Taksim Square, Galata Tower, and New Town

After I left Dolmabahce Palace, I still had a lot of things on my to do list for the day. I knew that I was going to get home feeling like I wanted to collapse, but I have this habit of punishing present Lara for the actions of past Lara. For example, if I eat a whole tub of ice cream one day, the next day at the gym I might make myself run an extra few miles (which is a significant task for me) as ‘punishment’ because past Lara has no self-control. This time, in ‘punishment’ for being a lazy bum my first couple of days, I didn’t allow myself to take things off of my sightseeing list for lack of time. No, no. Too much walking was not a valid excuse because if I hadn’t been lazy, I would have easily been able to see the same amount while enjoying slightly more leisurely sightseeing days.

This helpful sign on the funicular (and all public transit actually) tells riders that “manspreading”, as it has become known, is not allowed. Everyone knows what this means… you know those people who get onto the subway and act like they own the place and should be allowed to take up as much space as they want.

From the palace, I walked to the funicular that goes uphill to Taksim Square, one of the major public squares of the city. It’s a major venue for public events like parades and other celebrations, as well as for protests and demonstrations. Otherwise, there are a lot of restaurants, shops, and hotels nearby, but since I wasn’t interested in any of those, I wasn’t quite sure what I should do there. Does that ever happen to you? You know that you’re supposed to go see something, but once you get there it’s like, “Hm. Well, there it is. What now?” There’s a little park by the square, so I settled on getting myself another nutella bagel, sitting under a tree in the park, and watching the other people in the square who seemed to have a better idea of what to do there than I did.

(This was actually my second time in Taksim Square. The first was in transit to my hostel from the airport when it was raining, I had all of my bags with me, and I spent most of my walk through the square grumbling about the fact that it was so darn big and I couldn’t figure out where to go and I had to walk forever to get from the side where the bus dropped me to the side where I was getting on the funicular. Thankfully, I was less grumpy this time.)

They’re in the process of building a mosque right next to Taksim Square. Apparently it’s been a bit of a controversial project. Supporters say that there isn’t a mosque close enough to Taksim Square. The opposition says that it’s a move angling to reverse the legacy of the first president Ataturk who established Turkey as a secular republic. It was debated for DECADES, and now it’s set to be completed this year.

This monument in the square shows the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk, in two different scenarios. Here, he’s shown in his role as a statesman.

Here, Ataturk is shown as a military leader.


When I was thoroughly covered in crumbs and ran out of nutella to drip on myself, I left my tree behind and took a stroll down Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a big pedestrian shopping street. Besides foot traffic, there’s an old trolley that runs along the route. It’s kind of cool, but if you’re going for speed, I think it would be way faster to just walk. With how long it takes for people to move out of the way of the trolley, it moves along at a snail’s pace.

Independence Avenue. If it looks very European to you, that was no accident. It burned down in 1870, and the rebuilding was somewhat modeled off of famous streets in Paris.

I had a few churches that I wanted to check out in the area. It does almost seem like there are more churches in that neighborhood than mosques. Maybe that’s not true though. It could be that just none of the famous mosques are around there, and that’s basically where all of the churches are.

Church of St. Anthony. See what I mean about “local flavor”?

The most well-known church (I just made that up) along the road is the Church of Saint Anthony, a huge Roman Catholic church. The first church was built on its site in 1725, but the building that stands today is from 1912. The modern-day church was rebuilt to replace the earlier church that was demolished to build a tramway. I really liked the outside because I felt like it had a little local flavor. So often, churches look the same no matter where they’re built, so I liked that this one seemed to fit. The inside was pretty typical (and kind of forgettable to be honest), but I’ll take what I can get.


Inside the church… sadly somewhat underwhelming

There was some nice stained glass though

I’m not a huge fan of the blue/purple lighting.

Greek Orthodox Church

I made two other church stops in the neighborhood. The first was Hagia Triada, a Greek Orthodox church that was built in 1880 and was the very first domed church allowed to be built in Istanbul. During the Istanbul pogrom in 1955, mob attacks were directed primarily at the Greek population, and rioters attempted to burn the church down. It was pillaged and damaged but remained standing, despite having kerosene poured on it. It was restored, and thank goodness because it’s beautiful. The ceilings, in particular, are pretty fabulous. I also have some good feelings towards the church because someone invited me to Easter services the next day (now you know how far behind I am with writing), and while I didn’t end up going there, their offer was what I needed to motivate me to find an English-speaking church to go to.


Greek Orthodox Church

Altar of the Greek Orthodox Church

Inside the dome

Second, I stopped in at Surp Hovhan Vosgeperan Armenian Catholic Church (quite the mouthful). It has a somewhat similar history to the Greek church… It was originally built in 1837, was destroyed and burned down, and was rebuilt in 1863. One thing that I noticed while visiting these churches was how much security they have (aka they have more than the zero security that most churches have), and now I understand. I guess that’s what happens after people burn and loot the church.

The Armenian Catholic Church

This used to be a little market, and now it’s filled with shops and restaurants that are definitely out of my price range.

Random mural I found in my backstreet wanderings

My last major destination of the day was Galata Tower. The first tower built on this spot was by the Byzantines in 507, it was made of wood, and they called it the Great Tower. In the 1300s, it was rebuilt in stone and was called the Tower of Christ. During the Ottoman years, it was used first as a dungeon and later as a fire tower. Now, it’s an incredibly claustrophobic tourist attraction. I’m not exaggerating.

First, you have to wait in a painfully long line to get in (I had to wait an hour, and I have a feeling that’s not even as bad as it gets). Then, you get whisked to the middle-ish of the tower in an elevator… and then you have to walk to the top up some narrow, spiraling stairs. At the top, there’s a restaurant where you can eat if you like to look at people’s backs (because there are windows, but there are so many people on the walkway outside that you’re not going to see any sort of pretty view while you’re eating).

Galata Tower

Stairs up the tower


There’s also a walkway around the tower that is just wide enough for one person to press their body against the rail and have enough space for someone else to pass behind them. You’re supposed to walk around it clockwise, but of course there are always those people who decide they should go against the grain and walk the other direction. And then there are the people who stop walking and block the entire walkway while doing so. I went around twice, and about halfway through the second time, I started regretting my decision because I was getting a little claustrophobic and about ready to start smacking people (don’t worry, I controlled myself). For reference, I don’t get claustrophobic easily. I think it was the combination of the frustration at not being able to walk and the people bumping into me and the fact that once I wanted to get out, I couldn’t.

On the positive side, the view really was spectacular. I was there as the sun started setting, so I got to see the city turn from daytime Istanbul to dusk Istanbul. I thought I might stay for the whole sunset, but once I made it to the end of my second round, I wanted nothing more than to be on the ground again.

