Second Day @ Istanbul

After a refreshing night rest, Liping, Wilson and I headed to Sultanahmet area for the beginning our tour. As Wilson already did Aya Sofya the day before, we split ways after taking several shots in front of Blue Mosque.

The itinerary of the day is simple – to sample to historical delights offered by Sultanahmet as much as possible. And boy, did we have a treat!

A tout in front of Aya Sofya

On the way to Aya Sofya (also known as Hagia Sofya in Greek), we were stopped by a man trying to sell us a guidebook to Istanbul. He was the very first of many, many touts we will encounter throughout the trip. I am still amazed by the fact how the tout slashed its price for TYL37 for a guidebook to a mere TYL15 for the book + two sets of postcards. Amazing how the power of walking away can do to save your wallet. Later on, we discovered that the same guidebook was selling for a mere TYL10. So remember, always buy from stalls which displayed prices prominently, and only from those located far, far away from Sultanahmet area.

Exterior of Aya Sofya

My first day in Istanbul was spent at Aya Sofya, the monumental mosque AND church in Turkey. It was an awe-inspiring experience to be within this building. Called Hagia Sofia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and the Church of the Divine Wisom in English, Istanbul’s most famous monument has a history as long as it is fascinating.

If you find that Aya Sofya looks amazing from the outside, wait till you see the inside.

I look like a hobbit inside Aya Sofya

Look at the sheer size of the place! Aya Sofya is best experienced by exploring the two levels. Walking around the ground level, you can’t help but be amazed by how grand the place is, with its huge dome rising dramatically skywards seemingly unsupported. In comparison to the nearby Blue Mosque, the dome of Aya Sofya was considered an architectural achievement because of the lack of huge pillars to support it.

Looking up to the giant "plates" of Muslim inscriptions

Throughout my hour-long stay in Aya Sofya, what truly inspired awe in me is how, throughout history, this monument of mankind infused two of religions together. In this building, giant inscription of Islamic Quran coexisted with intricate mosaic depicting Jesus of Christianity. Coming from a Muslim country, this is indeed a very rare sight.

Interior of Aya Sofya

It was a pity that during my visit, part of Aya Sofya was under restoration, hence I was unable to capture a “whole” picture of its grand interior, with all its scaffolding rising all over the place. In fact, I realized that throughout my trip, many of the historical sites were either closed for restoration, or just off-limit to visitors. Perhaps Lonely Planet was right – tourism in Turkey experiences a “down” period during winter time. This was both a curse and blessing for me. While I was spared by incessant crowd of tourists as it would have been had I visited during summer, it was also frustrating to venture all the way to a particular spot only to find its gates locked up.

At the Gallery Level of Aya Sofya

After going up a circular stone pathway up to the second level, I was rewarded with a closer look at the design of the structure of the building itself. It was also here you get to see the ground level of Aya Sofya in its entirety. You can just imagine thousand of devotees gathered here at ancient time to pray.

Out of a whim, I decided to do a little “snap interview” (a v-log if you will) with Liping when we were at Aya Sofya… and I did the same once in a while during my entire trip!

I know… I sounded horrible. I wonder how I ever get selected into a choir. LOL.

I would strongly encourage you to visit my photo set on Flickr to better appreciate the beauty of Aya Sofya.

I kept telling Liping how walking through Aya Sofya made me feel like part of the movie of DaVinci Code. The uneven, large-marbled floor, giving way through sunken walls and hidden corners, to heavily locked door the size of a small troll (hi Harry Potter fans!) and unidentifiable tombs, one can imagine how this place harboured centuries of secrets and tales untold through the generations.

In fact, that is exactly what is happen. The Marvelous Marmaray, an ambitious transportation project by the Turkish government, is constantly delayed due to continuous finds of archeological sites all over the place. For a country as steeped in history as Turkey, I find this hardly surprising.

The Tomb of Sultan Ahmet I

On the way to our second destination, Blue Mosque, I stopped for a while at the Sultan Ahmed tomb. This place is unlisted in most guidebooks, which may not come as a surprise. Upon entering its interior, the sight of rows upon rows of tombs will definitely unnerve you. People are entering here pray here; in fact, I felt slightly disrespectful just to be taking photos here. So only after a very short time, I left the tomb feeling slightly chilled.

The Blue Mosque

With Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet I set out to build a monument that would rival and even surpass the nearby Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. Its curves are voluptuous, it has more minarets than any other Istanbul mosque (in fact, there was consternation at the time of its construction that the sultan is being irreverent in specifying six minarets – the only equivalent being in Mecca) and the courtyard is the biggest of all the Ottoman mosques

Courtyard of Blue Mosque

Upon entering the Blue Mosque, you’ll see a large stone courtyard, surrounded by pillars and walkway, with a stone fountain in the middle, and minorets at its corner. As I visit more mosques throughout the trip, I realized that this is a typical design of a mosque in Istanbul. The difference would be how grand the mosque is, and how well maintained. Blue Mosque is definitely the best maintained, if not the grandest.

