ISTANBUL : SIGHTS AND SEASONS IN SULTANAHMET

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Intoxicatingly beautiful. Uniquely charming and inevitably addictive. The city that’s built in between two continents, with skyline crowned by domes of ancient mosques, and intriguing streets adorned by museums, hammams and souqs, Istanbul simply left a brilliant impression in my memory!

Setting foot in the Old City of Sultanahmet twice, under relatively varied weather, for two consecutive days, was one of the most special, sensational and significant decisions I ever made in my limited traveling history.

Here’s the chronological list of places, travel tips and tales of my days in the Old City of Istanbul, Turkey.

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Sultanahmet Train Station, Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, 16/2/2015.

Without taking any taxi cab rides during my entire short stay in Istanbul, I wandered around via tram lines to Sultanahmet, Karakoy, Eminonu and Beyoglu districts as I maximized the use of Istanbulkart reloadable travel card that I purchased from a local newspaper and magazine kiosk for about 20 liras, located in one of the corners at the intersection of Karakoy, near the Galata Bridge. It kept me mobile and provided convenient and cheaper access to public transportation via trams apparently.

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SULTANAHMET MEYDANI  or

THE HIPPODROME OF CONSTANTINOPLE

Upon leaving my accommodation in Karakoy on foot, I trooped to the tram station and found my way to Sultanahmet. First on my agenda on my second day at Turkey was to visit the city park that was known during the early era of Emperor Constantine as  Hippodrome of Constantinople.

The presently called Sultanahmet Square was then a sports, social and political center of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine Empire. Horse and chariot races lorded the square during those ancient times. How true was it that even circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III was held in Hippodrome?

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Constantinople’s Hippodrome then, Sultanahmet Square now.

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If this obelisk could speak; it’ll tell tales of recent and distant past.

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Originally carved in pink granite, this Egyptian obelisk was erected in Temple of Karnak in Luxor in 1490 BC during the reign of Thutmose III. What stands mightily until now is the topmost portion, after the great  Emperor Theodosius divided it into three parts and brought to the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 390 AD. The base of the obelisk depicts Emperor Theodosius as he offers a laurel wreath to the victor from the Kathisma at the Hippodrome.

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The Egyptian obelisk at the background and the base of the Serpent Column in front.

Another work of art that highlighted Constantinople as the capital city then, was the Serpent Column. It was brought by Constantine to the Hippodrome from Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The column used to symbolize the triumph of the Greeks over Persians and was noted to be previously adorned with a golden bowl and three serpent heads that were destroyed in time.

SULTAN AHMET CAMII or  SULTANAHMET MOSQUE

 or more popularly known as THE BLUE MOSQUE

Built during the early 17th century fronting Hagia Sophia, within the vicinity of the ancient Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque was considered grand and beautiful in more ways than one. As common in mosques to have 4 minarets, the Blue Mosque has 6. According to accounts, Sultan Ahmet I instructed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets.

Contrary to what others may think, the exteriors of the Blue Mosque isn’t blue. The term, “Blue Mosque” refers to the blue Iznik ceramic tiles beneath the domes.

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There she was. Just like in the movies. Amazing! I still couldn’t believe I had a rare chance to enter the Blue Mosque.  The ornately decorated ceiling of those majestic domes made me almost speechless! One of the most magnificent architectural structures I’ve seen! More than its splendor and aesthetic charm, it remains to be a sacred place of worship.

*Some personal tips to remember before you enter the Blue Mosque :

  • Open daily except during Prayer Times. It closes for 90 minutes at each pray time.
  • Closed at 11:30AM, 3PM, 5PM.
  • Open at 8:30AM, 1:15PM, 4PM (I went there at 4PM).
  • No admission fee.
  • Women must wear head scarves. Head scarves are provided in Blue Mosque just before its entrance, for free.
  • Visitors must enter at the back side; shoes must be removed so better wear socks unless you’re fine with walking on bare foot. Plastic bags are available and free of charge for you to keep your footwear before you leave them on wooden shoe racks inside the Blue Mosque.
  • Respect the faithfuls particularly during prayer time.
  • Observe decent clothing, particularly for women.
  • No flash photography inside the Blue Mosque.

