Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Flat and friends have Turkey for Christmas

After a lot of life in the slow lane in small-town Hungary, Al decided to head further East for an exotic and exciting new place. Early Christmas morning Al and Paul took the first bus from Szentes to Budapest, where snow was providing a White Christmas for all of the merrymakers and a headache for our travelers who feared flight delays. All went well, however, and soon they were in the air headed towards Turkey. By sunset they were walking through Istanbul's historic Sultanahmed district, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the city and the impressiveness of its sites. Al and Paul met up with their travel companions, Beth Pecora of Virginia Medical College fame and Jennifer Russell of scenic Fier, Albania. Exploration of the city began immediately:

The Hagia Sofia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was the world's largest cathedral from it's construction in the 6th Century until the construction of the Seville Cathedral approximately 1000 years later. It was originally the symbol of Byzantine Roman power and Christianity, then became one of the world's largest mosques after the Turkish conquest, and has been a museum since Atatürk. Al put said best: "That thing is pretty bitching."

What's more, turn around and you see:

The view from the previous picture is impressive, but what's even more impressive is that all you have to do is turn around to get this view. The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Camii, was built right across from the Hagia Sofia in 1617, giving the two a very Sharks and Jets appearance, as if they are about to whip out a (huge) tape measure to see who has a bigger dome. Unlike the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque is still a working mosque today. Indeed, its muezzin leads a particularly rousing call to prayer five times each day.

At night, when lit by floodlights, the two dueling houses of worship take on a particularly grandiose quality:

Al poses in front of the Hagia Sofia on his way back to the hostel after a busy day of sightseeing.


The Blue Mosque at twilight. Here you see all six minarets (the towers from which the muezzins' voices call the city to prayer). When Sultan Ahmed constructed this mosque, including 6 minarets was seen as utter hubris as the only other mosque with that many minarets was the Ka'aba mosque in Mecca. In the end the Sultan paid for the construction of a seventh minaret in Mecca.

Al on an evening stroll past the Blue Mosque.


Perhaps the best way to start off in Istanbul is to explore it by water. The Bosphorous and the Golden Horne divide the city, and a lot of Istanbul's best views are from the water. Here Al is on board a small boat and ready to go.

Dolmabahce Palace was built towards the end of the Ottoman Empire to rival the great French and Russian palaces in opulence and fight the perception that the Empire was the "sick man" of Europe. Our intrepid travelers didn't get a chance to explore the palace's ornate interior because they learned that Istanbul's numerous and impressive sites all had steep entry prices and they therefore had to be quite selective about what they saw. Al remarked, "I reinvented humanity's conceptions of space and time, I'm not about to fall for a $25 entrance fee to see gilded ceilings. Istanbul, please."

The Ortaköy Mosque in front of the enormous Bosphorous Bridge that spans between two continents and simply won't fit into one picture.

The Maiden's Tower is a relic from Istanbul's long past. It was originally built back in the days when the city was called Byzantium to control the passage of Persian ships from the Aegean to the Black Sea. Now it's an expensive restaurant.


After returning to land our explorers turned their attention to the interior of the Hagia Sofia. Today it's out of commission as a place of religious worship but it's history as both a Christian and Muslim holy place is on display. The combination of Byzantine Orthodox Christian decor and the enormous signs bearing Arabic prayers highlight the tumultuous history of the Hagia Sofia and the city:
Unfortunately no picture can capture just how lofty and impressive the inside of the Hagia Sofia is, but this one tries pretty hard.

One of the numerous beautiful Byzantine religious mosaics in the Hagia Sofia

Jen and Beth in the Hagia Sofia

Tired of looking up all day in the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the travelers explored the city by foot. Here Al has convinced them to pose for a close up in front of the Golden Horne.

Looking across the Golden Horne, ready to cross it, climb yonder hill, and explore the busy and cosmopolitan sections of Istanbul waiting on the other side of the ancient section. The tower at the top of the hill is the Galata tower, which was part of the city walls built around ancient Istanbul, known as Byzantium and then Constantinople.

Istanbul, as is fitting for a city of over eleven million people and two thousand years of history, is a city of enormous diversity. One side of Istanbul is encapsulated by the historical Sultanahmed district where the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace are located. It is almost a theme park of incredible history. There a tourist stands out and the entrepreneurial Turks devote great energy to the sale of rugs, hookahs, and pretty much anything they think the tourists associate with Turkey. Another side of the city, just across the Golden Horne and up a hill, is Taksim. This is the Time's Square of Istanbul, a thoroughly modern place where people rush about in a way befitting a huge metropolis. It's a great break to just stroll this area and get lost within an anonymous crowd, a crowd so diverse that a few white kids and a genius blend right in.

Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) is a busy pedestrian street that leads up to bustling Taksim Square. This is the ultimate cosmopolitan street with a Turkish twist. At any given time in the day or night it's packed with all sorts of people. The side streets are just as busy and are full of vibrant markets, cafes, bars, bakeries, restaurants and all sorts of interesting things. When weariness and soar feet tired our travelers they enjoyed many a Turkish coffee and nargile (hookah) in the cafes off Istiklal Caddesi. They also became regulars at a certain bakery with particularly tasty Turkish delicacies.

If you find yourself in Istanbul, tired of the huge historical sites of Sultanahmend and the neon lights of modern Taksim, perhaps delving into of the city's many bazaars is for you. These bazaars are packed with milling tourists, Turks, and salesmen peddling all sorts of things. The Grand Bazaar is certainly the most famous of Istanbul's markets, but our explorers preferred the Egyptian Spice market, where with all of the sites and smells you can convincingly pretend to be walking through a bazaar a thousand years ago preparing to barter with the merchants of the silk road.


The melee in the streets between the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice market.

Turkish salesmanship is an incredible force. At first one is quite overwhelmed by the pushiness of the Turkish merchants who will literally chase you down to try and make a sale. The trick is not to feel targeted but to go along with it and enjoy it. Once you let go and appreciate the aggressive candor and humor of the salesmen outside of every shop, restaurant, and cafe in Sultanahmed, the whole adventure becomes a lot more fun. Some of the best lines heard by our travelers:

-How can I rip you off today?

-Cafe man: Come in! Come in! Enjoy a delicious Turkish coffee by our fireplace!
Neighboring cafe man: We don't have a fireplace but we'll burn a table!

-Random man outside the Hagia Sofia: Have you seen the Hagia Sofia yet? I am an excellent tour guide, please let me take you there!
-Jen: We saw it today, thanks. We're just going home now.
-Man: I can take you there in my helicopter.

Merchant 1: (Sings) What are you doing? What is your name? Where are you from? Why aren't you stopping? Where are you going?
Paul: I'm going that way. (strides past)
Merchant 2: He was mocking you! Will you stand for this?! (quietly) For five lira I shall kill him for you.

-Hats! Hats! These are the best hats! Don't go any further for hats! You don't want those hats! You want these hats! When you wear them it's like summer in there!

-(On New Years Eve) Come in! It's your last chance to let me help you waste your money in 2007! Come in!

Jen and Beth pose with a particularly charismatic spice vendor in the Egyptian market. This man skillfully sold them massive quantities of cinnamon, safron, tea, and who knows what else. He called himself the "spice boy" and promised to turn them into his spice girls. Al and Paul watched on amused as the girls may or may not have been massively ripped off. Beth remarked "It all happened so fast" and Jen noted "I've never had so much fun being ripped off!"

Jen, Beth, Paul and Al spent the vast majority of their time in Istanbul walking around the vast city and taking in the street scenes and the scenery. A couple of times they decided to give their senses a rest and activate their brains and take in one of the excellent museums. From Istanbul's countless museum choices they selected the Military Museum (in the very building where Atatürk attended military academy) and the Archaeological Museum. Both turned out to be excellent choices, as Istanbul's tactical and archaeological importance are perhaps matched by only a tiny handful of other places in the world. A few cool things:

The world's first written peace treaty, signed in 1283BC between Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and the King of the Hittites, a powerful empire that dominated what is now modern Turkey.


The Alexander Sarcophagus in the Archeology Museum held one of Alexander the Great's appointed kings and depicts some of Alexander's greatest battles against those uppity Persians.

During the beginning of their trip the adventurers had stayed on the more touristy European side of Istanbul. After a few days they boarded one the ferries that serve as a normal mode of public transport in Istanbul and crossed the Bospherous to the Asian side to explore more off the beaten track areas.


Al and the Bospherous from Asia with Europe in the background. He really wanted a picture of himself and the Sultanahmed peninsula in the same picture but focusing made this impossible, even for the man who split the atom. Below is a zoomed in version and you can see the domes of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque with Topkapi Palace, former nerve center of the Ottoman empire.


Another jaunt off the beaten track was to the Eyüp Sultan mosque back on the European side, but further inland towards the end of the Golden Horne. This mosque was the first one built by the Ottoman's after their conquest of the city in 1453. It is one of the holiest sites in Islam because it was on this ground that Abu Ayyub, one of Mohammed's closest followers, was killed in battle in an Arabic attempt at taking Constantinople. The mosque includes his tomb where he rests along with many of the Prophet's personal belongings.

