancient Eastern Roman temples intact wasn’t a very high priority at the time. We later learned how they made such nice marble columns, but that will come in a later blog.

It was extremely difficult to get decent photos within the Basilica Cistern due to the fact that I had a cheap camera (compared to the really nice cameras) and it was very dark in there, though I need to say a MASSIVE thank you to my darling Ivo for letting me borrow his camera as it is much, much nicer than mine and I have been able to take extremely nice photos on it. At the back of the Basilica Cistern there were 2 other columns which had a base consisting of the head of Medusa. Everyone should know the story of Medusa, but for those who don’t, she was a beautiful woman with the most beautiful hair. She would brag and boast of having the most beautiful hair until one day one of the gods turned her hair to snakes and everyone who turned their eyes upon her would turn to stone. There are other stories which can be seen here though.

Anywho, 2 of the columns had Medusa’s for bases and one of the Medusa’s was upside down and the other one was turned on her side. One of the reasons for this apparently is because in “ancient” Christianity and the Ibrahimic (Abraham for the Western Christian/Catholic cultures) religions to turn something upside down was to deny it and to say “No, we don’t believe in you and you don’t exist”. To turn upside down Medusa would be to deny the pagan religions of the Roman and Greek gods. Personally, I was a fan of Medusa, but to each their own. I found these column bases absolutely fascinating. I figured that this was the end of the cistern and we would head straight for the exit, but no. There was an entire other section of the Basilica to check out with more columns, more carp, more goldfish and more to look at.

I just find it so amazing all the columns and the arches and how they were able to build this underwater cistern that survived for hundreds of years despite people building buildings over it and houses over it and streets where cars would drive over it and after all that pressure it is still standing in near pristine condition today (though I have no idea how the carp and goldfish got there).

The Hippodrome

After leaving the Basilica Cistern we went to see the Hippodrome, which apparently literally translates to “the place where they race horses”. The Hippodrome now is actually just sort of a giant public square with 3 sort of obelisks (2 obelisks and one small spiral thingy) and the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet mosque falls smack dab in the middle of it.

So in trying to picture a Hippodrome I think of it as a horse racing arena. You see the horse races and they contain a track, which goes around a fence and there is a giant grassy knoll in the middle that no one really touches. As I understand it the obelisks are what the horses would go around (where the grassy knoll was) and the stands or stadium seating was where the 30-some thousand spectators would sit to watch such exciting entertainment of the day.

Way back in the day, there were public uprisings and protests regarding the lower class of peoples, and Emperor Justinian, in all his might and glory, was pretty ticked off about people not being pleased with his rule and he actually waited until the Hippodrome was full with about 30,000 people waiting for an exciting horse race (think Ben Hur) and had the doors locked and had his army slaughter, yes slaughter, the 30,000 civilians in the stadium. Word has it that this took no longer than 3 hours. Talk about efficient. To be insensitive and completely inappropriate, I don’t think even Hitler was ever that efficient.

The Obelisks (and random Greek thingy) in the Hippodrome were also very interesting. The first obelisk that we saw was actually an Egyptian obelisk. It has Egyptian hieroglyphics and everything and was apparently only one third of the obelisk brought over from Egypt. How the Egyptians built such tall, slender structures without them falling over with the slightest wind is beyond me. The second “obelisk” was actually just this random Greek spiral, brought over from Greece and was the middle of the 3 obelisks. It literally looked like a spiral noodle only green and buried about 3 metres down, but that just shows how far the hippodrome has been buried since the thousand  or so years that it was used. The third obelisk we didn’t really get to see as it was under construction and I don’t really know what it was or anything about it, so I’m really sorry about that, but you’ll have to look it up.

Sultanahmet Mosque/ Blue Mosque

So the proper name for the mosque is Sultanahment Mosque. The Turks, I am told, hate the fact that it is commonly known in the Western world as the (in my opinion appropriately named) Blue Mosque because it takes away from the cultural heritage of it. I can understand why it is called the Blue Mosque though.