Views from the tower

I was just enjoying the view from the top of the tower when this girl came up and said that she took a really good picture of me. She asked if I wanted it, and my thought was, “Well, if you’re going to have this picture of me, then yeah, I want it too.” So I said yes, and here it is. Then she asked me to take the same picture of her.

Funky street staircase

To get back to my hostel, I had to go back across the water to Old Town. I walked on Galata Bridge which is a pretty cool spot, especially at night. There are two levels to the bridge. The top has fishermen lining the railings at what seems like every hour of the day and night. The bottom is full of restaurants, and while it seems like a bit of a hazard to have a bunch of fishing lines flying over the walkway in front of the restaurants, no one asked me for my opinion. It would be funny if when you ordered a seafood dish from one of the restaurants, the fishermen above pulled it straight out of the water for you. Can’t get much fresher than that! Even though that doesn’t actually happen, you can buy fish sandwiches on and near the bridge that are made from super-fresh fish.

Fishermen still going, despite the fact that it’s getting dark

Nighttime river view

Looking towards the old town side of the river

Since I’m not a fish person, I didn’t do that. Instead, I wandered down this big food street near the hostel, I imagine looking something like a zombie. I walked all the way down the street without seeing anywhere I wanted to eat… and when I got to the end, I remembered that I was starving, and not finding a dinner spot was not an option. So, I turned around and walked back down the street, attracting the attention of one of the restaurant’s yell-at-you-as-you-walk-by people. He tried to get my attention the first time I walked by, and I successfully ignored him. This time, I didn’t have the energy. He told me that he would give me a chicken kebab platter for 15 lira instead of the 20 lira listed in the menu (20 lira was about $5 at the time). I knew 20 was high and figured 15 was reasonable. Plus, if I decided to eat there, I didn’t have to walk around hungry anymore. Okay, deal.

Maybe it’s just because I was starving, but I think that platter was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten (okay, it was definitely good, but I think the “best food I’ve ever eaten” statement comes from the fact that moments before that, my stomach was eating itself). I guess the guy took a liking to me during the course of the meal because when I asked for the bill, he told me not to worry about it. I couldn’t accept that though, so I insisted on paying SOMETHING at least, and he agreed to 10 lira. Imagine that, one second I’m bargaining for a lower price and the next I’m bargaining for a higher one. Interesting turn of events.

This isn’t the one I had that night (I was too busy scarfing it down to take a picture), but here’s another kebab platter that’s pretty similar to what I got… definitely not an insignificant amount of food. There was rice, salad, a basket of bread, and lots of kebab.

Anyway, my punishment was successful. By the time I got back to the hostel, I was ready to collapse. I had to pull myself together quickly, though, because the next day’s schedule was no less grueling!

Dolmabahce Palace

Following my unexpected Bursa excursion, I went into a mini-panic because I only had three more days in Istanbul, and there was so much more that I wanted to do and see. My days of going out with only a half-baked plan were behind me, and I made myself an ambitious schedule for the days ahead.

I decided to go north for day 7 and try to visit all of the things on my list in the northern part of the Europe side of the city. The first of those destinations was Dolmabahce Palace (pronounced dol-ma-bah-che), another Ottoman palace that was built after Topkapi. This one is more of a traditional palace in that it’s on these big palace grounds and there’s one primary building, whereas Topkapi is more spread out and has courtyards instead of exterior gardens.

Why can’t every season be spring? I was loving the flowering trees on the grounds.

In fact, Dolmabahce was built with the intention of being more similar to the “typical” European palace. Sultan Abdulmecid I decided that a new palace was necessary because Topkapi was “medieval” and lacked the style and luxury of the palaces of other European monarchs. I can’t say that I walked through Topkapi and thought for even an instant, “Hm… I mean, this is nice and all, but it’s a little medieval for my liking. It could be more luxurious because at the moment, only 30% of the ceiling is covered in gold leaf and I think it would be better at 80%.” But then, of course, I’m also not royalty so maybe that’s why my vision for these types of things is inadequate.

Pretty, pretty.

Weird fountain.

Next to the clock museum on the grounds.

Anyway, once Sultan Abdulmecid decided that he needed a new palace, his court architects got down to business designing it. Fun fact… the architects were Armenian. The Balyan family served as court architects in the Ottoman Empire for five generations! That’s pretty cool. Nine different family members served six different sultans. They designed a huge number of palaces, mosques, Armenian churches, and public buildings in the empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. Garabet Balyan and one of his sons worked on Dolmabahce.

Walking around the gardens

The palace and my attempt to cover up the construction scaffolding with a tree.

Gate of the Treasury

Another sea gate. They never got less picturesque.

Want to venture a guess at how much Dolmabahce cost to build at today’s money value? More than $1.5 BILLION. Yeah, that’s right. Billion. Did they have enough money for this? Not quite… This was ¼ of the annual tax revenue in the empire. It was built at a time when finances were already becoming a bit of a problem, but the sultan wanted to make a statement that everything was fine, and the empire was as strong as ever. What better way to do that than to spend an exorbitant amount on a frivolous construction project?

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)

Me, a weirdly green pool, and the palace.

I love these things… Shower caps for your feet so that you don’t damage the floors!
I always think they look like little elf shoes.

The palace is like the anti-tiny house. You know how people these days are all into minimalism and not taking up more space than they need? The sultans were totally not on the same page. There are 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets in the palace. You know, just in case every wife, girlfriend, and child in the family simultaneously decided to find an empty room to sit in.

Between 1856 and 1924, six sultans used the palace as their residence. After that, it was used as a summer residence by Ataturk, the first president of the republic, and now it’s a museum. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside of course, but I kind of feel like Turkey owes me something, so I didn’t feel bad sneaking a few.


Excuse the crookedness of these interior pictures… that’s what happens when you take discreet pictures.

Every single room is like this. Nothing was left un-embellished.

Ceilings!!!!

Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe the interior of the palace. It’s one of those places where you could spend a month in each room, and even then you wouldn’t have enough time to take in the full splendor. The details are insane. I think I had a crick in my neck by the time I left because I spent so much time staring up at the incredible ceilings. Guess how much gold was used in the gilding of the ceilings? I almost don’t even want to say because it’s too ridiculous. Fourteen tons. Like… what?!?! The extent of my notes for the entire visit was “gold leaf radiators”. Honestly, I think that says more than enough. Why do you need gold leaf radiators???

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)

The exterior

What is a garden without some hardcore landscaping?

