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Cunard Queen Victoria 2013
Black Sea and Turkish Splendours -  Part 3

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Friday 11 October -  Istanbul, Turkey

A good guide book is essential for efficient independent exploration of Istanbul. It is not a difficult city and the streets are all named and with so many important historic buildings on the skyline it is difficult to become lost. We have the DK Top10 Guide and the Guide to Istanbul published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. The latter had good detailed information about the 53 monuments and mosques in the historical peninsula that are essential viewing on a short visit, and we used the map with its suggested itinerary. We had visited many of the tourist sites in 2012, and the only major omission was the Topkapi Palace, which we saw from a distance but did not visit as it was closed. This visit it was our priority. We walked continuously for over 11 hours on the first day and then for another 3 hours on the second morning. We only visited the Historical Peninsula and we still have not had the time to explore Beyoglu, Pera or climb past the modern 5 star hotels to Taksim Square. We also did not take a cruise on the Golden Horn. These must all wait until our next visit because we will certainly visit Istanbul again.

Outside the port gate we were on the tram route across to the Historical Peninsula, and there was a HopOn HopOff bus (20 euros) waiting on the other side of the road for those who did not want to walk. It was very quiet in the early morning and we followed the tramlines towards the Galata bridge, passing the Nusretiye Mosque and the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque which was built by Sinan in 1581. Kilic Ali Pasa was the grand admiral of the Ottoman Navy. Continuing towards the Karakoy Square we looked back at the 70 metre high Galata Tower built in 1348 and giving good views from the viewing balcony. Shoe polish men sat in the square waiting for customers with their little brass capped bottles of polish – very typical and we were to see many more on our travels.

The Galata bridge crosses the Golden Horn and is a double level concrete bridge with the main road and pavements on the top level and lots of cafes and bars underneath. The middle of the bridge can be raised to allow tall ships to pass but the local ferries pass under easily. It was built in 1992 to replace an earlier iron pontoon. It is a very popular place for fishing, with all the gear and bait available for rent and by the middle of the day they are so many they are almost touching. Across the bridge the main monument is the large Yeni Camii or New Mosque. It was commissioned in 1597 and completed in 1663, so is the last of the monumental mosques. It is, like all the other monumental mosques built after Sinan, a square shaped mosque with four semi-domes on the sides. The interior is richly decorated with iznik tiling. The most spectacular iznik tiling is said to be at the Blue Mosque. To reach the New Mosque the best approach is to take the underpass lined with stalls from Eminonu Square.

It was impossible to ignore the Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market which was built as part of the Yeni Camii complex. It was built in 1660 and is where the spices originally imported from Egypt were sold. Now there are boutiques, souvenirs shops and turkish delight alongside the spices, and the roads outside have stalls selling flowers, plants, seeds, pets, fish, cheese, spices and olives. We only glanced in and bought a small piece of local cheese and returned for a proper exploration the second morning when we took more pictures.

In 2012 we had walked all over the historic part of Istanbul, but not visited the Topkapi Palace, so this was our first target, with perhaps a boat trip up the Golden Horn in the afternoon. Our route passed the ferry piers and ticket offices and the Orient Express Railway Station, Sirkeci Rail Station. Officially opened in November 1890, the glamorous terminus for the Orient Express service was built by a german architect. The station also houses a railway museum with the Orient Express silver service and a superb restaurant serving Turkish food on Platform 2. The platforms were already busy with a group making a professional movie, and there was construction work too, and the restaurant was closed off with ropes.

We followed the tramline to reach the Topkapi Palace, passing the entrance to the Archaeological Museum and then emerging close to the ticket office in the First Courtyard. It is an enormous Palace, begun in the 1460s and its planning and construction is best described as 'decentralised'. When Fatih conquered the city he decided to build his palace in this strategic position with the magnificent view. Until 1856 all the Ottoman Sultans used Topkapi Palace as their residence. The hugh palace complex consists not only of the private residences of the sultans and the harem, but also of a huge kitchen and dormitories for soldiers and other domestics, the meeting room for the Imperial Council, the Pavilion where the relics of the prophet Mohammed and the Caliphs are preserved, the Gulhane Hospital, the library of Ahmet III, the Enderun, the Palace school, the Inner Treasury, and the stables for the sultans horses.