Before we entered, the outside looked like most every other extremely large Turkish Mosque. We actually entered from the side of the mosque, not the front of it, which I thought was quite bizarre as the front was no busier than the side, but whatever. I’m not sure how familiar most of my American friends and family are with mosques, but when you enter a mosque (especially for prayer) you are expected to be clean, because cleanliness is next to Godliness. They have a thing before prayer called abulations where you cleanse yourself in the fountain outside the mosque. There are very specific rules on this which I think I touched upon in another blog, but if not you can Wikipedia it.  Part of this cleanliness is that you don’t wear shoes in the mosque. You are also supposed to cover your head in the mosque if you are female and they provide scarves for you if you don’t already have one.

So we took our shoes off and wandered into the mosque and let me tell you, my 5 year old inarticulate self is saying “Wow!” and “Amazing”. There are literally thousands of tiles covering the interior of this mosque. It has the usual 4 pillars holding up the dome and these are also covered in tiles. All these beautiful hand painted tiles are painted with tulip patterns which are the symbol of the Ottoman empire. As I said previously, these tiles are HAND PAINTED. I’m sorry, but I can’t get over that bit.

When Özcan was telling us about the history of this mosque I had to eat my words about the sultans of the Ottoman empire being completely jaded. I maintain that they were somewhat jaded, but apparently the sultans where expected to be educated and learn a specific skill. The sultan who had the Sultanahmet Mosque built apparently specialised in architecture. Mosques all have minarets (even the tiny ones, and I have seen some tiny ones in rural Turkey) and Sultanahmet Mosque is no exception. Each minaret at Sultanahmet has 3 balconies, which is nothing special until you realise that there are 3 different staircases leading to each balcony and none of the staircases ever meet.  Nothing special until you realise that the minarets aren’t really more than 2 metres across. To fit 3 staircases in such a small space and making it so they never meet is an amazing feat. To this day, engineers, with all their sophisticated technology can not figure out how the Sultan managed to do it. I mean, it’s not exactly like they can just tear it apart to figure out how they work.

I still maintain the sultans were jaded to a degree however.

So back to the spectacular interior of the mosque. Thousands of gorgeously painted tiles and people praying. There were women in there who took off their headscarves (Europeans) and people who were speaking loudly and I was absolutely embarrassed. I will be the first to admit that I am not religious or spiritual in any way, but I am a firm believer in respecting the place you are in and the women taking off their headscarves was so disrespectful. I was truly embarrassed. The floor of the mosque was covered by (in my opinion) beautifully woven carpets with a tulip pattern, but apparently these carpets are mass produced as they used to have beautiful hand crafted Persian carpets in the mosque but someone broke in and stole them (who steals something from a place of worship? That’s just begging for bad karma). As my knees and hips were still hurting from the previous day I sat down fairly quickly and just decided to people watch with our trip advisor. Suleiman mosque is truly a magical human creation and attracts all walks of life as it is in such a tourist area. I watched those wretched European women who were wandering around without their headscarves off, I watched lovely old Turkish women with their children and grandchildren praying and marvelling at the architectural wonder that is this mosque. I watched men crossing the boundary meant to keep tourists from the main prayer area to pray to Allah for whatever it is the religious pray for (as an atheist I don’t really know what the religious pray for). Thankfully, the mosque is closed to the general public during prayer so that scheduled prayer time goes uninterrupted.

After visiting the mosque it had actually been a very long day and we decided it was time to go back to the hotel. While it may seem that it wasn’t that long of a day, can I say that we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 3ish or later. Some of us actually went to Istiklal to just check out the “main drag” of the younger generation before settling at some random cafe down a side street. I ordered the infamous Turkish Elma çay (apple tea) which was delicious and I have recently become addicted to while some of the group played backgammon and we enjoyed the “view”. It was amusing as we chose a table that we could all fit at and by the time we were settled in we noticed that two of the girls had a wonderful view of “WC” which means “water can”. I find this interesting that every “toilette” is labelled as “WC” as there isn’t actually a W in the Turkish alphabet. There were actually separate toilets for the bay and bayan, men and the women, but as the men seemed to be using them both (and not closing the door) this didn’t seem to matter much. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing every time I looked over there.