There were two rooms in particular that I could have spent the rest of my life in. The first was a staircase, and trust me when I say that it’s the most beautiful staircase in the universe. You can look up pictures of the Dolmabahce Palace crystal staircase if you don’t believe me or if you just want to see how marvelous it is. The balusters (the vertical posts that support the railing) are all made of crystal, there’s a crystal chandelier hanging in the middle, and the ceiling/roof is made of translucent glass that floods the space with light. Besides all of that, the surrounding ceilings are amazing. I think I stood in that staircase so long that the guard had time to get a little suspicious of me and then get un-suspicious again because I spent the entire time not touching anything and just staring up with my eyes wide and my jaw dropped.

Entering into the Ceremonial Hall

The other room was the Ceremonial Hall, and I think that my parents’ entire house could fit inside that single room like 15 times. Does anyone really need such a room?? But “need” isn’t exactly the motivating word in these situations, so I’ll stop trying to make sense of things and instead just enjoy the masterpieces that resulted from too much money and too big egos. The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the hall, and it weighs 4.5 tons. Ha. The ceilings though… they’re something else. I did manage to sneak an illegal picture of those though, so it’s your lucky day. Don’t turn me in.

Ceiling of the Ceremonial Hall

The grounds surrounding the palace are also quite nice, though they aren’t nearly as big in area as the Topkapi courtyards. It’s right on the Bosphorus, so there are gates that lead directly to the water. The view on the day I went was beautiful because, for once, I was smart and visited an outdoor space when the weather was nice. Imagine that.

Pretty flowers ❤

Okay just one more…

Beautiful day!

The Bosphorus

Me with a gate to the Bosphorus

Nearby, there are two other Dolmabahce-related structures. The first is a clock tower just outside the gates, and it was designed by Sarkis Balyan, son of Garabed. It cost $350 million in today’s currency which is, in my opinion, a VERY reasonable amount of money to spend on a clock. You know what they say, time is money!

The second is a mosque designed by Garabed. It was originally commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, and he continued the work after her death. As a result, the building has a bit of a feminine quality to it. The towers are more slender than those of other mosques, and there’s a lightness and delicacy to the design that goes beyond what is seen in most mosques.


Dolmabahce clock tower

The clock tower, and you can see the tower of the mosque in the background.

See how slender the towers are as compared to other mosques?

That’s some serious dome detail!

Inside Dolmabahce Mosque

After visiting the palace, clock tower, and mosque, I felt like I had adequately seen the Dolmabahce collection. I still had a lot more to see, though, so I kept moving!

To be continued for now… I don’t want to overload you (any more than I already have, that is).

Bursa

While there are plenty of negatives to not having a plan when you’re travelling (many of them clearly displayed in Istanbul days 1-5, such as being unprepared, inefficient, and uninformed), there are also some positives. One of the biggest positives is flexibility. When you don’t have a plan to stick to, you can take opportunities as they come.

After my long day at Topkapi Palace, I spent some time hanging out in the common area of the hostel, trying to warm up and enjoying sitting down for a change. I started talking to this guy who told me about his plans to take a day trip to Bursa the following day. I didn’t have anything figured out, so I thought “why not?” and asked him if I could join. Voila! Just like that, plans!

I knew nothing about Bursa. You’re shocked, I’m sure. I kind of thought that the guy would know something about it because he had the idea to go there, but I soon found out that he didn’t really know anything either. Great haha. He had a couple of places that he wanted to visit, but otherwise, we were just going to go with the flow.

View of Bursa

It’s estimated that the first settlement in the area was around 5200 BC. Bursa spent time as part of the Roman Empire, and when it was captured by the Ottomans, they made it their capital city from 1335-1363. The city grew rapidly during this period, and even after the capital was moved, Bursa remained an important part of the empire as a center for silk trading. As we all know from our visit to Topkapi, the Ottoman royals had expensive taste which means that the silk needs of the palaces were plentiful.

Today, Bursa is an industrial hub and the fourth most populated city in Turkey (after Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir).  The city is nicknamed “Green Bursa” because it’s dotted with parks and other green spaces, and it’s surrounded by forests and a fertile plain. There are also mountains around the city, and any city where you can see mountains in the distance gets at least 100 extra “cool points”, in my personal opinion (and also the opinion of anyone who knows anything about assigning cool points to cities).

One of the famous Bursa parks. We even saw a horse grazing here (I was too busy gaping to take a picture). Plus mountains in the distance.

Pretty city

Despite my lack of knowledge about the city, I was excited to see a slightly less touristy side of Turkey. Bursa is still a relatively popular tourist destination, but “relatively popular” is nothing in comparison to Istanbul.

Since I was tagging along, my plan was to, well, tag along. I didn’t assert myself too much when it came to making decisions about the day because I was already imposing, and I wanted him to feel like he could do whatever he was planning to do. If I had been in charge, I would have set a painfully early departure time (for reference, at this phase in my life, “painfully early” = anytime before 8AM which yes, I’m aware, is ridiculous), looked up the ferry schedule beforehand, and figured out exactly how to get from point A to point B so that there would be no surprises. I guess I assumed that other people are similar to me… and you know what they say about assuming.

Headed to the ferry

Entrance to Koza Han

My travel buddy was almost TOO go-with-the-flow. He was like, “I was thinking about leaving around 10.” Okay, I thought. Seems kind of late but I’ll go with it. I’ll spare you all of the details, but in summary, we definitely should have left earlier in the day. We had to walk to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket for the next ferry, take a 1.5 hour ride to the coastal town nearest Bursa, and ride the bus/metro from there into the city center. That whole thing took like 3-4 hours with the actual transit from Istanbul to Bursa city center taking around 2.5.

By the time we made it there, we only had a few hours to wander around before we had to start heading back to catch the return ferry. Not ideal, but I was still happy to be in a new setting seeing some new things, so I was determined to make the most of our time.

Our first stop was Koza Han which was the historic location of Bursa’s silk market. It’s a two-story rectangular building with a big interior courtyard. The architecture is typical Ottoman style and is beautiful with its domes and arches. Today, the building’s 95 rooms house silk shops, souvenir shops, and a bunch of restaurants and cafes that fill the central courtyard with tables. I had no idea what to expect, and I definitely didn’t think it was going to be so fantastic. I guess the word “market” makes me think of folding tables and tarps strung up above tables to shield customers from the sun rather than a proper, permanent marketplace.

In the courtyard of Koza Han

The 2nd floor walkway, lined with silk and souvenir shops

View from the second floor

Looking into the courtyard

Square outside of the market

It was so warm out that I was about ready to jump into that fountain, the water looked so nice!

