It’s with a heavy heart that I read the reports about the bombings this week in Turkey – and especially the one that killed 11 people, mostly German tourists, in Istanbul.
I was in Istanbul a little over a year ago. I remember people asking me if I felt safe since Turkey is so close to Syria. At that time, Istanbul hadn’t really been affected, and most of the violence was with the PKK was outside Istanbul…or involved the civil war in neighboring Syria. So although I was mindful, I also believed I had no reason to feel I was in danger.
To be honest, what made me feel less safe than being close to terrorist organizations operations, was the way I was treated on the street by local men. I was traveling with three girl friends, and we couldn’t walk down the street without multiple comments -men trying to sell us stuff , making catcalls – one even yelled asking about our “dowery.” Now there’s something you don’t hear often in the United States. I am not sharing this to flatter myself – it was uncomfortable and irritating. Women should go prepared.
Sultanahmet Park, Istanbul
The above photo was taken in the vicinity of the recent bombing - Sultanahmet Square – right in the heart of the tourism industry – a blade right through the city’s soul. Can’t get much more of a soft target than that, nor a travel buzz-killer. I stayed at a hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood near where the bombing took place, and spent much time in that Sultanahmet Square visiting all the remarkable sights, many visible right from the bomb location. I would like to share these places with you, as it looks that travel there might not be a good idea for a little while. (I hate to say that, but I wouldn’t go back right now. It’s a personal choice for everyone. )
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
What I think is the granddaddy of the sights – it is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world because of it’s classical Byzantine architecture. The outside is impressive, but it is the inside that is the true star. Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537. Pretty amazing. It has Christian and Islamic influences, as it was built as a Greek Orthodox church, converted to a Roman Catholic church, then in 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks,Sultan Mehmed II ordered the main church of Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque. It was interesting to me to see the layers of Christian influence peaking through the aging plaster… most signs of Christianity were ordered to be covered when it was converted to a mosque. It now operates as a museum, not a place of worship. Although you can take an audio tour, I would recommend hiring guide or taking a tour. There’s just simply too much to wrap your head around . One of the most popular places in the Hagia Sophia is the Weeping Column. Strangely enough, it is always a little damp – as if it is perspiring – some say it is the Virgin Mary’s tears. Legend has it that the pillar was blessed by St Gregory the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger into the hole in the column can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist. (I’m still waiting…)
Hands down my most loved attraction in Istanbul. One of my favorite favorite favorite experiences in all my travels, probably because the expectations were low. From the outside it doesn’t look like anything. Seriously, it doesn’t look like anything is there because it’s all underground!
The Cistern Basilica is an underground reservoir for water that was once under a basilica – thus the name. It is incredibly large – 105,000 sq feet. What makes it so mystical is that it is built with a forest of columns that have been recycled from old important buildings. So you have these gorgeous Ionic and Corinthian style columns in this underground cave of sorts, lit just perfectly to bedazzle the ambiance.
The cistern, built in 532, used to supply water to the Great Palace in its day, but then was forgotten about and rediscovered again in 1545. Don’t miss it.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace was the imperial home of the Ottoman emperors for four centuries. Lavishly decorated, with all sorts of ancient items from the Ottoman rule on display…
What I found most fascinating were the clothes the emperors wore and how they changed through the years… and also found slightly disgusting in its opulence: the gifts other rulers around the world gave to the Ottomans. Some of the gifts’ monetary worth could feed entire countries. Why did the rulers need them besides serving their egos?
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
If you are thinking this will be like Hagia Sophia, you have another thing coming. Worth the visit, although yes, it is another stunning display of religious architecture. It incorporates some Byzantine Christian elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period.
But – it is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls – more than 20,000 tiles total.
It is still an active place of worship, so visitors must take off their shoes and women must cover their heads.
Again, these are just a few of Istanbul’s treasures in one area of the city. It is a dynamic place to visit - at the crossroads of Europe & Asia, it’s exotic & stimulating at every turn. Perhaps it seems a bit unsavory to visit at the moment, but hoping for some peace for travelers in this crazy world right now.