At one point during an intense game of backgammon some kid who couldn’t have been older than 13 passed with his friends, stopped and said something in Turkish.  Sara, one of the girls on the trip and my roommate who happens to be Australian-Turk said to him in Turkish “What’s wrong”. The look on his face was priceless. His jaw dropped and his eyes were wide as saucers and he bolted. Being as most of us were obviously not Turkish it would seem he was trying to scam something from us. He wasn’t a terribly experienced thief and I hope it stays that way. Frankly, I’m not sure what he could have stolen from any of us as the only thing on the table was the backgammon board, but whatever, it was still hilarious, though sad at the same time.

On the way back from this cafe place there was a very cozy bookshop that reminded me of the bookshop that Audrey Hepburn worked in in the movie Funny Face. This bookshop was mostly full of books written in Turkish (understandably) but there was an English section and then there was also a section of books by Turkish authors written in English. They had popular Turkish authors and books, but they also had books on politics and religion by Turkish authors written in English as well. This section is the one I was really interested in. I didn’t get any fictional books by Turkish authors (I may when I get back to Istanbul if I have enough money) but I did get a fascinating book on secularism and state policies on religion with a focus on the US (passive securalism with a very religious demographic), France (aggressive securalism with a less religious demographic) and Turkey (aggressive securalism with an even more religious demographic than the US). I also wanted a book written by a Turk about the Armenian Genocide (acknowledging the Armenian genocide) but it was about 40 Euro’s. For those of you who don’t know about the Turkish/Armenian relations, the Turks completely deny the Armenian genocide, which the rest of the world acknowledges as genocide, if not ethnic cleansing. Needless to say, I will be back at this bookstore if I have any money left over at the end of the trip.

After this bookstore we went back to the hotel for dinner and discussed all the interesting things we saw before going to bed so we could prepare for an extremely busy next day.

Pictures can be seen in this facebook album here.

A day in Ortakoy

Well, I’m officially in Turkey after a very stressful pre-departure and mostly uneventful flights. Normally I am a very organised person when it comes to traveling (and my wardrobe and bookshelves and nothing else). I am usually at the airport at least 3 hours before my flight (if not earlier), I have all my documents in a nice little folder or plastic sheet, my purse is sorted, my bags are sorted, my liquids and laptop are in an easily accessible spot for scanning. This pre-departure was a bit different thanks to an accounting test I had on Saturday morning. Everyone cross your fingers that I passed.

Anyway, I was flustered and rushing around to get everything finished and ended up forgetting things at home (at least Ivo is home to do them) and forgot stuff in the car and was so late that I almost missed getting my luggage on the flight. I NEVER have to wait in line or worry about my luggage missing the flight, but this particular day, as I said, was a bit more stressful. I did make it to my gate though (just in time as well), had an uneventful flight to Singapore, had an uneventful layover in which I just made it to my gate on time (had to get a transfer ticket and only had a 1 hour layover). There were a few things I contemplated on this layover and on my flight to Turkey that I will cover a smidge later however. I would also like to point out that the most eventful thing that happened on my flight from Singapore to Istanbul was the constant sound coming from a man about 10 seats up from me who either had a really bizarre sneeze or was vomiting/dry heaving for a large portion of the flight and kept waking everyone up with these disgusting noises.

