April 18, 2022. 49°F/9°C and rain.
Songwriters Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon famously penned the lyrics:
“Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, oh Constantinople.
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks”
That bouncy tune from the late 1950’s, with its slightly eastern percussion, always makes me smile. The thought of spice markets and minarets, the Roman hippodrome, the Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, the Hagia Sophia, and countless gorgeous mosques and palaces had me excited for our 2-day visit.
We signed up for a tour called “Turkey’s Most Amazing Edifices”, which took us to the Topkapi Palace, the Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar, in that order.
It’s too bad the day was rainy, because in the sunshine Istanbul’s gold-embellished domes must just sparkle, and its gardens would be even more spectacular than they appeared today.
The city is a busy, crowded place that is home to 20 million people, almost 25% of the entire country’s 84 million. It has the distinction of being one of only 5 cities in the world that spans two continents: Europe and Asia, on both sides of the Bosphorus (the other 4 are Suez Egypt, Magnitogorsk Russia, Orenburg Russia, and Atyrau Kazakhstan, all of them tiny compared to Istanbul). We docked on the European side, but visited the Asian side in the evening.
Our tour drove past the old city walls, built during 413-477 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Thedosius II, and currently extending for around 7 km, and then turned in to the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, built in the 15th century and home over the centuries to 22 Sultans, their families, servants, and royal courts. In 1856, Sultan Abdulmejid I decided to move his court to a new more modern (but no less opulent) palace, but Topkapi’s imperial treasury, library, and mint remained active. When the Ottoman Empire ended in 1923, Topkapi became a museum – and what a museum!
Photos are not allowed inside the palace rooms, with the exception of two, but the exterior certainly matches the opulence we saw within.
I won’t pretend to remember the names of the various buildings in which we saw these ornate ceilings, pillars, and tiles. We were going too fast and trying to stay out of the rain, so I was not as focussed as usual on our guide’s commentary. They all incorporated outdoor areas, which is why photos were allowed.
Two museum areas particularly wowed us: the armaments and jewels exhibit, and the Sultans’ religious relics exhibit (no photos of any kind allowed).
In the first area were ornately engraved swords with heavily jewelled handles, and the famed Topkapi dagger and scabbard encrusted with emeralds and diamonds. There were bejewelled gun holsters made for guns which themselves were decorated with ivory, mother-of-pearl, gold, and gemstones. There were long range rifles with stands, both so completely decorated in wood and nacre patterns as to look like mosaics. There were two enormous solid gold candlesticks that the description said were decorated with 6,666 cut diamonds. There was the Sultan’s ceremonial chainmail and matching stirrups, all of which glittered with gold and diamonds; our guide explained that the links were able to be made so delicate-looking by incorporating ultra-strong silk strands.
The pièce-de-résistance, though, was the 86 carat pear-shaped diamond surrounded by 49 brilliant-cut diamonds, that was once the Sultan’s most prominent turban ornament.
In the second museum area were religious relics that date back to the common heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: the (Prophet) Abraham’s drinking cup, the (Prophet) David’s sword, and the (Prophet) Moses’ staff, with which he parted the Red Sea – items dating to the 10th to 13th centuries BC. The Sultans’ ownership of these items conferred great power and legitimacy to their reigns.
Another interesting aspect of the palace is that for the past 500 plus years, the Koran has been continuously read out loud there, 24/7/365, by a rotation of imams. Even though it is now a museum, that holy tradition continues. We walked past today’s reader, sitting at a desk reading aloud, with the words he was reading scrolled on screens to allow tourists to follow along, in both Turkish and English.
From the palace, we walked to the Blue Mosque (the common name for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque).
Our tour guide had provided all of us with face masks, hand sanitizer, and – in an especially nice touch – a bag, emblazoned with the Viking logo in addition to the Turkish tour company’s name, in which we could carry our shoes, since they must be removed before entering the carpeted area of any mosque.
