Last Day of 2012!!!
What a better way to send off 2012 than exploring Istanbul all day?
Our first stop for the day was Topkapi Palace, which served as the imperial residence for the Ottoman household for 380 years. It was built in the 15th century by Mehmed II and was abandoned in the 19th century, when the family relocated to the Dolmabahce palace, across the Galata bridge but still on the European side of Istanbul. The palace is now a museum of the imperial area and is most famous for Muhammed’s sword and cloak, which are on display there.
There were 3 other exhibits though that also made this museum a great place to visit. The first was a “Treasures of China” exhibit, which celebrated the connection China and Turkey shared being on each end of the Silk Road. The biggest surprise in the exhibit? There were 4 soldiers from the Terracotta Army on display! The other exhibit that blew us away was the Ottoman weapons exhibit. The swords we saw were just so ornate and big! One of them was over 7 ft long and we couldn’t even imagine that it would be possible for a human to use it! I had mixed feelings at times, considering that some of those weapons were used on my countrymen… but alas, that’s all in the past. The third exhibit we enjoyed the most was the clock exhibit. Have you ever seen a 6-ft tall clock covered in mother-of-pearl? Well, we have! We also walked through the imperial treasury and enjoyed the grounds of the palace but after a couple of hours, there were so many people at Topkapi that we felt that we’d seen enough.
After leaving Topkapi, we decided to walk across Sultanahmet square to the Blue Mosque. On the way there, we noticed a street vendor who was juicing pomegranates. After taking a few photos of the guy, the pomegranate juice actually looked pretty good, so we tried it, and we weren’t disappointed! It had a slightly tangy taste but it was delicious!
Across the Sultanahmet Square, the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) awaited us. Built between 1609 and 1615 by Sultan Ahmed II, it was meant to be more glamorous than Hagia Sophia, and at first glance, I can agree. The mosque has 6 minarets – which, by the way, caused a minor scandal at the time because the only other mosque with 6 minarets was Al Haram in Mecca, Islam’s holiest place. The Sultan solved the problem by paying for a 7th minaret to be built at the Mecca Mosque. The line to go inside was way too long, so we decided to leave that for another day.
Instead, we checked out Arasta Bazaar, which is located along one of the sides of the Blue Mosque. We marveled at a Persian carpet that was priced at 7800 USD (although the shop keeper graciously offered alternatives off lesser quality for the much smaller price of 2500 USD). We then sat for lunch at one of the cafes at the edge of the bazaar and watched other tourists and locals smoke nargile – aka water pipe, or hookah. We also got accosted by a homeless kitty cat – not an unfamiliar sight for Istanbul! Homeless cats were everywhere and it was not uncommon to find one curled up on a cafe bench or an expensive carpet in front of a shop.
After lunch, we checked out the Basilica cistern – a less known but very much unique point of interest in Istanbul. Built in 532 AD, the cistern is the biggest of several hundreds beneath the city of Istanbul. We were amazed by the sheer size of this thing – with an area of 105,000 sq ft, it could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water and its ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns. The cistern provided water for Constantinople and subsequently, Topkapi palace after the Ottomans took it over and into modern times. I have to say that the cistern was one of our favorite things to see in Istanbul – I mean, where else could you see something like that?
After the cistern, we took a tram for a couple of stops to Kapali Carsi – The Grand Bazaar. This is another landmark of Istanbul that was built by Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople. The Bazaar dates back to the 15th century, when its 58 streets and shops on them were organized according to a craft, .e.g all the goldsmiths were on one street, etc. Today, this is not the case, which is why Kapali Carsi is a chaotic maze. In every direction we looked, there was a sea of people strolling through the narrow passages.
We somehow made our way across one end to the other and headed for the other famous bazaar – Misir Carsi, or Spice Market. This one was a little smaller and less chaotic, but still busy with people buying exotic spices and teas.
We walked that one from one end to the other as well and came out at the New Mosque, where the Galata bridge starts. We were both pretty tired and cold, and we still had a whole evening of celebration in front of us, so we headed for our hotel for some R&R.
Back at the hotel, Chris had his first linguistic misunderstanding on this trip. He called down the front desk to ask for an iron, yet the lady he was talking to didn’t seem to understand. After a little bit of explaining he seemed to have it straightened out – until, a few minutes later, a guy showed up holding a glass of ayran – a traditional Middle Eastern drink of yogurt mixed with cold water (to make it more liquid) and salt. Iron, ayran – same difference, right? After Chris imitated ironing clothes, the guy finally got it and off he went to fetch an iron, while leaving us with fresh ayran. It could have been worse.
Later on in the evening, we had a feast of a dinner at a traditional Turkish restaurant nearby (which we had a hard time finding despite the fact that it was right around the corner of our hotel – ahhh, tourists, tourists). Shortly before midnight, we walked more flights of stairs than I care to count to the rooftop, where we drank mulled wine and we watched the Bosphorus Bridge lights change patterns and colors right at midnight, followed by fireworks at Taksim square, which we could see from across the water. It was magical and beautiful – a perfect end to a tumultuous yet amazingly wonderful 2012 that closed a door or two but opened many windows in my life. Here’s to an even better 2013! Cheers!