Anyway, I rocked up to Istanbul around 7 this morning and paid for my visa and was stuck behind a team of world championship karate guys from Kuwait (read: gorgeous). I would like to take this time to note that some things transcend language and culture. This particular thing I noticed at the airport was my name. Standing in line to get through the passport check I wasn’t wearing my headphones like I usually would, and I promptly heard over the intercom, “Mr. Aryn De Long to the information desk. Mr Aryn De Long to the information desk.” So it isn’t just the English speaking world that thinks I’m a dude. Good to know. When I met with the company transfering me to my hotel the guy at the desk called the driver to see where he was and said “Miss Aryn De Long has arrived and is ready to be picked up. Yes, Miss. ” Turns to me and says “You are a Miss?” *nods head* “Yes. Miss.” It’s times like this when I’m so glad of the way my  name is spelt. Breaks up the monotony in life.

The drive to the hotel was slightly more eventful than the flights were, needless to say. My driver did not speak any English whatsoever, which quickly became apparent when trying to figure out which bags were mine and which were the other passengers’. He knocked on my window and when I opened the door started speaking to me rapidly in Turkish. I said “Pardon, I only speak English.” and he gestured me to the back of the shuttle bus where he pointed to my bag and I nodded my head. Then the other passenger said something about my carry-on bag in the backseat because when I sat down again he got in the car and started talking in Turkish and pointing to the back. I had an obvious ‘deer in headlights’ look so he pointed at my purse (red) and then at the back. I just nodded my head because I assumed he was talking about my carry on bag. It worked.

That, however, was the least exciting part of the drive. I’m not entirely sure what the road rules are here, but I assume there are at least a few as I did see a couple of speed limit signs (at the rate all the drivers except for one on the road were going it may have been a speed minimum sign). It also seems that talking on phones while driving is completely normal, wearing helmets on bikes is an anomoly and driving using at least 1 hand is optional. Not once, not twice, but three times in the 15 minute drive my driver answered his phone with one hand, shifted with his other and either let the vehicle drift across a couple of lanes (it wasn’t like he ever stayed in one lane anyway, driving in 2 lanes at once also seems to be a norm) or attempted to steer briefly with his knee. Personally, I thought it was hilarious and had a grin on my face the entire way to the hotel.

Part of the appeal of driving from the airport to the hotel is that it gave me the opportunity to look around. Due to the fact that Turkey is a secular country they have adopted the Gregorian calender and the Western weekend for business purposes. So rather than Sunday being the first day of the working week like it is in other Islamic countries (Turkey is predominantly Muslim) it is the last day of the weekend. This meant very little traffic at 8am and an opportunity to see what people do on their lazy Sundays. The most instantly noticable and iconic thing about Istanbul is the skyline. As with every major city skyline it is very distinctive to Istanbul. This skyline happens to include dozens and dozens of minarets piercing the sky, indicating the number of mosques that are actually in Istanbul. Some are smaller, some are larger, but they are all over the place and they are absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, I have yet to go to Europe so cannot compare how I feel about the mosques to the great cathedrals of old, but I absolutely adore the mosques.

The other major thing I’ve noticed, which has etched itself in my mind and I wish I could have gotten a photo of was the men fishing off the bridge crossing over to Sultanahmet. I don’t know if they are there everyday, but they were out in droves today. It was fascinating for me to see so many men standing shoulder to shoulder fishing off of a bridge when so frequently in Australia and the US you see signs everywhere saying “No fishing from bridge”. This, for me, has become the iconic image of Istanbul. Whenever someone mentions this amazing city I’m going to think of all those men fishing from the bridge. It was made all the better by the fact that the sun was positioned as such that I could only make out their shapes like shadows against a dawn background.

Today was pretty much a leisure day for us as we don’t have anything scheduled until dinner at 7 so I decided I would check out a portion of the city I was interested in but we wouldn’t be going to on our itinerary. I took off early for Ortaköy and Yildiz Park. It’s about a 3-4 km walk the short way from our hotel to Ortaköy so I ended up going via a lot of little back alleys until I wound up at the Bosphorus and decided to walk along the water as I know that if I stayed along the water I would get to Ortaköy eventually. There are a few marked differences between Sydney and Istanbul and Istanbul and the US. Istanbul is definitely far dirtier than Sydney is, but I would put the litter on par with that I have seen in large cities in the US.

