Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Stroll Through Downtown Istanbul

      Istanbul is perhaps the easiest city for accessing tourist destinations just by walking around the center of town. Sites that cannot be reached that way are near the Bosporus and its inexpensive public ferry which plods the waterway regularly. Thus, the city is not just one of the most interesting places in the world; it is arguably the simplest one to get around in. I suggest that the traveler find a place to stay in the center of the city (although, of course, hotels are more expensive there than ones further out), get a map, put on his walking shoes and then just roam about. As soon as you hit the street in the central area, the city jumps out at you. There is activity everywhere. Outside of India, it is the busiest city I have ever visited. Water sellers with old time costumes approach to sell you their wares. Kids walk by with flat boards on their head piled with delicious herbal breads. People hustle and bustle everywhere. You are definitely in Istanbul.

     The first places the visitor needs to head for are the preeminent and fascinating Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia which stand directly across the street from one another. A visit to these two historic and magnificent structures makes a trip to Istanbul worthwhile alone.  Not far from these sites are the Hippodrome, the vast Topkapi Palace which houses an extensive anthropology museum, the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. You may not make it through all of these in one day. The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque is indeed one of the most beautiful religious edifices of the world. Its 260 windows and multitude of Iznik tiles are hypnotic while the ceiling stands out with its heavenly blue color. Outside there are six graceful minarets and the onlooker can marvel at the skillfully constructed Byzantine Dome which dominates the building. While this structure served as a mosque for its lifetime, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church by the Byzantines when it was dedicated in the year 360 AD and it became a mosque only after the Ottomans conquered the area. It served that function from 1453 until 1931. It was then converted into a museum by the secular government that followed the Ottoman era.  The building is one of the great remaining monuments to Byzantine architecture. Some of the wonderful Byzantine mosaics that decorated the walls have been uncovered and offer fascination for the visitor. These ancient religious creations were among the finest art of their time. The structure has been transformed or rebuilt more than once and is somewhat of an historical symbol of the city. Near the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. This underground storage facility was built by Justinian in 532 AD, and it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. The huge structure once held over 80,000 cubic meters of water. The vaulted brick roof is supported by 336 columns, each over 30 feet tall, and water was pumped to it through over 40 miles of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.

      Only about one block away one comes upon the Roman Hippodrome. This ancient site was the scene of festivals and contests during Roman and Byzantine times. Its main feature is the 3500-year-old Egyptian granite Obelisk of Theodosius, brought to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D. A longer walk takes one to the 1384 Galata Tower originally built by the Genoese. The tourist's next step may be a day's trip on the ship that plies the Bosporus and stops at a host of little, interesting towns along the way. One can visit the Dolmabahce Palace, one of the most glamorous, excessive and luxurious buildings of the nineteenth century on one stop and then enjoy the products of the most famous yogurt producing town in the world on another. Even for those who not especially fond of yogurt, this creation has to be sampled. Vendors board the ship with trays of yogurt and disappear as the voyage continues up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Although the trip on the Bosporus is a great second day, the most incredible thing about this bustling and historic metropolis is the fact that one or two days of just walking about in the neighborhood of the old city covers the most important sites to see in Istanbul. I don't know of another place where that is the case.             

     While the Grand Bazaar is a bit of a walk from the center, the tourist is bound to make that trek. The glistening plates and ceramics, the spices and sweet smelling food, the color and the bustle make this a true travel highlight. My favorite site is still farther away so the tourist might want to catch a ride to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is the mosque's simplicity combined with its majesty that entrances me. While the more centrally located Blue Mosque is better known, Suleymaniye is the more dramatic building. It was designed by the master architect, Sinan, in the mid-sixteenth century. Its great dome and four minarets dominate the third hill of this fascinating city. You can't go wrong just wandering about in an amazing metropolis which combines the best of the East and the West. I think you will find Istanbul to be one of the most delightful and interesting places in the entire world to visit.

Lake Van, Western Turkey


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