Al outside of the Eyüp Sultan mosque.

Inside the mosque, which is a very busy worshiping place today.

Behind the mosque is a huge graveyard taking up an entire hill. Our crew climbed through the spooky yet beautiful graveyard to the top, where vast views of the city and the Golden Horde await.
The Golden Horne and waaaay in the distance you can see Sultanahmed.

Al enjoys a Turkish coffee and a spectacular view of the Golden Horne.

If eight days is barely enough to get an introduction to Istanbul, it certainly isn't anywhere near enough time to really delve into Turkey as a whole. This doesn't mean that our travelers gave up the rest of the country, however. Towards the end of the trip they boarded an all night bus to Ephesus, one of the world's most important archaeological sites situated on Turkey's southwestern coast. Ephesus has a particularly long history and the area has been inhabited since before 6000BC. Since then countless Empires have washed over this land. The nearby Artemis temple is not much to look at today, just a few columns sinking into the mud, but it was once an enormous Hellenistic temple and one of the seven wonders of the world. Right above it stand the ruins of St. John's Basilica, where the saint is apparently buried. John the Baptist spent the end of his life here and there is compelling evidence that it was here that he wrote his gospels. Allegedly he brought with him the Virgin Mary and she spent her last days in a small cottage on a nearby hill, which we were fortunate enough to view. The main draw of this area, however, are the ruins of the Roman city dating back to the first couple centuries AD. At it's peak Ephesus was a city of nearly 500,000 inhabitants, including philosophers and gladiators and all of that cool Roman stuff.

Al in front of the Roman Baths. The baths were right next to the city's gates, so that weary (and filthy) travelers could wash before entering the city proper.

Jen in front of a fallen statue of the Goddess Nike, just doing it.

Al resting for a bit on one of the statues lining ancient Ephesus' main drag.

The Temple of Hadrian, which is still impressive today and must have been really something to behold for your average Roman.

Here Al and Paul bond and contemplate how the communal toilets of the famous Roman pluming, while certainly a feat of civil engineering, permitted very little privacy. It wasn't so bad however, as a genius of Al's largess would have a slave warm up the toilet's marble seat on a cold morning. Paul would have probably been of the seat-warming class.

Al strikes a pose in front of the Celsus Library, Ephesus' most used postcard picture. This was one of the Roman Empire's many public libraries and its ornate details have been somewhat remarkably restored.

Right across the street from the library was a brothel, and legend has it that an underground tunnel connected the two. Our uninspiring tour guide told us that the husbands would tell their wifes they were going to the library to study anatomy and then slip over to the whore house. Somehow it seemed as if he had told the joke before. Here Jen relives a bit of history with a pole dance in the ruins of the brothel. Al commended Jen for her hands on approach to history.

The Roman theater at Ephesus, which had an estimated 44,000 person seating capacity, is believed to have been the largest outdoor theater of the ancient world. What's more, the apostle Paul gave many sermons in this theater during his quest to spread Christianity.

After more history then their brains could handle (well, not including Mr. Einstein of course) the intrepid travelers relaxed in a bar in nearby Seljuk with some new friends from Wyoming (of all places) until taking another all-night bus back to the big city and the modern world. They arrived on the morning of New Years Eve. That day was spent in the markets and bazaars and just enjoying the privilege of strolling by such impressive sites for one last day. The evening was given to a bit of merrymaking for the New Year. Istanbul's New Year's celebrations are apparently quite legendary, though the huge celebrations at Taksim Square were disbursed because of anxiety over terrorism. Our adventurers stayed with their new friends from their extremely friendly hostel in Sultanahmed. As the evening progressed the parties spilled into the streets. Al commented "What ripping good fun!" between swigs of champagne.

Metin, our friendly hostel proprietor, opening the bubbly as the clock struck midnight and 2008 began.

Jen took this picture of Paul and Beth with their new friends during the New Years celebrations. By this time Al was long gone - he knows a lot about astrophysics but perhaps more about partying.

The next day, a bit drowsy, Paul boarded a plane back for icy Hungary (where it was snowing, again) and Jen, with Al in tow, caught a flight back to Albania. Beth set out for some exploration of her own as she would enjoy a few more days in Istanbul before returning to the States and the medical library. All agreed that an unforgettable trip had been had. Tune in next time for Al and Jen's adventures in Albania!

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