There are also cats EVERYWHERE and to a lesser extent, dogs. It’s pretty awesome to see these cats just chillin. There are literally cat’s lying in the streets and on sidewalks and they wander around kiosks and markets and jump on the tables and just chill. I’m sure that some of them have owners as  I saw one riding on some dude’s shoulder, but for the most part they are homeless. They aren’t completely feral like one would expect to find and they all seem pretty well fed, but whenever I happened to approach one (difficult not to as they are everywhere) they look at me like I’m an outsider and appear to be slightly distrustful. The dogs are also very tame for being homeless, and a lot of them are tagged. No idea why, I should look into that. The dogs would be wandering along the sidewalk, peeing on trees and I even saw one that was playing with an empty water bottle. None of them attack, and most of them don’t even take notice of you as you walk past. Gorgeous dogs though. I saw a lot of yellow labs, golden retrievers, german shepherds and even one that looked suspiciously like a husky mix. I like the freedom of these animals wandering around. It gives more character to the city.

During the walk to Ortaköy I passed this wall that glittered, and you’ll be able to see a photo on my public album when I get it posted. It was just a decrepit, falling apart wall but someone had taken the time to paint it a bunch of random colours and there was a gold glitter overlay. Unfortunately, the sun was not out when I took the photo so you can’t really see the glitter, but trust me, it was awesome. This wall area also seemed to be over run with cats. My mum would hate it. She hates cats.  So continuing with my walk I came along another Bosphorus side area where there were more fisherman and there was a shop that was either renting or selling fishing poles (not sure whih as I couldn’t read the signs other than the 20 Lira part). I don’t know what it is, but I just love the sight of these fisherman.

Continuing on further I came across mosques and TULIPS! The tulips are in bloom and they are amazing. I’ve never seen tulips like they have here. There are so many colour varieties and it makes me wish they had them in Australia. They line every mosque and all the sidewalks and many of the roundabouts and other random structures that I have no idea what they are or what they are used for as I don’t read arabic or Turkish. If we pass them sometime I’ll ask our guide what they are.

The mosques, as always, are amazing. They are massive stone structures in this part of Istanbul and frequently have gold gilded dome tips and the spires are insanely high. Most of the one’s I saw the front door was closed so I assumed that meant it was not a mosque that visitors such as myself could enter. I know some of them were open though as I saw one man washing himself before heading in to prayer. In Islam, the people believe they should be clean before going into a mosque. You are not allowed to wear shoes in the mosque, even as a visitor. They are holy and sacred places of worship and thus the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” applies. The process of washing before prayer is just that… a process. Apparently it is called Wudu and it is of the utmost importance.

Beyond the numerous mosques that I passed I started coming up along these palaces. Yes, palaces. More than one. They were all heavily guarded and the walls guarding the palaces are GARGANTUAN. Truly. One wall that i passed must have been at least 20-30 metres high. I attempted to take some perspective shots and the people walking past look like ants. These walls dwarf the street lamps and the trees lining the main road are barely taller than the wall. The palaces as far as I know that I passed were Dolmabahçe Palace and Ciragan Palace. At what I think was one of the rather extravagant, engraved entrances to Ciragan Palace (but I could be wrong) there were these 2 blue boxes containing a military guard each just standing there still as a statue. Well, they were still as a statue the second time I went past. The first time I went past they were actually getting into position, otherwise I never would have guessed they were real people when I went back the second time. It was a little bizarre to be honest.

At this point I was across the street from Yildiz Park, which was one of my goals for the day, but I decided to bypass it for the time being and catch it on the way back as my other main goal was Ortaköy. So I continued on to Ortaköy, which was only another 100 metres or so up the road and wandered around this little market square area near the mosque. Most of it was the same jewelry I will probably be seeing elsewhere so i just did a cursory glance before continuing on to the mosque. I hadn’t heard the call to prayer at all that day and did not want to interrupt prayer so proceeded to the mosque with caution. I slipped off my shoes, pocketed the money I was keeping in my shoe, slipped my pashmina on over my hair (I actually saw one woman go into the mosque without a head covering. It was shocking and disgraceful.) and walked quietly into the mosque.