Near the market

On the way to Koza Han

Oh yeah, and the walk there was also a bit unexpected. I plotted a route from the metro stop to Koza Han without any clue about what was along the way. It turned out that most of the walk was on this massive pedestrian market street called the “Long Bazaar”. It was PACKED with people, and if I wasn’t enjoying people-watching so much, I might have wished that it was a little calmer.

Right next to Koza Han is the Grand Mosque of Bursa, or Ulu Camii, built in the late 1390s. It’s the biggest mosque in Bursa which is already enough to make it worth a visit, but there’s also an uncommon interior feature – a fountain, directly in the center of the mosque.


Fountain inside the mosque

There’s one of those “maybe true or maybe not but told like it’s fact” stories associated with the construction of the mosque and the strange addition of the fountain. The story goes that the Ottoman Sultan wanted to build a grand mosque for Bursa, the capital at the time. He started buying plots of land, but one old woman repeatedly refused to sell… and her property, of course, was in the very center of the site. When the woman died, her land was acquired, and construction of the mosque finally moved forward. She didn’t leave a will or anything, so legally, no one knew her final intentions for her property. To avoid the risk of having people pray on potentially illegitimately acquired land, the architects were directed to place a fountain there. In another version of the story, the woman had a dream that finally changed her mind, and after she sold the land, the fountain was built there in her honor.

Another fountain view

Dome over the fountain

Some of the paintings inside were very nice

The mosque is HUGE!

So much space, and it seemed like all of it was being used! There were tourists, people praying, kids running around, moms hanging out, people studying and reading… it was like a community center.

After leaving the Grand Mosque, we had just enough time to make it to another well-known mosque in the city, the Green Mosque (Yesil Camii), before having to head to the metro and start our trek back to the hostel. This mosque was built in 1424 by Sultan Mehmet I and gets its name from, you guessed it, the green color of the interior décor.

Another covered market that we happened to stumble into. So many Turkish flags!

Window at the end of the market

We wove our way through the streets, only getting lost maybe once or twice… no comment on who was navigating (it was me)… before arriving at the mosque JUST as afternoon prayer was starting. Perfect timing… NOT!

Since I’m a woman and the women in that mosque have a separate prayer room (sometimes it’s within the same central space but is along the side or in a balcony or something, but this time it was a whole separate room), I couldn’t go in to see the main sanctuary while prayer was happening. I was happy to be able to just look in the window though. The details were all spectacular!

If we had all the time in the world, we would have waited around until prayer time was over and we could wander around as we pleased. Since we absolutely did not have all the time in the world, we had to run out before it was over, and I had to be content with my through-the-window views (not so bad, honestly, but that does mean I don’t have any interior pictures… okay actually I have no pictures because I completely forgot to take some of the outside. It was hectic when we got there, and we were in a rush when we left. Oops).

This weirdo building is the “Panorama Conquest Museum” which tells the story of the conquest of Bursa and the foundation of the Ottoman Empire.

Thankfully, everything after that went without a hitch. We made our way to the closest metro station, rode the metro to the end, hopped on a bus, rode again to the very end, and collapsed onto the ferry in exhaustion. Despite getting back to the hostel around 9PM, it felt like midnight (for all you party animals out there who think that midnight is like midday, I like to go to bed at about 10PM… so midnight is extremely late). Definitely not the most relaxing of days, but I’m glad that I managed to see a tiny bit of the country beyond Istanbul!

On the way back to Istanbul, most of the ride was accompanied by cute/funny cat videos. I know that people are really into those right now, but I never would have expected to see them played as legitimate entertainment during transit…

Topkapi Palace

I was feeling ambitious on Istanbul Day 5. I made this long list of things that I wanted to visit, and I didn’t think it through at all. I mean, at the time, I thought I was thinking it through, but that was using the incredibly limited information that I had in my brain.

The major planned destination was Topkapi Palace, a former palace of the Ottoman sultans. The weather wasn’t very good, but I heard the word “palace” and very mistakenly thought that corresponded to “good rainy-day activity”. Anyone who has done one millisecond of research about Topkapi would tell you that’s definitely not true because the palace prominently features four very large courtyards. Uncovered courtyards. Aka outside. Aka when it rains, it will rain on you. Brilliant, Lara.

Model of the palace compound. Note the many outdoor spaces.

Even after realizing that maybe I hadn’t planned things out perfectly, I pressed on because I was just happy that I managed to make a plan at all. You don’t go messing with the plan when you have nothing to replace it with. I mean, now I would happily offer multiple ways that I could have reworked my schedule to better accommodate the weather, but hindsight’s 20/20 and as we’ve seen, my foresight was essentially blind. Literally the only commendable planning I did that day was deciding to take my raincoat and the plastic bag I modified to cover my backpack when it’s raining. Better than nothing I suppose.

In the second courtyard, there are all of these hollow trees. They’re still alive, but at some point they got an infection that ate their insides.

The hill where Topkapi is located was once the home to the Greek acropolis during the Byzantine years with huge temples dedicated to the Greek gods. During the years of Roman rule, these temples were repurposed but eventually started to fall into ruin. After the Ottoman conquest of the city, a palace was constructed in place of the temples from 1460-1478AD.

In the years that followed, the palace was gradually expanded and was home to the Ottoman sultans and their court until the 1850s. At that point, it was no longer able to adequately support the ceremonial needs of the government, and Dolmabahce Palace was built. Despite the end of use as a royal residence, it continued to operate as the imperial treasury, library, and mint and host state ceremonies until it was converted into a museum in 1924 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The palace has a prime location on the tip of the Istanbul Peninsula and covers somewhere between 590,000 and 700,000 square meters (145-175 acres). The general layout of the palace is four courtyards surrounded by various rooms and structures, and as you move from one courtyard to the next, the spaces get increasingly more private.

The first courtyard, or the Parade Court, is massive. I came in the side entrance which doesn’t have an epic gate or anything, so I didn’t initially realize that I was inside the palace compound. It’s mostly a huge open space with a few randomly scattered buildings including a church, Hagia Irene, the very first church built in Constantinople. It was the head of the Byzantine Orthodox Church until the completion of the Hagia Sophia. Hagia Irene is one of the only churches that wasn’t converted to a mosque during Ottoman times. Instead, it was used as the armory for the palace. (Fair warning – get ready for a TON of pictures in this post.)

The Fountain of Ahmed III, a public drinking fountain located just outside the Imperial Gate

The Imperial Gate

The first courtyard

Hagia Irene

The Gate of Salutation leads into the second courtyard and the beginning of the main palace. The second courtyard was home to the administrative buildings and palace kitchens. The courtyard itself was also used for ceremonies. Now, the museum houses exhibitions about the palace kitchens, weaponry, and clocks and has some extravagant rooms that you can poke around.