There were no queues for tickets and we also purchased tickets to visit the harem. There is so much to see it is difficult to decide where to start and having passed through the Gate of Salutations the Throne Room was directly ahead. The tour groups went directly to the Treasury so we followed and joined the end of the queue. It was early and we were sure that queues would become worse later in the day. The Treasury contains three separate rooms, each with dimmed lighting, and displaying glorious examples of jewelry and decorated weapons. It is possible to become blase after seeing too many enormous emerelds, rubies and diamonds. Notable exhibits were the jewel-encrusted Topkapi dagger and enormous diamonds, the largest being the 86 carat spoonmakers diamond.

There were no queues to enter the harem because few organised tours go there and pay the extra price. The harem is the home of the family and concubines of the sultan and their servants. The only men allowed into the Harem were the sultan and his sons, and the black eunuchs. They lived in barracks on one side of the courtyard immediately after the entrance. Concubines, perhaps as many as 300, arrived as children and spent years living in dormitories and being educated before being introduced to the sultan. The sultan's mother was the most powerful woman in the palace and had the best rooms in the Harem. The sultan spent time in his suite in the Harem and entertained his closest friends in the Imperial Hall. The sultan's favourites, who bore a child, had separate apartments from the wives. The sultan was limited to four wives, who had their own apartments. The cobbled pathway was for horses and there were steps for mounting and dismounting.

The Gate of Felicity leads to the Third Courtyard containing the sultan's private quarters and those of the Harem's white eunuchs. The gardens of the Imperial Sofa contained pavilions built by successive sultans. For example, Murat IV built the Baghdad Pavilion to celebrate the capture of Baghdad in 1639.

Our final visit was to the Imperial Wardrobe which displayed some of the collection of 3,000 embroidered royal robes. Next door, the enormous kitchens, which once catered for up to 1000 people each day, were closed for building works. This was a pity because they normally housed the collection of ceramics, crystal and silver.

After visiting the Topkapi Palace we passed through the Imperial Gate, towards the Haghia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. These are always on the tourist itinerary and most of the passengers from the Queen Victoria would be visiting them both on the morning tours. The church of St Irene, Haghia Eirene, was once used as an armoury and arsenal. Haghia Eirene is one of the oldest churches in Istanbul and was built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It has been used lately as a concert hall and exhibition centre, and was damaged by the earthquake of 17 August 1999.

After Haghia Eirene a signpost indicated an entrance to the burial places of sultans, in the grounds of Haghia Sophia next door. There are five separate buildings. The old baptistery was converted into a tomb and Sultan Mustafa I buried there. Next to his tomb lies the tomb of Sultan Ibrahim the Mad. Three other sultans, Selim II, Murad III and Mehmed III are also buried nearby. The Haghia Sophia is the third church on the site and was inaugurated in 537. The great architect Sinan added the buttresses to secure the building. It is a large single domed basilica and only three others are larger (St Paul's in London, St Peter's in Rome and the Duomo in Milan).The round dome is now slightly elliptical and has a diameter of about 30 to 32 metres and is supported by four columns each 55 metres high. It was converted to a mosque in 1435 and since 1934 has been a museum.

 

Continuing our walk we reached the large open space of Sultanahmet Park. This is where all the tours collect people who have previously toured the Topkapi Palace and the Haghia Sophia and there was a Cunard meeting point. Then we passed the Hamam of Haseki Hurrem. Haseki Hurrem was the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent and she entrusted the architect Sinan with the construction of this huge rectangular bathhouse with two separate entrances, one for men and the other for women. Looking back from the central fountains we had an excellent view of the Haghia Sophia, and in the other direction .

The best view of the Blue Mosque is from the ocean. It is difficult to get a clear view of it from the Sultanahmet Square because of the congestion and confusion caused by the thousands of visitors and their tour buses. These thousands of visitors not only want to see the Mosque but they all intend to go inside. In 2012 we joined a long queue, mainly of Cunard tour groups, and eventually were rushed into the mosque. The pictures inside are from that visit. The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque was built for Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616 by a student of Sinan. The distinctive character of the Blue Mosque is the beautiful tile decoration in the interior, not the architecture. There are more than 20,000 blue and turquoise tiles with floral motifs, which combined with the light from the 260 windows explains the name of the mosque. The inside pictures come from our visit in 2012.

