A Day to Remember in Istanbul - Sultanahmet 2

On our last full day in Istanbul, we awoke to clear skies and a beautiful breakfast spread served on the rooftop terrace of our hotel.  Serving several different kinds of breads and pastries, two kinds of cheeses and olives, a fruit bar with an abundance of Turkish cherries, and glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, the breakfast buffet not only left us plenty satisfied but raring to start our day. 

Perhaps one of the most charismatic sites of the trip, the Basilica Cistern has all the makings of a mysterious lost city that one only reads about it fantasy adventure novels.  It is of course not a city but rather a glorified underground water reservoir, a fact that nevertheless failed to make it any less captivating.  Built in 532 by Emperor Justinian, it was designed to serve as the water supply to the palace.  Nearly fifteen hundred years later, rows upon rows of columns, some intricately carved, still stand silently in the dark while holding up a stretch of vaulted ceiling.  It is a hauntingly beautiful site to take in and I wondered at the attention paid to the aesthetic beauty of something that was never meant to be seen.

Aside from the eerie lighting, there are some legitimate mysteries that make the Basilica Cistern all the more mystifying.  For one, all of its columns resemble those of Roman temples except for one which in addition to it's noticeably larger size, also has nazar-shaped eyes carved all along its surface.  We found no placard at the cistern to explain this and neither did our guidebook make any mention of it.  It wasn't until after we returned home that I was able to find any information about the mystery column.  As it turns out, according to Wikipedia

"This column resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I from the 4th century (AD 379-395), erected in the 'Forum Tauri' Square. Ancient texts suggest that the tears on the column pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern."

Another mystery is that of the two Medusa heads used to support two columns tucked away in the north eastern corner of the cistern.  While there are a number of theories that seek to explain the origin and orientation of the Medusa pedestals, there is still no evidence that can ascertain their history.

Next on our list of sites to see was the Blue Mosque, which was a quick walk from the Basilica Cistern.  We had admired it from the outside several times before while passing it on the way to other sites on the previous day.  Today we joined the throngs of tourists shuffling their way into the mosque and while there were certainly large crowds of people, I was surprised to find how quickly traffic moved along.  Additionally there were no long lines at any ticket office as admission was free.

Not unlike the tombs of the Aya Sofya, we found the inside of the Blue Mosque to be ornately decorated with bejeweled stained glass windows, intricately painted patterns and Iznik tiles.  But as it certainly dwarfed any of the tombs, it's sheer size made it a rather overwhelming spectacle to take in all at once.  To enter the mosque, visitors are requested to take off their shoes and women must cover their heads with scarves.  The former request unfortunately caused a rather unfortunate odor to hang about the mosque and so despite the spectacular views, we rather hurried out of there.

Nestled against the eastern side of the mosque is the Arasta Bazaar which I read was far less chaotic than the Grand Bazaar.  As we regularly haggle at markets in Kenya, I opted for the calmer option of shopping at Arasta.  As it turned out, it ended up being a far quieter experience than I had expected.  Following signs just outside the Blue Mosque, we quickly found ourselves walking down a rather vacant alleyway lined with shops selling everything from ikat patterned silk scarves to embroidered cushions and brilliantly painted tiles.  On our way out, we were drawn into one shop by it's collection of shoes made with kilim.  As we stepped inside, we were met with a wonderful array of purses, wallets, boots, and of course shoes made with an assortment of carpets.  Practically an hour and two cups of tea later, T and I both walked out several liras poorer. 


After the bazaar, our stomachs were definitely telling us it was time to grab lunch.  We hopped on a tram traveling north and got off at Eminonu, located right by the Galata Bridge.  Without crossing the water, we walked through a tunnel that took us across to the eastern side of the bridge where were were met with a string of balik ekmek vendors.  Literally translating to 'fish bread,' balik ekmek is a fish sandwich made with  grilled mackerel, lettuce, and onions stuffed into something resembling a french baguette.  Paired with a cup of pickles it is nothing short of glorious.  Admittedly, as a fan of mackerel, I am a biased source but this was hands down my favorite meal in Turkey.  

Though even if you aren't a fan of fish, I think one would be hard pressed not to find something to like about the whole experience.  To buy a sandwich, one walks through a mass of humanity who are already enjoying their sandwiches while sitting on squat stools and tables.  You walk to the waters edge until you reach a ship on which a massive array of mackerel are grilling.  Upon placing your order, your sandwich is deftly assembled and handed to you in a sheet of newsprint, all for the humble cost of less than $2.  Then it is advised that you go across the way and purchase a cup of pickles to compliment your meal before squatting at the first table you can find and tearing into your sandwich.  See what I mean?  It was just the kind of street food experience I had been craving.   

After stuffing our faces, we did what any food lover would do... shop for more food!  Our guidebook had a little blurb telling stories of a fishmarket lined with stalls of street food and stores selling everything from fruit preserves to caviar to pickled fish.  We were not disappointed, though it was probably more torture than euphoria, as we had to pass beautiful jars of pickled vegetables too heavy to carry back with us, and perfect displays of the freshest produce we had not enough time to eat.  

We did however stop by the cutest looking sweet shop and ordered up some excellent baklava and two cups of Turkish coffee.  Sitting by the window, looking out across a cobblestone street to the quaintest Turkish deli and grocery stand ever, it was hard not to believe that I wasn't living in a European romantic comedy. 

Energized by a jolt of caffeine, we spent the rest of the day wandering along the shopping haven that Istiklal Caddesi and the impossibly hip side streets of Beyoglu.  In doing so, I continued to find more reason to believe that I had been transported into my own Amelie-esque romantic indie flick, in which I fall hopelessly in love with Istanbul. 

As we were just south of Taksim square where all the recent protests had been taking place, we did intermittently run into some spirited crowds of protesters making their way to the square.  We had read reports of Erdogan describing the protesters as mere "looters" but the ones we had seen seemed more like  the fresh faced college students we had once been exercising our idealism.

Walking through the streets of Istanbul, we noticed a reoccurring theme, that is, sightings of stray cats.  I'd be willing to bet money that Istanbul has one of the largest population of stray cats in the world.  After a while, T started taking pictures of them and we decided to see how many we could document.  Here is a montage of some of my favorites.     

We've been back from our Istanbul and US trip for almost two weeks now and we can not stop raving about Turkey to everyone we know.  I'd even go as far as to say I almost like it better than San Francisco, the city I swore I would someday marry.  If you happen to be looking for a new vacation destination to go to, it goes without saying that my vote is for Istanbul.  Seriously, your eyes, your mind, your heart, and your stomach will all thank you for it.  


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