The Gate of Salutation. Only the sultan was allowed to ride through this gate on his horse. Everyone else had to dismount first.

This ground is uneven because underneath it is a cistern! One of the many in the city (though not as big as the Basilica Cistern)

I was completely mesmerized by the kitchens exhibit. It’s always incredible how many people it takes to maintain the lifestyles of various rulers. At its height, there were 10,000 people living and working in the palace, and there were 1,300 working in the kitchen to feed everyone!

Crazy ceilings in the kitchens!

Daily, the cooks had to prepare meals for 4000-5000 people. Four times a year, a meal was prepared for 15,000 soldiers as well. Imagine being in charge of planning THAT meal! Eek!

This picture made me laugh because it shows how many attendants the sultan had at a meal. The head servant guy (official name) laid the table, had the food brought from the kitchen, placed it on the table, and removed the lid. Other servants were specifically assigned to bread, drinking water, dishwashing, trays, fruit, and pickles. Yes, someone was in charge of pickles. There were people to help him wash his hands and hold the towel for him to dry them. Another brought the coffee and another brought the sherbet. Besides all of those people serving him, he also had people entertaining him. All of that for one dude to eat a meal.

They had some interesting records that showed menus from different years, supply orders, etc. They really put things into perspective. Ready for this? Here’s a list of the palace’s meat consumption in 1184:

985,000kg mutton
2335 yearling lambs
4452 lambs
17,600 large intestines (eek!)
3,700 abomasums (one of the stomachs of cattle, sheep, etc.)
162,370 sheep’s feet (FEET??)
1120 livers
16,800 kidneys
31,390 sheep’s heads (what are you doing with all of those sheep’s heads????)

They also had a crazy amount of Chinese porcelain. I laughed at one caption that said during the month of Ramadan, the sultans ate from porcelain dishes instead of gold and silver. WOW. Really depriving themselves of the finer things in life.

So much porcelain! I must have looked at like 20 different porcelain sets. I think I spent most of my time shaking my head in disbelief, like when I read a description of one of them that said it was a gift from the Russian Czar Nicholas I and had 2000 pieces. 2000!!!
Total, there are more than 10,000 pieces of porcelain in the museum’s collection, and according to records, there used to be over 16,000 pieces

My favorite list, though, was a list of spoons purchased in 1839. Just spoons. They were made from all sorts of different materials: tortoiseshell, walrus ivory, walnut, ebony, horn, pistachio wood, and more. The list is not short, and I’m mostly just confused because how many spoons do you really need?

The next exhibit was weaponry which I’m not that interested in, but a lot of it was just ceremonial and as a result VERY decorative.

Quiver for arrows. Isn’t the inlay beautiful?

You can’t really tell how big this middle sword is from the picture, but it’s at least as tall as I am. My question: who the heck is this sword for? A giant??

Because who doesn’t need a bejeweled stirrup?

When just putting in a door isn’t quite extravagant enough…
This is the entrance to the Imperial Council

Imperial Council ceilings

The description of this column says that it was erected to commemorate Selim III’s shooting of a jug from 898 meters away using a rifle. Maybe that’s impressive, I don’t really know, but the fact that there was a column erected to commemorate something that sounds so stupid fits perfectly with the over-the-top-ness of the entire palace.


The third courtyard was much more private and was surrounded by the living quarters of the page boys who served the sultan.

Third courtyard

This courtyard is also the location of an exhibit showing various religious artifacts including some of the most random things in the universe. These include the saucepan of Abraham, Joseph’s turban (Old Testament Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and ended up working for the Pharaoh), David’s sword, Moses’s staff, John the Baptist’s arm (ew), a footprint of Muhammad and a piece of one of his teeth. You get the idea.

Ceiling outside the chamber of petitions where people would come, bring gifts, and ask the sultan for things while he lounged


Outside the chamber of petitions


Library of Ahmed III

Illegal ceiling pic. I felt okay taking it even though I wasn’t supposed to because the things they really didn’t want you to photograph were the artifacts in the room. I just wanted a picture of the ceiling!

The fourth courtyard had the best tiles in the whole palace, and it was filled with various pavilions and commemorative buildings.

Building in the fourth courtyard. Honestly, I have no idea what it’s for.

Gulhane Gate leading out of the fourth courtyard

Baghdad Pavilion, again commemorating a military campaign. These people really couldn’t do anything without building a trophy for themselves.

Ceiling of Baghdad Pavilion


Inside Baghdad Pavilion


Feeling nice and warm and enjoying the amazing view…

So many selfies with tile walls because I LOVE THEM

Brace yourselves for lots of pretty tiles

Revan Pavilion, built to commemorate a military victory


Inside Revan Pavilion


Best hallway in the palace


Entrance to the circumcision room… which makes this seem like a strange place to take a picture, but let’s ignore the room’s purpose and just focus on the tiles



Railings

View of the Bosphorus from the fourth courtyard

 

Inside the barracks of the palace guards

The Harem is the most private part of the palace, and it’s where the sultans and their families lived. Residents included the sultan, his mom (the Queen Mother), his wives (he could have up to four), concubines (female slaves), favorites (the Sultan’s girlfriends), eunuch guards, and the children.

 

The Queen Mother was basically in charge of the sultan’s social life. She decided who socialized with him and which women he could have relations with. The eunuchs were slaves brought from Africa to help guard the harem, and their genitals were removed.

The rooms in the harem were generally spectacular. I think my jaw dropped every single time I walked into a new room. You’d think I would have started to expect it, but I never did. I would walk in, stare in amazement at the rooms for way longer than anyone else (most people just walked in, click clicked a couple pictures, and walked out again), take a few pictures, and then walk into the next room and repeat. I think it’s a shame when people only see things from behind their cameras. Take a second to enjoy things with your eyes, people! Sorry, mini rant…

Here’s a tour in photos and captions:

Barracks again. Pretty fancily decorated, huh?

Outside the barracks

Ceiling in one of the barrack bathhouse rooms

This room was labeled as “hall with fountain” aka “the fanciest waiting room you’ve ever seen”

Courtyard of the eunuchs

This is where the eunuch apartments were

The Queen Mother apartments. I was obsessed with this room because see all of the paintings on the wall? They’re completely flat but are so well done that they look 3D

The Imperial Hall… There’s really no way to communicate the grandness of this room through pictures

This wasn’t even a room… more of just a transition space

Courtyard of the Favorites (aka housing for the sultan’s girlfriends)

My day at the palace was long and VERY cold, but also awesome. I mean, it definitely could have been more awesome if I had checked the weather, but we won’t think about that. I had plans to go to another museum after I finished at the palace, but I ended up spending more than 5 hours there which meant that everything was closed by the time I made it out. Oops. I think it’s better to do a few things thoroughly, though, rather than a bunch of things halfway.

