Our accommodation in Istanbul was a small apartment in the “old and crumbly” part of the city. The buildings in this area are mostly made from rough-hewn stone built hundreds of years ago and not well maintained. It looks like there may be some gentrification underway due to Istanbul’s recent popularity as a tourist destination, but there are still plenty of crumbly old buildings around. We were within walking distance to the ancient sites of the old walled city so we spent our few days exploring the historical sites of the Sultan’s Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar. We logged a couple of days of roadschool that included ancient Greek history, geometry, how to survive as a pedestrian in Istanbul, rudimentary bargaining, and how wonderful Turkish apple tea tastes.
The Sultan’s Palace was first built in 1459 by Sultan Mahmud II after he conquered Constantinople from the Byzantines and changed the name of the city to Istanbul. Now it is a museum that houses things like the weapons of the Ottomans, the Sultan’s crown jewels, thrones made of crazy expensive materials, clipping from Prophet Muhammad’s beard, and swords of a couple of Muhammad’s generals. No pictures are allowed inside – but if you follow this link you can take a 3D tour of most of the palace in the comfort of your own office, and without the crowds we had to endure.
The Hagia Sophia was constructed in 537 CE and was the largest domed building in the world for over a thousand years after it was completed. It was originally a church, then converted to a mosque, and now it is a museum. When the building was converted to a mosque the murals on the wall were buried under plaster and now some of these are partially restored. We wandered around the massive building, doing our best to soak in the history of the place. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka The Blue Mosque) was built in 1616, over a thousand years after its neighbor Hagia Sophia. According to our guide the mosque was built in response to the larger and older Hagia Sophia – sort of a demonstration of Islamic building capabilities.
The old Roman Cistern was my favorite place for taking photos in Istanbul. The Cistern was built by the Romans to store fresh water. They used 1,700 slaves to build it and used recycled columns from old buildings to hold up the roof. They routed fresh water via an aqueduct to keep it supplied. The Ottomans abandoned the cistern due to their preference for running water and it fell into disrepair for hundreds of years. It was repaired and restored a few times over the centuries, and about 50,000 tons of mud was removed in the mid 1980’s when they installed a walking platform so folks can tour the place. They even have a platform so a small band can play for special events. The kids enjoyed walking through the place, even though it is a little spooky. I think it would be a great place for an office party.
Another attraction we checked out is the Grand Bazaar. The place is massive with 61 streets under one continuous roof. The walkways are worn smooth from 1,500 years of commerce. Everything was for sale from high-end watches and jewelry to tchotchkes to table settings to silk boots and scarfs… All prices must be negotiated. This was our first encounter with a negotiation-required market, and we were uncomfortable with the practice. However, we knew bargaining would be the norm as we traveled further East, so Suzanne and Alex entered into a couple of negotiations for silk scarfs. They ended up walking away from a few merchants before they found the price they wanted.
Our next destination was Tanzania. Suzanne and I expected a very different experience and we wanted to be as prepared as possible. We started our malaria medicine and restocked toiletries. Suzanne sent our laundry to be done the day before we left so we would have as many clean clothes as possible as we entered Africa. We were relieved when our laundry arrived at our apartment two hours before we were to leave for the airport. Unfortunately Suzanne’s white long-sleeve blouse that she had specifically procured (and carried in her pack for 3 months) for Tanzania was missing! She was sure she would never find another suitable blouse in Tanzania – the trip was ruined! We made a call to our hotel host – he contacted the laundry guy – who found the blouse and hustled it over to our apartment 15 minutes before we left. The trip was a success again! Can you tell that we were a little tired and emotional at this point?
Another comical event happened as we prepared to leave for the airport. I asked the kid assigned to help people in the apartment to call a cab for us at 3PM. He didn’t speak English well, so I wrote down what we wanted, pointed at my watch, found someone else to translate for me – and he gave me a thumbs up and said “No problem”. Well, rather than 1 cab at 3PM, we got 3 cabs at 1PM. When he knocked on the door at 1PM we were still packing and I tried to get across that we needed only one cab at 3PM. He seemed pretty upset, but I think that was because he had to go downstairs and deal with three angry Turkish taxi drivers. We ended up flagging down our own cab at 3PM and had no problem getting to the airport on time.