Friday, August 15, 2014

Istanbul, Turkey

June 13th –15th, 2014

(note- borrowed heavily from Wikipedia for some background facts)

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, containing the country's economic, cultural, and historical heart. With a population of 14.1 million, the city is the fifth-largest city in the world by population within the city limits, which is 2,063 sq mi. Istanbul is a transcontinental city, straddling the Bosporus, one of the world's busiest waterways.  Its commercial and historical center lies in Europe, while a third of its population lives in the newer section of Istanbul on the Asian continent.


Founded around 660 BC as Byzantium (later as Constantinople), the city now known as Istanbul developed to become one of the most significant cities in history. For nearly sixteen centuries following its reestablishment as Constantinople in 330 AD, it served as the capital of four empires: the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times.

Constantine the Great, who became the emperor of the whole of the Roman Empire in 324 AD,  laid out the plans for a new, Christian city to replace Byzantium. In  330 AD, Constantinople was proclaimed the capital of an empire that eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire. The establishment of Constantinople served as one of Constantine's most lasting accomplishments, shifting Roman power eastward as the city became a center of Greek culture and Christianity.

Among other improvements to the city undertaken by Constantine, was a major renovation and expansion of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, an arena for sporting events and races (including chariot races). Accommodating tens of thousands of spectators, the Hippodrome became central to civic life and, in the 5th and 6th centuries, the epicenter of episodes of unrest, including the Nika riots.


This is the site of the Hippodrome. What is left are several posts, or monuments, which acted as markers for the chariot races. The chariot would have to go around them, rather like barrel racing on horse back.


On the base of the monuments were carvings. This one depicts the spectators and the nobles who would judge the races.

When Emperor Constantine rebuilt the city of Byzantium to make it his new imperial capital, ‘New Rome’ which was more commonly called ‘Constantinople’, he consciously emulated many of the features of "Old Rome". Among these was the Milion: it was a 4 sided monument, topped by a dome, built at the center of the main thoroughfare of the new city.  This new building fulfilled the same role as the Milliarium Aureum in Rome: it was considered as the origin of all the roads leading to the European cities of the Byzantine Empire, and on its base were inscribed the distances of all the main cities of the Empire from Constantinople.


This fragment of a post is all that remains of Constantine’s milion. We really were enthralled with the history of this city! To see evidence of the places and people that we only have known in books……


When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, they set about transforming it into an Islamic stronghold. Religious foundations were established to fund the construction of ornate imperial mosques, often adjoined by schools, hospitals, and public baths. Suleiman the Magnificent's reign from 1520 to 1566 was a period of especially great artistic and architectural achievement.

We were looking forward to touring all of these historic places. We had arranged for a private tour guide through SRM Travel (recommended by the Rick Steves guide book) for our three days in Istanbul, thinking that it would be the best way to see all that we wanted to see in a short period of time. We had arranged to meet our guide at our hotel.

After disembarking from our cruise ship at 8 am (a surprisingly easy process) we caught a cab to the Valide Sultan Hotel in the Historic District. It turned out to be a very good choice. The room was nice - a bit small, but comfortable, and breakfast was included.


We had picked this hotel because it was within walking distance of the major historic sites. This was convenient for touring with our guide, but also for getting out on our own after dinner.

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Each evening, we found ourselves walking down to the square in front of the Blue Mosque (more about the Blue Mosque, later).


We would enjoy hanging out…….and watching the people and enjoying the street scenes.


There were venders selling watermelon by the slice, right from a cart!


While strolling about one evening, we stopped to watch a performance by a Whirling Dervish. These religious men practice a sort of meditation or prayer that is performed while slowly turning around and around. I think that I would just get dizzy!


There were these benches just in front of the Mosque where people would gather, perhaps waiting until the men might go into the mosque when the time for the evening prayer came. While we waited and enjoyed the evening, venders would come around chanting “chai….chai”  That’s “tea”. You could get hot apple tea, which seems to be the preferred drink of Turkish people.

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We enjoyed watching the mix of people……some women were dressed in conservative clothes and traditional head scarves and even veils….others were much more contemporary. The one unifying accessory, though, seemed to be the every present cell phone!


We enjoyed our evenings strolls, generally staying out until just dark……enjoying the lights on the fountain and around the Blue Mosque, before heading back to our hotel.

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