Hagia Sophia

By the time I hit day 4 of my time in Istanbul, I decided that I need to step up my game if I wanted to leave the city feeling like I had seen what I wanted to see. I always have these grand plans of waking up early, working out, sightseeing, getting home at a reasonable hour, being productive, and going to sleep at a time that allows me to wake up the next day to do it again without feeling like I’m dying. As you might expect, things rarely go this way. Usually I have one day where I wake up, work out, sightsee… and then end up meeting people and hanging out and getting back late… and then either passing out or staying up late to get work done. And the next day, the plan falls apart before it even starts.

As much as I love routine and being productive, I’m making a huge effort not to skip out on opportunities to spend time with people because that’s always what I remember the most about my trips. I have so many awesome friends that I never would have met if I had stayed in my comfort zone. My comfort zone, by the way, is a place where I never talk to strangers or put myself in a position where I’m uncertain about the outcome. Comfortable, yes. Boring, also yes. So yeah, things didn’t go exactly according to the grand plan, but I think they turned out even better.

Point of that tangent was that by day 4, I still had a lot to see. Since I just needed to get moving on SOMETHING, I picked the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) as my destination for the day and was off.

We learned about the Hagia Sophia in my architecture history classes in university, but heck if I remember anything from those. That’s not true, I do remember a few things, but apparently not the historic details of the Hagia Sophia because I felt like I was going in blind again. No problem! I had a written guide from the internet, and with no expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be amazed.

Top of a column (capital) from the second church

The current Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built in 537AD by the Byzantines. There were two churches previously built on the same site. First, the Great Church was built in 360AD and destroyed in 404AD during riots that took place in the city. A replacement church was built in 415AD and destroyed in 532AD during a revolt that burned down half the city. When the last structure was built, Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Istanbul was emerging as a center of Christianity.

There are a few remaining parts of the second Hagia Sophia predecessor from Theodosian times

I assumed this was a ceiling coffer, but I could be wrong

You can see how massive the space is

The main dome of the structure is 182 feet tall and 104 feet wide, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest dome in the world. It held that title for 900 years until it was overtaken by the Florence Cathedral (fun side fact: construction on the Florence Cathedral was started before anyone knew a way to complete the dome. They figured that was a problem for the future generations to figure out – since building a church took an eternity – and the final solution was some brilliantly engineered machinery that no one besides the inventor thought would work). The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris can fit inside!

The Crusaders took over in 1204, and for almost 60 years, it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Shockingly (not), during this time, many of the riches inside were stolen and sent to Italy, though the golden ceiling mosaics were left mostly untouched. I guess those are slightly harder to steal than other things.

When the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. This involved covering or removing any images of living beings, and the mosaic ceilings were plastered over and forgotten about. Despite this unfortunate redecorating, the conversion to a mosque kept the building safe and maintained. Four minarets were added to the outside, and the prayer niche was moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.

The minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque. You can see that they don’t match the rest of the building.

Fountain for washing before Muslim prayer

Close up of the fountain

At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was closed and converted into a museum. The golden mosaics were rediscovered beneath the plastered ceilings and were in generally good condition. Now, the building is a clear mix of Christian and Islamic elements with many of the furnishings remaining from the mosque, including giant, calligraphed medallions, and the original Christian architecture and décor.

View of the main dome

I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take me to visit, and I definitely went a bit later than I should have… oops. It wasn’t a big deal though because I wasn’t in Istanbul at a terribly busy time, so waiting in the line to get inside only took maybe 40 minutes. I people-watched to entertain myself, and before I knew it, I was inside.

The building is under construction, but it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I’m sure it would have been great if half of the main hall wasn’t filled with scaffolding, but even with it, you could see how impressive the space is. The ceiling looks like it’s miles away, and since there aren’t big, bulky columns or anything crowding the dome, it seems even bigger. I spent my first 20 minutes staring at the ceiling and trying not to walk into anyone.

The place is so big that even though it was crowded, it didn’t feel like it was. It was probably loud too, but sound had a way of just getting lost. Sometimes I like to sing worship songs when I’m visiting churches (what can I say? They get me in the mood), but I don’t want anyone to hear me… so spaces like that are perfect. I sang to myself, and as soon as the sound left me, it was lost to the open space and the murmurs of the people around me.

So many chandeliers!

From here, I’m going to use the photo captions to give you a mini-tour… I think that will work out the best.

Entrance and ceiling mosaics


Mosaics in the exit corridor


Doors supposedly made with a wooden core of wood from Noah’s Ark. I’m sure it’s true…

This mosaic is the “Donation Mosaic” showing Mary with baby Jesus. Constantine is on the right offering a model of the city, and Justinian is on the left with a model of the Hagia Sophia


One of the most interesting things, in my opinion, was the variety of marble that was used in the construction. It’s kind of like they went to the marble warehouse, couldn’t decide which one they liked best, and decided to leave with one of everything.

Funky, right?


Weeping column. I’m not sure which is right, but I’ve heard two different stories about what you’re supposed to do here. First is that you stick your thumb in the hole and spin your hand counterclockwise. If you make it all the way around, your wish comes true!
The second is that the column was blessed and sticking your finger into the hole can cure your sickness… though I assume it probably just ended up spreading sicknesses because I can’t imagine they ever cleaned it.


The Mimber, where the Imam stands during Friday services.

The prayer niche, adjusted to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem

I’m obsessed with all of the detailing

The Omphalion, where Byzantine Emperors sat during the service and also where their coronations took place

Golden gates because why not?

Going upstairs…

Ramp to the upper gallery

Leave no surface un-mosaic-ed

Mary holding baby Jesus and sitting between Byzantine Empress Irene and Emperor John II (ruled from 1118-1143AD)

Jesus with Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX (ruled 1042-1055AD) and Empress Zoe.

Jesus with Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. This was made at the end of the Crusader occupation of the church.

Casual ceiling paintings


Booo construction scaffolding 😦

In the upper gallery


View of the Bosphorus

Blue Mosque from the window

Baptistery basin

Buttresses added during Byzantine times

Basilica Cistern

One of the negatives and also sometimes positives of extended travelling is that you don’t necessarily have time to do a lot of research. I make sure that I hit the major sights (thank you, tripadvisor) and put a LOT of trust in the people working reception at my hostel to tell me what I should go see. Sometimes, that means that you know you should visit something, but you have no idea what it is… and then you go there and learn about it and are like, “DUDE! THIS IS SO COOL!”

