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Istanbul Journal

We recently visited one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Capital to two major empires, Istanbul is truly a city full of historic (Byzantine and Ottoman) monuments but has a foot planted firmly in the modern world. We spent a week visiting many of its neighborhoods and saw a few of its 3,000 mosques, inside and out. Throughout the visit, we found Istanbul's citizens to be exceedingly friendly, the food delicious, the visual sights breathtaking and came home vowing to return for another visit.

The New Mosque and Galata Bridge - One evening we ate dinner in one of the many fish restaurants under the Galata Bridge. The view toward Old Town and the New Mosque was magical.

Hagia Sophia - Surrounded by the Bosphorus Sraight, Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, Istanbul is the only city in the world to connect two continents: Europe and Asia. The European side is further divided by water into the Old Town and the New District. On our first full day in Istanbul we headed for Sultanahmet, a large park in the Old Town named after one of Turkey's most famous sultans. Many of Istanbul's most popular and revered buildings and sights can be found there, including Hagia Sophia. Its size is breathtaking.

The enormity of the space, the light, the colors, the combination of Ottoman and Byzantium decorative elements, it all takes your breath away. Paris' Notre Dame cathedral can easily fit in the huge nave. Hagia Sophia was conceived and built by Emperor Justinian I in 537AD. He wanted a church so large that people would remember him for centuries. He got his wish. More than 7,500 architects, stonemasons, mosaic artists and other laborers finished the project in only 5(!) years. The building is monumental, and its great dome is a more than visible feature in Istanbul's magical skyline. For a thousand years it was the largest Christian building in the world, until surpassed by Brunelleschi's Florence masterpiece in the Renaissance. Hagia Sophia became a mosque the day the Ottomans came to power in the mid 15th century. Just as with the Chora Church, the mosaics were covered with plaster, Islamic elements such as the dropped chandeliers and the large calligraphy medallions were added to the interior and minarets were added to the exterior. In 1934 the building became a museum.

The 24' wide medallions were added in the 19th century and have ornately written names of leading muslim figures.

The Spice Bazaar - Close by the Grand Bazaar, is the much more manageable Spice Bazaar. Located a few blocks away, it is filled with hundreds of shops selling all kinds of sweets and spices, nuts and dried fruits. The Spice Bazaar was built in 1660 to accommodate the growing spice trade between the Orient and Europe. Istanbul enjoyed the perfect location for buyers and sellers of both continents.

Inside the Grand Bazaar - One of Istanbul's top tourist attractions, The Grand Bazaar has everything you could possibly want to carry home as a souvenir. Created from many small streets filled with even smaller shops, it dates back to Byzantine days. It was enlarged and became more important with the rise of the Ottoman empire more than 500 years ago. The streets were eventually covered over and continued to be THE place for the citizens to shop for their needs. With the arrival of European tourists in the 1950s, the Grand Bazaar became the source for Istanbul souvenirs including carpets and textiles, metalware, glass, jewelry and anything else imaginable. While the chaos and the thousands of shops may be your dream or your worst nightmare, or somewhere in between, it is definitely a place to visit. While I am sure many of the items for sale are Turkish origin, one must be careful of Chinese knockoffs. The salesmen are friendly and polite but insistent that you visit their shops. Be prepared to bargain and you should pay only half of the proposed sale price (no prices are marked). We came with a plan: No shopping, only pictures, and we left without a purchase, relieved.

Mosque and Mineret - We decided to check out the newer part of town, so we hopped on the ultra modern tram that winds through the Old Town, across the Golden Horn, past the fishermen on the Galata Bridge and along the Bosphorus into the New District. It's only $1.20 for a ride with great views. We passed numerous mosques with their minarets framed with sculpted trees.

Traditional Buildings Near Chora Church - Istanbul has a wealth of building styles, and one of my favorites was in this small neighborhood near the Chora Church. I loved the paint colors, softened with age.

The Blue Mosque - One afternoon we visited the Blue Mosque. Built in 1609-1616 by Sultan Ahmet I, it is best known for the blue Iznik tiles that cover the interior walls and ceilings. Ahmet was so excited about the project he even worked along side the laborers while it was under construction. He wanted a building that would be more impressive than the nearby by Hagia Sophia and legend has it that he asked for gold to be added to the top of each minaret. The architect thought he had asked for six minarets instead and the sultan was surprised and pleased with the revised outcome. No other mosque has as many minarets outside of Mecca. The main dome is 140 feet high and there are more than 20,000 Iznik tiles covering the walls and ceilings. Iznik tile production began in the Byzantine era with Chinese patterns and with the rise of the Ottoman empire, the patterns became Arabic, and turquoise, red and green was added to the original blue and white tiles.