The interior of the more than 400 year old mosque has been undergoing extensive restoration, and a fairly small part of the beautiful tiled dome was just uncovered last week. While scaffolding still prevented us from getting the full impact of the blue, white, and red tiles and the gorgeous stained glass windows, we felt privileged to see as much as we did.
The mosque was built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, in front of the basilica Hagia Sophia, which we tour tomorrow. It faces the ancient hippodrome built by Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 AD and expanded by Emperor Constantine in 324 AD to accommodate 100,000 spectators (yes, 5 zeros). What is left of the hippodrome now are two obelisks and a few portions of the exterior walls, which have been incorporated into the city. One of the obelisks is the beautifully hieroglyphed pink granite Egyptian obelisk of Thutmose III, taken from the Temple of Karnak by Theodosius the Great in 390 AD. It dates to about 1490 BC and is in amazing condition, although only the top of 3 original sections remains (it was transported from Karnak in 3 pieces). The second obelisk dates to the 10th century, but only its stone core remains; it was originally covered in gleaming bronze plaques, which were looted during the Fourth Crusade.
Our final tour stop was Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the world’s oldest continuous operating shopping mall, dating to at least 1465 AD. It contains almost 4000 stores and eating places, all of them actively vying for customers.
But first…. what we’ve quickly come to think of as a Turkish tradition: a detour to a carpet store!
The Turkish vendors were far less pushy than those in Egypt; in most cases, once we explained that we definitely could NOT buy a Turkish rug since we have no home, they’d smile and tell us that they were nomads too – or wanted to be. Later, in the bazaar, one jewelry store salesman, when I told him that the only thing I was buying was Turkish sweets and I’d already bought them, said, “then I am sad today … but you should be happy”. Exactly.
Speaking of sweets, buying more Turkish delight was my goal today. The store we chose not only had a great selection at fair prices, but treated us to generously sized tastes of several flavours, as well as their figs and stuffed dates, AND treated us to small cups of traditional Turkish teas – apple for me, pomegranate for Ted. Several other sweets vendors, even though I showed them that I’d already purchased what I wanted, nonetheless gave me tastes of glistening gold-leaf decorated chocolate, and almond nougat. It was a great shopping experience!
Viking certainly made this a value-added day by arranging an extra included destination experience for all passengers in the evening.
We were taken by a combination of short bus ride and 40 minute river crossing to the Adile Sultan Palace, the reconstructed former royal residence of Ottoman princess (and famous female poet) Adile Sultan. Upon her death in 1899, the palace was donated to the state to be used as the Kandilli Anatolian High School for Girls. It burned down in 1986, but was painstakingly restored at a cost of almost 10 million Turkish lira – money raised by former students of the school and supplemented by a huge donation from former Turkish Governor Sakip Sabanci. It is now a cultural center.
Alighting from the boat on the the Asian side of Istanbul, we had another quick bus transfer up the hill to reach the palace, which was lit up on the exterior. The view from the palace entrance across the water at the softly lit hotels and former palaces along the shore was stunning.
Inside the palace was set up with several cocktail party areas, with white settees and chairs, white-clothed cocktail tables, and lanterns and white flowers everywhere.
Before the performance we were treated to a wide selection of hors d’oeuvres served by uniformed waiters, and a selection of drinks.
Then we were treated to the main event: a concert by 20 of the 200 members of the multicultural Antakya/Antioch Choir, and their 12 piece live band. The choir has performed for both the UN Security Council and the EU Parliament, and were in 2012 nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting peace, tolerance, brotherhood, and love. (The prize that year went to the EU “for over six decades of having contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”)
The choir incorporates 3 religions (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) and 6 distinct cultures (Akevi/Sunni/Orthodox/Catholic/Jewish/Armenian), singing and playing each others hymns and folk songs in harmony.
We returned to our ship just after midnight, after a return tour boat ride back across the Bosphorus, with a view of the suspension bridge behind us.