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Because I arrived during Prayer Times, and raindrops were pouring from heaven, I took advantage to meet one of the most basic physiological needs -to eat! It was hours past usual lunch time and I could honestly hear my stomach’s growling with borborygmi. An apparent sign to sample some Turkish meal and local drinks.

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From where I sat inside Sultan restaurant just outside Sultanahment Mosque for late lunch, I had a great vista of the German Fountain. That gazebo-liked fountain with octagonal dome, supported by eight marble columns, was notably built in Germany and was said to be transported to Turkey piece by piece; then it was assembled and  erected to commemorate the second anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898.

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Meanwhile for lunch, I savored one of the most tender chicken kebab dishes on the face of the Earth. Served with pita and sliced Turkish bread, an ample amount of Turkish rice (quite moist and sticky which I liked), some fresh vegetable salad and potato fries, I enjoyed everything with Coke and Turkish tea, all for 25 liras. Of course, people watching made deglutition and digestion more pleasant!

THE BASILICA CISTERN or

YEREBATAN SARNICI

Located a stone-throw-away or about 40 meters southwest of Hagia Sophia is the The Basilica Cistern or the Sunken Palace. The grandest of all cisterns, that were often built to catch and store rainwater, with nearly 2.4 acres that literally appears like an underground palace, can hold 80,000 cubic meter of water. Over 300 columns support the ceiling of this subterranean chamber; most columns were remarkably taken from ruins of other ancient buildings. Two of the most famous columns are located at a corner in northwestern area of the Basilica Cistern. Their bases were heads of Medusa – one is inverted, another one is positioned sideways. No documents were written to site the origin of the Medusa column bases, other than they were probably removed from old buildings during the late Roman era.

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*Some personal tips to remember before you enter the Basilica Cistern :

  • Open daily
  • Admission fee : 20 Turkish liras as of 16th February 2015
  • Waiting period on queue outside the humble-looking building : around 15 to 30 minutes
  • Slippery stairs and walkways. Watch your steps!
  • Kiosks for coffee, tea, soda and souvenirs are available near the exit area
  • Kois and other fish swim freely in the water that even kids would enjoy

After I went to Basilica Cistern, I walked back to Sultanahmet Square and headed my way to enter the Blue Mosque.

SULTAN AHMET CAMII or  SULTANAHMET MOSQUE

 or more popularly known as THE BLUE MOSQUE

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Random scenes in front of Sultanahmet Mosque, aka Blue Mosque.

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The modest entrance to Blue Mosque.

Behold. What lies beneath the cascading domes, seemingly guarded by 6 minarets are Iznik ceramic tiles in varied floral designs. It was a time when spasm of muscles didn’t bother me at all in hyperextending my cervical region, to simply appreciate such stunning work of art! No visit to Istanbul is complete without paying homage to the Blue Mosque. Arguably, it’s almost synonymous with Istanbul!

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Because Hagia Sophia is closed every Monday, I reserved experiencing it as my first priority the next day.

Clear skies, cold breeze, cloudy winter morning. That’s how my third day in Istanbul started until I went down from my hotel room to indulge in breakfast at Sub Karakoy Hotel’s dining area.

Unexpectedly, I noticed there were minimal snow flakes falling from above. Excitedly, I stepped out of the hotel to frolic under the snow in the street. Five minutes after, my child-like merriment halted. Snow stopped. No complaints or disappointment. Time to continue my first meal of the day.

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At the Galata Bridge, it was never difficult to appreciate a better-looking winter weather. Crisp fresh air,  birds flying in flock, a sight of heritage city built in busy shores and friendly harbor. I witnessed local men eagerly throwing their fishing rods to the Golden Horn, with a few who were thrilled to pull up and gather their freshest catch that morning. Such an inviting scene to further enjoy the day in this historic and ultimately fascinating Turkish city.

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Can you identify their catch for the day?

Not long after, the clear sky became gloomy to almost zero-visibility. Cool breeze became cooler. Temperature dropped to negative degree-Celsius in a blink. Snowfall progressed heavily.