This particular mosque is a very small mosque. The smallest one I have ever been in, in fact (not saying much as I have only been in a few), but still very small in comparison to the one’s I have entered. It was, however, as beautifully decorated as any other mosque. The domed ceiling was covered in beautifully painted tiles, the walls had equally beautiful artwork with giant green disks (significantly taller than me) which I have heard have the names of some of the prophets of Islam and two of Mohammad’s gransons in gorgeous golden Arabic calligraphy. There is an extremely large and ornate crystal chandelier hanging low from the domed ceiling as well.

The thing I’ve noticed about mosques that I really love is the sense of peace and the serenity that comes with entering a mosque. The floor is covered with thick persion rugs (I imagine to make it more comfortable for those in prayer and so it doesn’t get so cold), and the colours are beautifully designed to instill peace in the viewer. Somehow the combination of brightly painted tiles with neutral background colours strangely manages to calm the body and soul. There is a marked difference from the churches I have entered, even the open and light Christian churches which are designed with a more modern asthetic, and still contain the unfriendly looking pews. There is an EXTREME difference between the mosques I’ve visited and all the Catholic churches I’ve been to. While I cannot pretend to be an expert as I have never been in a cathedral, the Catholic churches I have been in are always very depressing places. They are dark, with few if any regular windows and the stained glass windows only helps to keep the church dark (good for falling asleep I suppose). The pews are uncomfortable and very quaker-ish and very little about them says “welcome”. But as I said, I have yet to visit any of the European cathedrals.

So moving on from the mosque, I checked out some more of the little stands in the square. One stand held scarves. I love scarves. Scarves also come very useful for travel when looking at Islam as you need to keep your hair covered in a mosque if you are female and some countries it is such common practice to wear the hijab that as a westerner you feel more comfortable with the scarf on. There is a marked difference, even in Turkey of how I am treated when I have a scarf covering my hair. This is not to say I am treated badly, and in general men are very respectful towards women in Islamic countries, however I am given just that extra little bit of help by people (ie, men helping me to chuck my carry on bag in the overhead compartment that I am too short to reach) when I have my hair covered. Anyway, I saw a scarf that I instantly fell in love with. It came in about 6 different colours and in the end I decided on a grey, black and white one as the other ones were just too bright for me to justify ever really wearing. The woman told me 15 lira and I really wasn’t in a bargaining mood so I just accepted it and apparently she decided to bargain with herself on my behalf because she asked me to choose an extra scarf from one of the piles and I ended up with a lovely silver, blue and purple striped scarf as well. 2 new scarves for about $10. Not too shabby.

From there I hit the other side of the main road in Ortaköy just too check out the local feel and it was wonderful. I could see myself making temporary home there at some point in the future. The small cobbled streets and precarious sidewalks were an absolute deathtrap (and I was wearing flats), but the close proximity of cafe’s and shops and fish and vegetable markets and bakeries where it was very obvious that pretty much all the inhabitants of these businesses knew each other and spent their downtime socialising with each other made for a very welcoming, familial and friendly atmosphere. It seemed that bargaining was not only a major part of the buying process, but was also their way of socialising as well. Whenever I stopped to look at anything I was always spoken to in Turkish, which I found bizarre because most people can speak some sort of English (my driver being the exception apparently) in order to say numbers, and Ortaköy being an apparently international area should have been no exception. According to some of the girls on the trip I look like a Turk though. To date I have been mistaken for Israeli and Turkish. Wonder what will be next.