The Grand Bazaar - One of Istanbul's top tourist attractions, The Grand Bazaar has everything you could possibly want to carry home as a souvenir. Created from many small streets filled with even smaller shops, it dates back to Byzantine days. It was enlarged and became more important with the rise of the Ottoman empire more than 500 years ago. The streets were eventually covered over and continued to be THE place for the citizens to shop for their needs. With the arrival of European tourists in the 1950s, the Grand Bazaar became the source for Istanbul souvenirs including carpets and textiles, metalware, glass, jewelry and anything else imaginable. While the chaos and the thousands of shops may be your dream or your worst nightmare, or somewhere in between, it is definitely a place to visit. While I am sure many of the items for sale are Turkish origin, one must be careful of Chinese knockoffs. The salesmen are friendly and polite but insistent that you visit their shops. Be prepared to bargain and you should pay only half of the proposed sale price (no prices are marked). We came with a plan: No shopping, only pictures, and we left without a purchase, relieved. The entrance had the structure's founding date: 1481.

Traditional Buildings Old Town - Near Haiga Sophia is Old Town, filled with traditional wooden houses. There are also lots of small hotels/hostels in this area catering to visitors, so it was easy to find a nice outdoor restaurant. I loved the cantilevered bay windows and the rich colors of these traditional houses.

Hagia Sophia - Surrounded by the Bosphorus Sraight, Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, Istanbul is the only city in the world to connect two continents: Europe and Asia. The European side is further divided by water into the Old Town and the New District. On our first full day in Istanbul we headed for Sultanahmet, a large park in the Old Town named after one of Turkey's most famous sultans. Many of Istanbul's most popular and revered buildings and sights can be found there, including Hagia Sophia. Its size is breathtaking.

The enormity of the space, the light, the colors, the combination of Ottoman and Byzantium decorative elements, it all takes your breath away. Paris' Notre Dame cathedral can easily fit in the huge nave. Hagia Sophia was conceived and built by Emperor Justinian I in 537AD. He wanted a church so large that people would remember him for centuries. He got his wish. More than 7,500 architects, stonemasons, mosaic artists and other laborers finished the project in only 5(!) years. The building is monumental, and its great dome is a more than visible feature in Istanbul's magical skyline. For a thousand years it was the largest Christian building in the world, until surpassed by Brunelleschi's Florence masterpiece in the Renaissance. Hagia Sophia became a mosque the day the Ottomans came to power in the mid 15th century. Just as with the Chora Church, the mosaics were covered with plaster, Islamic elements such as the dropped chandeliers and the large calligraphy medallions were added to the interior and minarets were added to the exterior. In 1934 the building became a museum.

The dome, 185' above the ground, actually collapsed several times, due to its extreme weight. The walls that support it were reinforced with the buttresses now seen on the outside.

Inside the Chora Church - The Chora Museum was once a Byzantine church built in 1100 and has some of the world's most beautiful mosaics. Small in size, it is rich in pictorial frescoes and mosaics that feature Mary and Jesus, to whom the church is dedicated. After the Christian Church split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches, the Eastern side was supported by the powerful Byzantine Empire. Wealthy patrons paid for building and decorating churches like Chora, and the figures and events depicted in these early buildings later served as a model for churches' decoration in the west. This church took only 3 years to build, and when you see the intricate detail on the placement of the tiny mosaic pieces, it is indeed awe inspiring. With the rise of the Ottoman empire in the early 16th century, the building was converted into a mosque. A minaret replaced the bell tower and the mosaics and frescoes were whitewashed. In 1940 they were rediscovered and restored, and the building became a museum.

Inside the Grand Bazaar - One of Istanbul's top tourist attractions, The Grand Bazaar has everything you could possibly want to carry home as a souvenir. Created from many small streets filled with even smaller shops, it dates back to Byzantine days. It was enlarged and became more important with the rise of the Ottoman empire more than 500 years ago. The streets were eventually covered over and continued to be THE place for the citizens to shop for their needs. With the arrival of European tourists in the 1950s, the Grand Bazaar became the source for Istanbul souvenirs including carpets and textiles, metalware, glass, jewelry and anything else imaginable. While the chaos and the thousands of shops may be your dream or your worst nightmare, or somewhere in between, it is definitely a place to visit. While I am sure many of the items for sale are Turkish origin, one must be careful of Chinese knockoffs. The salesmen are friendly and polite but insistent that you visit their shops. Be prepared to bargain and you should pay only half of the proposed sale price (no prices are marked). We came with a plan: No shopping, only pictures, and we left without a purchase, relieved.