Alongside the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome. In the Byzantine period it was a stadium where horse and chariot races took place. Now it is a square with three columns and the fountain of Kaiser William II. The fountain is recent – erected on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Kaiser's visit to Istanbul in 1898. There are two obelisks – the Egyptian obelisk is probably the oldest historic artefact in Istanbul. It was originally commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III in 1550 BC and was erected here in 390 AD. The other obelisk is the Column of Porphyrogenitus, and there is also a bronze serpent column of three intertwined headless serpent figures.

The next famous place which every tourist wants to visit is the Grand Bazaar. The direct route from the Column of Porphyrogenitus passes the Puat Pasa Mosque and the Cemberlitas column. We followed signs until we reached the Nuru Osmaniye Mosque and then found an entrance to the Grand Covered Bazaar. It was a huge structure built in 1461, covering 54,653 sq metres and is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. It had 2 restaurant, 4399 shops, 2195 rooms, 497 store rooms, a mosque, 10 small mosques,a hama, 19 fountains, 8 wells, 24 hans, a school and a tomb. Not all has survived and now there are 21 gates, 2 bedestens, 17 inns, 66 streets, nearly 4000 shops and employs more than 30,000 people. It is still very large and full of shops and a few cafes. The streets vary in width and in decoration, with some being more recently renovated than others. The first two buildings were the old Sandal and Cevahir Bedestens. Sandal Bedesten, in the southeast corner, is named after a type of silk and cotton fabric being originally the market area for textiles, and spans an area of 2,436 square metres. It is covered by 20 lead-plated domes and was used as an auction house by the Istanbul Municipality from 1914 to 1980. The inner Bedesten in the centre, the Cevahir Bedesten, is roofed by 15 domes arranged in three rows, and was the original place were valuable weaponry and jewellery was sold; it could be securely locked up and guarded at night. It is all well signposted and the exit gates are numbered. We had no problems exploring and then leaving by our intended exit.

It was our intention to next visit the Suleymaniye Mosque and then end our walking tour. The exit from the Grand Bazaar on the western side was close to Istanbul University. Although we could not walk through their grounds we followed the wall until we reached the famous Suleymaniye Mosque. It was built by Sinan between 1550 and 1557 and his mausoleum is here on the site of the house in which he lived while building the mosque. The four minarets indicate that Suleyman was the fourth Sultan to reign in Istanbul while the ten parapets indicate that he was the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman empire. Suleyman lies in a tomb in the garden, but the area was closed for building work. It was now after 1600 and we expected the mosque to be closed to visitors, and it was only open for worshippers.

We glimpsed a rooftop cafe, the Sultan cafe, and settled down with coffee and cakes and a superb view over Istanbul. By the time we had finished the Suleymaniye Mosque was open again and we could enter and take photos. The interior is simple, and yet impressive. The dome is blue, white and gold and it is decorated with iznik tiles. The courtyard is surrounded by a colonnade and the Egyptian pink columns are said to have come from the Hippodrome.

Our route back to the Galata Bridge took us downhill. The area was full of lots of useful shops selling food, hardware, equipment, everything you could imagine. The streets were narrow and the goods were moved by men carrying them on their shoulders or pulling trolleys loaded above their heads.

Soon we saw water ahead and after another exploration into the narrow streets we were back at the Eminonu Square, now full of people. We were easily persuaded into purchasing a slice of local cheese, which will make a welcome contrast from all the pasteurised european stuff on the ship. There were lots of people fishing on the bridge with buckets and jars full to overflowing with twitching fish. As the sun set we chose a restaurant under the bridge and sat with pints of local Efes beer, looking up at the Suleymaniye Mosque and we could just see lights on our rooftop cafe. A curtain of fishing lines jigged next to our table, and one unfortunate man lost his fish - it landed on top of Pete, still alive. A little shove put it back in the river, probably to be caught again. On the other side of the bridge, stalls were setting up selling snacks, and we passed a man with a BBQ cooking fish. It smelled too good to ignore, so we shared a fish and salad roll looking across at the water.

The next morning we had an early breakfast and were out again at 0830. The Queen Victoria would be departing before lunch and we had to be back on board before 1200. There was plenty of time to walk over the Galata bridge to buy some souvenirs in the Spice Market and wander through the narrow streets, finding new areas to explore. We finally visited the New Mosque before crossing the bridge, having completed all our shopping.

 

 

 

 

 

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