Day 10 (Wed, Sep 24): Cruising / Istanbul

TopkapiIstanbul skylineHagia Sophia
When we awoke this morning we realized we were in the exotic harbor at Istanbul. It's impossible to convey the impact of suddenly seeing in one glance all those fabled sites -- domes and minarets of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, traffic on the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn -- as though they just snuck up on you. But first things first: we had breakfast with two ladies from Oakland CA (breakfast and lunch on the ship were informal - we often ate with people not in our tour group).

We weren't able to dock in Istanbul because it was too crowded, so we had to board tenders again. It's a strange feeling to realize you're suspended, high above the water, with a Greek sailor holding you by one arm and Turk (ages-old enemies) holding you by the other. Also strange, as we left the tenders and walked away from the waterfront: cabdrivers all lined up chattering for your business, whispering "taxi taxi taxi" as you walked past them. Someone in our group said that was nothing; further down the coast, they hissed if you ignored them; in Egypt they even spit at you.

Our local guide is a very pretty blonde lady named Izel (yes, she assured us, the Vikings did make it this far). During the morning we toured the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi.

Blue Mosque -- (Turkish: Sultan Ahmet Camii)

The Blue Mosque, with its beautiful domes and semidomes, nice courtyards and six slender minarets, was built by Sultan Ahmet, The 1st, during 1609-1616. It is huge (213ft x 239ft, 141 feet high under the magnificent dome), much bigger than I ever imagined. Like all mosques, apparently, there were no interior walls, just a very wide space (the desert) and soaring arches (the sky) with 260 fine stained glass windows. One of my Arab grad students told me the design of a mosque is supposed to represent a desert tent, and this one did, in fact, have a leather flap over the door. You were required to remove your shoes and leave them on shelves near the door. The city-block sized floor, at the time we were there, was literally covered, layers deep, with the largest and most beautiful rugs I've ever seen, all donated (Jackie Onassis had a very large one).

Hagia Sophia -- (Ayasofya Museum)

Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"), built in five years (532-7) at the orders of the Roman Emperor Justinian, was designed by architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. It was the greatest Christian cathedral of the Middle Ages (270ft x 240ft, 180 ft high). After the Ottoman conquest it was converted to a mosque in 1453 and, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a museum in 1935. It is considered one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings in history, certainly in all of Byzantine architecture. Since the building is a public museum there is no need to remove shoes here. The dome is supported on pendentives which make it seem to make it float.


sweetmeat set
1 - Gate of Salvation
2 - Second Courtyard
3 - Entrance to the Harem
4 - Gate of Felicity
5 - Harem
6 - Kitchens
7 - Audience Hall
8 - Library of Ahmet III
9 - Treasury
10 - Third Courtyard
11 - Room of the Relics
12 - Fourth Courtyard
13 - Baghdad Pavillion


Nadir Shah throne
Topkapi Palace -- (Topkapi Sarayi = "Cannongate Palace" from a nearby gate)

This was a strange place for me. It's a very nice setting, and on what could have been a hot day the breezes there were very much appreciated. The old kitchens with their huge and marvelous porcelain sets were nice. It struck me though, after seeing what the Greeks had accomplished in a very short time in ancient Athens, that after a millenium the Ottoman Turks had accomplished very little here except hoarding. Rooms crammed with loot really, and ... so what?

We returned to the ship for lunch then hurried back to the tender and the shore. I no longer remember why we didn't just stay ashore and eat there. In the afternoon we went to the Grand Bazaar and the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent. We weren't impressed by either place, frankly.

A Rug Shop Stop -- After we were finished with guided sightseeing we went to a rug shop near the Grand Bzazzar, one which Christina had recommended, Lapis, Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, 79. Christina accompanied us. We bought a 5' x 8' Kayseri silk carpet for $1300 US, but the guy didn't want to write up that amount on our American Express card. Instead, he wanted two $500 slips and one $300 slip. Apparently if it were the full amount at once he'd have to pay a tax or something. Since it wouldn't affect me (I thought) I didn't care how he rang it up. I also didn't realize that you actually could trust the merchant to ship the rug back home for you (it's in the government's interest to ensure their carpet trade). Instead, we had them wrap it ... amazing what a small bundle they can form from a rug that size. Several other members of the group bought rugs; some bought leather goods which are very reasonable here. Christina gave me a Greek cigarette to smoke in that Turkish rug shop (I think she just wanted to tweak them a little). They served us tea in little glases resting in a small bowl. The man who gave us a talk and ultimately sold us our carpet said that "Good muslims pray five times a day and bad ones spend their time trying to sell carpets".

Contemporary research note: My most recent search for the address of the rug shop, "Nuruosmaniye Cad 79", revealed that there is now a coffee shop at that location. I also found a website showing "lapis hediyelik esya ticaret" (the full name on the sales slip) in Kusadasi. As best as I can determine from an online Turkish dictionary, hediyelik means "suitable to be used as a present", i.e. "fine"; esya means "things, belongings, furnishings, (household) goods"; ticaret means "trade, trading, commerce". The firm is listed (#951) as a government "consultancy" for "hand-made carpet, leather clothing, jewelry".

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Random observations and some more pictures --

  • We saw two men leading bears down the street outside the rug shop. One of the bears had a pink bow. They are dancing bears.
  • The merchants assault you here, with soft voices. They try to sell guide books -- "English, English, English" -- post cards, slides, shish kebab skewers, wooden flutes. Goods are hung all over the fronts of shops, in trees, everywhere. As I came out of the rug shop a rather young Turk came up to me and put his arm around my shoulder, trying to smooth talk me into his leather shop down the street. We passed his shop and I still hadn't caved so, smiling, he dropped me and immediately put his arm around someone else walking back past his shop.
  • There was a friendly, very beat-up looking marmelade cat at the mosque of Suleiman who rubbed the legs of everyone in the group. Turkish cats are friendlier than Greek cats. Karen took a picture of a pretty black cat in the garden of the Kuruosmaniye Mosque near the Grand Bazaar. Some boys hanging around behind us were teasing, saying "meow, meow".
  • When were at the Topkapi Museum there was a great deal of pushing and shoving by rather rotund German ladies. I got tired of this and we discovered that it was easy to push back. The ladies all had jersey dresses on, and it was rather pleasant to bounce and slide our way through them.
  • The Turks seem to be very sweet people. They are quiet. We met a young (15?) Turk named Hussein, whose hero is Sammy Davis, Jr. In comparison with the places we saw in Greece, Istanbul is very beat-up looking. Very old men carrying enormous stacks (2 cubic yards) of kindling and scraps of cardboard on their backs up steep hills. Very young boys, 9 or 10 years old, were carrying very heavy parcels. That sort of thing.
  • The presence of the military (which had only recently siezed the government) is very strong here. There are troops with automatic weapons stationed every block so. There was a heavy concentration of military personnel and tanks and half-tracks around the university. One kids looked so fearful that he'd blow everybody's head off if anybody so much as sneezed.

    at the Blue Mosque Nuruosmaniye Mosque cat at the Topkapi Palace

    We got back to the ship about 5:30. Later we went up to the Boat Deck and took pictures of Istanbul's skyline from out in the harbor (none of them turned out well). Later when we were in the bar we saw the moon come up. It was golden and full and unbelievably beautiful. We had taverna food for dinner. The crew were dressed in colorful traditional Greek clothing. After dinner it was drinks in Grill Bar with Ross and Robin, then a walk on deck. After that the Lido bar, which is very pretty.