After trekking through Ortaköy (yes, it was very similar to trekking) I decided to head to Yildiz Park. What a beautiful place. I would kill for a park like that in my backyard (or very near it). And the best part is you don’t have to worry about massive spiders eating you in Turkey like you do in Australia. I walked into the park and was immediately struck by the number of dogs just lounging around. They were all tagged, and I’m not sure what that was about, but I’ll have to check it out. Most of the dogs were fully grown and just layed there as you passed, occassionally getting up to find a new patch of sun and grass, but it was very obvious that they were allowed to just run amok if they pleased. I wandered around Yildiz taking a few photos before settling down at a picnic table facing the Bosphorus. I took out my chocolate and a piece of paper to start jotting down initial impressions of Istanbul and ideas for what I would like to learn more about on this trip and just sat there in the peace of this very old park. My contemplation was interrupted by the call to prayer I initially just heard the call from the Ortaköy mosque, but in the stillness of the park was soon able to hear the echoes of other mosques nearby.

It’s a pretty moving experience, hearing the call to prayer and considering what it means. I suppose it could be likened to hearing the church bells for Sunday mass or for a wedding. A large group of people, interrupting their day, just dropping what they are doing, to gather together for something that is so far beyond them and something they so strongly believe in. The difference being that the call of prayer is 5 times a day! That’s a lot of dedicated prayer time. It makes one consider and realise what an interesting phenomenon religion is.

After the call to prayer I continued on with my quiet contemplation before deciding to get back to the hotel. It had taken me nearly 2 hours to get to Ortaköy as I kept detouring and stopping so I was unsure how long it would take to get back to the hotel in Tepebasi. I wanted to get back with time to rest my poor feet, work on this blog and maybe take a nap. Walking back was not nearly as nice of an experience as walking there, but I was determined to not spend my very limited funds on transport that was unnecessary (something my guide has been making jokes about ever since). My feet were absolutely killing me as my shoes (boots) provided zero support, my ankle hurt as I had rolled it numerous times on the death trap sidewalks and my knees…well, that’s pretty self-explanatory for those who know me). But, I was determined. My determination started to wane halfway there however when it started raining. Well, one more benefit of a scarf in Islam…if it rains you just put it over your hair again! I also wore my winter coat so I had a hood, but they kept slipping. I stopped under a tree (there was very little cover this entire walk) to sit and rest my feet and readjust my head coverings and what should the weather decide to do? Hail. Yes, it started hailing. Needless to say, those taxis were looking pretty good. Unfortunately, the taxis here are at 1st world prices and I didn’t trust myself on the public transport so I just kept walking. I made it to the hotel in about40 minutes (pretty good in my painful state I reckon), got my room key, found out my carry on bag was missing only to find out it had been taken up to my room already (which apparently wasn’t my assigned room in the first place).

I was able to get started on this blog while cooling my aching body with drinks from the minibar (no ice machine) and channel surfed until I found a music channel that appears to be a mixture between MTV and E! During the day it’s popular music video’s (and the variety of video’s shows the culture and diversity of Turkey) and at night (read: as I type this) they are during E! style interviews and clips of fashion and awards shows. I’m too lazy to get up to change the channel now that everything is in Turkish. When I say there was variety in video’s, there was variety. The first song was in Turkish, the second I heard was Japanese, after that I heard popular songs from the English speaking world, French, Arabic and Persian. Everything from pop to country, ballads to Arabic and French rap was seen and heard. I’m wishing I would have taken down the name of some of these songs.

Anyway, I did get my nap in, had a lovely dinner with my travelmates for the next 2 weeks before coming back up to my room to finish my blog, enjoy my solitude and head to bead, which I will be doing shortly since most people have gone out to enjoy the Bosphorus by night. Something my legs just can’t handle right now.

I’m hoping to update this trip every day, but at least every other day with some intermittent posts about random musings. I have some travel musings I would like to post soon and I would also like to make more general posts about issues I am interested in that I hope to learn more about while here, so look forward to those as well

Pictures from Ortakoy can be seen in the first half of this facebook album.