SO COOL

For me, that happened with the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish (Sinking Cistern). The “basilica” part of the name comes from the fact that there was formerly a basilica on the site. I had no idea what it was, but I saw a bunch of tour groups going and the self-guided walking tour I was following mentioned it, so I figured I should check it out. I know, all of this makes me sound like a complete idiot, but sometimes the best way to learn about something is to just go and experience it (things I tell myself that may or may not be completely true… sometimes it’s probably good to have a clue, but that’s not the way I’ve been operating recently).

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine days, between 527-565AD by Emperor Justinianus I. It’s a ginormous underground water cistern, 140m x 70m and with 9m tall columns. The capacity is around 100,000 tons of water which translates to 26.5 million gallons. There are 336 columns total, placed in 12 rows of 28 columns. These are joined by arches and vaulted ceilings that carry the weight of the city above. The brick walls are over a meter thick, and they and the floors are plastered with a thick layer of special brick dust mortar for waterproofing.

Seemingly endless

The cistern was in active use until the Ottomans conquered the city. They preferred fresh water as opposed to sitting water, so the underground reservoirs went mostly unused with the exception of feeding the nearby Topkapi Palace gardens and a few homes. In the 1540s, a Dutch traveller visited Istanbul in search of Byzantine monuments. When he noticed residents pulling water out of their floors, they directed him to a staircase that led into the reservoir. He explored it using a small boat, took measurements, and published his findings in a book that piqued more Western interest in the cistern.

There were repeated renovations in the 1700s – early 1900s to reinforce various part of the structure, and it wasn’t until a major 1985 restoration that the complete scale of the cistern was discovered. After removing 50,000 tons of mud (and probably trash and bodies and who knows what else), the full height of the columns was visible.


You can see that the column capital (the thing at the top) on the closer column is different from the column behind it

The columns are all made of different materials and are of different architectural styles because, in classic ancient fashion, they were swiped from other structures. They always say that it was from ruined structures, but I like to imagine that there was a big column-pilfering problem in ancient times and sometimes people would wake up in the morning to discover that the columns on the local temple were gone… and then they would go steal some others and so on until someone finally sucked it up and just made some new ones. Estimates are that it took 7,000 slaves to construct the cistern, and that doesn’t even include the workforce required to build the 12-mile long aqueduct that fed it.


Check out those ceilings!

Tear column

There are three columns of particular interest. One is carved with the images of eyes and tears, paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. (It’s a good reminder that all of this amazing ancient stuff usually came at a high human cost.) The other two are normal columns, but the bases are two big Medusa heads that scholars think came from the Temple of Apollo near Ephesus (another city in Turkey), but no one knows for sure. One is sideways and one is upside down, a configuration explained by scholars as showing the change from pagan religion to Christianity. Other legends say that they were placed there for protection and are oriented that way to keep them from turning people to stone. I think that they were just so tired of moving them that they said, “This is close enough, we’ll leave them like this.”


Hey, Medusa

The girl who took this for me definitely thought I was a weirdo

Upside down selfie!

First view when walking down the stairs

Now, there are walkways for tourists to tour the cistern, unfortunately replacing the boats that were formerly used. That would have been awesome.

As I took the steps underground, my jaw literally dropped when I got my first look. It’s huge. I know, like duh it’s huge, but when you see it in person and realize that you’re underground, it’s unbelievable! And it was chilly down there which I suppose would have been nice if it wasn’t also chilly outside. My brain couldn’t even imagine the whole thing filled with water, and with no lights down there it would have been CREEEEEPY. Eek. Imagine going in there while it was full, with no clue what you were going to find in a little boat in the darkness with just a lantern. No, thank you. It probably smelled weird too.


I’m obsessed with this brick work

Anyway, despite the fact that I didn’t get to ride on a boat, it was spectacular. The space seems to go on forever, and when you think about the logistics that went into actually constructing it, it’s mind-blowing. All of that. Underground. Over 300 huge columns. So. Many. Bricks. And the ceilings are super high which means they had some sort of scaffolding. And then the aqueducts to feed it! Geez!

After wandering around much longer than anyone else and in a constant state of marveling, I made my way to the exit. Then, if you aren’t already aware of the expanse of the thing by the time you leave, you pop up on the surface, blocks away from the entrance. And it’s bright outside and noisy and bustling and you’re like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?” because you just emerged from this underground cave and now you’re in the middle of the city. The whole transition was very confusing, and I felt like a time traveler or something.

In conclusion, the Basilica Cistern is super cool, and if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a time traveler, it’s the place for you. Except now that I’ve warned you, maybe you’ll just go and not feel it and think that I’m insane. Maybe I am.

Exploring Old Town

Nutritious lunch

In case you were wondering (or worried), no, I didn’t fall off a cliff. I’m alive and well and just very, very far behind on writing. I’ve been keeping up my journal at least because if that’s a sloppy mess, no one besides me is going to read it… which is good because more than once, I’ve fallen asleep while typing and woken up to unintelligible nonsense on my computer screen.

I’m going to attempt to get back into the game because I’ve missed it! Writing about the things I’m seeing and doing forces me to learn so much more about them than I otherwise would, and that has added so much value to my travels. I know, I could just learn for the sake of learning, but when you’re learning to explain to someone else, you have to have a much fuller understanding of the subject. That makes me try way harder than I otherwise would to really get the complete picture.

During my morning run along the Bosphorus

Flowers!

So, excuse the side note, and let’s get back to Istanbul! My first few days were not the most sightseeing-efficient. Day 1 was a complete mess because I was so tired. It basically consisted of me eating, trying to keep my eyes open until my bed was ready, and taking a very long daytime “nap”… and then waking up from that nap, sitting in bed for a couple of hours, and going to sleep for the night. I kind of considered going for a walk during the “sitting in bed” time, but it was raining and ugh and instead I just sat.

I was determined to make day 2 better… and it was raining again. I told myself that the day would be counted as a success if I just managed to make myself leave the hostel (I know, this is not a realistic life I’m leading at the moment), and that was enough motivation to make me step outside. I attempted, and failed, to take a guided walking tour of the city (I couldn’t find the meeting point because I was still a mental mess), so I defiantly decided that I didn’t need a tour guide anyway and found a self-guided walking tour online.

My journey started in Old Town at the site of the old Hippodrome, center of the Roman Constantinople. The Romans always crack me up because they always have the same priorities when it comes to outfitting newly-conquered cities to the Roman standard. Essential parts of a city, according to the Romans: sporting facilities, aqueducts, baths. So fancy.

