Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 36: Istanbul

Istanbul is everything I expected and so much more.  I got up early to watch us come in across the Marmara Sea and start up the Bosphorus to our port right next to the center of the city.  It was well worth it; the view was incredible.  We could see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, thousands of buildings, and hundreds of minerets off in the distance.  It was really a great start to the day.  After breakfast and a mediocre diplomatic briefing we had to wait some time for the ship to be cleared.  Since I had to get a special visa for traveling outside Istanbul it took a little longer that normal but the staff was able to negotiate our release if we had scheduled trip like I did.  This meant I was able to get off the ship without my passport (normally a necessity in Istanbul) to meet my city orientation.

The orientation was very thorough and a lot of fun.  We had a really good bus and the group dynamics worked out well (these are usually hit or miss).  We started off with a drive around the major areas of the city including Taksim Square and the newer city followed by a drive around the "Golden Horn."  We crossed this stretch of water to the "old city" region and saw remains of the 20 mile long city walls.  Istanbul has over 2000 mosques so there was ample opportunity for "mosquing" today.  We first stopped by the Sehzade Mosque.  It is beautiful and fairly well known but not as touristy as some of the larger ones.  Following this we had lunch and it started to pour rain (which, according to our guide, "never happens in the Summer...").  That made for an interesting walking tour around the old city.  We walked to the Blue Mosque which was absolutely spectacular.  The six towering minerets are a great site and the intricate blue tile interior is everything it's made out to be.  It was very crowded but also had many active worshipers visiting so it was interesting to watch their actions.  After spending some time admiring the world's most famous mosque we walked to the Hippodrome to see stolen Greek "Serpent Column" (a popular topic in Global Studies).  We then walked over to the Haiga Sophia which is a Byzantine church converted to a mosque that is now a museum.  It is the world's fourth largest place of worship and another amazing site.  Seeing aspects of both Greek Orthodox and Islamic tradition in one place was fascinating.  We spent quite a bit of time here before concluding the tour with the Byzantine Cistern, an interesting underground cave used for water storage that contains some interesting sculptures. 

We later returned to the ship for dinner before a group of us set out again for the city.  On a recommendation we decided to walk to Taksim Square.  Seeing this square and mile long street in the evening was quite an intense site.  I like to describe it as Barcelona's La Rambla on steroids.  There were easily thousands of people (locals, tourists, conservative Muslims, etc) and many great cafes and shops.  We walked around for a while before stopping for the necessary Turkish Delight and making the trek back to the ship.

I can now see why Istanbul is considered one of the "cultural capitols" of the world.  It's so interesting to be around such diverse religious aspects (including the five calls to prayer over loud speakers every day) while being in a modern city setting.  A common theme of Turkey is how it is where "East meets West."  Today we stayed on the 3% of the nation that is officially on the European continent and I'm looking forward to discovering some of the 97% found on Asia tomorrow.  I wish I had time to describe more but I'm exhausted and we have a very early start to Izmir.  I'm really looking forward to the trip but will probably not get a chance to update for a few days.  That's all for now, I have an overnight bag to pack.

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