Painted Panel, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum - One day we went to the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. Located near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, it is housed in a 16th c. palace once owned by Suleyman the Magnificent's prime minister. The exhibits included beautiful cultural artifacts of the Turkish and Islamic civilizations. We loved the building's scale and materials used in its construction and seeing its priceless treasures.

Istanbul Skyline - There are many great venues for viewing Istanbul's beautiful skyline. This is the scene from the Galata Bridge, looking toward Istanbul's most important mosque, the huge Suleymaniye Mosque. Located on the hill near Istanbul University, it was built in 1550 and served as a charitable center for all of Istanbul's citizens.

Turkish Carpets - As a textile person, visiting a city like Istanbul can be a curse or a blessing. The amount of textiles objects is overwhelming, and each one begs for inspection. We avoided the many 'rug shops' that were clearly geared to tourists and just took in all that Istanbul offered in the way of other sights and sounds. One day, however, we did come across a fantastic antique textile and carpet shop filled with authentic Turkish weavings. We spent hours there while the extremely patient and knowledgable owner took us on a tour of some of her wares. She has been collecting textiles for decades, and has 'pickers' travel throughout eastern Turkey, searching for nomadic textile pieces. Rugs were stacked in every room, and you could even see them filling up the attic. The quality and quantity were amazing. While we had not planned on purchasing a rug, after seeing her selection, we did reconsider. The afternoon spent there was one of our most enjoyable experiences on the trip.

Topkapi Palace - The Topkapi Palace, home to the ruling sultans of the powerful Ottoman Empire, is conveniently located behind the Hagia Sophia and sits in a large park on a high bluff overlooking the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. On Sundays, it is filled with local visitors on family outings. You could spend days here in the many exhibits of porcelain, weapons, kitchen cutlery etc. We had time to visit the Holy Relics room, filled with astonishing items from earliest days, including the gold cover of Isalm's holiest Black Stone, which descended from Heaven, and everyday objects such as Moses' walking stick (really!), Joseph's turban, Muhammed's footprint and sandals etc. These were collected by the sultans when their Ottoman Empire was at its most powerful, and they would have private showings that must have impressed their guests. The crowds were numerous, but the huge grounds and quiet coutyards gave everyone space to enjoy the beautiful setting.

Souvenirs - It's easy to find any kind of souvenir in Istanbul. These feature the Chora Church.

Fresh Mint Tea - Istanbul has a myriad of dining options, so it's hard to get a bad meal in the city. The freshly baked breads are especially tasty, as are the salads. After lunch in an outdoor cafe, we ordered mint tea. Of course it came made with fresh tea leaves. Delicious!

The Spice Bazaar - Close by the Grand Bazaar, is the much more manageable Spice Bazaar. Located a few blocks away, it is filled with hundreds of shops selling all kinds of sweets and spices, nuts and dried fruits. The Spice Bazaar was built in 1660 to accommodate the growing spice trade between the Orient and Europe. Istanbul enjoyed the perfect location for buyers and sellers of both continents.

Rostem Pasa Mosque - It was a treat to visit this this small mosque. If the Blue Mosque is Istanbul's Notre Dame, Rusten Pasha is its Ste. Chapelle. It is a jewel. Designed by the famous architect Sinan in the 16th century, it is named for Suleyman's prosperous son-in-law. The exterior walls near the entrance are covered with Iznik tiles, and the interior even more. Because the mosque is so small, you can really see the beauty of the tiles and how many different patterns were created by the tile artisans.

Hagia Sophia - Surrounded by the Bosphorus Sraight, Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, Istanbul is the only city in the world to connect two continents: Europe and Asia. The European side is further divided by water into the Old Town and the New District. On our first full day in Istanbul we headed for Sultanahmet, a large park in the Old Town named after one of Turkey's most famous sultans. Many of Istanbul's most popular and revered buildings and sights can be found there, including Hagia Sophia. Its size is breathtaking.