Interior of Blue Mosque

The interior of Blue Mosque provided a stark difference to Aya Sofya. There was a complete lack of Christianity motives within its design, and therefore my experience here was rather different. The pillar in the photo is one of the four “elephant” pillars built to support its less-grand dome, which was a major difference between Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya.

Interior of Blue Mosque

In a sea of Turks coming to the mosque, Liping and I stood out like two sore thumbs. When we tried to enter the main entrance, a guard stopped us and told us to go to the “visitors’” entrance… which is actually a small gate by the side of the building. And it was also rather unfortunate that we visited very near to prayer time, when the mosque will be closed and lingering visitors will be asked to leave. So Liping and I only managed to spend about 15 minutes inside Blue Mosque, but we managed to take quite a bit of photos.

Click here for more photos of Blue Mosque.

Arasta Bazaar

After spending the morning at Aya Sofya and Blue Mosuq, Liping and I headed to the Arasta Bazaar and Hippodrome right after lunch.

To my surprise, Arasta Bazaar, which is located just outside Blue Mosque, was simply a long street lined with shops selling the usual tourist trinkets – carpets, ceramics etc. I was expecting a smaller scale Grand Bazaar. Nothing to note here, actually.. Beware – prices here are severely inflated.

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome was the scene of countless political drama during the Byzantium and Ottoman eras in Turkey. It hosted chariot races during its ancient days. When we visited, the hippodrome resembled nothing more than a well-tended park, with many of its old structure destroyed and artefacts removed.

Actually, it was kinda funny how we found the hippodrome. I was kinda imagining it to be similar to what you find in Rome. A stadium-like structure with rows and rows of seats. But after walking around for quite a bit, we still can’t find it so we asked the Sahlep seller. He looked at us puzzled, and said in halting English that we are at the Hippodrome. You see, the hippodrome in Istanbul is nothing but a circular pavement (where chariots raced during ancient times) and a “garden” in the middle.

I mean, we were literally standing in the middle of the hippodrome and yet didn’t know it. LOL. Click here to see some photos from Hippodrome. You’ll see some very interesting structure – like the strange looking oblelisk – and the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts.

At the end of our Hippodrome adventure, I was hungry and bought one roasted corn. Have you ever try one? If not, please don’t. It’s dry, hard, tasteless and absolutely foul. I wonder why would anyone wanted to eat roasted corns!

The Basilica Cistern

Next up, we went to the Basilica Cistern. This extraordinary subterranean structure is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Constructed using columns, capitals and plinths from ruined buildings, the cistern’s symmetry and sheer grandeur of conception are quite extraordinary.

The moment I descended into the cistern, I felt like I stepped into Lord of the Rings, when the fellowship ran through the Mines of Moria! It was cold and dripping wet, but I can’t help but feel mystified to be in the cistern. Imagine, such a historical site right beneath the center of Istanbul city!

More fantastic photos of the cistern are here on my Flick collection. The photos are a bit fuzzy though, because I wasn’t using flash and the camera was set to high ISO.

Soon it was getting dark, so we decided to take a rest and walked to this famous tea garden right in the heart of Sultanahmet. I can’t even begin to type the name of this place – it was in Turkish and very, very long.

Turkish Tea (Cay) Garden @ Sultanahmet

It was my first experience having authentic Turkish tea (cay) and sisha (water) pipe (nargileh). The tea garder is tucked into the rear end right-hand corner of a shady courtyard filled with Ottoman tombs, this is the perfect place to escape the crowds and relax. They even have wireless internet connection and I even managed to webcam for a while! The drinks are very cheap by Sultanahmet standard. LOL. Here are some photos Liping and I took here.

Our kebab dinner

Right after the tea garden, Liping had a sudden craving for kebabs, so we headed to one of the more touristy one just along the rail of Sultanahmet. Munching on juicy kebabs, watching people walking by while shop owners bantered with each other right in the heart of Sultanahmet was a heavenly experience. We were… very contended.

A game of backgammon with Wilson

Soon we headed back to hostel, washed up a little, and dragged Wilson along with us for night out binge-drinking at one of the pubs along Akbiyik Cadessi (the famous stretch of backpacker inns). And drink we did… as well as learning how to play backgammon (I was notoriously bad at boardgame). Liping tried (and failed spectacularly) to enjoy nargileh while Wilson, Jan and I had no problem at all. LOL… more photos here.

After endless round of beer and tequila shots (and a sizable dent in our wallet), we headed back to Bahaus and called it a night.

All in all, it was a spectacular first day of real holiday. If this sets the tone for the rest of my trip, I wonder how I will have the energy to keep up!

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