Hippodrome

Obelisk of Theodosius

Of course, one of the first things to be constructed were baths because hygiene and what on earth are you supposed to do with your social life otherwise? And then, what is a city without a hippodrome for chariot races?? That was constructed near the beginning as well, and it was eventually expanded by Constantine to include stands for 100,000 people and epic columns and statues and gates to make it worthy of being the hippodrome of “New Rome”. This was the social and geographic center of the city from around the 200s-1450s AD when the Ottomans took control. It started to fall into disrepair and was eventually turned into a park, which is its current state today. Most of the Roman monuments are gone, but a few still live in the park: two obelisks and a broken column.

The first obelisk, the Obelisk of Theodosius, is covered with hieroglyphs and, like practically every single “Roman” obelisk, was stolen from Egypt. This one dates back to 1450BC! It was moved to the Hippodrome in 390AD, and only the top 1/3 of it remains which is completely insane because it’s still huge. The rest was damaged, they think, during transportation and re-erection… and my response to that is, DUH! What do you expect when you try to move a 60m tall piece of granite???

Base of the obelisk. It shows Theodosius crowning the winners of chariot races

Serpentine Column

The broken Serpentine Column is situated next to the obelisk. This was built in the 400s BC by the Greeks after a battle victory, and supposedly it’s made from the melted-down shields of the Persian soldiers who they defeated. It was 8 meters high, and the twists in the column are the bodies of three serpents, formerly with heads that held a golden bowl. Unfortunately, it was plundered 300 years ago, and this little stump is what remains, though they did manage to find a piece of one of the serpent heads.

Finally, the Constantine Obelisk sits on the other side of the column. It’s a bit sad looking now, and I’ll give you one guess why… That’s right, it was plundered! It seems like everything in the Roman universe is somehow tainted by theft. It was built in the 10th century by Constantine, and that sad stone exterior used to be covered with gilded bronze plates that depicted the military triumphs of his grandfather, Emperor Basil I. During the Crusades, these were stolen and melted down.

The very sad looking Constantine Obelisk

There used to be many other monuments in the Hippodrome. Many of them were probably stolen before they were placed there, and later they were stolen again to be placed elsewhere. The whole concept of stealing a monument still just baffles me. How? And why? And how?? “Ah, this million-ton bronze sculpture would look fantastic in my garden, right next to the million-ton pointy rock that I acquired in Egypt. Men! Load it up!” That’s how I imagine those decisions took place. That was the ancient way I guess.

The Hippodrome also contains a not-stolen and not-Roman gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II after he visited in the late 1800s. Eh. He probably stole it from someone. Anyway, it’s a fountain with a beautiful gold mosaic ceiling. I don’t know about you, but no one’s ever given me a gift like that. Also, what to do with it? “Thank you, Kaiser, for this wonderful gift. We will put it… uhhh… in the Hippodrome! Right in the center of the city and mostly because we have a bunch of open space there so why not.”

German Fountain. They built it in Germany, deconstructed it, shipped it, and reconstructed it here.

Looking up into the German Fountain

Constantine’s Great Palace was right next to the Hippodrome, and almost nothing remains… except for some amazing mosaics that were discovered in the 1930s underneath shops in the nearby Bazaar. More mosaics were found in the 50s, and they were brought together to form the Mosaic Museum. I’m personally a huge fan of mosaics, so I was completely sold on going. The most substantial mosaics formed the floor of a courtyard in the palace and date back to 450AD.

The Bazaar where the Mosaic Museum is located

They estimate that the floor used 75-80 million cubes with about 40,000 per square meter. They’re very small, about 5mm per side, and that allows for some spectacular detail. It also must have taken forever to make. The main part of the mosaic is composed of a series of scenes of varying subject matter: people hunting, animals fighting, mythological stories, pictures of rural life, etc. It’s pretty spectacular. I can’t even imagine seeing it in its original form with columns lining the sides. I bet you were even allowed to walk on it back then.

So tiny!

The grand mosaic floor

Check out the detail!

The surviving portion of the floor is about 250 square meters… and guess how big they think the entire thing was? SEVEN TO EIGHT times that size. That’s more than the area of 1.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. How do you even start that project? How do you make images that actually look how they’re supposed to look?? I thought that painting was hard on a large scale, but this is next level.

The Mosaic Museum

Some mythological creatures, some animals devouring other animals… the usual.

I seriously don’t understand how they made these

The main portion of the Grand Palace once stood on the site of the famous Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, when I visited, it was closed for renovations and I don’t want to think about it or I’ll be sad. The mosque was completed in 1616AD after only 7 years of construction! That may seem like a long time, but when you think about the fact that so many of the world’s epic churches took centuries to complete, it was basically finished in the blink of an eye.

There are six minarets, and this is what the Imams (worship leaders) used to climb to sing the Call to Prayer. Five times a day, right before the five Muslim prayer times (dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, night), the Imams sing to invite people to come to the mosque to pray. Back in the pre-loudspeaker days, the Imams would climb to the top to sing, but now they just use a microphone that’s connected to the speakers in the minarets. Kind of a bummer in my opinion. The five daily prayers each take about 5-10 minutes and are meant to purify the soul, teach discipline and humility, and remind you to think about God throughout the day.

With the construction, only the courtyard leading into the mosque was open. At least that was something. I’m sure the inside isn’t that cool anyway (lies I tell to myself. I’m sure it’s amazing).

Ignore this man who walked right in front of my picture

Ceilings around the courtyard

Between the Blue Mosque and another iconic structure that I’ll talk about in a later post, Hagia Sophia, is Sultan Ahmet Park. This is the site of the old Roman Baths of Zeuxippus (those Romans have to have their baths!), and there are Turkish bathhouses nearby that you can still visit today.

Sultan Ahmed’s tomb, located next to the Blue Mosque

It was under restoration when I was there, so I couldn’t go in, but you can see how crazy intricate even just the outside is

Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmed Park

More Blue Mosque

Me, kind of with but mostly in front of the Blue Mosque (this is what happens when you ask strangers for pictures)

Hagia Sophia

With my Old Town tour basically finished, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather (sarcasm… it was still gross out) and go on a Bosphorus boat cruise. Why? Don’t ask me. These are things that you should do on a nice, pretty, clear day. But sometimes opportunities present themselves at less-than-ideal times. I got a good deal on the ticket, so I went despite the weather. Enjoy the pictures and pretend that it’s not cloudy or foggy or gross.

Pretending I’m not cold

Dolmabahce Mosque

Dolmabahce Palace

Hagia Sophia and the old city walls

Topkapi Palace

More city walls and palace views

Failed attempt to take a night photo with my phone camera