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The change of atmosphere was so abrupt; it’s like flight of ideas of some schizophrenic maniac! Undeniably, my mood went with the sudden change of season. From being excited and happy to becoming euphoric and ecstatic! Why, it was my very first snowfall experience! The Asian-kid-in-me who grew up under a tropical sun, was in the state of supreme bliss!

For a while, I took videos of the snow at the Galata Bridge, snapped photos on a whim, however when I noticed the snow was getting more severe, I went down an underpass, and went up again to finally cross the street and take the tram back to Sultanahmet.

Winter season worked well with me. Thankfully, I experienced Sultanahmet with and sans snow!

 

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Magical. Surreal. Dreamy. The iconic Blue Mosque beautifully capped with snow.

Sultanahmet Mosque appeared more fantastic with snow! It was how I imagined Narnia after walking inside that wonderful wardrobe! I could not help but utter, “Winter looks real good on you, Istanbul!”

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The German fountain in Sultanahmet Square looks more fantastic with snow, doesn’t it?

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AYASOFYA  or HAGIA SOPHIA

Another unforgettable highlight of my first trip to Istanbul was going inside AyaSofya. I have never been to any place where more than one religion share the same roof.

Hagia Sophia or AyaSofya in Turkish, was originally built as a magnificent Greek Orthodox church, which later was transformed into an Imperial Mosque, and at present a museum.  Images of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, Arabic calligraphy, Islamic mirhab that indicates the quibla or direction of Kaaba in Mecca, a minbar where an Imam leads the Muslims in prayers -basically Christianity and Islam are found under AyaSofya’s domes because of its historic and religious transitions through the years.

*Some personal tips before you enter AyaSofya :

  • Entrance fee of 30 Turkish liras per pax as of February 17, 2015.
  • Museum is closed every Mondays
  • Don’t forget to appreciate the Upper Gallery -the dilapidated Mosaic panels created during 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were like documentaries-come-alive right before your eyes! However, seeing them gradually destroyed in history, imposed a severe noxious stimulus in my being. I wish efforts in restoration, if not, means of preservation must be employed by authorities for future visits and generations to come.
  • The museum-souvernir shop at the lower ground level holds a collection of quality postcards, books and whatnot that’ll remind people of their once-upon-a-time-in-AyaSofya.

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Then AyaSofya or Hagia Sophia was blanketed by snow. Equally beautiful as the Blue Mosque, isn’t it?

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The queue was long under the cloudy sky and snowfall. But every minute was truly incredible and worthwhile!

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THE MARBLE DOOR, 6th Century

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“The Marble Door separates the section where there were the private chambers of the Emperor (metatorion) and meeting place for the Church members.” –as posted in AyaSofya.

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MOSAIC PANEL, 13th Century Deisis

“Christ in the middle, John the Baptist on the right, and Virgin Mary on the left.”

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MOSAIC PANEL, 12th Century

“Virgin Mary in the middle, Child on her arms, Emperor John II Komnenos on the left, his wife the Empress Eireen on the right, their son Alexios above the buttress. The Emperor and his wife donated money to Hagia Sophia.”

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MOSAIC PANEL, 11th Century

“Christ on the throne in the middle. Emperor Costantine IX Monomachos on the left, the Empress Zoe on the right. The Emperor and his wife donated money to Hagia Sophia.”

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I walked my way to Grand Bazaar from AyaSofya however, I did not spend much time. Probably, shopping was not on my mind, or perhaps, I was more interested in wandering and creating travel memories, rather than splurging in unnecessary things.

Due to restless snow, my planned visits to Topkapi Palace which is within Sultanahmet district too, and to a few more suggested museums (Archeological and Chora Museums), other mosques, Dolmabahce Palace and cruising the Bosphorus Strait, were all shelved to my next trip to Istanbul.

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It was a great pleasure to experience you, Sultanahmet!

Tesekkur ederim, Istanbul! (Thank you  Istanbul!).

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*This Istanbul Travel Blog Series includes :

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