The enormity of the space, the light, the colors, the combination of Ottoman and Byzantium decorative elements, it all takes your breath away. Paris' Notre Dame cathedral can easily fit in the huge nave. Hagia Sophia was conceived and built by Emperor Justinian I in 537AD. He wanted a church so large that people would remember him for centuries. He got his wish. More than 7,500 architects, stonemasons, mosaic artists and other laborers finished the project in only 5(!) years. The building is monumental, and its great dome is a more than visible feature in Istanbul's magical skyline. For a thousand years it was the largest Christian building in the world, until surpassed by Brunelleschi's Florence masterpiece in the Renaissance. Hagia Sophia became a mosque the day the Ottomans came to power in the mid 15th century. Just as with the Chora Church, the mosaics were covered with plaster, Islamic elements such as the dropped chandeliers and the large calligraphy medallions were added to the interior and minarets were added to the exterior. In 1934 the building became a museum.

The main room is designed as a classic basilica. The hanging lights are the same type found in most mosques. The dome and arches are elements of classic Byzantine architecture. The windows are clear, creating a beautiful diffused light.

Fishing on the Galata Bridge - We decided to check out the newer part of town, so we hopped on the ultra modern tram that winds through the Old Town, across the Golden Horn, past the fishermen on the Galata Bridge and along the Bosphorus into the New District. It's only $1.20 for a ride with great views. In the distance were the ferry boats in all sizes carrying passengers from across the Bosphorus to the western side of the city.

The Grand Bazaar - One of Istanbul's top tourist attractions, The Grand Bazaar has everything you could possibly want to carry home as a souvenir. Created from many small streets filled with even smaller shops, it dates back to Byzantine days. It was enlarged and became more important with the rise of the Ottoman empire more than 500 years ago. The streets were eventually covered over and continued to be THE place for the citizens to shop for their needs. With the arrival of European tourists in the 1950s, the Grand Bazaar became the source for Istanbul souvenirs including carpets and textiles, metalware, glass, jewelry and anything else imaginable. While the chaos and the thousands of shops may be your dream or your worst nightmare, or somewhere in between, it is definitely a place to visit. While I am sure many of the items for sale are Turkish origin, one must be careful of Chinese knockoffs. The salesmen are friendly and polite but insistent that you visit their shops. Be prepared to bargain and you should pay only half of the proposed sale price (no prices are marked). We came with a plan: No shopping, only pictures, and we left without a purchase, relieved.

The Blue Mosque - One afternoon we visited the Blue Mosque. Built in 1609-1616 by Sultan Ahmet I, it is best known for the blue Iznik tiles that cover the interior walls and ceilings. Ahmet was so excited about the project he even worked along side the laborers while it was under construction. He wanted a building that would be more impressive than the nearby by Hagia Sophia and legend has it that he asked for gold to be added to the top of each minaret. The architect thought he had asked for six minarets instead and the sultan was surprised and pleased with the revised outcome. No other mosque has as many minarets outside of Mecca. The main dome is 140 feet high and there are more than 20,000 Iznik tiles covering the walls and ceilings. Iznik tile production began in the Byzantine era with Chinese patterns and with the rise of the Ottoman empire, the patterns became Arabic, and turquoise, red and green was added to the original blue and white tiles.

Topkapi Palace - The Topkapi Palace, home to the ruling sultans of the powerful Ottoman Empire, is conveniently located behind the Hagia Sophia and sits in a large park on a high bluff overlooking the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. On Sundays, it is filled with local visitors on family outings. You could spend days here in the many exhibits of porcelain, weapons, kitchen cutlery etc. We had time to visit the Holy Relics room, filled with astonishing items from earliest days, including the gold cover of Isalm's holiest Black Stone, which descended from Heaven, and everyday objects such as Moses' walking stick (really!), Joseph's turban, Muhammed's footprint and sandals etc. These were collected by the sultans when their Ottoman Empire was at its most powerful, and they would have private showings that must have impressed their guests. The crowds were numerous, but the huge grounds and quiet coutyards gave everyone space to enjoy the beautiful setting.

Street Scene - The red and white Turkish flag offers a bright contrast to the ancient building and street surfaces.

Rostem Pasa Mosque - It was a treat to visit this this small mosque. If the Blue Mosque is Istanbul's Notre Dame, Rusten Pasha is its Ste. Chapelle. It is a jewel. Designed by the famous architect Sinan in the 16th century, it is named for Suleyman's prosperous son-in-law. The exterior walls near the entrance are covered with Iznik tiles, and the interior even more. Because the mosque is so small, you can really see the beauty of the tiles and how many different patterns were created by the tile artisans.